Terrible tellers. On tellability.

Posted: September 1, 2010 in Conceptualizing the Ordinary, Storytelling, Webtheory

There’s more to telling a story than the story.

According to some theorists of narrative or story-telling, tellability is one of the criteria of narrativity. To be narrative, they hold, the content of a discourse has to be tellable. Tellability is what makes a story worth the telling, usually the extraordinariness of the events being told.

I don’t agree on the idea that tellability is a criteria for narrativity, or else there wouldn’t be boring stories. If a story is boring because the events being told are not of an extraordinary kind, this doesn’t imply that it’s not a story at all. But rather than getting deeper into this issue, I’d like to use the concept of tellability in a different sense to better understand the social phenomenon of story-telling.

Theorists of narrative tend to treat tellability as an absolute – if not objective – criteria on the level of the story. Either a story is tellable. Fullstop. Or a story isn’t tellable. Fullstop. I’m not quite sure if there really is something like universal tellability. I tend to think that tellability depends on context (audience+situation). And for each and every story, boring as it may seem, there’s an appropriate context. (N.B. I must admit that I only just discovered that Seymour Chatman in his fantastic classic of narratology Story and Discourse also holds the view that tellability is relative)

Relative tellability is far more important in our everyday experience than some supposed absolute tellability. What matters most in our lives is not a story per se, but a story in context – and so we often wonder

Should I tell this story here?

What’s tellable within the context of a bull session with my buddies isn’t usually tellable at Sunday lunch with my grand-parents – and vice-versa. A story is usually a good fit for the bull session for the features that make it a bad fit for Sunday lunch. So tellability is relative to situation and – I would like to add – the teller. More precisely we have to ask ourselves:

Is it appropriate for me and interesting to tell this story to this audience in this context?

Being appropriate is so-to-speak the upper limit of tellability in everyday life. The lower limit is to be interesting. The ideal story is both appropriate for the teller in the context and interesting for the given audience in the context.

So even if we supposed that it was clear what it means for a story to be tellable per se, the narrativists’ tellability would not be sufficient – or essential – for our decisions to tell a story or not.

I hope that these few remarks make it clear that there is more to tellability than the story itself. When we think about telling a story, we quite naturally evaluate its tellabilityin-context.

However, the idea of tellability per se (as a story) may stay if we subjectivize it. There might be stories that I just don’t find tellable at all, maybe because I find them gross, or because they oppose my ethics.

Think of a story that glorifies Nazism. This is a story that I won’t find tellable even if I happen to be stuck with a bunch of Neo-Nazis, where both the situation and the audience would be convenient. But this means that tellability of a story comes down to tellability as seen by the teller, which is far less than tellability of the story per se.

For the remainder of this post, I will try to explain my idea of tellability more precisely.

I identified four levels of tellability:

1. The tellability of the story (its interest as a story)), i.e. the tellability for the teller as seen from within (his or her perspective)

2. The tellability for the teller (a. appropriateness/ b. interest) as seen from without

3. The tellability for the audience (a. appropriateness/ b. interest)

4. The tellability in the situation (a. appropriateness/b. focus)

There’s potential for misjudgment of tellability at least on levels 2-4.

1. We’ll usually know if a story is tellable for us as we see us, because we know our values.

2. This level is tricky and misjudgments are easy.

a. Appropriateness will depend on our role within a given context. For example, it may be appropriate for a student or employee to tell a story about a professor or executive that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a professor or executive to tell.

b. Interest is tricky, because we move away from the story to the telling: in fact, some people are able to tell any story in such a way that it becomes interesting, and, thus, tellable.

3. It may or may not be difficult to determine tellability on the audience level.

a. In general, it is pretty easy to grasp what it means for a story to be inappropriate for a certain audience. For example, we usually won’t tell a priest a sex story. However, it may be difficult to determine in a given situation if a story is appropriate for a given audience. The main problematic issues are sex, illness and crime. And if we don’t have enough information about an audience, we will usually avoid stories that imply these elements.

b. The interest of a story for an audience is much more difficult to determine. But fortunately the consequences of telling a story that our audience doesn’t find interesting aren’t usually very serious and painful – unless, of course, we are doing an elevator pitch and have little time to grasp a person’s attention to, for example, sell or promote something. (N.B. Before you launch the first video: the videos are only very loose illustrations of the points made in the post. They mostly show story-tellings as imagined by script-writers or movie-makers. In general the points made will be good points if you can validate them based on your experience of real-world story-telling. And if not, I’d be happy to hear from you in the comments).

4. It is a bit easier to judge situation-tellability than audience-tellability, because if we’ve been there at the moment of situation-establishment, all the elements about the situation are (in principle) available to us. It’s more tricky if we enter the situation in medias res, all of a sudden, as when joining an ongoing conversation.

In such situations it’s particularly difficult to judge tellability.

Obviously, the most tricky cases are those where, for example at a conference, we don’t know the people in the group we are joining (audience) and have not been there at situation-establishment. Whether or not we will be able to participate actively in the dialogue will then depend on how risk-averse we are.

a. situation-appropriateness: in extreme cases, this is particularly easy to judge, mainly if the geo-localization of a situation is an indicator. For example, a hospital or a graveyard usually won’t be appropriate places for funny stories (which, in a sort of weird twist, can make them particularly appropriate places for funny stories being told by people working there to people working there).

Places like a bar or a bowling-place will tend to be appropriate places. But if the place is more neutral, like a street or a school, it will be more difficult to establish tellability.

b. situation-focus: in extreme cases, like formal meetings which tend to have specific topics, it’s usually clear what’s interesting given the focus of the meeting. In cases of more casual meetings it may be more difficult to determine what’s interesting given the situation. But again: being wrong about interest is not as bad as being wrong about appropriateness.

Extreme cases of tellers:

Extraordinary tellers make every story tellable by their telling

(Now, you could obviously point out to me that the main part of this is not really a story, but an argumentative discourse, that the only story being told here is a story being retold with an alternative plot in order to support the argument, while the passage ends with an analysis and a comment on Hollywood-style story-telling, all this, of course, being part of a Hollywood movie. And you would be quite right, but, hell, isn’t it a good telling?)

Food-in-mouth tellers regularly misjudge appropriateness of their story (which may, in movies where story-telling is presented, be the whole point – but rarely a good one)

Terrible tellers are able to kill story with good substance by their telling, thus making them uninteresting for their audience (which may, in exceptional cases, be the whole point of, say, a youtube video)

Terrible tellers regularly misjudge the relative interest of the story they relate

(63 views? But it shows something: self-awareness is not enough. In the bits of discourse of this video, the young protagonist actually shows good intuitive understanding of the basic functionning of real user-generated content and exemplifies the over-stated importance of self-awareness in low-quality productionn, which seems to be one of the most influential wrong post-modernist ideas. Or to be more concise: Knowing it’s bad doesn’t stop it from being bad.)

To finish, I’d like to show you a short video about a terrible teller which quotes a paradigmatic utterance of terrible tellers. The video ends by the video’s author stating the traditional view according to which it’s the situation that makes for a good story, which is a view which I hope to have proved wrong:

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