Diagnosed with a Case of Bad Storytelling

bad storytellersWe all know people (or we are people) who can’t hold a story together.  We can’t judge them (or ourselves) too harshly, though.  Stories are tough – they can go wrong in many, many ways.  Be mindful of the treacherous world of storytelling, populated by the following diseases eager to infect you.

The Out-of-Order Disorder

The person who just can’t line things up chronologically.

The story begins at the end, winds through the middle in various fragments, and ends at the beginning only to circle around to the end again.  The most important part is at the end, right?  That’s where the storyteller is headed, so to him it makes sense to just cut to the chase.  But then, the storyteller realizes you need some backstory.  Then you need backstory for the backstory.  To make sense of that backstory you need more backstory.  In this way, the storyteller finds himself at his third grade graduation without any idea of how he got there and without any hope of finishing his story about yesterday’s breakfast.  Because now he’d have to climb through ten years of chronology and who has time for that?

The Detail Disease

The person who won’t let you miss out on any part.

It’s starts off fine. They say “So this past Tuesday night…” And quickly goes downhill: “Well, technically it was Wednesday because it was about a minute and a half after midnight but the conversation started before it was midnight so really it was more of a continuation of Tuesday night. Anyways…” There is never a need or really a want for more detail with these people. They just give it freely. Tuesday night would have sufficed. It gets worse, usually, getting full descriptions of unnecessary tidbits like the smell of the blanket of the other person in the conversation or the way the second batch of rice wasn’t boiling correctly four days before. You get lost in thinking about why in the world they felt that was an important detail of the story. By the time it’s over, you’ve forgotten what was the important parts and have missed the point of the story overall. And sometimes, so has the person telling it.

The Apathetic Ailment

The person who gives up on being interested in their own story way before it’s over.

These guys have got a classic case of the give-ups usually combined with stories with little to no life-altering meaning. As listeners, we have sat through many an innocuous story. We have coping techniques and can handle the tales of no meaning and purpose. The teller, however, cannot. Everything is going along fine as we learn that they indeed are eating eggs for breakfast. Suddenly, a look of disappointment comes over their face as they begin to realize that the story is not nearly as exciting or relatable as they hoped it would be. Panic sets in. Should they continue, potentially boring, you the listener to tears, or continue and embellish their selected ordinary occurrences to match the level of excitement they had anticipated? Within seconds, they abandon the idea that this is going anywhere successful and finish up what they were saying a few emotionless sentences, leaving the listener and themselves disappointed and confused.

The Compatriot Virus

The person who assumes you already know every person place and thing involved in the story.

“So my Cousin Althea and her Yorkshire Terrier were headed to Geraldine’s diner in ‘94 and Uncle Louis was driving.” In the right context, speaking with the right people, I’m sure this story and that information would mean something very funny or sad or happy was about to happen. But, since I have no knowledge of any of those things, this story is entirely unrelatable. These are usually tellers of funny stories. They may even be laughing so hard you can barely hear about how Uncle Louis stepped on the Yorkie as they were getting out of the car at Geraldine’s. These stories always turn into one big inside joke. You actually learn about the people, the places, and why what they are doing seems to be funny to the person telling the story as the story progresses. It turns out, Uncle Louis stepped on the dog because he was putting his bum leg on the ground. By the end, you almost get it. But these folks really make you work to understand what is going on. Pay careful attention or you might miss something they thought was funny.

The Space Cadet Sickness

The person who can’t focus long enough to finish or remember their own story correctly

Was it a hamburger or a hotdog she was eating?  Did that happen two or three days ago?  Was it a dog or a werewolf… wait- that may have been a movie.  For the Space Cadet, these questions demand answers!  Those answers, sadly, are not to be found.  The Space Cadet grasps for answers to everything from why the little pre-made packs of jello only come in five colors to how its possible for bumble bees to fly.  These questions are brilliant precisely because no one thinks them brilliant.  No one will ask what the Space Cadet asks.  She has a monopoly on original thought.  But, she uses her listeners as sounding boards and stories dissolve into questions or absent-minded wanderings.  She just wants to make sense of her world.  This is admirable in that it is humble and open.  At the same time, though, the Space Cadet forces impatient listeners to sit through this valiant attempt.

The Melodramatic Malady

The person who really lets their emotions get in the way.

The world is an overwhelming place!  It is full to the brim with excitement and all of it cannot be contained!  This person shouts it to the mountain tops, increasing in both speed and pitch as she goes.  Similarly, the woes of this world are grave and thus, prompt tearful diatribes. The storyteller dissolves into a mess of sorrow or laughter and any semblance of narrative becomes secondary to hysterics.  You really can’t help but understand, though.  The world is an overpowering place and showcasing a sensitive spirit is one of the most endearing (if most annoying) ways to deal with it all.

The Loquacious Condition

For this individual, verbosity and garrulity are as commonplace and intrinsic as the occasional, outright ribbit is to the proverbial Rana temporaria (frog).

This storyteller enjoys words.  As such, this storyteller uses many of them.  From various disciplines.  And sometimes languages. (Get it?)

The Inflection Infection

           The person who cannot identify appropriate emphasis. This one’s a real struggle of personal interpretation. These people just struggle with voice, tone, and inflection. Their moods and opinions and the sentiments behind the story become indecipherable because you just can’t decide whether they are mad or uncertain, disappointed or thrilled. They tend to wait for your response more often than other story tellers. Listening to their stories becomes more like deciphering their code of inflection. That upwards voice at the end of the sentence actually means the date went awful and they weren’t confused about how it went. This infection is more easily dealt with over time. It then becomes very enjoyable to watch them tell stories to people who have yet to understand their secret inflection code.

The Dialogue Disturbance

The person who insists on making dialogue in voices that sound nothing like, and often times quite the opposite of the voices intended.

Your mom does not sound British.  A teenager is not a cowboy. For some unknown reason this storyteller insists on emphasizing the fact that different people are speaking by changing his vocal patterns – not to imitate the speaker of the dialogue, just because.  Or perhaps he is attempting to imitate the speaker and is just doing so poorly.  Regardless, he is entertaining in the most make-fun-able way possible.  This manner of storytelling takes you off guard – you weren’t expecting his mother to be British, were you? Its distinctive brand of storytelling adds a note of surrealism to an otherwise humdrum tale, while often confusing uninitiated listeners.

Bad storytelling is just like real sickness. Sometimes you are born with it and sometimes you catch it. Like sickness, it can’t always be cured but it can be dealt with.  It’s a part of the person telling the story. You wouldn’t expect anything different from them. Though you may not hire them to write your autobiography, you can’t help but enjoy the way they just can’t get through a story without an adorable amount of trouble. Often, bad storytelling is actually a side effect of greatness: being so busy that it’s hard to remember details or focus, tripping over words because your mind works too quickly, or becoming too emotional for comfort because of your soft heart.  Stories are reflections of those who tell them.  Each so-called “fault” in the way a story is told is an insight into the mind of a nuanced human being.  And is there anything more deserving of being called “good storytelling” than revealing the heart of another human being?

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