STORYTELLING and EVERYDAY COMMUNICATION
An important aspect of communication—whether oral, written, fact or fiction, whether a speech, a memo, a novel, or any type of communication—is delivering our message logically; that is, presenting events and facts in a logical order.
The presenter or writer must consider two things in determining logical order: the desired effect of the message and the audience.
If the recipients of our communications don’t follow or agree with our logic, there can be dire results: everything from confusion to mild irritation to frustration to anger.
This is an example of an everyday communication gone wrong.
A phone call from your sister:
“Hi Beth, this is Julie. I wanted to call and tell you I tried to call Mom all morning and she didn’t answer. I was frantic, so I finally went over there and we found her on the floor.”
[You gasp and hold your breath.]
“We banged on the door and then finally pulled out the flowerpot key. I went through the house calling for her. Doug stuck his head into the kitchen. She wasn’t there, so I ran up to her bedroom and she wasn’t there either. Her car was in the drive so we knew she had to be home.”
[Your heart pounds as you wait to learn the condition of Mother. She could be dead, but you don’t dare interrupt because you might miss something—something like how idiot Doug forgot to wipe his shoes at the door.]
“So I finally found her in the downstairs bathroom, you know, the one with the hideous brown and yellow tiles? Well anyway, there she was asleep on the floor with a bath towel rolled up under her head and her favorite book laying there next to her. It’s that new one by that Hungerford lady, “How to Moderate a Scribophile Group and Maintain Sanity.” It’s a hoot.
“Well anyway, apparently she fell asleep reading and was just too sleepy to go up to her room, so she just pulled down a bath towel and curled up on that germ-infested furry rug she’s got, with the radio blasting so loudly she wouldn’t have heard the toilet flush next to her head. What she was doing on the floor in the first place I don’t know, but I just thought I’d call and tell you about it. Beth? Beth, are you there?”
[You’ve counted to ten, then to two hundred and taken a deep breath.] “Yeah I’m here. So Mom’s okay.”
“Yah, you can’t imagine what I went through before I found…”
“Julie? Julie?” you interrupt. “I want to say something…because I love you, Hon. Don’t ever call me again.”
If Julie’s desired effect was to give her sister a near heart attack or tick her off, she probably succeeded. Clearly she did not consider Beth’s (her audience’s) perspective; she seemed more concerned in telling the story the way she wanted to tell it. If we don’t consider the perspectives of our audience—readers or listeners—they’ll likely ask us not to call again.
This second example could also be quite agonizing if one very important piece of information isn’t provided immediately.
Since I empathize with all animal lovers, I’ll impart that information now: the cat is perfectly fine, entirely unharmed in this story of How a Cat Set Herself on Fire.
Jill was reasonably sure she had checked everything before she left that day, but when she came through the door about an hour later, the stench of burned fur assailed her nostrils and she immediately knew otherwise. Something was very wrong.
Though miserably frightened at what she might find, she began hollering accusations into the quiet.
“What have you done? What HAVE you done?” On her way to the counter as she dropped packages, she looked this way and that for the culprits, the damage, any sign of where the odor was coming from.
Knowing each of the four little monsters well, it had to be one of her two known firebugs. She saw immediately that Maggie was lounging on the back of a stuffed chair and Annie was curled up on the video recorder. Relief!
She hurried over to Maggie. The fur ball looked up and yawned.
Reaching around to pull Maggie’s tail out from under her—expecting to find a hairless, limp appendage—her hand passed over singed, shriveled fur on her entire side.
“Oh my God, Maggie.” As sooty, wiry stuff came off in her fingers, Jill quickly parted the fur to make sure Maggie’s skin wasn’t any pinker than it should be.
In a strained voice, she continued bombarding the disinterested cat with questions. “How did this happen? What to hell is wrong with you?”
Well Maggie didn’t answer because she knew full well that Jill already knew the answer.
She had mistakenly left a lit candle on the counter, exactly where Maggie was NOT supposed to be.
Jill tried not to imagine Maggie there alone with one whole side of her going up in flames, but she chalked it up to Maggie’s drop-and-roll training, made necessary by a prior incident when she’d lit her tail up like a Roman candle. Fortunately Jill had been there to clap it out.
Cats simply take all the joy out of candles.
Again, the logical way to present this story is determined by the audience and the desired effect. If Jill told this story to her husband, she would wisely start with the results: the cat is unhurt. But if her audience are the readers of her short story, and her desired affect is suspense (sadistic suspense), she might withhold that information for some time.
So before we utter the first syllable, type the first letter, we ask ourselves who our audience is and what our desired effect is? Do I want a family member to hate me or do I want to give a reader suspenseful entertainment?
“Mom’s not dead but the cat will be bald for a while.”