The Math of Storytelling

The way Ken Burns sees it, storytelling is a simple equation: 1 + 1 = 3.  His point being, the whole of a story is greater than the sum of its parts. In a word, gestalt.

For example, boy meets girl + girl likes boys = they fall in love and live happily ever after. Boring. There needs to be more!

The dirty secret of great storytelling is that the storyteller is manipulating how information is presented to you. Not lying. But not unfolding events in the exact order we expect them. Enhancing certain moments, subduing others. This creates emotional suspense, tension and anticipation. You see, boy meets girl but he doesn’t like her right away. Ergo, a wrinkle in the equation. And the more wrinkles, the more interesting the story becomes.

Then there are all the experiences you bring to the story. Characters, places and events have new meaning for you if you can relate to them in some way. Maybe the hero is like your uncle or the villain reminds you of a guy from high school. That’s all part of good storytelling.

[Watch Ken Burns talk about 1+1+3 in his video via The Atlantic.]


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