Stories of Past and Present
Mostly stories told by business people take place in the past. Evoking the past and linking it to the present can be tricky. How do we tell stories of past and present? Here is a part of my personal story.
As a child, I loved biology. As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a zoo keeper. I had elaborate plans for cleaning a lion’s cage without being eaten! Later, I wanted to be a vet and so I needed Biology. I really enjoyed the subject. As I entered second year of secondary school, the school announced my brilliant exam results meant I had the honour of dropping Biology for Latin.
I was really frustrated. Even though Biology meant more sport (the subject I loathed most) because it covered fewer periods than Latin, I still wanted Biology. My parents discussed the matter with the school. Fortunately, we had streaming and so it was not too difficult to accommodate my wishes. I was always top in Biology and went on to study it at University.
So, how did I end up as a community development worker and lately, self employed as a marketing coach?
Time and Plotting
In an earlier post I wrote about plotting stories. Most of what I covered relates to time. I covered chronology, tense, starting and finishing. In this post, I revisit this from the perspective of conveying passage of time.
All stories take place in the past, apart from science fiction and fantasy. For the near past, you might use artificial present, eg “I’m walking down the corridor …” Clearly, you’re not walking down a corridor but people are used to the convention. It conveys a sense of near past.
You can use this convention for more distant past. What if your walk took place 30 years ago? There are a few things to consider. First, you anchor the story 30 years ago – the present in your story is long ago. This doesn’t matter, unless you intend to link events to an incident in the near past. You can do this but the danger is you’ll confuse your audience.
You could start in the near past and travel back, thus: “Walking down the corridor to this venue today, I remembered walking down another corridor 30 years ago.” You may need to say what triggered the memory and explain what the memory was but you establish a link between the two time periods. This is probably better than beginning 30 years ago and then bringing the story into the near past: “… which is why I remembered this incident as I walked here today.” It may be a problem if the link between past and present happens late in the story.
Evoking the Past
The second thing to consider is if your artificial present is 30 years ago, how do you establish the time period? You could try: “I’m walking down a corridor, 30 years ago”, a bit lame but OK where you recount an incident from the past that could have happened yesterday. What you don’t want is a question from the audience like: “Why didn’t you use your mobile phone?” “Because 30 years ago, they hadn’t been invented …” sounds really lame and shows your story jarred for at least one person in the audience.
The problem is, mentioning the date can break the story: “It was 30 years ago …”. So, how about mentioning a contemporary event? It should be something most people recognise. The fall of the Berlin wall, for example. Most people have a vague idea it was some time ago. “At the time, Abba was in the charts and I was humming one of their greatest hits”, sets the scene, probably in the seventies.
Or refer to objects that we no longer use. “The phone rang and we scrambled to pick up the receiver”, implies before mobile phones. “Grandma was folding bed sheets and putting them through the mangle”, implies an earlier time and may invoke a nostalgic response. Remember though, some people might not know what a mangle is!
Change and Transformation
Another possibility is evolution. I recently heard a story about the cars the storyteller had owned. The story spanned about 30 years and the stories evoked the past, more so if you know the models of car.
This brings us to an important point. Stories are about change and changes happen through time. The situation at the end of a story, should be different to the start. Usually, a character or characters have a goal and the story is about how they reached it (or didn’t) and perhaps the consequences of success or failure.
There are several ways to convey change. Tell a story that begins at the beginning and builds tension because we don’t know how it pans out. Did the storyteller win the heart of the love of their life? Did the divorce happen and what were the consequences?
Alternatively, begin with the present state and show how you got there. “It was my fault the police came to arrest me.” Now backtrack and explain why they arrested you. Then take the story forward, presumably you’re not arrested now! This may be the best approach, if your story includes a near death experience. The fact you’re telling the story is a massive spoiler!
Great storytelling hinges on the goals of characters. Start with someone, you or your customer, with a goal. Show how they attained it. This shows passage through time but it is likely contemporary and took a few weeks or months to pan out.
A special case is where the protagonist conceived their goal early in life. Such a story develops into a dialogue with your younger self. The trick is to tell the story from the child’s perspective. You know a lot of stuff now, you didn’t know as a child. What did you know and how did you perceive things then? What changed and how did it change?
Audiences root for a child. You overcame obstacles and learned stuff on the way. Don’t attribute contemporary insights to the child, let them make mistakes and celebrate successes.
We’ll return to these themes in later posts. Before we do that, let’s pause and consider the use of detail in storytelling.