Wonder in Storytelling

Wonder helps the storyteller change the way we see things, builds suspense and holds attention.  Witness the story of the sparrow.  It is a story for entertainment, to be performed, not written.  What do I seek to change with this story?

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 3.

Little Sparrow kept close to Daniel.  She watched him sleep, she followed him everywhere, which was awkward in the bathroom.  Folk are not usually visible to humans and they don’t see things as we do.  Little Sparrow decided Daniel was a friend and she would not leave his side.  She was terrified of Cat and so when he left her outside the bathroom, Cat lost no opportunity to torment her. 

Daniel was glad to get out of the house and took the bus into town.  Little Sparrow sat fluttered beside him on the bus.  She sang a sad, sweet little song. Away from Cat, she seemed calm and determined.  She’d resolved to find the one she loved, to know whether he still loved her.  There were a few days before the waters returned and she would be drawn back into them.

Into Town

They arrived in the city centre and made their way to the Local Studies Library.  The Library was built where trees and animals existed and some persist and found themselves in a library.  Some enjoy fun, hiding things and turning pages when people look away.  Others try to help, although their understanding of help might be different from ours.  They were greeted by a librarian and beside her an old squirrel-headed Folk, with spectacles perched on the end of its nose.  He was delighted a Folk had come to the library for help. 

Daniel asked the librarian for a map of the flooded village, he wanted to find the house.  Various Folk flittered and flustered about.  Soon, a duck waddled over and guided Daniel’s hand, helped him write the names of books he needed.  It wanted to help Bryony, Daniel’s grandmother. With genealogies and electoral rolls, they came upon the name of Hinchcliffe.  Then they found the oldest son was Josiah and still alive. 

Daniel sat with Little Sparrow in the Peace Gardens.  He held his phone to his ear as he explained they were going to visit him and find out whether Josiah is indeed the one she seeks.  Daniel tried to prepare her for disappointment.  She listened and said she knew it was the right name.

Josiah’s Garden

They took the bus to a small village, not far from the reservoir.  Daniel walked to the end of the street.  Little Sparrow sniffed the air.  Daniel found a spot where he could see unseen.  The man lived in a small cottage with a lovely garden, full of roses.  He was deadheading and carried a small package on a strap around his neck.  Daniel wondered what it was and then he saw the man pause and look at a songbird in a tree.  He stood still and opened the package, a camera. 

Meanwhile, Little Sparrow edged closer.  As she entered the garden and stood in front of him, Josiah paused and looked up.  He sighed and then continued with his work. 

Eventually, Little Sparrow returned to Daniel.  She was very sad.  Daniel said he thought this would happen.  People often lost second sight as they grew older. 

He explained the next step was to consult the Oracle.  Little Sparrow was very excited until Daniel explained the Oracle was his friend, Cat.

Wonder in the Story of the Sparrow

This is literally a fairy story.  Fairies are often called Folk.  But what I want is to reinvent Folk.  They are often depicted with a king and queen.  My Folk are anarchic.  They are blobs of sentience that take a wide range of forms.  We glimpse more in the next part. 

They have different personalities.  Little Sparrow is timid, calm and determined.  She knows what she wants and she’ll stop at nothing to get it.  Cat is argumentative, opinionated and has his own agenda.  Others are helpful, mischievous or dangerous.  Their relationship with our world is half in and half out.  They see us more than we see them. 

Structuring their world this way has advantages for the storyteller.  Relationships with Folk take many forms.  We see a relationship between Daniel and Cat, never fully explained.  It is established, free and easy, they appear as friends who argue.  The odd thing about Cat is he appears to be a real cat.  It’s not clear from this story whether others see him but there is something odd and in-between about him. 

The key relationship in this story is between Daniel and Little Sparrow.  I can’t say too much at this stage.  What we have seen so far is his compassion for her.  She is totally dependent on him to help her. 

It is the friendship we see develop that gives this story its emotional heft.  The wonder is in the relationship not the strange imaginary world of Folk.

Wonder in Real Life Stories

Can we learn anything from the story to help us structure real life stories?  What evokes wonder in a real life story?

Here are a few things:

  • Relationships – genuine relationships, showing love and compassion, are rare in stories I hear.  Maybe people find it easier to talk about past failings than to talk about love.  But love is only one possible relationship.  Friendship and even rivalry can be moving.  There are negative relationships as well and there are reasons storytellers avoid using them.  We might agree someone deserves punishment but is it a good note to end a story, if you are promoting your business?  Wonder is perhaps best encountered where positive relationships overcome negative.
  • Transformation – where someone becomes a better person.  This is usually the protagonist but might be someone else.  The ending of many fairy stories, “they married and lived happily ever after” may be trite but summarises the transformation we see. 
  • Spectacle – where we see something we have never seen before.  The story triggers imagination and invites us to see things differently.  This implies a sense of place, sharing details that help us see something not seen before.  This may be somewhere far away, we’ve never seen but can see as a result of a story.  Or else somewhere familiar, seen from a new perspective.

Meaning – Should Stories Have a Moral?

Maybe a fourth source of wonder is meaning.  Business owners have a purpose telling stories but meaning does not necessarily evoke wonder.  A story that helps us see things differently and act in consequence, may evoke wonder.

Confluence of wonder and meaning is powerful and easy to misuse.  Think of slogans like “Make America Great Again”.  For true believers these words evoke a story.  They’ve heard the story and listen to it repeatedly.  But do they think of it as a story or as the truth by which they live?

We see competing stories in politics.  You need a more powerful story to compete with one already powerful.  This is why images such as “unicorns” or “sunlit uplands” don’t work.  Those who oppose Brexit need a better story, they cannot win the argument without it.

Stories are Powerful

In the words of the Amazing Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  Stories are powerful and business people are obliged, with everyone else, to use them with care to build relationships and empower audiences.

It is in the nature of stories to have multiple meanings.  Retell a story to bring out a new meaning.  If you don’t do that you find audiences apply their own meanings to stories.  This might be what you want but make it a conscious decision.

However, bringing a story to a moral, “therefore we should all live in this better way”, is not effective.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  You know what meaning you want to communicate, and so build it into the story.  An effective way is to conceal the meaning of the story until the end.  There are two ways to do this, misdirection and distraction, and I shall cover these in the next two posts.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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