What’s the story?

Mike Reed
19 November 2013

You hear a lot about ‘storytelling’ these days. But can the description ‘story’ really be applied to almost anything?

Fellow copywriter Lizzy Tinley has written an intriguing piece for D&AD about storytelling. I hope you won’t mind, Lizzy, if I take issue with your thesis.

The first paragraph leaps from the 150,000–word story of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the two–word ‘story’ on the side of a Tesco delivery van.

Tesco

Is ‘Freshly clicked’ a story? Lizzy also links it to a famous Vine video of a little girl greeting her soldier Dad, Tribeca’s six–second film competition (also on Vine), the vast Booker–winner The Luminaries, and Hemingway’s famous six–word story ‘For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.’

I’d argue that only the books in that list are truly stories. I’m not even sure the Hemingway example is satisfying enough really to be called a story, although it’s easily the best of that ‘genre’ that I’ve come across.

It’s a clever twist, and it produces a little emotional flinch, but it’s only a twist. Real stories are more than that, surely?

This isn’t just pedantry (honest). I’m concerned that if we call all these things ‘stories’, we dilute the meaning of the word — doing both it, and ourselves as writers, a disservice.

Lizzy describes the Tesco line thus:

‘It’s the line you see every day, the story you’ve heard a thousand times, with a twist at the end that transforms it into something new — the very essence of modern storytelling.’

But this is a two–word line. Yes, the twist — the pun — comes at the end, technically speaking. But in fact it’s all end. There’s no beginning or middle – not really.

As Nick Asbury recently pointed out while discussing the TSB ‘story’ commercial, ‘the definition of “storytelling” [in branding] has … become so broad as to become meaningless.’

In the TSB case, as Nick says, the heart of the story is missing (because the brand doesn’t want to get into the ‘storm’ that hit the banking world).

In the case of ‘Freshly Clicked’ — and, I’d argue, the Vine examples — even more is missing. These are moments, not stories.

All of them have value — they’re inventive, surprising, and often remarkable for how much they pack into their brief spans. If you judge them as moments they all have merit. If you judge them as stories they fail completely.

‘Freshly Clicked’ is a nice headline. It sparks off meanings in different directions the way a good headline should — although not too many meanings, sensibly. But it’s surely not a ‘story’. Where’s the drama? The conflict?

There’s tension in a pun, obviously — by definition, it pulls in different directions. But it’s hardly War & Peace. It’s not even Janet & John.

Stories, famously, need a beginning, a middle and an end. Or, almost as famously, ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’ (variously attributed).

They need, as the screenwriters say, an ‘arc’, usually describing the way at least one character changes through the events that befall them, and the choices they make.

One could, perhaps, spin a yarn out of ‘Freshly Clicked’, in which Tesco valiantly collects their produce fresh from the farm, and overcomes various obstacles in order to get it to the warehouse and thence, at the bidding of a click, across town to the grateful customer’s door. I’m not sure why you would, but you could.

But that doesn’t make the line itself a story. It’s a headline. Quite a nice headline. But let’s not try to make it something it’s not.

The form of a story undoubtedly has value for brands. After all, to quote Nick again, ‘stories are one of the most ancient tools we have for transmitting values encoded in a memorable form.’

But if we just stamp every form of writing (or film–making, or anything else) a ‘story’, we devalue the word entirely.

That means clients will soon become jaded and cynical about the idea of ‘storytelling’. Which is a shame, because real storytelling is a genuinely valuable form, requiring genuine skill.

Even more worryingly, it threatens to undermine our credibility as writers. If we’re prepared to treat words so loosely, we can’t expect anyone else to treat them any better — or to take us seriously as experts in our craft.

(That’s a rather heavy load to lay at Lizzy’s door, and none of this is intended as a personal rebuke — just an expression of my thoughts inspired by her piece and others. I hope that’s clear!)

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