Thursday, February 05, 2009

That's good, that's bad

In fact, this post has nothing to do with the book, nor with the "That's good, that's bad" style of story. I just like to have a picture and this was convenient. 

What I really want to write about is a question I had from one of the teachers at the European School of Brussels today. I did two performances for 13-year-olds. At the end, as I usually do for this age, I asked if they had any questions. In the second set, one of the teachers asked one:
Is the storytelling about the story or the action of telling it? 
I didn't quite know how to answer this. It's about both, to me, but he wasn't satisfied. He rephrased it:
Is it better to have a good story told badly or a bad (or mediocre) story told well? 
I had to think about this. Neither. Why not expect excellence every time? 

I've heard good stories told badly and it sets my teeth on edge. It's awful to hear a story butchered. This afternoon, that was the response I settled on. Now I'm thinking about stories that were told very well but in the end had no substance. Though they were told in an engaging way, I didn't remember what they were about later. They had no impact. 

What do you think? Is this a question worth asking? 


PriscillaHowe said...

This comment is from my mother, who I think was having trouble posting it:

"Depends on what material you're given to work with. Excellence is always good to shoot for, and I don't think you personally could possibly tell a story badly unless you gave it no thought. If given a bad story, your dislike MIGHT shine through, though."

Granny Sue said...

Hmmm. That's one to think about. I have to say that a bad story told well has at least the value of being entertaining. My son has a neighbor who is a natural storyteller, absolutely hilarious. Some of what he tells? Pointless. But the telling of it? Priceless.

A good story told badly could turn a person off to the story and possibly even to storytelling. I have heard people say they once heard a storyteller and it was boring they never wanted to hear another one. That is the last outcome we'd want.

Sean said...

If you are telling stories on your backporch in a rocking chair, the answer makes no difference. If you are presenting to an audience and you are calling yourself a "pro," then the only answer is: always strive for excellence.

Storytelling is an audience centered art form.

Tim said...

For me, personally, the story is what leaves the greatest impression, regardless of the performance.

So I'd much rather hear a bumbling performance of a good story than watch a talented performer skate by on technique.

I've been thinking of this very question in terms of {fray}. When it was a web-only magazine, it forged a community of virtual storytelling of amateurs, leading to live performances at {fray} day. Now that the founders have shifted to a quarterly in-print magazine, they've got a beautiful product-- and I'm bored silly. They've got talented writers and artists and designers working on a polished widget, and totally forgotten that what made them shine in the first place was the content, not the dressing.

It's the story that nourishes the soul, not the performance.

Unless, of course, we're talking live theatre. Then I'm afraid I contradict myself and say the opposite. Like many, I'm a sucker for beautiful music, lights, and stagecraft covering up dreck, and I'll forgive that easier than I can a bad performance of a great play.

Anonymous said...

I have heard a story (urban myth?) that Lawrence Olivier (or was it Richard Burton?) recited the phone book when he forgot his lines (unless Burton read the phone book with feeling to a tv audience) and no one noticed (or everyone was enthralled). Am I telling a bad story in a bad style?

My tuppence worth:
A bad story well told is still a bad story and might leave folks perplexed or feeling ripped off no matter how well it is told. A good story badly told drives me (an experienced listener) NUTS! I get fidgety and uncomfortable, so goodness knows what it would do to an inexperienced listener. I have seen tellers at Olios make balls up and tell badly on stage and I get really peeved. It makes me wonder what they are doing and why they are doing it. I agree with Priscilla's mum. When you find a great story and love it, it shines through. When you think a story s just okay, then it comes across as just okay. My personal thoughts on that are that storytelling makes you transparent, or at least opaque, in so far as what you think about the story, or if the story is a good one or bad one, it comes through!

I agree with Tim in that the story nourishes the soul, but the story can be lost in the telling if told badly.

Simon Brooks

Tim said...

Been thinking about this again recently, so I have a video blog entry over at Breaking the Eggs on this very subject: link