The Fourth C of Storytelling

This is a repost of a recent blog article on berrypicking, facilitator Brian Leaf’s personal blog.

As I’ve been rethinking my approach to how we facilitate digital storytelling, I was reminded that the Center for Digital Storytelling teaches story structure in terms of context, crisis, change, and closure. For the most part, our program stuck with the seven elements of digital storytelling even though Joe Lambert seems to have sunset that particular approach years ago. However, I do think it’s important to continually think about and improve upon our own processes, and these 4 C’s have shown to popular in our most recent workshop.

They really work as a nice template for the index card activity, which when unstructured, has proven to be challenging for participants. They don’t replace the seven elements or seven steps, but they provide an additional layer of support in the storytelling process. Here’s a somewhat mundane example from my life:

Context: Choosing to take a position on the table or interview with one that was only a possibility
Crisis: If I decided to go with the interview, I would necessarily give up the position offered
Change: Decided to not be driven by security or fear
Closure: Was offered the job I really wanted

Occasionally it feels funny to ask people to describe a particular change or what the impetus to that change was. While I was able to put something down above, it’s an oversimplification of what actually happened and how it “concluded.” And it’s not even always clear what elements really constitute the change, crisis, or closure. The fact is that most of the time, it’s never one thing that leads to that moment of truth or change–not that I think there’s anything wrong with trying to capture something in one’s own story. I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t think that communicating our experiences to tangible, digital form wasn’t important.

However, I do take exception to the idea that the storyteller should need to offer closure. Wright and Ryan (2010) write in the journal that “Every good story contains some crisis or conflict that institutes change, has a resolution and, hence, closure.” But oftentimes, participants may come with a story that has no ending. Perhaps the storytelling workshop is an opportunity to find a resolution, but maybe it’s just another stop along the way. When facilitating, I think it’s important that we let people know that they don’t need to necessarily come to a close; our hope would be though that they feel like they are one step closer to resolution, and if so (or even if not), they articulate that. I would guess that Joe would agree with this sentiment, but it doesn’t change the fact that the opposite message is the one that’s taken away. Worcester (2012) articulates as much in a criticism that the expectation of an explicit, closed story as potentially “constraining” even while feeling generally safe in the workshop environment.

Léa explained that it was not due to the social dynamics of the workshop, or problems disclosing private matters to her colleagues. Rather, she felt she did not come to terms with empowerment in the way that the narrative scheme expected, which tends to discard meaning that is obscure or ambiguous. Digital stories are encouraged to be explicit and have closure, rather than open-ended statements. Because she found the meaning ‘deeply personal’ she could not bring herself to produce a story in that way. Not everyone may find it necessary to pin down empowerment as a pivotal life moment to express and be resolved via digital storytelling

Anyway, I need to cut this short to pack, so I’ll end with this: While my thoughts on how we communicate to others how to tell a story constantly evolves though, my opinion has pretty much remained the same about what it means to facilitate ethically. Even though we’re trying to help people communicate stories effectively, we need to be careful that we’re not slipping into a structure or narrative trap that oppresses or takes away from the voices of others. It feels like a constant balancing act because much of what “looks good” originate from those systems of inequality, and I worry that the idea of closure may be walking that fine line as well.

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