Guidelines for story shelf life
September 14, 2010 4:44 AM   Subscribe

What is the best rule-of-thumb for the shelf life of a story? I told a story the other day which fell a little flat, and after I was thinking it was because I told it once too often.

Is there a canonical reference authority on this subject? Worse case scenario: that older relative of yours who always tells the same stupid three stories that you have heard fifty times. How in the world do professional storytellers and stand-up comics keep their own interest telling the same material over and over? How many times can you post one anecdote on metafilter? The world-wide-web? Distinction between story to amuse and proverbial lesson fable?
posted by bukvich to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you're ever unsure as to whether you've told a story in the presence of a particular person before, don't tell it. Even if they're just one person in a group.

If you can't remember who has heard a story and who hasn't, stop telling it. If it's a good story, other people will repeat it for you or ask you to tell it.

Professional storytellers and stand-up comics don't tell the same material over and over. They use it for a few months if they're on a national or world tour, and even then they try to vary it a bit. Then they get some new material.

Post an anecdote on the web once. Maybe link to it once in a MetaFilter comment. Do not repeat. Again, if it's a good story, other people will repeat it or link to it.

It sounds like you may be trying too hard to be entertaining. Try to be interested rather than interesting when you're talking with people. That way you can be the person everybody enjoys talking with, rather than the person who bores everyone with anecdotes.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:03 AM on September 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you're ever unsure as to whether you've told a story in the presence of a particular person before, don't tell it. Even if they're just one person in a group.

Aw, hell no. If a story isn't good enough to be heard twice, it's not good enough to be told in the first place.
posted by surenoproblem at 5:16 AM on September 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Depends on the social situation really. One of those things for which there is no unifying rule of thumb - it's a social sense, something which depends upon how well you can read the behaviour of others and predict their responses. You can improve this by practice and by paying attention to what works and what doesn't, and taking notes.

In my current social situation, I regularly tell stories several times over - someone will come around who hasn't heard it before, and everyone who has heard it enjoys the retelling and the reaction of the initiate. Of course, this doesn't last forever - and stories get shelved if they get stale or if they lose their social relevance. New stories come along and are more interesting and relevant. Eventually the old ones may get rolled out again - this time, there's a different feel about telling them, a bit more nostalgia and familiarity.

If you're ever unsure as to whether you've told a story in the presence of a particular person before, don't tell it. Even if they're just one person in a group.

Don't agree with you there. The trick is actually to go ahead and tell the story, but tell it in a way that acknowledges the people who have already heard it. If it's a really good story, they should be as excited to tell it as you - they can help with embellishment and emphasis too, and agree with you and help you out if your telling falters a bit.
posted by schmichael at 5:30 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you are conscious enough to fear being the crusty uncle, you are not he.
posted by thejoshu at 6:04 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many comedians retire their material after a certain period of time and write new material, but not all. Victor Borge, for example, used some of the same jokes for well over half a century. And they were still funny! But he didn't tell them in exactly the same way, he worked constantly to polish and refine his performance. That is not dissimilar to a musician who may perform the same piece innumerable times but doesn't lose interest in it; the challenge is to find new and/or different ways of doing the same piece.

Sufficiently good humor remains funny on repeated hearings. This is also relevant to humorous music. Funny music (for example by Weird Al Yankovic) remains funny even if you have heard it before. It's not like the kind of joke which, once you know the punchline, becomes pointless to hear again. Humorous storytelling or music does not just depend upon a punchline, it is filled with humor.

Of course, if you are not a professional entertainer, you may not be able to get away with the same level of repetition that Victor Borge got away with. Be aware of how your audience reacts. Even if people are making a polite effort to seem interested, they may not be. Personally I don't like to tell the same story to the same person more than once, unless I feel that they should be reminded of it because it is particularly relevant to some other issue that has come up.

On a web-site such as this one, I may express the same or similar ideas many times, because they may be relevant to a variety of discussions.
posted by grizzled at 6:51 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I heartily second everything La Morte said. I have a relative who has become the story-repeating person you fear being. His insistence on entertaining rather than listening has offended and alienated the very people he's tried to impress with his anecdotes.
posted by TEA at 6:55 AM on September 14, 2010

please tell us the story.
posted by uauage at 7:21 AM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stand-up comics do tell the same material over and over, depending on the comic. Jokes are tested out at open mics, or sandwiched between jokes you know work, and then finely tweaked and adjusted in front of audiences until you end up with something you know will work 99% of the time.

A lot of comics get bored with their old stuff before their audiences do. Audiences are probably going to be different every night. If you're telling stories to your friends, though, they'll probably get really bored of the same story really quickly.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:23 AM on September 14, 2010

"If a story isn't good enough to be heard twice, it's not good enough to be told in the first place."

Agreed. I've heard the same story at different occasions from people, and told the same stories a couple of times, and it seems to work.

Don't repeat the story often (6-8 weeks at least, unless it just happened to you). Don't tell it to the same people more than twice unless you left out a key detail. Don't tell it to the same group of people - if the same 5 people heard this story last month, don't tell it. But if you told the story in a group, and want to tell it to a different group that has a few people who heard it, that's probably alright. Same thing for a story that was told quickly to a group, and you want to tell it in detail to a close friend who you're having a one-on-one with.

One of the best ways to retell a story is to include different details or have a slightly different take. "Remember how I got that scar? What's really interesting is (new details about why you were sneaking into a prison)." What about the current conversation reminded you of that story? Focus on those details. "Remember that I got arrested twice in one night? I just thought of that because (details relevant to the current conversation)..."

If a story falls flat the first time, you get 1 more chance to tell it, but only if no one in the group heard it the first time. Change it up a little; cut out the fat or add concrete details. If it falls flat again let it go, man.
posted by Tehhund at 7:38 AM on September 14, 2010

I limit my stories to three tellings. Beyond that and I won't be able to track who has and hasn't heard the story. If requested, I'll go beyond the 3 tellings, but I won't do it on my own.

There's a reason I like the number three. The first time around I'm usually too excited by the story to tell it properly. I'll skip the good bits and just get to the conclusion. This is usually the worst telling. The second time around I'll actually flesh out the details. I don't jump ahead of myself because I've already had the chance to tell someone about it. The third time is when it's actually a decent story. From the second telling I've learned what jokes are good and what parts I should skip. But anything beyond the third time and I'm not doing anything new. Just recycling that perfect, third iteration.
posted by valadil at 8:28 AM on September 14, 2010

Best answer: It depends on the audience. There are some family stories that I'm happy to hear repeatedly, they become part of the fabric of the family history. Family stories though -- if it was a story about that one time someone posted on metafilter, it probably wouldn't make the cut, unless the end was "...and that's how I met your mother."

I used to work with an incredible professional storyteller. I don't think it even makes sense to wonder about them getting tired of telling the same stories, she had so many and I suspect that if she tired of one it would have been replaced. Audience reactions tend to be very rewarding for performers, it's a big part of the reward for them.

A few years later, I started going to Toastmasters. I saw the same storyteller there. It turned out she'd been involved with them for many years. There are also people who teach storytelling classes if you would like to hone your skills.
posted by yohko at 10:37 AM on September 14, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everybody for a set of great answers.
posted by bukvich at 12:32 PM on September 16, 2010

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