How do you tell the same important story again and again without it becoming a stale 'bit'?
December 15, 2010 11:45 AM   Subscribe

How do you tell the same important story again and again without it becoming a stale 'bit'?

Unusual nicknames, scars, car accidents, tattoos, crimes - that sort of thing. How do you not fall into the trap of reading from cue cards in your brain when you tell important stories that you have told many times before? How do you give an honest account instead of letting the 'lines' that have worked before tell the story, at the expense of freshness and honesty?
posted by dirtdirt to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: And although I put this in 'writing and language' I specifically mean in spoken conversation.
posted by dirtdirt at 11:46 AM on December 15, 2010

Tell it to as many different people who have never heard it before as you can.
posted by Melismata at 11:48 AM on December 15, 2010

I think it's very, very difficult...maybe impossible. The only way I try to avoid it is to give as little detail initially as possible and let the listener ask questions. That way, the information they glean is what they actually want to know, and you're being responsive rather than reciting it from rote.

Even then, you're going to hear the same questions again and again...bringing you back to the original problem.
posted by Pomo at 11:51 AM on December 15, 2010

Keep a mental library of details regarding the story and shuffle them into and out of the story with different tellings - these would be trivial details which don't hurt the story by being excluded, mind you. This is done to more or less trick your brain into processing a slightly different story.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:51 AM on December 15, 2010

I'm not sure what's wrong with reading the cue cards, myself. Beyond this, I emphasize certain elements of the story more than others depending on my audience. Also depends on my relationship to the person asking. A nosy random stranger gets "I had an accident" and a new subject when they ask about the scar on my arm. A co-worker might get the whole 9 yards, especially if I had coffee in my hand and I was avoiding work.

If you ever get an answer to the question "How do you make everyone you meet stop asking you about something you're really tired of discussing," let me know!
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:52 AM on December 15, 2010

It seems like the basic problem is that we as humans like to optimize things. Once you know how to tell a story well, what's wrong with telling it well again in the same way? Sure, I have mental cue cards for stories, but I also have cue cards that pop up while I'm making chili, reminding me how much salt to use. For me, that's just part of remembering how to do something well.

How do you give an honest account instead of letting the 'lines' that have worked before tell the story, at the expense of freshness and honesty?
It's just a matter of being very strict with yourself about defining "optimization", and what it means to tell a story well. Be sure that you write your mental notes with an eye to exactness and detail, as opposed to keeping a particular turn of phrase because it got a particular response from your last friend/audience.
posted by aimedwander at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2010

Don't tell the story, tell the audience. Engage with whomever's listening instead of just reciting your piece. Make it more of a conversation than a lecture and you'll find it sounds fresh every time.
posted by Zozo at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Nothing wrong with cue cards at all. Theater actors tell the same story in every performance; you know, of Old Hamlet, friends, and associates. It's neither their own story nor a new one, yet it works (if the actor is good and well prepared).
posted by Namlit at 12:02 PM on December 15, 2010

I have given completely different answers to "why did you do X" depending on who's asking and what's on my mind at the time. There are so many angles for these stories that are all equally true, and you're not going to sit someone down and give them an hour-long speech about your butt tattoo. So pick the parts of the story that seem most compelling to you at the moment you're telling it, and it won't be the same next time.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:18 PM on December 15, 2010

Try to pretend like you're telling it for the very first time, every time. Be sure to use voice inflection, facial expressions, and hand gestures to "illustrate" what you're saying. Even though you've memorized the narrative, it's still new to the listener and as long as you're not telling it in a bored monotone, they won't notice that you're reading from your mental cue cards.
posted by amyms at 12:30 PM on December 15, 2010

Be aware that the story you are telling is . . . a story: beginning middle and end. Protagonist. Conflict. All that. You're telling it to an audience, one that changes from telling to telling. What do they need? What will sing to them? Watch their faces, their body language; listen to the sounds they make, reacting. Adjust the story accordingly. Polish it from telling to telling on the strength of past reactions--where you've had them, where you've lost them. If you do this, not only will your stories improve, but you'll feel like they're a living thing, something you've brought into existence, and more of a challenge than simply reciting a collection of details, more of an interaction, so they won't feel so rote and boring.

When you find yourself telling a story yet again without any interest in it, put that story aside for awhile. I had this experience with "The Body in the Basement" story and had to let it rest for a while. If someone asked me to tell it, I'd either decline gracefully--maybe even say, "I've kind of burned myself out on telling that; maybe later"--or give only a very brief recap of it. Some people were disappointed, but they got over it and the story, after a year or two of rest, regained its freshness.

An important lesson I learned from "The Body in the Basement" story was that the Mexican wrought iron lawn furniture was An Important point; the gassed birds was An Important Point; the electrical system was An Important Point. Other details could be dropped out, but all those had to stay and not be short-changed. So ask yourself what details make your stories. How could they be stronger?

Once when my friend Georgy Rock was introducing my spousal unit and I to a friend of hers, she said, "Their lives are more interesting than other people's lives." I got thinking about it--yeah, okay, maybe we've had some interesting stuff happen to us, but the interestingness of our lives is really that we know how to tell the tales better.

These are the bardic arts--we are by nature storytellers and story-listeners. We don't officially have bards anymore, or at least we don't call them that, but they're still around; can't get rid of them. And they're important. Psychiatrists talk about how dreaming is the brain's way of organizing and categorizing new experience; I think the same is true of telling stories: it's the way we clever little pattern-recognition monkeys collectively organize our experience, make sense of our lives, understand how our universe works.
posted by miss patrish at 12:40 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some very eloquent people I know pick a phrase or structure to describe something and then stick to that. Sometimes with exactly the same words. It works on new audiences fine, because they tell it well. (Although you end up telling it the same way in front of people who've heard it before.)

Otherwise, what Zozo says. "Don't tell the story, tell the audience." Amazing.
posted by squishles at 1:47 PM on December 15, 2010

Work the crowd. Watch their responses and expand on the parts that catch their imagination. If their eyes widen, or they draw breath, emphasize "I know! How f'ed up is that?".

A story is an agreement between two parties. But like a soloist working with a backing band, you must be responsive to changes in mood.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:07 PM on December 15, 2010

I'm pretty sure this is just a thing that happens. Every social group I've ever been part of, every person I've ever known, has a stock of stories, and they will be repeated. I catch myself involved in entire conversations that are pretty much word-for-word repeats.

It only seems to become a problem when someone is unable to stop themselves from telling the same bits over-and-over-and-over again relentlessly, or when there's no back-and-forth in the conversation. We all know those who have to have a constant audience and are only interested in regaling them with the same tired set pieces...

And A story is an agreement between two parties. - yeah, that. Maybe it just comes down to knowing when to not tell the story. When to let an opportunity slide by, or answer a question simply instead of launching into "so this one time..."
posted by brennen at 9:20 PM on December 15, 2010

The best option, in my experience, is to make sure it's a GOOD bit. My Superglue story is pretty much the same every time, but it's a pretty damn good story if I say so myself.
posted by KathrynT at 9:53 PM on December 15, 2010

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