Storyteller Tactics review: Abstraction
The most puzzling card of all
And, on a related note, a poignant moment in the Australian children's show, Bluey. (A show, by the way, chock-a-block full of excellent stories, some of them quite complex.)
Some of the most powerful stories are barely there. You don’t have to whack your audience over the head with a bucket of words to pack a punch.
A card to lift your stories to the next level
The Storyteller Tactics deck has 54 cards and they are all fairly straightforward. Recipes for stories, ways to tell them, the characters you tell them with etc.
Not this one: Abstractions.
Imagine you’re watching a group of five-year-olds playing a made-up game in the playground. Take one kid aside and ask her to explain the rules of the game and why she’s taking part. How useful do you think her answers will be? Explanations are an abstraction. Real knowledge lies much deeper, in action and stories. — Steve Rawling
What the what?
Steve Rawling, the Storyteller Tactics man, talks about the card and how it can be used in his excellent presentation in “the Vault”. Unfortunately, it is only accessible to people who have bought the deck and its resources but I can at least sketch in some of the details.
Stick with me. Learn how to think about abstractions in terms of story-telling and you will be able to double or triple the effect.
People will remember your stories because you socked them fair in the feels.
Turning life into words
Before we told stories in words, our species passed information with body language. Gestures, looks, actions. A raised eyebrow, a caress, a punch in the face. Message sent and received.
We still have body language built in. That’s why I can visit a land where I don’t speak the language, make some signs and faces, and have a fighting chance of having someone tell me where I can get a chip to eat or a chip for my camera.
Or, if I ask where I can find someone, perhaps saying their name or showing a photograph, and the person I'm asking for help scowls and spits on the ground, I had best tread carefully.
The heart and brain run on different tracks
Words and language are marvellous things but they are like looking up a dictionary to explain what we feel and to transmit that feeling to another person.
You can describe a rainbow in words very well in a paragraph but think of opening your eyes and seeing one right there in the sky. You know it immediately in your heart; a beautiful and marvellous band of light in many colours.
You don’t need to put it into words to feel the awe of the experience in yourself but if you want to describe it to another person there’s only so far that hand-waving can take you.
Abstract? That’s art, innit?
We think abstract art, we tend to think about something big and ugly that doesn’t seem to tell a story in the same way that paintings like (say) The Fighting Temeraire or Washington Crossing the Delaware do.
In abstract art, meanings can be hidden or encoded. The audience must work harder to find a story — if there is one.
In Australia, abstract Indigenous artworks — the good ones, not the shallow trash they sell to tourists — are loaded down with meaning and stories. One of my favourite artists is Chern’ee Sutton who produces colourful, delightful paintings using traditional methods, rich with symbolism and story.
The above artwork was produced for the 21st Commonwealth Games, held on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The gold, silver and bronze medals dominate the centre, the eleven days of the games are represented on the left, and the geography of the Brisbane River (shown by a dreamtime Rainbow Serpent) and Gold Coast can be seen on the right, where figures of athletes are displayed.
Look closer, and there are circles everywhere. These represent campfires surrounded by the “U” shaped impressions of buttocks left by those sharing the fire’s warmth and company. The dots making up the medals and circles are the thumbprints of athletes and officials attending the games.
Abstract it might be, but it is filled with stories. And meaning. It has a beauty and a depth that makes me gasp.
Make your stories sing with abstractions
Abstractions, as Steve Rawling describes, are the words explaining the unwritten codes or experiences that make up everyday activities. When we line up for tickets, board a bus, or sit down for a meal there are things we do or say that we may not be able to explain but convey the feeling, the flavour, the reality of the activity in a way that would be hard to put into words.
If you are selling cars, you want your audience to savour that new car smell. If you want a raise at work, the story you tell the boss might include references to the long hours you work, turning on the lights in the morning and feeding the goldfish. If you are writing a love story, you had best make the reader feel that they are included by describing shared gazes, lingering touches, hearts beating fast and any other sensations you may feel add immediacy and interest.
Far more than merely describing events, these details can cut past words to the inner, pre-literate human in us all. If we think carefully about the unspoken, unwritten actions, these will resonate with our readers and draw them into our story.
The challenge is to find words that do not describe the feeling so much as evoke it by implying or hinting at it.
That six-word story I opened this article with? Just six words, purporting to be about selling an item of baby equipment. And yet without a single word being aimed in that direction, it pierces the heart of any person who cares about their family.
If you take what is written on the Abstractions card in the Storyteller Tactics deck and think carefully about how to use it, you can give your stories the same power. You can cut past the words and reach into the soul of your readers, your listeners, your audience.
Be Jane Austen
I love Jane Austen’s novels, written with a keen and whimsical eye. In her books, she could describe a personality with a hint at a quirk or habit. Sum up a relationship with a glance or a sniff, destroy a character with a lifted eyebrow.
Her books are full of abstractions; things that might take a page to describe and explain but a carefully-timed wink or cough cuts through with a word.
You can tell a story as a series of events, or you can think about the sensations, the body language, the codes and conventions of what you are describing and draw the audience into your tale with what seem like small details but are really hooks into the soul.
Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.
— Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”
Have we not been in that situation where we want to say something clever but the words will not come?
If you are writing, you may spend as long on researching and rearranging the most perfect words and they will come out in the same reading time as the awkward stumbling phrases of reality.
Think about what connects your story to the reader, what human weaknesses or strengths you might touch and awaken.
Abstractions and connections
Emotion is what we are looking for here. Make the hearts of your audience beat a little faster, get the surge of hormones racing towards the credit card, the rush of pleasure as they win the day already dancing in their imagination.
The Abstractions card links to Emotional Dashboard. Pair these two and you are on a winner.
Use Story Listening to get ideas and insights. What are the sensations and emotions your audience is really concerned about? Open your eyes and ears and climb inside their skins.
Believe it or not but reading minds is a skill you can learn. Simply watching and listening and keeping your mind open and you can see into someone’s soul. Not deeply enough to learn their bank password but enough to feel the flavour of their thoughts. Do that.
The Secrets & Puzzles tactic is also a good one to deploy here. If we’re talking about codes and hidden meanings then giving the audience a way of working out the codes for themselves can add to the enjoyment. Hints are fine, flat-out explanations and answers not so much until we get to the end when we can tell our listeners they are right on the money.
Stories can be long, complex, and thorough or they can be short and precise. Six thousand words or six; it all depends on you, the storyteller.
Abstractions: the most powerful card in the deck?
I think so. Used with thought and imagination, the message of the Abstractions card can immerse your audience in the sensations and emotions of a story. They feel the connection deep inside.
Just one card in the Storyteller Tactics pack from Pip Decks. As noted previously, they come with a guarantee. If you don’t think they are worth ten times the purchase price after a year, just ask for your money back.
Go here for Storyteller Tactics. This affiliate link won’t cost you anything but earns me a percentage. Use my code BRITNIPEPPER at checkout to get yourself 10% off.
More on Storyteller Tactics:
The whole review, chapter by chapter, card by card: