Storytelling — Matthew Dicks

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Narrativium

I recently finished, Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks, a quintessentially American storyteller in the Mark Twain tradition. It is perhaps the most unique book on narrative structure and theory I’ve read, after Keith Johnstone’s Impro.

Dicks appears to have lived a very colorful, eventful life that supplies all the raw material you might ever want, to tell lots of outrageous, extreme stories. A very American life. I have friends like that, whose lives seem to be a string of outrageous and improbable events that make for naturally good stories. Only the manner of telling needs work. Dicks insists, however, that you do not need to live a colorful life in order to tell colorful stories. That’s good news for me.

Though Dicks himself is also a novelist, the book is specifically about competitive, oral telling of stories drawn from real life, and told in the first person by the person who experienced it. This live medium is his primary one.

There is apparently a whole scene around live storytelling, like stand-up comedy, with ticketed shows in big auditoriums, huge podcasts, and a thriving market of storytelling at corporate events and such. Dicks appears to be a master of the competitive form, and much of the book is built around his winning techniques from the Moth podcast, which is supposedly the gold standard of the scene. He appears to be some sort of Michael Phelps of the sport, with the biggest win record.

If I sound incredulous, it’s because this book is the first I’ve heard about any of it. I didn’t expect such a major subculture to be so completely unknown to me.

Despite the seemingly narrow scope, there is really no loss in generality to Dicks’ theories. Much of what Dicks says can be easily transposed to written, invented forms of fiction, and the bits that are specific to oral performance of true stories (such as the bits on the importance of using a microphone well and managing emotions) are easily ignored.

Dicks model can be understood as a late-stage, mature form of Mark Twain’s model from a century earlier. Like Twain, he focuses on oral performance as the gold standard. The manner of the telling, not the matter, is the focus. There are several differences though:

  • Twain thought humor was the essence of American storytelling, Dicks treats it as a mere tool, to be incorporated into some stories towards strategic ends.
  • Twain obviously has a somewhat theatrical performance in mind, complete with accents and props, Dicks believes in being a disembodied voice, like an audiobook.
  • Twain allowed for wide latitude in who could tell what stories, and his essay, which I discussed earlier in this blogchain, includes the telling of a black story that no white storyteller would tell today. Dicks otoh is a modern-day purist — only tell your own stories, in the first person.

Despite the differences, there is clearly a line of descent here.

At the heart of Dicks’ model is what is perhaps the shortest version of the Hero’s Journey I’ve ever seen (though he doesn’t cite Campbell or derivative literature). Unlike Harmon’s 8-point circle or more elaborate models, Dicks seems to rest on just 2 structural points:

  • The “5 second” soul of the story, corresponding roughly to the moment of character change in other models (such as the “Change” step in Dan Harmon’s)
  • A beginning, chosen as close to the ending as possible, marked by the opposed “before” condition of the character.

Everything else is just, in his terminology, “stakes” that you work with. Since his model is designed to draw from real life, his approach hinges on identifying “storyworthy” moments from everyday life (hence the title).

While some of this simplicity is an artifact of the narrow scope (first-person true stories are easier to reduce to character before/after transformations), he clearly believes in a broader applicability of the idea. This leads to some intriguingly opinionated analyses.

For instance, he analyses Jurassic Park in a decidedly peculiar way.

According to him, the whole story is about the change in the attitude of the protagonist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) towards children. The 5-second moment is the moment when he’s up in the tree with the children, after having saved them from the T-Rex. The structural start is where he scares a kid with a dinosaur claw at the beginning. The point of the before/after transformation is that his initial dislike of kids is what’s holding back his relationship with Ellie, who wants kids.

Initial moment: dislikes kids, scares kid with claw.
Change moment: likes kids, takes care of them

The dinosaurs, according to Dicks, are just about creating stakes around the transformation. Stuff to increase the cost and consequences of his character arc defined in relationships-with-children terms.

As proof, he offers an anecdote about how he predicted the entire plot of the Jurassic World reboot, and that it would be about two children and an adult who has a troubled relationship with them. This seemed rather slim to me. You can’t read much into the repetition of a formula that worked before.

Dicks’ reading seems compelling as a reading of the story, but not as the reading. It seems reductive. Certainly for me the movie was about dinosaurs. The subplot that I identified with the most was the Jeff Goldblum/Ian Malcolm one that featured him being obnoxious but right. If I had to pick a “5 second moment” the movie was about, it is about the moment where Malcolm says, “life found a way,” and the opposite end of it is where he explains chaos theory to Ellie with the drop of water on the back of his hand. His transformation is interesting — initially just an obnoxious, condescending know-it-all, the story is arguably about both his views being vindicated and the emergence of the genuinely scientific and prosocial character from underneath the mask of the obnoxious one. Jurassic Park could be read as being about Ian Malcolm learning to be right without being an asshole.

Or take a more radical point of view, perhaps the movie is basically a musical or opera that features “dinosaur arias” in place of song and dance numbers (I read an article that made that argument but can’t find it).

My point isn’t to criticize Dicks’ model but to highlight that it is a strictly instrumental model, one designed to focus sharply on the reading of a story that allows it to be told effectively. I think there are many ways to understand the structure of Jurassic Park as a story, and many ways the movie could have told the story given Crichton’s novel as a starting point. But possibly Dicks is right that the reason the movie works, as it was made, rests on the 2-tentpole structural scaffolding propping up the arc of the Sam Neill character, which does grow via a flipped polarity in relationships with children.

Dicks admits it’s the dinosaurs we actually go to see, and that a movie marketed as “a guy learns to like children and repair his relationship with his girlfriend who wants kids” would not have been a blockbuster hit. But the story, as told, arguably worked because of the support structure.

This is an interesting angle that I suspect is worth exploring more — what makes a story worth telling (dinosaurs!) may not be what makes it technically capable of being told. I think Dicks misses this because to him the two are the same thing. Whether the matter is storyworthy becomes a function of whether it can sustain a powerful manner of telling. Twain’s observation about the unique quality of American humorous stories lying in the manner of the telling (see earlier part) turned into a prescription for all storytelling.

Dicks is — and I mean this in an entirely positive way — clearly a technician of storytelling, for whom, as for Twain, the manner of telling trumps the matter. This is evident in both the stories-from-life he tells as a competitive oral artist, and the invented ones he tells in his novels (which I haven’t read, but which seem imaginative and well-received, and notable for technical ingenuity). He seemingly doesn’t care what sort of story he tells, so long as it meets his worthiness criteria, and is a technical challenge to tell well.

But he is not merely a technician, or caught up in the tactics. There is both a strategic imagination to his models and approaches, and an opinionated, discerning eye for good stories.

Narrative OODA Loops?

Dicks uses (and perhaps overuses) his performances at Moth storytelling as a reference point so much it is tempting to treat this book as a test-prep manual for winning that particular contest format. But that would be doing it an injustice.

I found the book in an interesting way. I tweeted a thought from the first part of this blogchain, wondering who might be the John Boyd of storytelling, and teddy suggested Dicks as a candidate.

For several reasons, this identification actually works. Not least because Dicks’ model is rooted in adversarial competitive storytelling. This book is as much a manual of fighter tactics for narrative dogfighting as it is about narrative structure. Except you win by getting inside the OODA loop of your own story, thereby winning the audience over better than your opponents.

Dicks’ techniques are strikingly close to an OODA loop of storytelling. Let’s try to cast his approach into the OODA loop framework:

Observe

Dicks he recommends maintaining a journal in spreadsheet form — just a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect and pick out the most storyworthy thing that happened and capturing it in a line or two. He calls this “homework for life.” I’ve started doing this, but inconsistently in Roam rather than diligently in a spreadsheet.

All this is clearly about observing with high situation awareness. Dicks claims (and I believe him) that keeping up this practice makes you very sensitive and mindful to storyworthy moments.

Orient

Dicks’ idea of the 5-second soul of a story and its inverse at the opening is clearly a way to orient within the raw material of a proto story. If you’ve observed a storyworthy moment in your life and logged it in your spreadsheet, a good deal of the rest of his technical bag of tricks is about orienting to find the right way to tell the story.

The two other exercises he recommends, one a sort of automatic writing, and the other something he calls “first, last, best, worst,” are both orientation exercises. The idea in the latter is to identify those instances for several storyworthy categories (such as dates, meals, vacations…).

Both remind me of the drawing techniques in Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (she’s the Boyd of drawing I’d say). One of her exercises is to draw a subject upside down so you don’t see it through a “face” orientation. Dicks similarly recommends looking at your 5s soul of the story through a bird’s eye view in your mind, to drain it of potentially disruptive levels of emotion in the telling.

For Boyd, orientation was about forming the right mental model of observed conflict conditions. For Dicks it is about forming the right mental model of what is storyworthy about an incident (the test being spotting the 5s core). For Edwards, it is about breaking out of conventional categories of seeing and seeing the actual lines of the drawing subject.

Decide

For Dicks, a storyworthy moment is not necessarily uniquely about a definitive telling. Depending on what character transformation you pick out via a “before” state, you can tell more than one story about the same moment. This means you have to decide. Even in a real-life story, a moment is underdetermined. What picks it out as a strategic orientation is its transformative emotional intensity, which is a scalar rather than vector quantity. To turn it into a story, you have to choose a starting point among many candidates to connect it to.

Then you have to make choices all along the arc to maximize the intensity of the before/after contrast and journey.

Act

Finally, the actual telling becomes action. Dicks does not believe in writing out and memorizing stories. Instead, he believes in memorizing only the opening and closing lines, and the sequence of actual scenes. For the scenes, he believes in making sure every plot point is anchored to a physical location and time, and then literally telling the story as you see it in your mind’s eye, reliving it, creating a kind of time-travel escaped reality for your audience to inhabit.

The preservation of this escaped reality is the critical skill in the telling (and here the connection to both the historical tradition of Mark Twain, and the Hollywood cinematic tradition, seem clear). Everything else he recommends regarding performance, seems to be about preserving the time-travel illusion.

The Blitzkrieg Angle

You could also map the Dicks model to the Blitzkrieg model that features in Boyd’s maneuver warfare:

  • The Schwerpunkt (center of gravity) is the 5-second soul of the story. The ability to reliably spot it is the cultivated coup d’oeil talent.
  • The Einheit (unity/trust) is the audience trust fostered by sticking to true stories
  • The Auftragstaktik (“contracts”) is the protocol of live storytelling and conventions of the genre
  • The Fingerspitzengef√ľhl (finger-tip skills) is the practiced ability to both mine experiences for stories, and tell them live.

American Surprise

Somewhere along the way, Dicks notes that he independently rediscovered a trick that was also discovered by the creators of South Park — the but-and test.

In brief, a story works well if beats and scenes are connected by buts and therefores. A story fails if beats and scenes are connected by ands. Here is the video where the South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are talking about the same thing.

A string of events connected by ands creates a particularly boring effect in oral and time-driven storytelling. But if every beat features a but (contradiction) or therefore (consequence), you get a steady stream of surprise keeping attention locked, the escaped reality leakproof, and boredom at bay.

This competitive use of surprise, rather than humor, is perhaps the essence of the American tradition of storytelling. The strong roots in oral storytelling, and the modern center of gravity in cinema, both tend to reinforce a reliance on surprise as the core of narrative development. Rather than say reflective moods, philosophical motifs, and so forth. Even reflective and philosophical American stories tend to be action-packed, anchored in place and time, and unfold like they were meant to be made into movies.

I suspect the but-and rule is true for all storytelling, but is much weaker for written forms.

To connect to the Boydian reading of Dicks’ methods, stories as strings of surprises can be understood as strings of pivots or reorientations in rapidly evolving events that must be shaped in real time.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Mamet’s Conflict Airing TheoryStorytelling — Cringe and the Banality of Shadows >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Now I am asking myself who is the Keith Johnstone of x?

  2. Loved how this pieces blends Boyd’s thought with Dicks’. That, and the paragraph about American storytelling being inherently about action finally revealed to me why I find it so hard to stomach a certain type of European cinema like The Square of anything by Bergman really — it all feels like timeless stasis, like living in a world of nouns.