As consumers of stories, we seem to have a particular love of non-fiction tales that we indulge through many formats - true crime, documentaries, biographies and memoirs, and based-on-a-true-story films. And yet, it can be very easy to forget about the often invisible storyteller who is actually shaping the narrative of these stories.
I started down this train of thought when a friend got me hooked on the podcast Serial. The podcast follows an old murder case that, while a true story being reported on by a veteran journalist, also fits a classic whodunit story. After just a couple of episodes, I found myself wondering almost more about how the story was being told than the story itself. Apparently I wasn't alone, as the same friend then got me hooked on Slate's Serial Spoilers podcast, which asks some of the same questions I was pondering (and a great many more I hadn't even thought of).
My main questions related to how Sarah Koenig was telling this story. How do her choices on what information to include, when to include it, and what emphasis to give it impact the listeners' opinions on the case? How was she shaping our reactions as she told the story? Clearly Koenig is a masterful storyteller and much thought and planning went into this question of HOW to tell the story. If you haven't checked out the podcast, I do highly recommend it - especially if you keep one ear open with these questions in mind.
Not too long after I wrapped up Serial, I saw the movie Wild about Cheryl Strayed's solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I will freely admit two things about this film: one, I have not read the book and two, I was prepared to really dislike this film. I was pleasantly surprised - I'd probably count it as the second-best film I saw last year (next to The Imitation Game).
On the way home from the theatre, my husband and I were discussing the similarities and differences between Wild and Into the Wild (which I've blogged about here), and it suddenly struck me that, like Serial, the point of view of these two 'true' stories was something too big to be missed. Wild is based on Strayed's memoir, her personal retelling of her experiences leading up to, during and after her epic hike. In contrast, Into the Wild is based on Jon Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless, a young man who gave up college and a comfortable life for life on the road and surrounded by nature.
There are two very obvious differences in these two stories - the gender of the protagonists and the stunningly different endings. But what suddenly struck me was the point of view through which these two stories have been told, both in their books and on screen. While Strayed was able to tell her own story, herself choosing what events should have emphasis and meaning, McCandless' story was told by a journalist and is mainly based on how other people felt about the young man. In fact, in the book and film, there is always a subtle air of mystery about McCandless and as a viewer, it always remains clear that the story is not really being told from his point of view.
Why does this point of view matter? Because stories are powerful things and we have a natural inclination to use them to learn and grow spiritually and emotionally. With the modern emphasis on rationalism, science and hard evidence, stories that we think of as 'true' can seem particularly compelling and powerful. Indeed, they can become almost comforting. We generally don't like to think about things that can't be explained - hence the common need to bring mythic stories down to the literal, historical level. But these 'true' stories are stories nonetheless, and if we aren't aware of this fact, our feelings and reactions can be easily manipulated.
In fact, the storyteller can be seen to as an invisible actor within the story itself, and this is something we should always consider when consuming a story that our rational minds might like to label objective or true.