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Is Storytelling Like a Rubber Duck Race?

Soon after moving to my new town (Marshfield, Massachusetts) I stopped by the local high school. There I saw a promotional table with a sign that said, “Duck Derby.”

photo of a local "Duck Derby" display

The Duck Derby table caught my attention, but it led me to think about storytelling...

I asked the friendly-looking woman behind the table, “What’s a Duck Derby?”

She said, “Once a year, we throw rubber ducks into the river and let them race downstream. The sponsors of the winning ducks get prizes. The proceeds benefit Habitat for Humanity.”

Thinking strategically, I said, “Can I help my duck along?”

She replied, “No. You can’t touch it, even if it gets stuck in the reeds.” She smiled. “The Duck Derby’s not meant to be too serious.”

In my storyteller’s brain, which imagines such things without my conscious volition, I saw eager “duck sponsors” along the river bank, trying to control their rubber ducks without touching them. I pictured dozens of business people on their knees, blowing into long straws aimed at their ducks.

I smiled to myself.

“That’s the spirit,” said the woman at the table.

Storytelling As Rubber Duck Racing?

For some reason, the image of “trying to influence the direction of a rubber duck by blowing on it” has stuck in my mind with regard to storytelling.

After all, stories can lead people to create meanings. Such meanings are powerful, because listeners are committed to meanings that they create for themselves.

Not all tellers, though, are satisfied with allowing each listener a different meaning. Applied storytellers like teachers, clergy, salespeople, and managers often want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want two things at once:

1. The listener’s commitment to the meaning that the listener has given to the story;
2. The assurance that the listener’s meaning is the same one the teller has in mind.

Some tellers would maintain that such expectations are like saying, “You can have whatever you want – as long as you want what I feel like giving you.”

Such tellers might go on to say: If you intend for people to create their own personal meanings about a story, you need to “throw” the story into the river of the listener’s consciousness – and then leave it alone. If you “touch it” by telling the listener what the story means, the story runs the danger of never making it to the listener’s mental “finish line.”

Are There Other Ways?

photo of rubber duck "traffic jam"

If you could steer your duck, you could avoid these pesky traffic jams!

The “throw it in and leave it to work” point of view is valid much of the time, especially in performance settings.

But what if there were ways to “blow on” the story’s meaning without “touching” it? What if there were ways to influence the listener’s meaning-creation process without the listener crying, “Foul!” and going home before the race is over?

Such ways exist, I believe. Most are, individually, as subtle as the influence of one straw blowing on a rubber duck from a yard away. But many straws blowing at once can, indeed, change the duck’s course.

What Varied Meanings You Have, Grandma!

Consider the folktale, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Here are a few of the many meanings that have been attributed to the tale:

- The danger to children posed by strangers.
- The perils of sexual awakening for young women.
- How women can pretend innocence as part of seduction.
- How humans of any age can be “reborn” with more wisdom after a foolish act.

illustration by Warwick Goble for Little Red Riding Hood

"Good day to you, Little Red Cap!"

How might you tell the story, in order to influence the listener’s interpretation of the girl’s actions – without coarsely telling the listener what to think? A simple method is to shape the characters’ non-verbal communication. Here is the girl’s simple first exchange with the wolf in the Grimm’s version:

[Wolf] “Good day to you, Little Red Cap.”

[Little Red Cap] “Thank you, wolf.”

If your intended meaning is “stranger danger,” you might give the wolf a predatory posture and an evil-sounding voice as he speaks these commonplace words. Red Riding Hood, on the other hand, might respond with the posture and mannerisms of a child at play, along with an innocent tone of voice.

But if your meaning is “how women can pretend innocence…,” on the other hand, the Wolf may stand as a humble servant and sound as benevolent as actor Morgan Freeman. For her part, Red Riding Hood might sound and act mature and seductive.

Dozens of Subtle Methods?

The use of body language and tone of voice are fairly obvious ways to “blow through the straw.” Less obvious ways include color clues.

Charles Perrault, for instance, explicitly interpreted his 1697 “Little Red Riding Hood” as about the dangers of “charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet” men who pursue young women “at home and in the streets.” He was also the first to associate the girl in his story with red-colored clothing. (In European cultures, red is often associated with blood and with sexuality, especially with menstruation and a woman’s first experience of intercourse.)

If you wanted to emphasize the danger to the innocent girl, on the other hand, you might choose to talk about her white cheeks or dress – and the wolf’s dark colors, which, in Western cultures, tend to be associated with the sinister.

There are dozens of such tools for “blowing” a listener’s attention in one direction or another. They range from obvious to extremely subtle. They can be delivered via the words of the narrator, the words of a character, and even the words of the master of ceremonies. They can alter the story itself or just the context in which the story is told.

And the Meaning of This Essay Is…

The moral of this essay applies especially to stories told in applied situations, when it’s also important that listeners adopt the teller’s attitude as their own:

“Don’t pick up the duck when simply blowing on it would do.”

When you take this advice, your stories for teaching or persuading won’t be so often “disqualified” in the minds of your listeners.

To be sure, the development of subtle storytelling tools requires some extra investment of time and thought. But the reward is great. In the end, you’ll more often cross the finish line. And both you and your listeners will feel that the race was fairly run.


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