Saturday, January 7, 2012

Third-Person Storyteller Style

You are probably all familiar already with the terms first-person style and third-person omniscient style, but this idea of "third-person storyteller" style may seem kind of odd to you, although it's really something very natural. The idea is that every story has to have a storyteller, and in third-person storyteller style, you actually meet the storyteller, while in third-person omniscient style the narrator is standing outside the story, hiding behind the curtain as it were, unknown to you.

So, by using the third-person storyteller style, you get what you might call a "story-within-a-story" (or "a story inside a frametale" as it is also called). To get a sense of how that can work in a Storybook project for this class, take a look at some past Storybooks that feature third-person storytellers. In some cases, the information about the storyteller is very brief (as in Aesop example below), but in some cases the storyteller's story is developed in as much detail as the story-within-the story. There are all kinds of ways to use the third-person storyteller approach, depending on what your own goals are as the author!

Meanwhile, just to show you how the presence of a storyteller adds new purpose and meaning to the story itself, take a look at this Aesop's fable (more about the story here). In some collections of Aesop's fables, you will find this story about a fox and a hedgehog, told in third-person omniscient style:
A fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn't get out. Meanwhile, there were blood-sucking flies swarming all over the fox's body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the flies, but the fox refused. The hedgehog asked the reason why, and the fox replied, "These flies have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these flies away, others will come and those hungry new flies will drink up all the blood I have left!"
That's a story in third-person omniscient style. There are characters in the story (the fox, the hedgehog), and they have a conversation back-and-forth (we hear the fox's voice directly, the hedgehog's voice indirectly), but we don't know who is actually telling the story. In fact, we're not even supposed to ask that question; we just take the story about the fox and the hedgehog as it is, on its own terms. The fable is anonymous, so there is not even an author to lend their name to the invisible storyteller behind the curtain.

In one collection of Aesop's fables, though, we see Aesop himself as the third-person storyteller who tells the story of the fox and the hedgehog in an attempt to defend a politician who has been put on trial.
Aesop was defending a demagogue at Samos who was on trial for his life when he told this story: 'A fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn't get out. Meanwhile, there were blood-sucking flies swarming all over the fox's body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the flies, but the fox refused. The hedgehog asked the reason why, and the fox replied, "These flies have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these flies away, others will come and those hungry new flies will drink up all the blood I have left!" And the same is true for you, people of Samos: this man will do you no harm since he is already wealthy, but if you condemn him to death, others will come who do not have any money, and they will rob you blind!'
I've used bold and italics to try to show you how this third-person storyteller style creates a story-within-a-story effect, something that you might also call a frametale. This is still third-person because we don't know who is telling you this story about Aesop (there is still another author hiding behind the curtain as it were), but we do know how is telling the story about the fox and hedgehog now: Aesop himself is the storyteller!

What's important about this style of storytelling is that the frametale adds new meaning to the story that it contains, providing a kind of an explanation or application of the story. This story, for example, plays on the idea of politicians being "blood-suckers" like those blood-sucking flies who are causing the fox so much trouble; Aesop uses the story about the fox to point out that if you get rid of one set of blood-suckers and simply replace them with another set of blood-suckers who might be even more hungry than the ones before, you could be making a bad situation worse. That's something that the fox is experiencing in a literal sense as the flies suck her blood, and it is something metaphorically happening to the people of Samos who are afflicted with blood-sucking politicians.

So, as you ponder a storyteller for the story you want to tell, you should try to choose a storyteller who has a reason for telling the story, a message or moral that they want to convey. That could be a grandmother trying to impart wisdom to her grandchildren, or a salesperson who wants to persuade you to buy something, or the descendant of a famous person who wants you to respect their ancestors, and on and on and on. If you use a storyteller this way, it lets you give your stories a purpose and a meaning that they might not have otherwise!

And for your viewing pleasure, here are two different illustrations of the story; the first is by an unidentified illustrator of a 19th-century edition of Aesop's fables in English, and the second is from an illustrated edition of La Fontaine's fables by the great French caricaturist J. J. Grandville. I think the hedgehog is better in the first illustration, but I love the sinister giant flies in the second version, just waiting to get their turn:


Vulpes et Herinaceus

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