Trust in Storytelling

Add Some Elegance to Your Next Party With These Punch Bowls” –

This is a continuation of an idea I introduced in “Blog Potpourri (pt. 1)”:

How does the relationship between author and audience figure into an explanation of what makes a good story?

I often think about why I am drawn to certain stories and not others. A well-crafted plot, characters with integrity, and a captivating world are all part of it. But there is another ingredient in the mix that is less like a cherry on top and more like the baking soda; without it, the story will be flat and stodgy. The name for this is something like “the degree to which the author (or director or game creator) trusts the audience to pick up on certain details that they include and the subsequent payoff the audience feels for having picked up on said details”. A mouthful, I know. I think there is something delicate and important there, and I’d love to tease it out.

There is one joke that is more polarizing than most.

And I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. The basic structure is this:

  1. A person runs a bunch of errands during the day and has to wait in line.
  2. The person goes to a party that night and gets some punch.
  3. There is no line for punch.

The punchline, of course, is that there is “no punch line”. There is one way of telling the joke that I don’t find particularly objectionable. Call this the “explicit” version. In the explicit version, the jokester ends the joke with something like, “and when she got to the drink table, there was no punch line.”

If one is telling the joke to a child or a particularly disinterested conversational partner, there might be an awkward silence (followed, perhaps, by a gentle explanation) as the double-meaning sinks in. But that’s on the audience, not the jokester. In the explicit telling of the punchline joke, the jokester does her job, she sets up the expectation for some payoff, then delivers a punchline, albeit in a way that is slightly oblique.

The second version of the joke is the “implicit” version. Told this way, the jokester ends with something like, “and then she got some punch.”

Neither the child nor the disinterested conversational partner has much chance, I think, of even realizing that the joke is over, and that the absence of a punchline is, in fact, the punchline. The awkward silence here is almost guaranteed, and the explanation that follows feels less gentle and more obnoxious.

If you tell the implicit version of the punch line joke to the wrong audience, the joke winds up being on them. That might be well and fun for some jokesters, but it strikes me as a bit mean. On the other hand, when told to the right audience–one that is locked-in, actively mulling over the jokester’s tale–the implicit version is far funnier than its explicit counterpart.

The trade-off between the explicit and implicit styles is straightforward enough. I’ll call it the “Accessibility Tradeoff,” and it has two parts:

  1. If you make a something easy (straightforward, simple, accessible, etc.) more people will be able to enjoy it. Conversely, if you make something hard (nuanced, complex, esoteric, etc.) fewer people will be able to enjoy it.
  2. Hard things are, all else equal, more enjoyable than easy things, provided one can and does enjoy them.

Now, this pattern might not hold in all cases, but I think, by and large, it’s picking out something interesting about jokes, games, stories, and perhaps even political platforms (though ‘joy’ is probably not the emotion one engages in the latter case). In light of this, it’s worth trying to explain how the the Accessibility Tradeoff appears in such media.

The idea I keep coming back to is this. The forms of media in which the Accessibility Tradeoff holds feature a relationship between author and audience. The author and audience build trust in that relationship when the author introduces patterns and the audience grasps them. Relationships with more trust facilitate the communication of more complex patterns, as the audience is more likely to stay engaged when the pattern is not yet apparent. As the audience grasps increasingly complex patterns, their enjoyment of the media increases in turn.

Now, in order for things to unfold as I’ve described them, there needs to be a certain amount of time and space for a relationship of trust to be built. But this need not always be the case. The right audience for the implicit version of the punch line joke is, arguably, one with whom the jokester has antecedently developed a trusting relationship, in the sense described above.

The last thing I’ll note on this topic — though there is still much to explore here — is that the Accessibility Tradeoff doesn’t necessitate Author-Audience Trust. To see this, consider climbing. There might be several ways to scale a particular rock face, some of them more advanced, demanding, or unintuitive than others. The consensus among the climbers I’ve known is that the Accessibility Tradeoff is alive and well in cases like this, even when there is no Author involved.

I should also say that I’m not sure that the Accessibility Tradeoff holds. As is always the case, the “all else equal” condition requires explication. And it might still be the case that some individuals meet said condition and enjoy hard things equally or (*gasp*) less than easy things.

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