Daily Archives: 2019-05-20 23:57:20 GMT+0000

Understanding that we, the readers, are part of the story

I have a weakness for watching murder mysteries on Sunday night TV. I have long learned to identify the most innocent looking character whom we cannot imagine possibly being involved in the crime being eventually discovered to be the villain of the show, but that’s not being clever. It’s just a matter of knowing how often the stories turn out that way. What I find myself doing, sometimes, is replaying the early part of an episode online to see what it was I missed, or how the creators manipulated me into misinterpreting little details early on. In hindsight I can see how they can be interpreted so differently.

What I am learning by this is that the real story is not happening on the screen, but it is happening between the creator, me, and the screen. The writers or directors are playing with my mind and emotions. The creators are using the screen to perform illusionist tricks like a magician. They are deflecting my attention in ways they control in order to make me marvel at the end how clever they were to pull the rabbit out of the hat or whatever.

I can rarely discover the trick in a TV murder mystery plot any more than I can discover the magician’s trick merely by watching the performance.

And this game between creator and audience is a fact of all writing. (Including what I am doing right now.) Not only writing, but all verbal communication.

Speakers, authors, normally count on their audience to follow the content of their message without, as a rule, being distracted by who is saying it, the techniques they are using, and how it is that they are guiding the audience to respond in a certain way to the content. Usually the speaker or writer will begin by winning the confidence of the audience by appearing to take them into their confidence or declaring their institutional authority of some kind. Once that is done (and understand that that process is also part of the game or play with the audience) the audience becomes immersed in the world of the story or news report.

When we share what we have seen or heard with others we will generally repeat the story we have heard. We are less likely to remind them or even ourselves of how the presenter led us into the story world in the first place.

I was reminded of all of the above the other day when I came across a couple of lines by Martin Dibelius (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles) reminding his readers that New Testament scholars too often have delved straight into examination of the stories in Acts and the gospels as if they are historical, or at least to ask if they could be historical, without first and foremost stepping back and examining the way the author has told the stories. What was the author doing vis a vis the reader by presenting the story itself and by presenting it with the details he selected and in the way he did?

There are more important and significant messages bombarding us than biblical studies, of course, and there those questions are obviously more important.

It took me some years to learn to try to avoid saying, “I heard that such and such happened….” and to say, rather, something like, “I heard from so and so at this or that place  that such and such happened …. ” The latter takes a little more effort, but it is safer ground, as many of us have come to learn.