It’s possible that everything you’ll ever need to know about storytelling is contained in this interview with Ira Glass of the radio show This American Life. The interviewer recently published a book about being wrong (Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error), and Glass seems to be the perfect subject.
An astute commenter on the interview points out that the idea that most modern literature is about wrongness (not to mention Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and the Old Testatment) is not a new one.
Nonetheless, Ira Glass breathes life into the matter like no one else.
Do you consciously think about wrongness as a narrative device?
I don’t go looking for stories with the idea of wrongness in my head, no. But the fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we’ve talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: “I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way.”
Sometimes that wrongness exists in really small ways. We did a story this week about a man who saves people on a bridge in China. It was kind of a radio cover version of a magazine piece by a guy named Mike Paterniti, who started out thinking the man was going to be this inspirational Gandhi-like figure. And then Mike gets there and the guy turns out to be totally gruff and barely talks to him. That’s a small wrongness, but it’s the pleasure of the story. If you just showed up at the bridge without the setup of thinking he’s going to be a great guy—if he just starts off as a grump—it’s less pleasurable. It’s less fun. The collision of reality against expectation is what makes it work.
Why is there such a big payoff for the listener in stories about wrongness? What makes it so pleasurable?
Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it’s done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.
Later, the interview explores the subject of Glass being wrong in his own work and life. Glass talks about going into a story thinking it will be great and finding out it doesn’t work (which seems to happen more often than not), and dismissing story ideas that later make award-winning radio. He also recalls committing a lewd act as a junior high boy that is so embarrassing to even think about that he can barely force himself to share it.
But he does share it. The successful and ground-breaking radioman doesn’t try to make himself look better, but rather seems to find interest and joy in his own wrongness, just like he does when producing a radio story. Which makes sense in the context of another excerpt from the piece:
There are definitely lots of things that I don’t want to be wrong about and will fight to the death over, and I’m totally obnoxious about it all the time. But I also feel like there’s a kind of discovery that you’re wrong that, in a safe situation, can be a real pleasure. Do you know what I mean? Like when you’re arguing with someone you love and you realize, “I’m wrong, you’re right,” and you come together in that moment. It’s such a relief. To me it’s so obvious that some kinds of being wrong are OK.
Read the whole thing, it’s worth it.