Quick review: 99 ways to tell a story

August 7, 2017

Magicians are quite skillful at devising different methods for creating the same effect. Marlo, for example, was well known for figuring out 50 ways to make a Spectator Cut To the Aces. But methodologists tend to focus on the necessary action steps rather than developing different ways to tell a “story” more interesting and human than the illustrative action steps carried out to its end. There are, for example, lots of ways to perform “Wild Card.” But how many stories have been told that add meaning to its manipulative steps? Consider Peter Samelson’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

This is my roundabout way to recommend an unusual and off-beat book—Matt Madden’s 206-page, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. First of all, it is essentially a gigantic comic book based on Raymond Queneau’s formalist experiment, Exercises in Style (1947), which retells two humdrum encounters 99 times, using every possible tense and type of voice—ranging from free verse to sonnets to an exclamatory telegram. I thought this approach was radical when I read it in my 20s.

Madden’s book, as offbeat as it initially seems, is different. It shows the expansive range of possibilities available to all storytellers. Writers, artists, and, yes, magicians will find his collection especially useful, if not revelatory. You will see the full scope of opportunities available to storytellers, each applied to a single scenario, varying points of view, visual and verbal parodies, formal re-imaginings, and the shuffling of the basic components of the story. Substitute “Method” for “Story” and vice versa. I think that this odd book will also inspire you to think through and around obstacles that might otherwise prevent you from devising good story-driven presentations. If not, at least it might trigger lively conversations we can have with each other.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.