A Case for Open-Ended Stories

The most honest statement about story-telling comes from Steve Denning, a contributor to Forbes, in a piece on The Science of Story-Telling.

“Why storytelling?”

“Simple: nothing else works.”

Slides leave listeners dazed. Prose remains unread. Reasons don’t change behavior. When it comes to inspiring people to embrace some strange new change in behavior, storytelling isn’t just better than the other tools. It’s the only thing that works.

Story-telling has its limitations, though.

1. Linearity

The tellers will present a side of the story, which suits their interest. All the bits that do not contribute to the end, are carefully chipped off, while crafting a good story. They cannot tell too many stories, and certainly not at the same time. The storyteller takes me on a journey, to a destination of his choice. It may not be the journey of my reality, and my life.

Sales managers often demand presentations on prescribed templates, to bypass this problem. The employees are not at liberty to present their version of reality.

Weight loss solutions are often sold as ‘revolutionary products’, while concealing the side-effects or the short-term nature of the solution.

2. Unreality

A story is different every time I tell it, or somebody else repeats it. A little bit of the teller and his/her opinions are injected in it. And over a period of time, the story assumes an unreal form, which everyone believes to be true.

This is how media campaigns are manipulated, as very few take the trouble to verify the authenticity, or the source. Fake news is a problem that social media has just started grappling with, but not found a fool-proof solution for it..

3. Frequency

If the message has appeared ten times on your social media feed, it must be true. If I speak a lie five times, I start believing that it is the truth.

The true story which has not been circulated, dies a natural death, taking with it large sections of the truth.


My personal belief is that what a person is or does, means a lot more than what s/he says. But how many people would know what I am or what I do, without an appropriate channel of expression?

It is more about the reach of the storyteller’s voice, than the honesty of the story. And reach can be managed, reach can be bought. Media barons, politicians and corporate honchos have mastered the art and science of this.

5.Unconscious Bias

This bias operates on both sides — in the teller and listener, and the impact is different on different people.

I agree that none of these biases can be eliminated completely from the story-telling process, and as of now, there are no clear-cut alternatives. However, an effort to mitigate the ill effects will not be out of place.


Listeners arrive at their own conclusions in an open-ended story, and it makes a honest person of the storyteller. The teller remains in the role of a guide and a moderator, rather than the driver.

The story assumes a ‘more real’ form for the listeners, if they are living it out, or writing the final scene. The limitations that were previously not visible, are also appreciated and accepted better.

Brainstorming is an open-ended story

The process

  • draws attention to a subject
  • directs and activates a thought process
  • generates a discussion, which might lead to a conclusion.
  • lets the consumer tell you what is best for them.

Inviting engagement is an open-ended story

An online shopping site encourages buyers to post their pics, wearing the garment they purchased. It gives the surfers, some real-life models to look at, rather than the Size XS models, who can make any garment look good. The products are infused with the personality of the consumers.

  • Games involve the user in fictional situations, and allow them to write the outcome.
  • Organizations have an Ideas storyboard, for employees to contribute their views on improving functioning of the organization.
  • A Mongolian restaurant I frequented, used to lay a buffet of raw ingredients. The guests would choose their ingredients and stack it in a bowl, and the chef would cook that on-the-spot.
  • The most successful websites are the ones with user-generated content.
  • ‘Night of January 16th’ by Ayn Rand was initially staged as a play, where the audience decided, if the protagonist was guilty or not.

Is it completely honest?

Open-ended stories with a few pointers and options provided to decide the end, might be a subtly manipulative act, of tricking the audience into thinking, that it was their decision. It need not be something as crass as choosing between the Devil and the Deep Sea. In all fairness, they should be given an option to think. How the opportunity is used by different people, is again a subjective matter.

Augmented and Virtual Reality is the construction of a make-believe world, which you know is make believe, and hence, may not touch you in the same manner.

What you gain in the end is trust, and it will take you a long way.

Originally published at reinventions.in.