In a time when we’re encouraged to put our passion on display for social issues, heightening emotion in issue storytelling can feel like a clear and easy win.
But emotion in storytelling must be handled with care.
Issue storytelling that appeals to emotion recklessly can do so at its subjects’ expense, by diminishing the agency and competence of the depicted individuals and communities, heightening their victimhood and ‘dependence’ on privileged donors instead.
On the other side of the story, manipulating emotion in stories can, over time, burn out the audiences who view them. Even the most empathetic allies need to retain a sense of positive empowerment in order to rally to take action against tough issues.
Telling stories that are as ethical as they are emotional means investing in the wellbeing of the subject and audience of the story alike.
Those of us fighting for change in our world are often faced with the difficult balancing act of needing to show that people are in crisis, being marginalized, or facing hardship—while also fostering empowering and respectful practices in talking about the individuals in these stories. It’s some of the most nuanced storytelling work that many of us will do. The instinct can be to lean into the tragedies within each issue space and showcase suffering people and rundown communities in ways that are dramatic enough to portray the size of the need, particularly when telling stories about cultures and communities we might not be as intimately familiar with as our own, or who haven’t historically been respected as full, capable human beings.
And a lot of times—this works. It’s human nature to respond to tragedy with intrigue, and to be unsure of or even doubtful about what lives that feel far away from our own are really like on the ground.
But while this may be true, and while there will absolutely always be a role for unapologetic truth-telling about injustice and need in movement stories, there’s also a need for us to take care with how we portray the individual human beings who are impacted by the world’s injustices.
Exploring research about narrative strategy has taught us that when people are unfamiliar with certain complex issues—which can definitely be the case when we’re talking about complicated, systemic social problems—they can be more prone to use personal or social biases to fill in the gaps in their own understanding. This means that even as we as storytellers are working hard to showcase who’s been mistreated by injustice and how, if we don’t take care to tell their stories in a balanced way and in a systemic context, we might also inadvertently contribute to stereotypes about those same people, as far as making implications about which people and communities in our world are capable, dignified, and conscious, and which aren’t. And those kinds of stereotypes can just exacerbate social inequities and misperceptions.
As storytellers, it’s our job to tell the whole story about an issue. So while we can and should uplift how people are being negatively impacted by conditions they didn’t create, we should also always think about how to do so in a way that doesn’t manifest as an implicit judgment or condemnation against certain communities in itself. When in doubt, you can always think about how you’d tell your own story of need—would you resort to making yourself look less adept or dignified than you really are? Or would you be telling the story of a perfectly self-respecting and worthy person who’s caught in the middle of a system working against them?
Luckily, evidence shows that taking this kind of care in storytelling is as effective as is it ethical, because over time, while disempowering, tragedy-focused stories can risk making an audience feel emotionally overloaded or even shut down when we need their help most, appropriately balanced stories can create just enough possibility and humanity to show audiences that they can challenge harmful systems in our world and make a difference for people, even when reality is harsh.