This post series is titled why we like stories. More accurately, the question should be why do humans value stories.
The underlying thread of these posts is how much human consciousness itself is almost synonymous with story. Our perception of memory or a dream is a story. However, story is largely an artificial construct of the mind. Not only that, but the memory we hold of a given event, even a shared event, is usually tailored to the individual.
Those in the legal profession know full well how inaccurate memories of eye-witnesses to crimes can be, and that’s with uninvolved bystanders. When you ask two deeply invested people to give their side of the story, then the narratives diverge even more, as each person places themselves as the hero of their story. They’re going to be unlikely to admit to wrongdoing, and will selectively alter the story to make them look morally superior. I’ve experienced this myself in the context of replaying relationship-history during breakup-fights.
Not only do our perceptions of a common event in history differ, but they can change over time. There is the much-discussed grief cycle, for instance:
The grief-cycle kicks in over any sort of loss, typically a death of a loved-one, a romantic breakup, a serious personal setback like a bankruptcy, or being given bad (or worse) personal health news. This is because story is not just a series of events to humans. They have to add up to some sort of meaning. When a story lacks meaning, there’s a lack of closure. This is why family members of missing-persons or MIA soldiers have such a difficult time.
We tend to want to block off events into easily digestable chunks of beginning, middle, and end. However, in reality, time, if time truly exists, has no clearly defined beginning or end outside of maybe the big bang and the heat-death of the universe. The human mind can only comprehend events in these smaller units we call stories. We then trade these stories all the time in our daily affairs. Entertainment is merely the process of taking what we already do when we share our embellished personal stories, and serve up a white-lie known as suspension of disbelief telling us that what we’re experiencing is always, to some degree, a fabrication.
The blurring of history with fiction is why so many stories are docudramas, sometimes even when the real-life event is still fresh in people’s minds. Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully out now (from what I’ve read about it) puts a libertarian spin on the event it dramatizes.
When I used the word “lie” earlier, it was very deliberate. I copped it from Orson Welles, who uses it in F for Fake, his own “essay” on filmmaking (or storytelling in general). Welles is, after all, the architect of the War of the Worlds hoax. Well, he never claimed it was an intentional hoax, but the contract between storyteller and the receiver of the story can be abused. Propaganda, infotainment and pushy advertising, quackery (this one is a parody), all of these actively take advantage of suspension of disbelief and our visceral responses to certain stimuli, and the association of truth with form, just as War of the Worlds did.
The main hook of F for Fake (sorry, it’s a spoiler) is that he says that the next x minutes of the film are totally true, and then he enters into the reenactment. What he fails to do is warn you after those x some-odd minutes have ended, and that’s when the takes the story down a plausible falsehood. Then he turns around and says, sporting a satisfied grin, “For the last 17 minutes…I’ve been LYING!” So in that moment, you realize how pliable human perception really is. In today’s era of reality-TV it’s ever harder to distinguish authentic experience from a coached/prodded/edited performance. So you can see how there’s an element of trust between the storyteller and the receiver which can be stretched or abused. The con-man is a skilled storyteller–in the art of manipulation.
On a more trashy note, there was TV-movie fad a while back of dramatizing the amusing or salacious behind-the-scenes escapades of pop-culture icons like Batman:
Not to linger on this niche genre too long, but there’s a particularly surreal quality of these kinds of stories recreating on-screen events that already exist. Here’s the Growing Up Brady TV movie featuring a young Kaley Cuoco before Big Bang Theory:
Once an event becomes history, odds are it will be retold on film or TV, and then told again, and again. Each time differently, like the various movies about the Gunfight at the OK Corrall. The past always fades into legend.
I spend a great deal of my time replaying the past like reviewing a chess-game, or planning the future. The present gets lost. The value people put into developing “mindfulness” or transcendental meditation is to try to clear those thoughts away and focus in on the now.
But ultimately this is how the mind works. This theme of what constitutes a “mortal” consciousness is something explored in The Last Unicorn. Amalthea reaction to mortality with horror.
The limits of story for individuals are their memories from birth to death, at least the total store of memories that remain accessible at any given time, as explored in Pixar’s Inside Out.
It would be doing a cruel disservice to say story has little or no value, as humans are not merely machines that tend to the drudgery required to keep us alive. As I said before, even in the distant past, before any and all civilization, story existed as an important oral tradition. Story is how we turn memory into meaning, or to fabricate a memory for the purpose of sharing a feeling or idea. That’s not to say all stories have equal substance.
Comic book author Alan Moore separates creative works into two buckets, one being amusement and the other being art. Amusement tends to push people’s visceral buttons only. Much of what you see online these days, the dogs on skateboards or cats playing keyboards or Angry German Kid or unboxing videos. That’s amusement. A lot of humor falls under simple amusement, almost a reflex reaction, like this:
Story is about larger moments strung together that add up to more than the sum of its parts. Even schlocky B-movies like Cult of the Cobra have more weight than a Gary Coleman punchline. Amusement provides only a brief spike of visceral response. The weight of a full story is felt as you mull it over afterwards. That’s why popcorn movies are more amusement, fun during the experience, then forgotten.
Many of the ideas above were already percolating in my head but congealed after I listened to an NPR interview with Jonathan Gottschall who wrote the book The Storytelling Animal. After digesting these ideas it reaffirmed my belief of the primal value of story, which is also why I’m motivated to write this blog in the first place. His Ted talk is as good a way to wrap things up as any: