This morning, I’m contemplating story – how it enchants and enchains; how it sets us free. Writing is my craft and stories are my passion. How they work in the world, what purpose they serve, the way they move us – are all questions I ponder on a regular basis. I want to understand just how idiosyncrasies of character, convolutions of plot, and use of space and time factor into the creation of a viable story.
Those dynamics fascinate me, but understanding them isn’t a requisite for being a teller. You see, we all tell stories – actually we all think in story. You could say stories are pattern recognition combined with meaning. Human brains make sense of input (all the information delivered continuously by our senses) by linking various details together into meaningful configurations – stories. And what is “meaning”? Frankly I don’t know.
However, it seems to be about pattern recognition. We see an object and it reminds us of another object from a previous experience that involved some kind of emotional investment on our part. In other words, even before we can voice it, our minds comprehend that basic component of storytelling called metaphor. Stories not only use metaphors, they often are metaphors.
Metaphor comes from two Greek words meta, meaning between, and phero, meaning “to carry” or “to transfer.” A metaphor explains something by connecting it directly to something else. It transfers meaning from say, a fox to a woman. “What a fox!” says one guy to another. They both mean that this is a sexy, good-looking, woman with a touch of sophistication, poised and provocatively dressed.
Furthermore, they probably both have stories in their heads about foxes that involve red luxurious fur, cleverness and daring, not to mention pre-fabricated fantasies about what sex with such a woman might entail. With just three words the men have created a metaphor that condenses multiple stories and creates mutual understanding.
Some kinds of emotional investments are common to just about everyone. For example, most people on the planet are emotionally invested in their mothers. It gives us common ground. It’s a story we all share. So already, on day one, before anything else happens, we already have a story to share that will hold some meaning for almost everyone we’ll ever meet. The trick to getting someone interested in your story is to make it about them, that is to say, about human nature.
I think stories are our most effective teaching tool because they can be purposefully imbued with wisdom, knowledge and information. That’s where craft and talent come in. A good writer can integrate the story and the message so that the two meld into one organic whole and become indistinguishable from one another.
Of course our biological propensity to think in stories can trap us in a continuous loop of virtual reality. There is something about the emotional component of meaning that makes us invest in the stories we perceive. As soon as the pattern becomes clear we begin to believe in it. It feels true to us. That surety can cause us to spend years believing all sorts of things that aren’t true i.e. “no one can ever love me,” “men can’t be trusted,” “there’s nothing I can do about it,” etc. Stories like this can keep us shackled and miserable forever.
The antidote is to stay open, flexible and conscious; to remember that each story offers numerous interpretations and all of them are true, just as all of them are false. Stories are like veils blowing in the wind, opening to reveal, closing to maintain mystery. They hold out hints of some greater reality and inspire us to keep searching for it.
(For more on storytelling take a look at Two Twitch a Tale)