I’m a cognitive psychologist. I study and teach about the mental processes that allow our minds to receive, process, retain, and use information. One of the things we’ve learned is that, in an important sense, our mind is all about stories. We might even think of our species as Homo Fabulum: story man.
Michael Gazzinaga is one of the big names in cognitive science. He’s the neuroscientist who looked at the separate functions of the two hemispheres of the brain (work that has since been processed into the depressingly simplistic right brain/left brain dichotomy). He described an important function of the left brain as primarily telling ourselves a story. We process our experience by building a narrative in which things make sense. When our experience doesn’t follow some comprehensible logic, we confabulate, making up details or rearranging the information until it settles into a pattern we feel comfortable with (see a discussion of this idea here). He goes on to say, “One reason we may love fiction…is that it enables us to find our bearings in possible future realities, or to make better sense of our own past experiences. What stories give us, in the end, is reassurance.”
Other people have recognized the importance of story to the human condition. Decades ago, Patrick Shannon told us how important story is to becoming human.
Stories are how people make sense of themselves and their worlds. In young children’s spontaneous stories that they act out as they play, we can see how they believe people relate to one another, who they hope to become, and how they will behave. We can see adolescents play roles in their own and other people’s stories in order to figure out where they fit into their ever-expanding worlds. As adults, the true and imaginary stories we wish to tell and believe suggest what we value most in this world. In a real sense, stories make people.
People are pattern-detection machines. We are so good at this we find patterns even when they’re not there, which I’ve written about before. Our ability to build patterns is how we learn about the world. We are driven to find stories as strongly as any other pattern. When we find patterns, they allow us to predict what might happen and how we can respond to it. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of civilization. It’s how humans have passed on the knowledge and wisdom we all need to survive. It was probably an important driver in human evolution, making it key to becoming what we are: Homo Fabulum.
What does this mean for storytellers, including writers? It means we need to construct stories that embody patterns. Fitting the pieces of a puzzle together gives the brain a little hit of feel-good chemicals as surely as kissing your baby or eating that indulgent dessert. This is a core idea in Lisa Cron’s wonderful book Wired for Story (you can see her TEDx talk on this topic here). That’s why it really doesn’t matter if your story is based on real events, if it doesn’t feel consistent. Real life doesn’t actually have to make sense, but a story does.
The other thing writers have to remember is that the story has to have tension, conflict, and important stakes. Every story worth telling is a story about danger: recognizing it, avoiding it, and responding to it. When we read about people who overcome danger, we are taking notes, whether we realize it or not. We’re programming our brains to overcome danger. When we read about people who are overcome by danger, in stories with tragic endings, we are taking notes about what not to do. We learn through stories.
I write stories in which characters literally die, but even the most peaceful domestic tale is about life and death. It may be the death of an important relationship, of a dearly-held belief, of one’s own sense of self, but death must be on the line. Kristen Lamb expressed it this way in her recent blog post:
All forms of dramatic writing balance on the fulcrum of problems. The more problems, the better. Small problems, big problems, complicated problems, imagined problems, ignored problems all make the human heart beat faster. Complication, quandaries, distress, doubt, obstacles and issues are all what make real life terrifying…and great stories captivating.
How can a writer accomplish this?
- If your story idea starts with a character, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could happen to this person? How would they react? How could they fight back and emerge victorious, or fail to learn what they need to learn and die?
- If your story idea starts with a problem to be overcome, ask yourself: Who is the worst person to have to face this problem? How will that person change in response to the problem to fight to victory, or not change and die?
- If your story idea starts with a setting or situation, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could occur in this setting? Why would it be so terrible? How would it affect the people here, and how would they respond to either overcome it or be destroyed by it?
Dear Writer, that’s your charge. Go forth and make life really horrible for someone in your story. Because that’s what story is all about, and what makes us who we are: Homo Fabulum.