Monday, July 1, 2013

The Importance of Narrative To Everything

Everyone enjoys a good story. I'm sure it's not news to most of you that narrative is important in communicating ideas. But maybe it’s even more important, and prevalent, than you realize.

This blog is designed to remind both myself and other creative types that story is something that exists at multiple levels (and is the blogification of a powerpoint presentation I gave at Wizards a few years ago to an inhouse "better game practices" group).

If you're aware of story, you can use it to your advantage in nearly every creative endeavor.

For instance, a picture can tell a story, but not all pictures are created equal. Some pictures tell stories better than others. That sentence essentially defines an art director’s job; which picture best tells an exciting story?

Which Picture Is Better? 
For many people, the picture on the right is a more engaging picture. (Image is from the cover of the excellent novel Fall of Highwatch by Mark Sehestedt.)

Why? Because the added context allows us to tell a story in our head: Who’s this guy stalking across the tundra, does the woman he’s approaching welcome him, fear him, or want to kill him?

To me it looks like she’s uncertain, and hasn’t yet decided whether the guy is friend or foe. And what’s the guy's deal, and his strange power of the arctic cats? All these story threads engage our attention.

So, What Is A Story?
A story is an arrangement of words and/or images that create life-like characters and events. How a storyteller describes and arranges descriptive events determines how well an audience's attention is engaged.

To sustain that interest, the action of a story often moves towards the resolution of some human need: to feel loved, to be in control of one's life and fate, to avenge wrongs, to overcome obstacles, or to discover and understand the meaning and purpose of life.

In a nut shell, a story re-creates real life in miniature, or in a new context.

What Do People Get Out of Stories? 
By experiencing events in a story, the audience experiences a bit of "life" that can seem more potent and "true" than real life.

Someone experiencing a story can briefly get what they want if they really believe, discover that true love exists, experience inexplicable and fantastic events, and even discover that pain and chaos do have a meaning (as opposed to how in real life, pain, chaos, and loss often seem senseless).

As a story's protagonist resolves issues, the story's audience can experience courage, redemption, rebirth, renewal, overcoming oppression, and so on. A story thrills the audience, and allows someone to live safely outside their own skin without actually having to experience true inconvenience of changing their real lives.

Story As A Tool
Now that we've been reminded of some of the reasons story has power over us, take a look at how story can be used in other contexts. Like advertisements! Good ads have a story to tell. A story resonates with people in one of the ways just described. People remember ads with a good, interesting, or funny story.

This ad ("They Laughed When I sad Down At the Piano. But When I Started To Play") ran for decades essentially unchanged, largely unheard of in the fast-paced world of advertising. Why?

Because it tells a story, engaging the reader's own interest in personal attention and recognition.

Stories in Retail Window Displays
Another example of how narrative is put to good use in ads is in retail window displays.

Barney's has learned to distinguish itself by telling stories in the retail space, a tactic that engages the passerby by engaging the brain's story "circuitry."

But even the merchandize itself can “tell a story.” Storytelling has become buzzword in the world of fashion and branding. Even in labeling: a huge label tells the story of where the fabric comes from, what quality of the dirt the cotton was grown in, the nature of the fabric, its durability, and so on.

Anecdotes: The Power To Influence
Listen to any news program, and pretty soon you’ll hear the thread of a single person come to the fore. A single person's story about how the event affected their life, what they had to go through, and how they emerged different.

Listen to any politician stump, and they’ll try to sway you by telling you the story of some particular person who is suffering with the status-quo, of how that person's life could be improved if only policies were improved. For example, maybe you've heard a politician describe how they’ve recently heard from a "Mom in Michigan," who’s working two jobs to make ends meet, but it just isn’t enough, how one of her son's was wounded in Afghanistan, and how her daughter wants to start college, but there just isn’t money. The politician will promise an answer for this Mom in Michigan. One that’s going to bring her a –Resolution To Her Issues!

Just as all good stories should include. Because stories get inside people’s heads. Stories trigger brain chemistry. Anecdotes are not data—stories do not denote an overall truth, but our brains are programmed to treat a particular anecdote out of all proportion to its importance in a wider world.

The Power of Narrative Over The Brain
Data loses out to anecdote, sometimes even when we're aware of this particular human foible. Facts are easy; and easily forgotten. But stories resonate, they make connections, and thus are easily remembered! Why?

Mnemonics are usually are tiny stories you tell yourself to help fix information in your brain. One of the most common mnemonic is using representative visual images, like a microphone to remember the name “Mike,” a rose for “Rosie.” It's best to use positive, pleasant images, because the brain often blocks out unpleasant stories. Likewise, make these representations vivid, colorful, and three-dimensional — they’ll be easier to remember because we all like a good story.

Want Savant-Level Memory? Tell Yourself A Better Story!
Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky (1886–1958), was a Russian journalist with a seemingly unlimited memory (1968), in part due to his fivefold synesthesia.

“S” had a memory with no distinct limits by any method of testing devised. He could memorize complex mathematical formulas, huge matrices and even poems in foreign languages and did so in a matter of minutes. He used mnemonics.

When thinking about numbers he reported: “The number 1 is a proud well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person; 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a moustache; 8 a very stout woman—a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his moustache.”

His ability to devise mnemonics were aided immensely by his 5-fold synesthesia. So, yeah, S had a great advantage—the stories would just sort of come to him and engage all his senses, not just one or two senses like for most of us.

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Stories
When stories are read to subjects in an fMRI machine (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), interesting patterns of brain activation are observed by researcher Herbert Wray, who notes (paraphrased):

Motor neurons flash when characters grasp objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activate when characters navigate their world.

Readers are not passive consumers of words and stories. Taking in a story is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

So a hearing/viewing a story is sort of like really being there. No wonder stories affect our minds so powerfully, and ring true where mere fact devoid of context has such a hard time swaying its intended audience.

What Does It all Mean?
Ultimately, nothing mindblowing. This collection of annecdotes affirms that the better story you craft for your book, for your artwork, for your marketing effort, your article, your speech, or for your mnemonic, the better success you'll have. A story has many elements: plot, theme, character, setting, structure, and style. Any one of these elements, if approached with fresh energy, can set a story apart. But no story can succeed without the most important ingredient: character.

And that character, my friends, might just be you.

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