We all tell stories. It’s in our nature and the structure of our society to put facts in some kind of logical order. It’s the way we assimilate and remember those facts. The order might be chronological first-this-then-that, or hypothetical and projective if-this-then-that, or correlative because-of-this-then-that. But ultimately, we establish a flow, a sequence, and a consequence. Facts and formulas may be important news in themselves, but without some kind of narrative behind them, explaining and relating them, the human mind finds them uninteresting and unimportant.
We ask for stories when we meet family and friends. “How’s your day going?” “What was your day like?” That’s an open-ended invitation, and if the only reply is a noncommittal “Okay” or “Good,” then we’re vaguely dissatisfied. We don’t mean to pry—but we’d like to.
Journalists understand this about any event they cover. All reporting is based on the “5 W’s”—who, what, where, when, and why. But the first four simply nail the basic facts of what happened. The last one, the why, is the kicker and contains the seed of the story. Why did he do what he did? Why did she react that way? An event does not simply drop from the sky without context. Even a crashing airliner has a why behind its fall and a spreading web of what happens next? radiating from it.
History is hard for many students because some teachers and textbooks try to reduce it to simple lists: isolated dates, succession of emperors, unrelated events. But history is meant to be a narrative: because the king launched this war, he lost that battle and his crown. History is important because of the reasons that lie behind the events, the part that’s susceptible to storytelling.
By telling stories, we put events and facts in perspective. And we do it unintentionally, even when we’re not writing a history or a novel. We project ourselves, our current story, into the future. The thought in our mind follows a narrative line: “After I get home from work, I’ll go to the baseball game, then join my buddies for a beer.” We tell a future narrative on the order of the projective and hypothetical not-yet-happened-but-predictable. I challenge anyone to tell me that their internal dialogue reads like a calendar entry: “6:30 – Baseball, 9:30 – Beer.”
We also tell stories on the spot to predict events: “If this car keeps going at this speed, it will run off the road and hit that tree.” “If she smiles when I say this, then I’ll know we have a date.” That is, we make up stories all the time about the events and people around us.1
One of the tests for autism is to have the child watch a puppet show. Puppet A is playing with a toy, then puts it inside a covered basket and leaves the room. Puppet B removes the toy from the basket and puts it in a closed box. The test is to ask the child where Puppet A will look for the toy when it comes back—in the basket or the box? If the child answers “basket,” then he has projected his understanding into the situation of the puppet: the toy was in the basket when the puppet left the room, so logically the puppet will expect it to be there still. If the child answers “box,” then the child has no understanding of what the first puppet might know or assume: the child knows the toy is in the box, everyone who saw the show knows the toy is in the box. In the child’s world, the toy is in the box. Period.
As a writer, a professional creator of stories, I struggle with this problem all the time. My stories don’t just drift through my own mind in vague fragments, like so much smoke or seaweed. I have to put the story down on paper2—choosing this word, that event, this line of thinking, that bit of dialogue—in order to tell it. My story has to be discoverable by another human mind, which will apply its own understanding, its own projective and storytelling capacity, its own interpretation of events, to the formal story I’ve written. Many plots depend on a “toy in the box” situation, where one character knows something that another does not. Then I as the writer, and the reader as a storytelling mind following along my trail of words, have to keep a clear picture of who knew what, and when, and why.
Usually, the reader’s awareness never rises to an overt statement: “Ah, Clyde must have received a letter or a phone call from Emily, because otherwise he wouldn’t have known to meet her at the train station at four o’clock.” But if our hero just charges off to the station without some indication that he knows he’s supposed to meet Emily there, then the reader’s sense of story will be violated. Sometimes, however, the reader’s overt sense of knowing what a character does not know is part of the fun. “When Emily turns to open the cabinet, we know she’ll find a gun inside, because we saw Cecil put it there. But for Clyde, who’s threatening Emily, it’s going to be a real surprise.”
When I tell a story as part of a novel, it becomes very public. I’m inviting others to read my handiwork, join in the adventure of linking facts and assumptions, hints and guesses, into a coherent structure. I’m aware that I’m exposing part of my mind, my storytelling capacity, for others to see, evaluate, and like or dislike. But we all do this in a less formal, but still pubic, way all the time.
When we invite someone for a beer after the game, we’re making public a line of our internal storytelling: “I’m going to the game. You’re going to the game. We’re friends—at least on the level of sharing time and alcohol together. I have the belief that you have no other plans for after the game. I assume you’ll be in an elevated mood after the game, and not too tired or otherwise indisposed to socialize.” Without an overt statement of all these assumptions, we still put them on display for the recipient of our invitation to know and examine. And if we get the story wrong in any part—with a response of “No, I actually have other plans” or “I think you’re a buffoon and wouldn’t be caught dead in a bar with you”—then we feel a subtle mixture of embarrassment and shame. We’ve put our minds, our wants, and our assumptions out on public display and have been shown to be telling a provably false internal story.
It’s almost impossible to hide our internal story from other people. If they choose to apply their own storytelling and predictive abilities to our situation, they can know a lot about us from our plainest actions. “Ah, I see you’re heading for the bathroom. I know what you’re about to do in there.” “I see you brought my daughter flowers. You must be sweet on her.” Most of us are intelligent enough to live comfortably with this sort of external inspection and assumption. Experience tells us that what we do to others, they can do to us.
We are actually treating other people as characters in our own internal story. But as sensitive human beings, we are also willing to be challenged, or at least not be completely devastated, when our internal story and our presumptions about our internal constructs of the people around us are shown to be in error. We tell that story in good faith, hoping to make invitations and offer insights that will be received pleasantly. We track the actions and intentions of others so that we may understand them and avoid conflicts and hurt feelings.
But what if we don’t? What if we align ourselves with the child who answers “box” to the puppet show? We know what we know, and we don’t care what the external subjects of our internal constructs might think about it. Then the internal story and the mind behind it is private—sometimes frighteningly so. Consider the recent spate of supposedly senseless shootings: the man in Colorado who dressed up in battle gear and gunned down people in a movie theater; the man in Arizona who shot a congresswoman and killed a number of the people around her. What are these men’s internal stories? And how closely did the characters in them—the man’s projections of the people he was actually shooting at—align with external reality?
Everyone tells a story. For these men, the fantasy of shooting blindly, of gunning down—what? enemies? extraterrestrials? demons? deer?—compels them to take action that the people around them cannot interpret, cannot fathom, cannot create a story about it that makes any kind of sense.
We depend upon our interpretations of other people’s public minds to make life sensible and predictable. And when that mind turns inward and private, we become … lost.
1. One of the reasons human memories seem to be so malleable and subject to revision is that we habitually tell stories about them. Our brains do not simply record sensory inputs the way a HAL-9000’s “holographic memory” was supposed to absorb data. We might enter into our long-term memory a sense image—a sight, sound, smell, or touch—but we also store the context, our immediate thoughts about the image, and our interpretation of the story behind and around it. After all, a thousand sights, sounds, smells, and touches impact the nervous system every minute without being remarked upon by the conscious mind—and thereby becoming the object of storage. And when we recall that image or event, we retell the story, reflect upon it in light of later events and memories, update and reinterpret the story. The human memory is not a lockbox full of exposed film but a dynamic process responding to the cascade of thoughts in the mind.
2. Or, actually, on the screen with word-processing software.