What’s the story?

Sto­ry­telling stereo­types can dis­tort our per­cep­tion of re­al­ity

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - BREATHING SPACE -

WHETHER it’s a yarn told over a pint, or a sweep­ing saga that un­folds on the big screen, we all love a good story. Sto­ry­telling is es­sen­tial to the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and, ar­guably, the old­est art form, but have you ever won­dered why­wear­e­so­drawn­toit?

I’ve heard lots of high-brow the­o­ries but the one that sticks out comes from an un­likely source: World War II film, Their Finest.

The 2016 film tells the story of a group of Min­istry Of In­for­ma­tion scriptwrit­ers as they get to grips with the pro­duc­tion of a fea­ture-length pro­pa­ganda film, and there’s a won­der­ful scene in which one of the scriptwrit­ers ex­plains the lure of sto­ry­telling to another.

“Why do you think that peo­ple like films?” he asks. “It’s be­cause sto­ries are struc­tured; have a shape, a pur­pose, a mean­ing; and when things go bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them... Un­like life.”

This makes sense to me. No mat­ter how so­phis­ti­cated the style, ev­ery story has an arc that we recog­nise and archetypes that we’ve en­coun­tered be­fore. And when we can’t pre­dict what’s go­ing to hap­pen to­mor­row, that’s a re­as­sur­ingly pre­dictable propo­si­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Christo­pher Booker, au­thor of Seven Ba­sic Plots: Why We Tell Sto­ries, we per­pet­u­ally re­turn to a small num­ber of ba­sic sto­ries “which are so fun­da­men­tal to the way we tell sto­ries that it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for any sto­ry­teller ever to break away from them”.

The ques­tion, then, is whether these plots im­pact the sto­ries that we tell our­selves. Do they in­flu­ence the way we in­te­grate our life ex­pe­ri­ences? Are we fol­low­ing nar­ra­tive struc­ture when we neatly com­part­men­talise the chronol­ogy of our lives into ‘chap­ters’ and ‘acts’.

We cer­tainly use sto­ry­telling as a tool to process the ups and downs. ‘Nar­ra­tive iden­tity’ — as it is known by psy­chol­o­gists — is our ten­dency to iden­tify with the ‘story’ that we cob­ble to­gether from our life ex­pe­ri­ences.

The trou­ble with nar­ra­tive iden­tity is that we tend to fol­low the same rules as the writer. We con­cen­trate on the salient and edit out the ex­tra­ne­ous and, like any good story, there is al­ways con­flict, cli­max and res­o­lu­tion.

Self-nar­ra­tion is handy for the brain, which loves pat­terns, ef­fi­ciency and short­cuts. It can be­come trou­ble­some, how­ever, when we start shap­ing our ‘sto­ries’ around tra­di­tional sto­ry­telling plots, and tak­ing artis­tic li­cence with our own lives.

Sure, we all know that life isn’t like the movies. We know that we don’t ride off into the sun­set and live hap­pily ever af­ter. None­the­less, there are plenty of sto­ry­telling archetypes that we seem to have in­te­grated at an un­con­scious level.

We’re be­gin­ning to re­alise that stock char­ac­ters and gen­der stereo­types in­flu­ence the way we per­ceive the world.

Nige­rian writer Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie ex­plained it beau­ti­fully in her TED talk ‘The Dan­ger of a Sin­gle Story’.

“When I be­gan to write, at about the age of seven,” she ex­plained, “I wrote ex­actly the kinds of sto­ries I was read­ing: All my char­ac­ters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate ap­ples.”

Is it too far an ex­trap­o­la­tion to sug­gest that story arcs and archetypes can have the same ef­fect? Just as a lit­tle girl may come to be­lieve that all princesses have blue eyes and blonde hair, could she grow up to be­lieve that there is only one per­fect prince for her?

The myth of ‘The One’ is per­haps the most per­va­sive story archetype that we have in­te­grated into our lives. Some of us be­lieve that there is that one spe­cial per­son for us but the truth is much less en­chant­ing. We meet peo­ple through prox­im­ity, and we con­nect with peo­ple who res­onate with us at that point in time.

‘The One’ is the one who is in your life right now, al­though frogs and princes make for a bet­ter story...

Sto­ries give us res­o­lu­tion: bad guys usu­ally get their come­up­pance and good guys usu­ally get vin­di­cated. This isn’t how it rolls in real life, al­though the ‘just world fal­lacy’ — a cog­ni­tive bias that makes us be­lieve that ac­tions have just con­se­quences — would sug­gest that we have trou­ble com­ing to terms with this ex­is­ten­tial un­fair­ness.

The ‘hero’s quest’ is another archetype that we have read­ily bought into. Be­cause we’ve read so many books about great voy­ages of dis­cov­ery, some of us seem to think that we have to em­bark on a peri­patetic ad­ven­ture to ‘find one­self ’. It’s true that travel is soul-stretch­ing but it’s un­likely that your true self is hid­ing be­hind a moun­tain in the Hi­malayas.

Sto­ries about rein­ven­tion, whether it’s ‘rags to riches’ or ‘zero to hero’, also give us false ideas. In­deed, they’re prob­a­bly be­hind our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ‘New Year, New You’ cam­paigns and ‘change your life in 30 days’ self-help books.

This brings us to the neat con­clu­sion. Not ev­ery story has a happy end­ing, but there is al­ways an end­ing — and usu­ally a dra­matic one. This is most likely where the great myth of ‘clo­sure’ comes from. Some of us feel that we “need clo­sure” be­fore we can move on from a trau­matic sit­u­a­tion, but in life, un­like in story, there isn’t al­ways a tidy de­noue­ment.

Yes, sto­ries cer­tainly change the way we look at life but, ev­ery now and again, it’s worth ask­ing if they’ve dis­torted your per­cep­tion en­tirely.

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