About six months ago, shortly after the cinema shooting in Aurora, CNN ran a story by Bruce Schneier about how we tend to draw the wrong lessons from horrific events.
Schneier said that instinctively, our brains are not that good at risk analysis. We base our evaluations of events, particularly threatening events, “more on stories than on data”:
If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will. Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.
Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, bear this out with a lot of evidence; stories give us something to grip onto that has an emotional association.
This emotional touchstone found in narrative, which is generally absent from hard data, also affects how we narrate our own lives, to ourselves and to others. Maura Kelly, reviewing “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human” in The Atlantic a few months ago, talks about Jonathan Gotschall’s theory that stories make us feel our lives are important, and allow us to impose order on chaos. There’s a famous saying: the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.
The negative aspect of all this is that a scary story is more effective than a ream of reassuring data, as the general reaction to the Aurora shooting seems to bear out. People said at the time they were scared to go to the cinema, when in reality they should be much more scared of getting into their cars.
The positive aspect of the human dependence on narrative is that when we re-narrate our own lives, we tend to make them better — ourselves more heroic, our actions more sensible, our existence as individuals more important. Gotschall even theorises that “talk” therapy is effective because it forces us to narrate our lives to another person and, when we do, we tend to reframe them more positively than we might privately. People with depression, he says, actually see their existence more realistically, which may be why they’re so depressed.
Gotschall says that humans crave meaning, but meaning is not the same as truth. Meaning tends to come from cohesive stories rather than the random events that make up our lives. There’s a debate that sometimes crops up among consumers of popular culture as to whether “realism” or “fantasy” is preferable: whether people want stories where realistic events happen, deaths and unhappiness and breakups and failed love (George R. R. Martin’s love of killing everyone in his books comes to mind), or whether they want stories where people get the happy endings they deserve and the bad always suffer (shades of Mills & Boone).
It’s difficult to go either way, because the one is often depressing and the other is frequently boring. As Charles Schultz said, “Happiness, unfortunately, isn’t funny,” but I have to admit that I’m depressed often enough that I prefer the fantasy. On the other hand, as a writer focused on interaction with his audience I also have to make sure that I’m serving as many people as I can without corrupting the story. It’s one reason I disdain writers who destroy just to be novel or shocking, those who kill characters out of spite or who react to their fans’ love of a character or relationship by wrecking it. It’s petty, which is very human, but it’s a particularly cruel form of pettiness masquerading as realism.
We have the ability to put order to the world, at least a little bit, in our stories; we even have the inclination. If you destroy, the result for the story should be worth the effect. Reality is frequently hard and unforgiving and we have to spend the rest of our time in it anyway.