THE BLOG
05/20/2014 10:35 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2014

The 'Why' of Stories, Part II

"And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea -- have a point. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!"
-- Steve Martin as Neal Page to John Candy as Del Griffith, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

Well, then, what is the point of stories?

When we left off Part I of this blog, we'd taken an in-depth look at the way stories are used in life-and-death situations like battle command and murder trials, and we were just about to try drawing some conclusions. (Important story point, incidentally: always try to end with a cliffhanger.)

So, my conclusion from the foregoing is simply this: Whatever else they may be or do, stories are explanatory and problem-solving devices par excellence. And what it is they seek to explain, what it is they're trying to solve for, is the mystery of motivation. Stories are mechanisms by which we try to discover -- or, having discovered, try to preserve for all time -- successful theories of what drives the objective human behavior we observe.

You can trust me on this one: I spent a significant chunk of my day job over three and a half years researching storytelling systems and story formalisms. And if one thing came clear in all that time, it's that stories are all about making sense of the intention behind the action.

Think back to that Aegis cruiser commander trying to guess whether those Iranian pilots were planning to attack. Or to that Tyson jury deliberating on whether the prosecution's star witness was lying. Attempting in both cases to find a pattern of intention that best matched the observed phenomena -- and making up stories to do it!

Stories have survived all this time because they offer arguably the best cognitive structure us humans have ever come up with for performing one of the most survival-critical tasks any social animal can face. Namely, figuring out what's going on inside the other guy's head.

And, on an even deeper level, stories are also all about figuring out what's going on inside our own heads, and in our own lives. Hey, Sophocles was just another Greek playwright till Sigmund Freud got done putting Oedipus Rex on the couch, right? ( By the way, If you're interested in exploring that particular aspect of story, you could do worse than to start with Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)

In functional terms, then, stories are all about weaving a pattern of consistent human motivation.

But Wait!

Actually, that last remark needs some expansion: While it's true what I was saying about the purpose of stories being to capture and explore human motivation, it's also too narrowly construed. Let me start over and, this time, cast my net a bit wider.

What I maybe should have said is that the function of stories is to capture and explore causation in general. Now, it so happens that one of the perennially most interesting and survival-reinforcing types of causation to try grokking is the one that explains to human behavior (= motivation). But stories can be used to investigate other modes of causality as well.

Cases in point: mythologies, just-so stories, and the like. How the elephant's child got his trunk and how winter turns to spring when Demeter gets her daughter Persephone back from the underworld. Note, though, that even these causal explanations are cast in terms of quasi-human motivation: the elephant's child's "'satiable curiosity" and Demeter's mother-love, respectively. We tend to project our motivations, and our stories, onto the cosmos as a whole.

Don't believe it? Well, John Seely Brown, in his "Toward a New Epistemology for Learning," holds that even accomplished scientists, when confronted with a novel experimental set-up, do not immediately repair to their mathematical models, but instead construct a "causal story":

"This sort of imputation of causality -- constructing a causal story --involves a great deal of informal reasoning and manipulating of assumptions that standard explications inevitably overlook. Rather than simply pondering abstractions, this essential sort of reasoning involves 'seeing through' abstractions, models, and paradigmatic examples to the world they represent, and then penetrating that world to explore the causality that underlies it."

Hey, if we weren't forever imputing human motives to inhuman forces, "anthropomorphize" wouldn't even be a verb!

The Anthropomorphisis Conundrum

In a way, I faced a similar problem when it came to writing Dualism: Here I had two central, um, characters, neither of which was strictly human -- Nietzsche, an artificial intelligence with a dark secret, and MERGE, a hive intellect formed from the collective consciousness of thousands, eventually millions, of individual human minds.

So, how do you tell a story about those guys? How do you animate them, bring them to life, make them believable?

Essentially, the same way: try to suss out the intention behind the action. Make it believable, consistent, regardless of how outre ...

At the end, you'll have a coherent character rather than just a grab-bag of knee-jerk reactions. Oh, and -- with any kind of luck -- you'll have a story too!