Stories are infectious

15 February 2017 Story design
4 min read

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Business Innovation Brief

A good story demonstrates how people change.

At its simplest, story = people + change. Click To Tweet

Story logic is organised around a transformative event. Simple stories spring from a single event. Longer or more complex stories link multiple events. Linked events may be sequential or parallel. Good narrators know how to mix sequential and parallel in ways that hold the audience’s attention.

Adding a bit more flesh to the bones: story = people + change via event(s). Click To Tweet

The definition of a transformative event is that people, in a given context, are changed by the event. If change doesn’t happen, the “event” is just description. Description gives us a window into the context in which a person or group of people live. Action differs from description because action is the driver of change.

Action comes from two sources. People, acting individually or as groups, act. Forces also act to change people and their surroundings. For example: weather, natural catastrophe, faceless misfortune.

Story = describes people changing via event(s) expressed through actions by people or impersonal forces. Click To Tweet

How forces and people interact

Storytellers consciously or unconsciously determine how forces and people interact. This interaction characterises the storyteller’s worldview. Some of the most enduring storytellers – Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Brecht – succeed in showing how impersonal forces occupy human actors. This capacity to show impersonal forces embodied in humans may explain the longevity of their work. Their work endures because worldviews expressed continue to intrigue us.

Storytellers are world-makers. Click To Tweet

Through applying their craft, they draw together people and events in ways that compel belief in the audience. The care and curiosity we feel for some people in some stories arises because our own disposition collides with what the storyteller conveys. Our feelings for a character arise to the degree we accept, or even enter, the world the story creates. The story world and the storyteller’s worldview relate but are not identical. The same worldview can play out across different story worlds, for example in the work of Ursula LeGuin and Charles Dickens. Also, the same story world can be explored from different worldviews. This is why stories, like fairy tales, can so easily be adapted to suit the attitude of a specific age.

Franchises and worlds

Story franchises maintain a story world and a worldview across many stories. We see this in Middle Earth, Discworld, Star Wars, Mills & Boon romances. Story franchises often create expectations in audiences, establish memes that reinforce the audience’s connection with the story world-worldview. Their ability to instil followership is part of why marketing as a profession wants to harness the power of story.

There’s an omnipotence to storytellers as worldmakers that science fiction, fantasy and graphic novel genres make plain. In those genres, we see plainly that the logic by which events change people isn’t hard wired the way it is in, for example, Newtonian physics or molecular chemistry. In those knowledge domains there is a uniformity. It doesn’t matter which laboratory, or what time of day, I conduct an experiment. If I do it cleanly, it is reproducible anywhere else. The reproducibility of cause and effect is lies at the heart of algorithmic thinking. By contrast, storytellers in these genres choose the underlying principles by which a world operates, and also select which to draw to our attention and which to downplay.

Stories are not algorithms. Click To Tweet

Science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut was facetious when he said that once a critic hacked the “shape of stories” a computer could be programmed to write them. When I teach people how to make compelling stories, we work with the logic of change, the depth of psychology (both the characters’ psychology and the readers’), the demands of world-making, and its ethics. We also work on rhythm and texture, because those are the factors that create a connection between teller and audience. From that connection (sometimes) intimacy grows. At its best, audiences experience through story a revelation.

My advice

In our era, choose which storytellers you attend to with the something like the care you choose about who you invite into your home or into an embrace.

Stories can be infectious. Click To Tweet

For sure, I’m overstating it if I say stories can be vaccines or morbid infections.
But unless we know how stories affect us, it’s hard to avoid being manipulated or having our consent manufactured.

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Ricardo Vernaglia