THE SHAPE OF STORIES
Alright, now that that’s all out-of-the-way, and you have (hopefully) been correctly programmed to think abstractly and thus to reach more meaningful, useful conclusions that will hopefully keep you in good stead as you find this lesson both applicable to your life, and unforgettable once you’ve learned it.
First and foremost:
EVERYTHING WE KNOW IS STORY.
We do lots and lots of stuff without composing a literary masterpiece to plan it out.
But then we tell the resulting story as if that narrative approach is both 100% accurate and unassailable.
Anyone who has been married more than five minutes soon learns how accurate that is.
[HINT #1: It isn’t.]
What you learn from telling the story of your life–if you look carefully and thoughtfully over your methods of observing and reporting dispassionately–is that these stories practically write themselves.
Silly thing to say. I’m obviously being glib again. Lemme explicate:
We actively do everything in what we often term ‘linear progressions’ or ‘logical pathways’. We think we’re merely goal oriented, but every decision we make is based on referencing reports (memories) of past efforts in similar fields, which is what our highly evolved context filters (ie: Frame of Reference) are designed to do. Longterm memory is a particularly robust tool in the service of self-preservation. The human mind is purpose-engineered for seeing, understanding, and utilising abstract concepts, and for devising useful processes for quantifying, qualifying, sorting, summarising, and archiving the resulting experiential data. The sentient mind is a true marvel of natural adaptation and information processing.
[ASIDE: We don’t actually have a monopoly on sentience, even on this planet. We just think we do because we are unsure how human cognition works, what it does best, what needs improvement, and especially what principle purpose is it intended for. Without a solid understanding of the entire process and concept of sentience is, we’ll never learn to properly identify it in other species, let alone how to bridge the immense gap between us and the rest of the material world.]
The ability to experience, evaluate, catalogue, index, cross-reference, infer, defer, confer, and generally evaluate and assign abstract value markers to every conceivable object, interaction, and event we experience–in real-time–is what human thought actually is.
It’s not just for To Do lists or following orders. It’s not just for improvisation. It’s not just for strategising and problem solving. It’s not just for self-expression. It’s not just for reconnaissance. It’s not just a memory test. And while the human mind may be primarily wired for survival and propagation–as all things in the human sphere seem to be, at least at first–the question still goes begging for guidelines and measurable parameters.
We are all capable of all of this and more. The tools are very flexible and scale marvellously.
But we’d really rather have someone bigger than us link us to an approved walk-through, and then (hopefully) coast through life without thinking too much about what we’re actually doing from day-to-day, and what it all actually adds up to.
Story is brilliant for condensing and regurgitating important conclusions, to give us both a reference guide and a contextual filter to enable us to do more with the data than just retweet it, and then deluding ourselves that it’s just for lolz.
[HINT #2: It isn’t.]
If you can your frame of reference slightly, you can reimagine your brain as a giant thought processing plant, complete with warehouses, loading docks, and transportation hubs, all rolled in one. There is a whole floating city-state, like something out of a science fiction movie, all cluttering up the landscape of your mind.
Why? Because you almost certainly DO NOT possess a useful, effective mental image of what goes on in your mind , particularly when introduced to unfamiliar things.
So you think of yourself as a huge 3D bureau of information retrieval and processing. Most of us do not actually make that many genuine decisions in the course of a day. You probably ordered your coffee the same way you always do. You make up your mind about a few things, but that’s after you’ve been fed a compelling sample of relevant date from which to arrive at a satisfying conclusion.
We do this every second of the day, but most of the values we apply are completely personal and not usually subject to exhaustive peer review (unless you’re either in police custody or under observation in a state-sanctioned mental health facility), and have almost no real relationship with anything happening in the real world.
It is an invisible, personalised value attribution system, like a fully costed store inventory, where we keep a flexible inventory of evaluated ideas, which then render context reports with notes and flags and sticky tabs and all the rest, just like your email client at work.
We use this frame of reference for quickly choosing: the steak burritos for dinner; the right outfit for the occasion; a particularly saucy Japanese dating sim to take home when your IRL date doesn’t warm to you as hoped*; or to allow awful things to continue to transpire around you because you lack sufficient evidence or relevant coping strategies. We aren’t all taught the best ways to identify and eliminate systemic oppression and abuse–either casual or with intent–particularly when it’s being done by people we know and care about. We are conditioned to avert our gaze and proceed as if nothing is amiss, even though we know very well that the shit is all fucked up.
* I’m not here to judge your personal choices, so long as you don’t deliberately inflict harm on innocent people.
So the point of Story Shapes, in real life as in fiction, is that we use our well-honed context filters and frame of reference [ASIDE: think of it as a sexy negligee that fits you perfectly and really shows off your girlish figure to best effect… and then understand why most self-respecting women complain bitterly about the prevalence and frequency of ‘hooker armour’ rewards in most MMOs] to help us choose our coffee before the guy behind us loses his simian mind because he’s got to be to work in fifteen minutes. It also tells us when the right time to stick up for someone smaller than you is. It also tells you when the abuse is too much.
We can learn to detect and identify familiar forms in a story, which define the possible event sequences and outcomes, and all because we’ve been through variations of the same experience in other situations before the given moment. We learn to deal with stress and pain the same way we do pleasure and excitement; with measured reports of what we already know about the subject, or how to request additional data (assuming you have internalised a useful strategy for such; Chronic Social&Performance Anxiety sufferers know exactly what I’m talking about, amirite?). We rarely if ever just do the first thing that comes into our heads. We actively teach our children the folly of going off half-cocked in just about every piece of children’s literature and television entertainment aimed at them.
This is the number one life lesson we try to impart to every single newly-minted monkey mind, with desperately mixed results. Civilisation is built on the patient translation and mediation of misunderstandings between strangers.
And we are ALL strangers, at some point. It is a precondition of life on this planet, and almost certainly in this entire universe.
The one thing I need you to take away from this essay is that, as Carl Sagan once told us, we are ALL made from Star Stuff, living under roughly the same physical conditions (barring climate, environmental conditions, and social/financial status), and experience varying levels of both privilege and injustice, and of offense and validation, on an almost daily basis.
The point of understanding the Shapes of Stories, even without an accurate or relevant frame of reference, is that you can potentially comprehend what is implied by the tone and structure of an unfamiliar argument or question, or, as it turns out, of the actual nature of the Story as presented.
It also teaches you to detect and fill in the plot holes.
Plot Holes (ie: in an argument) are:
a) usually depicted in metaphorical terms;
b) are a ‘negative space’ form of social commentary;
c) are rarely impossible or even difficult to adequately fill in or cover up (especially if your ultimate goal is not to be truthful, but to win), so long as your frame of reference was woven around you using copious amounts of Bullshit distilled in web form.
and d) are almost always based on adherence to a set or series of false assumptions.
I have more to say on this topic. I always do. But I have errands to run. I will need to come back to this one soon. Please remind me tomorrow. I keep starting new series and not finishing them. That has to stop.