The Story of Story
Stories have shaped our knowledge, entertainment, and communications for centuries. As technology advances and the world becomes more interconnected, stories carry greater weight than ever before.
David Baldacci is a bestselling author of mystery novels and legal thrillers. He has published over forty books, selling more than 150 million copies worldwide.
Born in 1960 in Richmond, VA, Baldacci earned a BA at Virginia Commonwealth University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. He began writing fiction while practicing law in Washington, DC, and many of his novels draw from Baldacci’s legal background or delve into the political intrigues of the nation’s capital.
His first novel, Absolute Power (1996) was made into a 1997 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. His series of novels about secret service agents King and Maxwell was adapted into a 2013 TNT television series. His novels Wish You Well (2001) and The Christmas Train (2003) have also been adapted for the screen.
In addition to his suspenseful adult novels, Baldacci has written seven books for younger readers, including Freddy and the French Fries: Fries Alive (2005) and The Finisher (2014).
Jeffrey Archer is a best-selling author and former member of the UK parliament. His books have sold more than 320 million copies worldwide.
Born in London in 1940, Archer studied at Oxford University and represented Great Britain in international track and field. He worked as a fundraising specialist and operated an art gallery before his election to parliament in 1969 at the age of 29.
Archer wrote his first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, in 1974, after a bankruptcy forced him to give up his seat in parliament. He has since written over thirty books of fiction. His most successful, Kane and Abel (1979) reached number 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list and is among the 100 top-selling English-language books ever. It was adapted into a 1985 CBS miniseries.
In the 1980s, Archer returned to politics as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and was made a life peer, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, in 1992. He was a candidate for the 2000 London mayoral election when he was accused of perjury in a 1987 libel trial, eventually serving two years in prison for the offence.
Will Storr is an award-winning journalist and nonfiction writer.
Born in England in 1975, he grew up in a strict Catholic household. Despite not going to university, Storr was talent-spotted by male magazine Loaded and worked as a staff writer there for several years. His acclaimed investigative and longform journalism has subsequently appeared in The Guardian, The New Yorker, GQ, and The New York Times, among other publications.
In his first book, Will Storr Vs. The Supernatural (2007), he embarked on personal search for the “truth about ghosts.” Heretics (2014), considers people who question established scientific facts. Selfie (2018), takes a wide-ranging look at the Western idea of the self. The Science of Storytelling (2019) examines the tools people use to tell compelling stories—tools Storr has utilized as a bestselling ghostwriter for celebrities. His sixth book, The Status Game (2021), investigates social position and human behavior.
Storr published a novel, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone, in 2013.
Stories have shaped our knowledge and communication and have been the bedrock of how we’ve entertained ourselves since time immemorial. And even as technology advances and the world becomes more interconnected, stories remain core to our shared identity.
Will Storr: The stories, you know, classically are kind of lessons in life. You know, not how we’ve become good at certain skills but how we become better at the complicated business of living with other people, and thriving in a community of kind of conflicting minds. That’s the great challenge of humanity.
And Afrofuturism may be a newer lens for viewing art, media, and philosophy but it frames stories that have been thriving since long before their representation in the mainstream.
Ytasha Womack: Success in the Afrofuturism is just encouraging people to use their imagination to transform their circumstances, giving people a platform to feel comfortable telling stories they didn’t feel had an audience before.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Voice over: A long time ago, there lived an earth bound species who really liked to tell each other ornate stories. Yet this, was not merely entertainment nor enlightenment. It was the root of their very survival. You are their descendant.
From ancient cave paintings through the Bible, Hansel and Gretel, Harry Potter and Star Wars, humans have communicated their biggest, most important ideas through story. And though story provides us with enjoyment, it’s also a powerful tool that’s shaped us and has at times been one of the most toxic instruments for our manipulation.
Will Storr: So it really is an extraordinary thing that storytellers do. And I think what they do, is they’re creating this alternative world and they’re doing it in such a way that it kind of slips perfectly into the brains of the readers.
Anne Hamby: This idea of conflict, it grabs our attention. It could be an inner conflict, can be an outer conflict, but as an audience we’re drawn to that, pay attention to it.
David Baldacci: When I wake up every day, I’m thinking about stories. When I walk out the door, I’m thinking about stories. Everything I see is related to story potential.
As a species, we’ve been telling tales since before we could talk. And today our earliest understanding of the world begins with stories. As we grow, other people’s accounts and observations of the world continue to fill in the gaps left by our limited direct experiences. The power of stories to transmit knowledge and expand our worlds is something the best-selling author, David Baldacci, came to appreciate at a young age.
Baldacci: I didn’t have the opportunity to travel as a young person but I traveled the world through books and books opened my eyes. I read about people who didn’t look like me, speak like me, pray like me, eat like me, dress like me but we shared this common humanity. So I’m always trying to understand other people’s perspectives and ideas and opinions.
Stories are effective, but on first glimpse a rather peculiar way to learn. They aren’t exact depictions of reality. They’re intentional distortions of it that highlight character traits and events to capture our attention. The best stories are so effective at drawing us in that they bypass our rational brains, even for skilled storytellers like Will Storr. Once upon a time—no, really—he went to investigate a man who was counseling people who thought they were being haunted. He expected to find a fraud but he wound up sharing their ghostly encounters. He documented his experiences in Will Storr versus the Supernatural.
Storr: Now I understand a bit more about how the brain works. Lots of the stuff that I experienced makes more sense now. You know, we don’t have an unfiltered experience of reality. What happens is the information from around the world hits our senses. Our senses translate that information into billions and billions of electrical pulses and our brain reads the electrical pulses, a bit like a computer reads code and builds this world and tells us it’s reality. And so if you take that machine and put it in a house that you’re told is haunted, and you’re told you might feel something touch your skin, you might hear some breathing, you know, especially it’s night and you’re kind of falling asleep. It’s much more likely that the things I experienced there as a result of the fact that reality itself is a hallucination anyway.
Hamby: There’s a great study that has a bunch of shapes like moving around a screen and people look at them and they say, “Oh, you know, the square was bullying the triangle, right?” So we put causal relationships on top of just a series of events.
In truth, any information we absorb and use to live our lives, changes us. Anne Hamby, an assistant professor at Boise State University studies the way stories shape how we act in the world. We don’t just leap into action for any old story. It needs to be a pretty good one. Of course what good means can sometimes be mysterious. Most stories that stick with us follow the same recurring structures or archetypes. There are seven, but among the most recognizable are: the quest—a person sets out on a journey, loses something along the way and comes back changed. Overcoming the monster, or good defeats evil. Rags to riches—a poor soul is down and out. He comes into wealth, but pays a price and in the end, he’s better for it. Despite their common use these story formulas have not bored us over time. If anything, they are familiar frameworks that hold up against even the most outlandish of tales. Dan Harmon uses the scholar Joseph Campbell’s story circle structure as a framework for his comedic science fiction animated series, Rick and Morty. And though it’s a factor in making Harmon’s storytelling successful he also believes it’s an integral part of him as a person.
Dan Harmon: I can’t turn it off. That’s Joseph Campbell’s fault. Like, because his point was that there’s something ingrained in the species that makes a certain shape of information more appealing and digestible and effective to us. And once you get that in you, yeah, you see it everywhere. I think that living things have like a little bit of story structure ingrained in just that idea of like, by virtue of Darwinian evolution, we are all alive because we’re genetic descendants of things that evolved, and story is about the importance of moving forward.
Humans crave predictability and pattern just as much as we want to learn and to be entertained. But most of all, we want to connect with others. Poor structure could make a story difficult to follow but the characters within it really are the driving force.
Hamby: We’ve got stories all around us. We’re not changing our behavior all the time or our beliefs all the time, but there are the ones that have this—this is really sort of the balance of the art and science, where you’ve got really compelling characters that people care about just because they care about the characters, right? I want to find out what happened to this person.
Jeffrey Archer: I’m lucky if I know the next paragraph, let alone the ending. And my theory is, if I don’t know, then the reader can’t know.
Jeffrey Archer has been writing long, short, and tall tales for more than four decades. Readers have devoured hundreds of millions of his books around the world. But even this master weaver sees his plots as more organic than manufactured.
Archer: I had a row going on between the wicked lady Virginia in the Clifton Chronicles and the wonderful Emma. And of course all the readers want Emma to win. They don’t want the wicked Virginia to win. And they’re in court having a battle. And I had the best QC in the land about to beat up Virginia. And I got up and I wrote the sentence. And then the next sentence I wrote, it worked nicely the Virginia knocked him on the nose. And after I’d written five pages of cross-examination she’d killed him. Virginia won the case. Emma lost, the goody lost the case and the wicked Virginia had won. So I would say that was a morning where I had planned to go in one direction and the first sentence I wrote sent me into the exactly the opposite direction and I couldn’t resist going with it.
This is storytelling seemingly at its most natural and magical, but it isn’t anything inexplicable. What we experience as the art of storytelling really comes down to brain science. At their most basic stories are descriptions of events with characters who have goals, who overcome challenges to achieve those goals and are changed in the process. When a story draws us into conflict our bodies release the hormone cortisol, often described as nature’s built in alarm system. When active, it increases our heart rate and focuses our attention. In the midst of a well-crafted story that focus leads us to what is known as narrative transportation.
Hamby: This holistic experience of suspending your disbelief in mentally relocating to the world of the story. I shift the center of my orientation. So usually I’m looking out my own eyes at the world around me. I’m instead in the story world.
Storr: When you’re transported into the story world, the parts of your brain which are involved with your sense of self and what’s going on in the here and now are kind of suppressed as the story world kind of takes over.
Baldacci: The characters are the only way that I can engage the reader on a human level. What matters is what’s going to happen to the people in the plot. I have to make them as real as I possibly can.
Archer: They did a survey recently on my book, on the 10 things that most attracted people to reading one of my books. And I thought storytelling would be top and it wasn’t. Characters were top and storytelling was second.
Resonant characters and conflict are also important because, once those characters we’re now rooting for resolve their conflict, our bodies release another chemical, dopamine.
This neurotransmitter is connected with complex thinking, information retention, and pleasure. When dopamine is present, we’re more likely to remember whatever we’re experiencing at the time. That’s why stories are such an effective way for us to learn and remember. The superpower of narrative transportation is no accident. It’s been formed over millennia of evolution. For early human communities the role of the storyteller, was a vaulted one, as it had the power to bring meaning to a sometimes brutally, incomprehensible, senseless world. Important information to ensure our survival.
Hamby: Story is democratic. We don’t have to be taught how to speak in stories. We have to be taught how to think in terms of logic.
Storr: Stories, classically, are kind of lessons in life. You know, not how we become good at certain skills but how we become better at the complicated business of living with other people, and thriving in a community of kind of conflicting minds. That’s the great challenge of humanity. That’s the difficult thing about being human is on the one hand we’re apes, we’re capable of selfishness and aggression, but on the other hand we’re very tolerant and we’re very good at working with each other and kind of almost manipulating each other. And stories really tell us how to go about that very difficult business rather than how to master certain skills like an instruction manual.
But today our brains, evolved to use story for survival, are surrounded by a forest of narratives that spread faster than we can process them. And this makes us prey to manipulation. As much as we’d like to think our 21st century lives are guided by careful analysis of facts and rational discussion, we really understand the world just as much, if not more, through the stories we hear from the news, politicians, social media and advertising.
Storr: One of the studies that I’ve written about looked at the difference in reporting of spree killers and in the West, the reporting of spree killers tends to be, “They’re a bad person, they did this because they’re evil, they’re a terrible, terrible individual.” Whereas the same kinds of crimes in East Asia are reported very much, they feed much more contextual information and it’s a bunch more about, “They just lost their job, they had an argument with their wife.” There’s all this kind of, morally-less-satisfying information is seen as pertinent, whereas in the West we’re much more about the individual character. Are they a good, or are they bad? Whereas in East Asia they’ve got much more tolerance for the kind of ambiguity about this stuff.
And the stories we receive from the media and public figures are most effective when they build on the biases and assumptions we’ve learned from previous stories. Successfully refuting the assumptions that align with the stories we’ve already absorbed is a much more difficult task.
Hamby: In order to engage our rational mind we need something to really trip that wire to trigger it because it’s not our natural way of thinking. The fact is that en masse, we are emotional beings. And if there’s a good story that we buy into, right? You might read this in the news: “Vaccines cause autism.” Later on I give you a PSA: “Vaccines don’t cause autism.” Later on I’m going to come back and ask you, you know, what is the truth here? And people will say they can hold both at the same time, even though you can tell me later on that you saw a PSA that said that it didn’t. The most effective way to dispel misinformation or these false stories is to give people an alternative causal explanation. So basically if you think about it like bricks in a wall, these things are all interconnected. If I pull out a brick, I got to plug it with something else. If I give you another explanation for it. So if I tell you that the study was false like, either the authors falsified it or the data was somehow junk people remember that, right? There’s a causal explanation.
Understanding how stories manipulate our brains doesn’t dilute their transformative power. But not all stories prey on our easily charged emotions for the sake of manipulation. Even in our current, saturated storytelling ecosystem they can still bring us together. They can help us listen to and understand one another no matter what our differences are. Case in point, three letters Jeffrey Archer recently received.
Archer: One was from a 12 year old girl in India. One was from a Queen’s council lady, and one was from a book shop lady. And the three of them really couldn’t be much more different, but yet all three are reading the latest book.
Baldacci: I think for every book that I’ve written, it changes me as a person because I’ve taken something very intimate that I’ve given a lot of thought to put it down on a piece of paper and send it out to people I don’t know all over the world and they read it and interpret it however way they want.
But as one paternal character in a well-known spider-centric story memorably explained, with great power comes great responsibility. In a world where more and more stories compete for our attention and energy we can’t afford to be mere passive listeners. We need to be critical of how our stories can bring us together but also keep us apart.
Storr: One of the, sort of really unfortunate ramifications of the storytelling brain is that we don’t see our opposites as people who have sincerely come to an alternative conclusion about reality. We see our opposites as these kind of heroic enemies. They’re villains, they’re evil.
Hamby: It’s easier to tell an emotionally evocative negative story. You know, we’re, bad is stronger than good. That’s sort of one of our fundamental wiring principles. So if I’m going to go to the negative and point to threats, it’s easier to get our tribe you know, mobilize our tribe around this negative thing.
One remedy might be for us to individually expand the pool of stories we consume. So one narrative doesn’t dominate. Not easy, but also not impossible. Car commercials, social media posts, news articles, novels even rumors or conspiracy theories. This is the muddy pool of narratives we’ve been dunked in. And we’re wading through this modern day morass with brains that evolved to grasp for the stories that would stop us from drowning. We are formed by story. The stories we are told, the stories we tell, and the stories that are told about us. Those we choose to listen to and repeat, and those we choose to not hear, will in time become the stories that will be told about us, of nobility, of heroism, of kindness and compassion, of how our rejection of falsehoods, of divisiveness, of hatred helped us and our children and grandchildren to evolve to become more united, stronger or not.