Why story-telling is a thing

Good writers also need to be experts at telling stories

Pretty much everyone has looked at a cloud and seen a face. This is called pareidolia and is such a common experience one might stop to ask why.

Science has still to provide a definitive answer but I like Carl Sagan's theory. He thought it was an evolutionary safety device. See a face in the leaves of a bush where there isn't one and it does no harm. Miss the face of a tiger in a bush where there actually is one and it is likely to be fatal.

Rock formation on Mars... or a face?

If he's right, all the people who see too few faces were eaten by tigers generations ago, while all the people who see too many faces... well, they are we.

We are programmed to look for patterns as a matter of survival and so it is a daily experience to see shapes where there are none.

It is my contention that this overzealous search for patterns goes well beyond shapes. There are patterns in events too. And we search for familiar, easy-to-understand patterns in events because spotting these too could save our lives. We call this type of pattern a story.

If we write in a story format, our ideas fit seamlessly into the story of our readers' lives.

Stories are so deep-rooted in the human psyche that it can be difficult to define what makes something a story rather than merely a collection of information. There is a narrative, a flow, a progression in events that is familiar to us and so we understand more quickly how to react.

But language does more than help one human being communicate with another. We also use language to think about things and understand life. Often we use a story format as a way of thinking in advance about how events might unfold. A bit like a flight simulator, we use it to prepare for things to come, and especially in working out how we are going to interact with other people.

I am meeting a girl for a drink after work in the hope it will eventually lead to marriage (and other possibilities). I will make sure I arrive early and find a spot at the bar where I can see her arrive. I will lean nonchalantly on the bar so she thinks I look cool. I will buy myself a red wine so she doesn't think I'm a lager lout but she can see I'm a sociable kind of guy. When she arrives I will complement her on her clothes because that's the kind of thing that gets the conversation going with girls.

This thought process uses a story format throughout.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.

This is why story-telling is such a powerful idea. If we write in a story format, our ideas fit seamlessly into the story of our readers' lives. It makes it easier for them to understand, it makes our writing more interesting to them, and it makes what we have to say more memorable.

The essential elements of a story

Stories can be short or long. In many situations, short stories work best because of our reader's limited attention span. So it is a good idea to look at the essential elements of a story.

Although story-tellers use all sorts of devices, in my view there are only three things you need to make something a story:

  1. A character the reader can identify with. 
  2. A plot -- an event or sequence of events that is easy to understand and provides some excitement. 
  3. Context -- why the characters are doing the things they're doing and why the reader should care.

Even a single sentence can be a story if you include the essential elements: someone did something for some reason.

I am meeting a girl after work because it's time I settled down and married. (my internal thoughts)

Cheryl Cole married her French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini in secret earlier this month, [...] and said she had made the announcement to stop speculation about her private life. (BBC News)

A girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then. It is something to think of. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

You will react to these stories in a way that depends on your own internal story. But compare them with your reaction to information that does not fit the story-telling model:

The commercial property market is very different to the residential one – from the types of buildings that it consists of, the factors that affect it and its implications for an investment portfolio. (M&G Investments)

It doesn't fit with the way I think nor does it create a pattern I recognise. I find it harder to understand. My reaction may be to lose interest but it is also tinged with suspicion. But there is a story within the this information (really within any worthwhile information) if we look hard enough.

You want to buy offices because you think they will make you more money than renting houses or flats.  But watch out for traps because they are a different type of investment.

Forcing sentences into the format someone did something for some reason turns your writing into story-telling. And your readers will thank you for it.