Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 20 August 2019

What's the story?

Storytelling stereotypes can distort our perception of reality

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Whether it's a yarn told over a pint, or a sweeping saga that unfolds on the big screen, we all love a good story.

Storytelling is essential to the human experience and, arguably, the oldest art form, but have you ever wondered why we are so drawn to it?

I've heard lots of high-brow theories but the one that sticks out comes from an unlikely source: World War II film, Their Finest.

The 2016 film tells the story of a group of Ministry Of Information scriptwriters as they get to grips with the production of a feature-length propaganda film, and there's a wonderful scene in which one of the scriptwriters explains the lure of storytelling to another.

"Why do you think that people like films?" he asks. "It's because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things go bad they're still a part of a plan; there's a point to them... Unlike life."

This makes sense to me. No matter how sophisticated the style, every story has an arc that we recognise and archetypes that we've encountered before. And when we can't predict what's going to happen tomorrow, that's a reassuringly predictable proposition.

According to Christopher Booker, author of Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, we perpetually return to a small number of basic stories "which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever to break away from them".

The question, then, is whether these plots impact the stories that we tell ourselves. Do they influence the way we integrate our life experiences? Are we following narrative structure when we neatly compartmentalise the chronology of our lives into 'chapters' and 'acts'.

We certainly use storytelling as a tool to process the ups and downs. 'Narrative identity' - as it is known by psychologists - is our tendency to identify with the 'story' that we cobble together from our life experiences.

The trouble with narrative identity is that we tend to follow the same rules as the writer. We concentrate on the salient and edit out the extraneous and, like any good story, there is always conflict, climax and resolution.

Self-narration is handy for the brain, which loves patterns, efficiency and shortcuts. It can become troublesome, however, when we start shaping our 'stories' around traditional storytelling plots, and taking artistic licence with our own lives.

Sure, we all know that life isn't like the movies. We know that we don't ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Nonetheless, there are plenty of storytelling archetypes that we seem to have integrated at an unconscious level.

We're beginning to realise that stock characters and gender stereotypes influence the way we perceive the world.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained it beautifully in her TED talk 'The Danger of a Single Story'.

"When I began to write, at about the age of seven," she explained, "I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples."

Is it too far an extrapolation to suggest that story arcs and archetypes can have the same effect? Just as a little girl may come to believe that all princesses have blue eyes and blonde hair, could she grow up to believe that there is only one perfect prince for her?

The myth of 'The One' is perhaps the most pervasive story archetype that we have integrated into our lives. Some of us believe that there is that one special person for us but the truth is much less enchanting. We meet people through proximity, and we connect with people who resonate with us at that point in time.

'The One' is the one who is in your life right now, although frogs and princes make for a better story...

Stories give us resolution: bad guys usually get their comeuppance and good guys usually get vindicated. This isn't how it rolls in real life, although the 'just world fallacy' - a cognitive bias that makes us believe that actions have just consequences - would suggest that we have trouble coming to terms with this existential unfairness.

The 'hero's quest' is another archetype that we have readily bought into. Because we've read so many books about great voyages of discovery, some of us seem to think that we have to embark on a peripatetic adventure to 'find oneself'. It's true that travel is soul-stretching but it's unlikely that your true self is hiding behind a mountain in the Himalayas.

Stories about reinvention, whether it's 'rags to riches' or 'zero to hero', also give us false ideas. Indeed, they're probably behind our preoccupation with 'New Year, New You' campaigns and 'change your life in 30 days' self-help books.

This brings us to the neat conclusion. Not every story has a happy ending, but there is always an ending - and usually a dramatic one. This is most likely where the great myth of 'closure' comes from. Some of us feel that we "need closure" before we can move on from a traumatic situation, but in life, unlike in story, there isn't always a tidy denouement.

Yes, stories certainly change the way we look at life but, every now and again, it's worth asking if they've distorted your perception entirely.

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