an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danaylov
We started our thought experiment with Kenneth Burke’s definition of story as “equipment for living.” Burke offers a great start but it is Jeff DeChambeau who really brings all the essential elements together in defining story as “information processing technology.” And, whether we realize it or not, it is among the oldest, most powerful and longest lasting technologies we have. But let’s break it apart and take a closer look to see how and why DeChambeau’s definition works so well.
The first thing we ought to note is that story is about information. It started around the Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years ago when we had no writing and story was the vehicle which carried information from one generation to the next. Then we invented writing and moved from the oral to the written word. But story got even more powerful because we could suddenly send information both across space and time. Even today, in the age of 24-hour-news, social media, YouTube videos, and audio podcasts, the most popular and powerful memes still come wrapped in some kind of story. Because story was and continues to be the best vehicle for capturing, carrying and transmitting information.
The second is that story is about processing – i.e. organizing said information in a way that provides new insight we did not have before. In other words, a story can take data and make sense of it. So it turns information into knowledge. Because there is a point to using story, a lesson to be learned.
The third part is that it is technology because story is a conceptual tool created by homo sapiens to make sense of the world. [For example, Kevin Kelly defines technology as “anything useful invented by a mind.”] That’s why Robert McKee notes: “Story is about trying to make sense out of the confusion, chaos, and terror of being a human being.” And as any good tool, we can apply story to many a problem to help us understand, make sense of and deal with it. No story, no way to organize information, no way to process it, no way to make sense of, remember or understand. Because story is ultimately about understanding. [More on that in Chapter 4 and 7.]
Story also has very specific features, characteristics, and structure that make it both powerful and unique. And it is neither simple narrative nor mere propaganda.
For example, story is different from narrative just like chronicles are different from history. Because chronicles and annals are but a sequence of often random chronological occurrences, without any connection, common theme or thread. Which is why they are so boring, tedious, hard to follow and hard to remember. Unfortunately, even today, too many mistake narrative for story and then wonder why they fail to connect with people and get support for their goals. To turn a narrative into a story we need a unifying theme, a greater point of view, a moral or a lesson that will allow us to not only remember and organize but also process and understand what has occurred, why, and what might be next.
That is why Hayden White argued that the moment we brought story to narrative is the moment we gave birth to history. In the words of David Campbell “history proper requires the narration of events so that they are ‘revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as a mere sequence.” For both White and Campbell, it is only after embracing a meaningful structure that history proper breaks from the ranks of the ancient annals and chronicles, and claims its modern day place among the other sciences.
Story is also different from propaganda because story is about the audience, not about the storyteller. This is a critical point to understand. A story is not about the storyteller’s ego or agenda. It is about the audience – informing, entertaining, enriching and teaching them something worthwhile. That is why your press release is not a story. Neither are your latest news, greatest achievements, biggest product launch, volunteer work and charity donations. Those are all about you. Those are all propaganda.
A story also has a particular structure – i.e. it has a beginning, middle and end. So, while the characters, places or even the objectives can change, the structure remains mostly the same:
Beginning: Shit happens.
The beginning sets the problem and creates intrigue – i.e. it hooks the audience to the plot and whets their curiosity as per how the problem might be resolved. Who, what, why, when and where?
Middle: Shit happens to [good] people like us.
This is the struggle – where all the drama of the story unfolds, while our protagonists – who are in some important ways very much like us, struggle to overcome the problem. What was the struggle? What was done to overcome it?
End: What we learn from shit.
This is the resolution – what did we learn from this particular story.
In short, the structure of a story is basically a roller coaster where we go down and up and down and up again. As David Sloly noted in his TEDx talk:
“Stories are like roller coasters – they’re only any good if they’re coming up and down.”