Stories, Take Two

A few weeks ago I wrote about Stories vs. Theories as two different ways of making sense of the world.

In a nutshell:

Stories help us reason about our shared experiences and what it means to be human. Theories help us reason about everything else.

Today I'd like to follow up with a few more thoughts (very scattered) on the role of stories, and how they are used — and abused — as instruments.

What it means to be human

Daniel Dennett writes of modern consciousness as a narrative center of gravity. Homo narrans, others have called our species. A recent article making the rounds (The Secret Lives of Stories) quotes Muriel Rukeyser:

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

Not to be taken literally, I imagine, but by which she means that stories give meaning to our lives.

This narrative tendency plays out both individually and collectively. Stories make the man, and history makes the nation. Without a shared story, a group is just so many individuals.

Empathy and peace

Though I haven't read it, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature apparently cites the novel — and the way it extends our empathic reach — as a key development in helping to create a more peaceful world.

David Foster Wallace believed that the purpose of fiction is to connect:

We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.

Or as Jonathan Franzen put it in his elegy to DFW, fiction provides a

neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being... a way out of loneliness.

+1 for stories.

Politics and conflict

A friend writes:

Stories are more useful for working through problems on the scope of an individual or smallish group of individuals. There are narratives for larger groups as well, of course, but stories are used generally to manipulate large groups rather than help them actually solve something. [emphasis mine]

How are stories used to manipulate large groups? As Venkat says, by creating schisms:

[A]lmost anyone can be made to ally with, or turn against, anybody else, with no need to manufacture reasons. Almost any sub-group can be played off against any other sub-group, since there are no absolute loyalties. The presence of myriad fault-lines within a ... group presents a canvas for divide-and-conquer artistry.

Creating schisms through storytelling is one of the great dark arts of politics. Depending on the desired outcome, the schism can be internal vs. external (us vs. them), or internal vs. internal. The former enhances solidarity among the group; the latter stokes conflict.

In the US political ecosystem, for example, a politician has many internal fault lines along which to stoke conflict:

  • race/ethnicity (white vs. black, white vs. minorities)
  • class/wealth (99% vs. 1%, taxpayers vs. welfare recipients)
  • national origin (US-born citizens vs. immigrants)
  • religion (religious vs. secular, Christian vs. Muslim)
  • political affiliation (liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican)
  • employment status (labor vs. management, citizens vs. undocumented workers)

Some of these are considered taboo (or at least in bad taste), but most are embraced with enthusiasm by the voting public. Much of the art lies in determining which division to play up in order to achieve a particular political outcome.


Stories form the basis of most religions, helping to answer questions about the ultimate conditions of our existence: Where did we come from? Who are we? And where are we going? In Religion is Not About God, Loyal Rue describes religion as a mythic or narrative core supported by various ancillary strategies (aesthetic, institutional, intellectual, ritual, and experiential).

The human body

We live in an increasingly Cartesian world (split between mind and body), but the body still plays a fundamental role in how we think, feel, and behave.

Perhaps our embodiment explains why film is such an engaging medium — we get to see the body language, facial expressions, and eye contact of the characters.

Even within the medium of text, the body is important. Compare:

He was bored. His mind was empty.


He sat limp in his chair, blinking periodically and staring at nothing in particular.

The latter is much more compelling. But this is just the age-old principle: show, don't tell.

Morality plays

And the moral of the story is...

Stories told with a heavy hand offend me. If you have an axe to grind, don't whet it against my soft empathic brain. Have the courage to engage my skeptical analytic brain. We'll all be better off that way.

Painting someone as 'good' or 'bad' makes it harder to see him or her clearly. Telling a story of good vs. evil thrusts the reader into a first-person, subjective mindset, in which characters are evaluated by whether they are 'on our side' or 'against us.' It's like taking a grayscale image and amping up the contrast. It washes out the shades of gray, forcing every pixel to one side or the other — black or white. (Civil wars have the same effect — polarizing the landscape, forcing every person, like every pixel, to choose a side.)

A story that moralizes at me loses my respect. It smacks of melodrama, or Medieval morality plays.

Since I care about understanding the world, I find much more value in amoral stories. These are stories told without a good/evil polarity — where danger doesn't always escalate, and evil actions aren't always punished. Stories with an element of chaos (things happen, but not always for a reason). Stories with shifting alliances — every character a potential protagonist. I want my loyalties toyed with, as they are so often in life.

Amoral stories show a dedication to realism over fantasy. They're an attempt to show the world as it is, rather than how we'd like it to be.

Examples of amoral novels and movies abound, but it's hard to find TV shows that can keep their moral mouths shut. The Wire is the best example of amoral television. Deadwood comes in a close second. I've heard good things about Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad, and I've enjoyed The Tudors and Rome. (Any other recommendations? I'd love to hear them.)

This isn't to say I want my stories devoid of morality and ethics; that would be fatally bland. I love to watch danger unfold — but I want it drawn accurately, by the careful hand of a storyteller attuned to reality.


Perhaps owing to their legibility and opportunities for empathy, stories are a great way to teach moral and ethical reasoning skills. And not just rules and precepts, but also how to recognize and deal with ethically charged situations. I touched on this, briefly, in Code Smells, Ethical Smells:

People hone their moral intuitions over the course of a lifetime. This begins when we are very young, and stories play a huge role in helping us see the patterns. This begins when we are very young, and stories play a huge role in helping us see the patterns.... A scenario is presented, often involving one or more bad ethical smells, and then we get to watch the consequences play out.

While this is often done in a heavy-handed way that I don't appreciate (aesthetically; see above), it's nevertheless very effective, for both children and adults.

Originally published January 7, 2013.