Friday, November 21, 2014

We Are Wired For Story

Validation for your choices in life come in many flavors, but the best flavor is scientific backing.

In her TED talk, "Wired for story", Lisa Cron provided great insight into why we humans can't help ourselves from getting absorbed in a good story. It led to our very survival. Turns out we aren't wired too well to take in facts and figures with any level of detail if they are simply told to us; but wrap those same details up in a good story and we usually walk away remembering them, or even better, getting the point of what they were meant to imply upon us in the first place.

One day, long ago, one of our early ancestors was walking along a path in the forest. He'd been traveling for days and he'd run out of his rations two days prior. He was hungry, and the game in the forest wasn't cooperating in his hunting them. Now he came across a bush covered in small round pellet-like red berries with long narrow green leaves. His mouth watered in delight...

Now, if someone had set him down as a kid and given him a verbal list of berries, describing which kinds were edible and which were not, it might be very tough for him to remember years later if the berries he now found were okay or not. After all, remembering the many hundreds or thousands of different plants in the forest would be a challenge for anyone, and quite boring too when given just as naked facts.

But what if, as Lisa Cron suggests in her talk, the man had heard a story about Caveman Bob, a family neighbor from his days a kid in Bedrock, and how Caveman Bob had eaten a handful of red deer pellet-like berries growing on a green bush with leaves that looked like the fingers of a small forest creature? And at the end of that story, Caveman Bob never came out of his cave again?

Chances are our protagonist would remember such a tale involving red deer poop-like looking berries with small forest creature fingers for leaves. It's interesting and draws our attention more than "red berry about the width of a small fingernail and with four to five green leaves about two small twigs in width and one slimy slug in length.

Story saved our lives and let us evolve into who we are today.

But we take away many more things from story than just how to live in a forest. We grow up with stories in books and movies, learning about love and loss, and how to handle and deal with both respectively. They teach us sometimes about how to be good parents or deal with adversity. Story does a lot for us without us even realizing it, though marketers sure understand the value of it! Of course, story can also teach us how to be bad, and that's not such a great thing.

As a writer, though, (and for all those other writers out there) there's another takeaway from Lisa's TED talk. It's near the end, and number two of her three last thoughts she leaves us with. Look for it around 16:43 in the talk.

To paraphrase: Don't explain something to someone, when you can better deliver the information in the form of a story. It'll stick with them longer.

From the writer's perspective that validates the age old advice about not using the expository, because you're better off passing along information to readers showing them through story.