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Human Imperfection, Spirituality & Storytelling

I should start out by saying that this is an old book. It was originally published in 1993, and it’s a storytelling book on a very philosophical level.
It’s more about human beings than about the stories. As human beings we are all imperfect. We don’t have all the answers. We’re often wrong. Paradoxical. And it’s storytelling that can somehow embrace all of that, express all of that.

Instead of having the right questions, storytelling enables us to ask the right questions. And accept the fact that sometimes there aren’t clear cut answers.


Learning Through Stories

Annie Murphy Paul has started a project on her blog that she calles Learning Through Stories.

A lot of scientific research—and our own experience—demonstrates that we understand and remember material best when it’s presented to us as a narrative, or when we tell our own story about it.

We love the approach (no surprise here). After all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau proved a long time ago with his book Emile: Or, On Education that stories are a great vehicle even for teaching complex ideas. One of the most recent attempts to teach a complex body of knowledge through a story (and I mean a real, long, thick-book kind of story) was David Brooks The Social Animal.

The Learning Through Stories project will be micro-stories (probably not even short stories), but that’s cool because you can learn one step at a time, and let’s be honest, the longer the story the smaller the chance that we’ll actually read it (and learn from it).

You can check it out – her first post of the Learning Through Stories series is about stories of how you learned to ride a bicycle. And it teaches valuable lessons about how learning can best be encouraged.


Well, I think rules might not be the best word – it’s more a form – something that you can use to make writing a great story easier.

  1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
  2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
  3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
  4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
  5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
  6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

I think there is a lot obvious truth to rule #1. After all, if you don’t pick the most intriguing place to begin with, you’ll probably won’t suck a reader into your story.

But I wonder abour rule #6 – can’t you really start with something that’s going on in a character head? It seems that this rule could easily be broken without risking to write a a bad story.


And on the next slide you can see how our focusing on our core activities helped to exceed sales expectations blabla for the third consecutive bla quarter in blablabla…

Well, that’s not really effective speech unless you the goal of your communication is to bore your listeners to death.

Read more…


Storytelling Magicians

Did you know there are storytelling magicians? Yep, literally magicians – performers who use the power of story to create magic shows. It’s quite interesting, and I’d love to see them in action.

Narrative, which engages processing power in the brain by creating an interesting plot that the listener then follows, was effectively employed by attendee magicians such as American magician and debunker extraordinaire James “the Amazing” Randi and Spanish magician Kiko Pastur. Both demonstrated how they make heavy use of a storyline to misdirect, with delightful effect.

As he makes jokes with audience members, Robbins’ questions are also intended to create internal dialogue that eats up some of the brain’s bandwidth. He said he tries to engage what he calls the brain’s “two security guards.” The idea is to get the two talking to each other about what to watch out for, making thievery easier to conduct while the metaphorical guards are distracted. “We have only so many mental dollars that we get to spend,” he added. Once they’re consumed, the victim has no more left to focus on what is really happening. Presto! The wallet is gone.



Storytelling: The Anti-Science

Story is the antiscience. Why? Because while science generalizes, stories individualize. That’s the idea of How Stories Mislead Us:

Story-telling, Cowen notes, is the antithesis of scientific thinking. Stories, as all those how-to-write advice books keep telling you, are about individuals. Data denies this individuality. When an insurance company predicts that 400 people will die in traffic accidents over a holiday weekend, they’re viewing all drivers as interchangeable: […]

By their nature, then, stories invite us to look for unique causes—aspects of Joe’s character, unfortunate timings (going for a drink right after that break-up with Jane), tiny details (like the last drink he didn’t want but his friend was buying). That’s just the detail that is left out when we consider facts without narrative.

So science is a method for finding generalizations that can be used to explain what people-in-general experience, while narrative is a means of creating unique accounts of what I experienced, in all its fine-grained difference from what you did. Scientific reasoning and story-telling pull in opposite directions. This, as Cowen notes, creates a peculiar problem for those of us who create narratives about science. We’re using stories to explain anti-story thinking.


narratives are simple. What is ambiguous, inexplicable and accidental tends to get filtered out of them, leaving an impression that the world is more orderly and predictable than it really is.

Do you agree with this? I don’t – rather, it really depends on the design of the narrative. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book, and you kind of wondered: well, who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy in that story?

There is no doubt that in many cases, particularly successful Hollywood blockbusters, the line between good and bad is drawn vividly – the villain and the hero. But there are many stories that allow for a more differentiated view, and in fact, I would argue that stories can make ambiguity understandable in a much deeper way than facts can.So stories incline us to blame (this didn’t just happen, it’s their fault) and to hubris (I know the real story, I don’t care what other evidence you want to present). Then, too, we don’t have a lot of different forms for our stories. Under all their variety are a few structures that occur again and again. So thinking in narrative encourages us to see disparate experiences as if they were the same (as in, “I’m turning into my mother!” or “Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again!”). And, of course, stories compel our attention and emotions, so people who tell us a powerful story can manipulate us.



Why is it that the words “Once upon a time…” have such a strong psychological impact on us? And it’s not just in the English languages – most languages have their own equivalent of these introductation to a story or fairy tale, like the German “Es war einmal, vor langer, langer Zeit…”

Maria Konnikova tries to answer this question in an Article for the Scientific American.

She argues that for one, it’s the psychological distance that these words create for us – if something happened once upon a time, we do know that it won’t affect us now. And that’s why we’re ready to deal with terrifying adventures, gruesome monsters, and so on.

Another effect of the phrase once upon a time is that it’s vague – and while most of us don’t like vagueness in our own lifes, we do love it in fairy tales.

 I can try out scenarios I otherwise wouldn’t. I can meet and understand people I never would in my everyday life. I can indulge in abstraction and play, engage my curiosity and foster my creativity, and remain the whole time protected by that vague veneer of once.

You can read the full article here: The Power of “Once upon a Time”: A Story to Tame The Wild Things


Adam Westbrook is concerned that journalists are not using enough storytelling to help people make sense out of the news they report.

He also comments on some online particularities (writing a lot for search engines, vs. writing less but more narrative):

Slate Magazine for some time pursued stories to appeal to search engines and to get the all-important clicks. But then they tried an experiment in pursuing long-form, original journalism, framed in high-quality storytelling. What happened? They published 33 per cent fewer stories, O’Leary reports, but saw a 40 per cent rise in traffic. A similar experiment by Gawker found original reporting got more views per article than viral rehashing.

He continues:

the only way to build an audience around your content […] is through the hot pursuit of quality over mediocrity. In taking time to craft a narrative, the way an artist crafts a painting.

It’s very true that in the online world, fast & easy is very much the default mode. But that’s not really what’s best for the reader.

You can read the rest of the article here.