Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fiction: Bringing Order to Chaos

Real life is random.  It’s boring, chaotic, imperfect.  Dangerous. That’s why it’s so temping to retreat into the comfort of a good book.  A story gives shape to the disorder of human experience.  It means something.

To create stories that capture and intrigue us, a fiction writer takes a series of events and gives them context.  She puts them in a frame and tells us what to focus on, which details are important.  Which are not.  
Photo by Dan Holm

In his book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: HOW STORIES MAKE US HUMAN, Jonathan Gottschall says our storytelling mind “allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly and meaningful.”  Randomness makes us so comfortable, our minds look for patterns in everything. This capacity isn’t without its drawbacks, because the tendency for us to crave pattern also makes us vulnerable to getting it wrong.  Gottschall says our brain is “a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

That's why I mostly find most "reality" TV shows unwatchable. In order to connect with the viewer, a reality show needs to tell us a coherent story.  But since a series of events by themselves don't make a story, no matter much action is packed in, it's up to the producers to create one.  To achieve this, they pump up the conflict between the participants, take events out of context, and warp the meaning of unimportant details.  Participants are steered in directions they might not ordinarily go, act in ways they wouldn’t normally, act and say things they’ve been told to say.  Yeah, OK, it's compelling, it's interesting, but it's not reality.

Fiction is made up, but at least you know that going in.  If you look at it that way, and a novel is way more honest than any reality TV show.

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