Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Beware of...Stories"

We’re always getting warnings about something that can hurt us. Recently, it’s been tomatoes. I don’t care, I don’t eat tomatoes. I hate tomatoes. They’re gooshy inside with pulp and stringy stuff and seeds, just the thought of them makes me want to…ooch!

Sorry about that.

Most people like tomatoes. Until the reports started coming in. Now, when they pass the produce counter at the supermarket, there’s this nagging fear that, somewhere in that neatly stacked pile, there’s a tomato with their name on it.

I don’t know how serious the tomato scare is. (And I try not to gloat about it.) But I know this. Americans are generally more fearful about things than the evidence suggests we need to be.

Statistics tell us that crime, at least in major cities, is substantially down. We don’t believe it. How do I know? We don’t act like we believe it.

From the number of guns we buy, our elaborate security systems, the self-defence classes we take, and the big dogs with sharpened teeth we keep – not because we enjoy the company of big dogs with sharpened teeth – an objective observer would conclude that we’re living in some type of urban war zone. When we’re not.

Experts tell us there are a lot of dangers we worry about we have no reason to worry about, but we worry about them anyway. This leads some people to worry about the experts. Why are they telling us these things? Are they secretly in cahoots with the people we’re worried about, engaging in an insidious campaign to get us to drop our guards? Hey, it’s possible. As possible as many of the other things we worry about.

Why are we so fearful all the time, especially about things that, if we stopped and took a breath, we would realize aren’t anywhere near as threatening as our trying to protect ourselves against them suggests?

Some people blame the economy. When times are tough, people lose hope and blah. Others blame the growing disparity between rich and poor. Cultural diversity, that’s always a convenient place to point a finger.

Me, I blame what I believe is the most dangerous and overlooked panic inducer we’re confronted with today.


I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, perhaps with some eye rolling, “What is this fool talking about? Stories can’t hurt us. They’re just stories.” My response to that comment?

That’s exactly what they want us to believe.

Somewhere, cleverly eluding our reality-checking radar, stories are causing us to worry and sweat and feel anxious on elevators, wondering what that sinister-looking passenger standing behind us has in mind for us between floors. While the sinister-looking passenger’s wondering the same thing about us.

Please trust me on this. My opinions may be questionable concerning pretty much everything else, but you’d be wise not to write me off when it comes to my understanding of stories. I know stories. I’ve been around stories my entire adult life, and I’m telling you they’re dangerous.

What am I jabbering about? This. I already wrote a post called “The Audience Writes The Script.” That was about audience expectations, and how a decision to deviate from the audience’s expectations can endanger a writer’s health benefits. The issue today is how did the audience come by those expectations in the first place? You know who put those expectations in the audience’s head?


Stories are the enemy, and if we’re not careful, they’ll deliver us to Perdition. Every one of a story’s elements – the subject matter, the carefully crafted structure, the deliberate selection of every word and detail – is meticulously chosen – without any regard for the consequences – to grab the audience by the throat and hold them till “The End.”

It’s stories that have turned us into the lily-livered ‘fraidy cats we have unquestionably become. You can’t blame them, of course. They’re stories. It’s what they do?

Here’s an example of the damage stories cause.

Have you ever met anybody who was kidnapped? I haven’t. I mean, who knows? I may have met hundreds of them and they just didn’t like talking about it. Although, I mean, if they’re still around, that means, you know, they got ransomed or something, and everything ended up okay. Why wouldn’t they want to talk about it? No, the other thing is more likely. Nobody I ever met was ever kidnapped.

And yet, you know where I’m going here….

Without A Trace.

A successful weekly television series. Where every week. Somebody. Gets kidnapped.

They’re there. And then, they disappear.

Without a trace.

I haven’t watched Without A Trace that much, but it appears to be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, they find the people; sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they find them but they’re dead. Best case scenario, it doesn’t seem like a pleasant experience. “I was once kidnapped” is something you’re better off not having on your biographical resume.

The prospect of being kidnapped would scare anyone. If it happened with any regularity. But I don’t believe it does. So why do we act like it does? What makes up keep an anxious and ever wary eye on our children? Not facts. Not realistic concerns. Not evidence of some suddenly virulent kidnapping epidemic.


Stories make us believe things that are not factually the case.

Cheating spouses. Can you feel the inherent heat in that story? It’s wrong, it’s risky, it’s fraught with tension and messy complications? Cheating spouses is the perfect subject for a gripping story. Compared to it, “The Happy Couple” story doesn’t have a prayer. What can you do with it? A loving couple meets at the end of the day:

“Hi, Honey. How was your day?”

“Fine, thanks. And yours?”

“Good, thank you. Any thoughts about dinner?”

“I think we should order in.”

“Great. Is Thai food okay?”

“Let’s do it.”

I can’t write any more. It’s way too boring. (Unless it’s one of those Pinteresque “read between the lines” kind of stories where “How was your day?” really means “I’d like to smash your face in with a hammer!”)

A boring story will never see the light of day. Stories instinctively know that. With their existence on the line, stories understandably put their money on “couples who cheat” rather than “couples who order in.”

Yielding serious implications.

Do the math. Take all stories about couples, subtract the non-cheating stories – of which there aren’t any because they’re boring – and what do you have left? Cheating stories. One hundred per cent. And what conclusions would this suggest about the holy state of matrimony?

Everybody cheats!

And who’s to blame for this mathematically inaccurate conclusion?


To capture our attention, stories focus on the lurid and the extreme to the exclusion of the boring and the mundane. A steady diet of these stories inevitably alters our sense of proportion, distorting – in the direction of paranoia, suspicion and fear – our ordinary sense of everyday reality.

It’s only a great babysitter story if the babysitter threatens the baby. Without that, it’s surveillance tapes that can put you to sleep.

“We’re home. How’s the baby?”


Not a story.

“We’re home. How’s the baby?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Now we’re hooked.

How often do babysitters actually threaten the babies? Very close to never. How often do they threaten babies in stories? Every time. The result? The seed is planted, and a night out can never be the same. Whose fault is that? All together now…?

Sure, there are upbeat stories, but I’m not too concerned about an overabundance of hope. I think we can live with that. It’s the other stories – the ones we forget are made up, and suddenly, we’re acting like the world’s a scarier place than it actually is.

There is an antidote to this dangerous but under-appreciated threat to our national wellbeing. To survive their insidious effects, you must behave like you know the difference between saying “It’s only a story” and believing it’s “only a story.”

And here’s the first step. The next time your big dog’s teeth start to get a little dull, put down the file and leave the guy alone.


growingupartists said...

Good morning, good story!

impworks said...

I always thought Without a Trace was doing a good job of breaking the trend of police procedural shows where one murder is followed by multiple additional murders when the writers finding it hard to make it to the end of the page. You only have to look at the statistics that were produced last year about the life events that British soap opera characters experience compared to the general population to see how skewed drama is compared to real life to see why peoples view of the world is so wrong.

RMS said...

As a horror writer, I can attest to the fact the especially in horror, boring won't cut it.

Evil monster lurking in the sewer decides to let people live. Boring.

Evil monster lurking in the sewer starts stalking and eating people. Exciting!

Well, at least I think it's exciting. But I'm a horror writer and I'm twisted that way.

Anonymous said...

You could say our gullibility is the enemy, not stories. If you think people get kidnapped weekly, that's your fault. God forbid someone make an interesting story about something thrilling happening.

Dimension Skipper said...

I recently was reading this LiveScience article, "Why People Live in Wildfire Zones" (by Jacqueline Meszaros, National Science Foundation), and this bit seems relevant...

"Understanding risk and taking acceptable action is complex," says Paul Slovic.

For decades scientists like Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore. and president of the Decision Research group there, have studied aspects of these difficult questions.

For example, researchers have identified why some people tend to overestimate or underestimate the risks of certain hazards. Hazards that are familiar, visible, and well understood draw less concern than new, invisible, or less understood hazards.

Wildfire is a good illustration. In general, people are familiar with fire and understand a good deal about its mechanics, so fire risks are often underestimated or discounted. In contrast, the unfamiliar, invisible hazards posed by electromagnetic radiation tend to appear riskier and draw more concern and demands for government control.

So a known and seemingly understood threat just doesn't seem as, well, threatening as the obscure ones which folks become aware of (via stories) and then tend to exaggerate due to runaway imaginations.

Matt-Man said...

In relation to the tomato, and everything scary in this world, I recommend the French documentary: 'The World According to Monsanto.'

It'll make your blood run cold North America!

Matt-Man said...

Here's the link.

I don't know how to link. But here's the copy/paste.

Anonymous said...

Funny how some people still don't know we eat genetically modified crap in North America, yet they banned it in Europe.