This column originally appeared in the Craft section of the South African website The Journalist.
“People think in terms of stories. They understand the world in terms of stories that they have already understood. New events or problems are understood by reference to old previously understood stories and explained to others by the use of stories. We understand personal problems and relations between people through stories that typify those situations. We understand just about everything else this way as well. In the end all we have, machine or human, are stories and methods of finding and using those stories.”
Roger C. Schank, Director, Institute For the Learning Sciences, Northwestern University.
Tell Me A Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory
We, the people, learned to talk to each other 500,000 years ago, give or take a millennium or two.
We used sounds to pass on information, one to the other. Simple sounds for anger, fear, warning, sabre-toothed tiger, water, food, hunger, lust.
Survival information. Facts.
Sounds became words. Vocabularies grew. Words were strung together to make simple sentences. The sentences gave crude, basic information.
Over the next few hundred thousand years we formed words into more intricate and complicated thoughts as our societies, our tribes — our needs — became more complex. Slowly, slowly we learned to communicate concepts and ideas through sounds.
We didn’t just pass on primitive factual information any more. Now we could communicate complex intellectual and emotional information too.
A miracle happened. We could reason. We could use words to communicate not just the facts about an event but its meaning too.
Now we were able to pass on information and bring understanding, one to the other.
As we evolved, we learned from the experiences of other members of the tribe. So we could avoid making some of the mistakes other people made.
Like eating green meat. Petting sabre-toothed tigers. Laughing at God.
A truly vital and elemental part of the bringing of understanding was learning to put the information into human and emotional terms so it became accessible, recognisable and relevant to other humans.
So we learned to gossip — to tell stories about other people. It was important. Very important.
It was the first primitive step in what was to become today’s Information Age.
It was the start of journalism.
The stories communicated complex survival information.
• Why we shouldn’t swim with sharks, hunt in blizzards, eat rotten meat or make babies with strangers.
• How to survive in the tribe without killing or being killed.
• Why and how we should worship the god of the tribe’s choice.
• Why all other religions are merely savage superstitions while ours is the one true faith.
• Why our tribe is so obviously superior to the filthy heathen who piss in the river upstream.
• Who in the tribe is allowed to do what to whom and with what.
• Why and how women and men are different. And what to do about it.
• Why we are.
• Who we are.
• Where we come from.
• Where we go.
• And, of course, the ever-popular Meaning of Life.
The stories are, mostly, morality tales — parables reporting the particular to illustrate and illuminate the general.
The stories tell how to behave in the tribe and how to behave with other tribes. They are always about people. Sometimes, people behaving like gods. Sometimes gods behaving like people. Sometimes people behaving like animals. Sometimes, animals behaving like people.
Over the millennia, they brought us understanding that, quite literally, helps us survive in a hostile world.
Many of the same myths, legends and fairy tales with the same universal meanings, survive to this day.
They touch our humanity. And, through our humanity, our self-interest. So we care.
Storytelling — this miraculous new invention, this incredible leap forward for humankind — is at the very heart of our humanity.
Think of the stories in the various Bibles and Qur’an.
Think of the bedtime stories parents tell children.
Think of the entirely unimportant stories we first tell each other when establishing or re-establishing relationships with other people — why we’re late, how the weather is affecting us, how great the other person’s looking.
Storytelling seems to be bred in the bone — part of our genes — like a child’s miraculous ability to pick up a language.
In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that children are born with a built-in language (maybe, even the original Khoi-San from southern Africa).
As they grow, they listen carefully to the sounds spoken around them and carefully work out their cause and effect. Until, within an amazingly short time, they start to speak whichever language dominates their environment.
Storytelling goes back, through the mists of the millennia, to our very roots, touches something ancient, primary and elemental inside us all.
• Storytelling takes up most of the conversation when we get together with other people.
• Storytelling makes information relevant, accessible, digestible and retainable.
• Storytelling seems to be a key part of our collective unconscious.
• Storytelling design and structure is pretty much the same in all tribes. Always has been. Probably always will be.
All of us are, in a way, the end result of the accumulation of stories we’ve heard.
James Fernandez of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, put it this way in a lecture I attended:
“Storytelling may be at the very centre of human life. It is possible that, in the end, it all comes down to storytelling.”
Fernandez believes that, as human beings, we have a deep, innate need to share and experience vicariously the various difficulties, dilemmas and delights of being human.
And the best way to do that, he says, is through storytelling.
Screenwriter Robert McKee lectures internationally on how storytelling shapes movies. He also analyses every scene and most of the frames in the movie Casablanca. And (for reasons not entirely clear) sings its theme song, As Time Goes By, at the end of the lecture.
He lectures better than he sings.
I hear him tell a Toronto audience:
“Storytelling fundamentals are the same forever and everywhere because storytelling is a metaphor for life and life is the same everywhere.”
All good stories share some common characteristics.
In the classic tale someone goes on a quest, is tested, overcomes obstacles, succeeds or fails at reaching a desired goal and, one way or another, returns.
The very essence of storytelling is the journey, the search. By definition the search involves change. And change almost always involves the questioning of values.
Storytelling teaches us how to deal with other people. How to survive. How and why to love, to lust, to hate, to worship.
To this day, stories about human relationships remain the focus of most of our conversations, most of the time, in all our tribes.
Journalists are the inheritors of this ancient and universal storytelling tradition.
Storytelling journalists establish a subliminal authenticity (whether they’re aware of it or not) by linking their stories to age-old legends.
Forging such links gives stories a deep and enduring recognition, makes the stories resonate in the minds of viewers. The links touch and trigger something deep and elemental in all of us.
So why have we journalists forgotten the incredible power of storytelling?
Why do we ignore the thousands of years of storytelling experience which teach us that storytelling is by far the most efficient and effective way of passing on information, one to the other?
Why do we start stories at the end — the most recent event, the climax — instead of with the beginning, which is the traditional way all good stories start?
Is it simply that we’ve forgotten the ancient storytelling introduction — once upon a time …
Have we forgotten the awesome power of cause and effect?
Storytelling is always journalism.
Journalism should always be storytelling.