Stories All the Way Down

The name of this blog, Stories All the Way Down, comes from a presentation I gave back in my days in corporate and technical communication. There is a tendency in those fields to debate if storytelling is a relevant or useful tool for business and technical communication. My contention was, and is, that all communication is stories, and that it is stories all the way down. Stories are made up of stories and references to stories. Language itself is made up of stories and references to stories.

The formulation “stories all the way down” is a reference to that well known story whose punchline is “It’s turtles all the way down.” — as in the world stands on the back of a turtle, which stands on the back of another turtle, and so on all the way down.

Similarly, when we tell a story, that story is made up of references to other stories, and so on, all the way down.

If you hear the words “See spot run,” what pops into your head. Is it this:

Or maybe this?

Or, if you were brought up and educated in a particular time and place, probably this:

Different people see different things when they hear the words “see spot run” because they have different sets of stories in their heads. People who don’t know that “Spot” is a common dog’s name and were not brought up on Fun with Dick and Jane probably think of things that might run and that might occur in spots and imagine a spot of paint running. They search their experience for a story that makes sense of the words.

Lovers of Dalmatians and other spotted canine breeds, however, probably pull up a different story, that of a running dog.

Finally, those for whom the words”see spot run” takes them back to their first reading lessons, pull up a different story again.

It is by pulling up a story suggested by specific combination of words that we understand what a sentence means. If you can’t find a story to fit, you don’t know what the sentence means. Even if you can decode the grammar and vocabulary, you are left without a means to attach the words to anything concrete.

Of course, since we all come with a different stock of stories, we can misunderstand the meaning the author intended, as illustrated above. Sometimes we suspect the possibility of misunderstanding, and sometimes we don’t. Thus we have the celebrated recent case in which Naomi Wolf discovered, on air, that the premise of her forthcoming book was based on the misunderstanding of a 19th century legal term “death recorded” which does not mean, as you might reasonably think, if you did not know the story, that the prisoner was executed, but actually the exact opposite, that they were released. (Those lawyers and they wacky turns of phrase!)

It would be easy in such cases to say something snippy about doing your research, but it is really quite difficult sometimes to know that there is an entirely different story behind a phrase with an apparently obvious meaning, like, for instance, “see spot run”.

Language, even simple two and three word phrases, is made up of references to stories. It is stories all the way down.

Consider another phrase,

I met a man at the poker game and he gave me his card.

Which sort of card is referred to here?

Is it this one, as suggested by the reference to a poker game.

Or this one.

Despite the strong context clue provided by the reference to the poker game, and despite the fact that business cards, business colleagues, or a business setting are not in any way mentioned, most of us will assume that the card in question is a business card.

Why? Because we recognize elements of a familiar story here. We know that business people sometimes meet over cards, and that new business contacts are sometimes made in those meetings. And we recognize the phrase “gave me his card” as one that is used all the time to refer to someone giving someone a business card.

It is not the dictionary definition of the words or the grammatical analysis of sentence structure, nor yet the context provided by the reference to the word “poker”, that tells us what type of card is meant, it is our familiarity with a story about a common cultural practice andย  with a phrase commonly used to describe that practice.

Of course, the possible alternative meaning for the word “card”, that of a playing card, is suggested by a story too. The phrase”playing card” is never mentioned. We would only make the connection if we knew that poker is a game played with playing cards. Both potential meanings are based on the knowledge of stories, and the disambiguation is based on seeing one story signaled more strongly than the other.

Part of the reason that we so often fail to communicate what we intend is that we are addressing someone who does not know the particular story that we are referencing, or, as in Naomi Wolf’s case, they know a more concrete and precise story than you do. This is where ambiguity springs from.

But why is ambiguity of this sort so insidious and hard to spot? The reason, I believe, is that language is stories all the way down, and that when we construct a sentence, we are not conscious that we are constructing references to stories, we are just using the words in the way that most naturally expresses the meaning in our heads. We are not referring to stories consciously. We are doing so entirely tacitly, because that is how brains make language.

And this is just as well, because otherwise writing could be a very laborious activity. If we had to think through the stories all the way down behind everything we say or write, it would take a very long time to get anything said.

But while this tacit mechanism for encoding and decoding references to stories lets us communicate quickly — lets us encode and decode important phrases like “Duck” and “Turn right here” — in sufficient time to be useful, it also means that language is a much less precise instrument that we may naively take it for. What we say and write seems clear and precise to us because we know (tacitly) all the stories that we have tacitly referred to in composing it. It is inevitably less clear and precise to anyone who does not know the same stories, or who knows different stories that are invoked by the same words. And the more distant they are from us in experience, the greater the imprecision becomes.

For the fiction writer, there is another issue. The fact that a good novelist can stand up an entire scene or a believable character, can make us feel we are walking through a wood or being chased through a castle by moonlight, that we are meeting a king, or a pauper, or a milkmaid, and not just any king or pauper or milkmaid but one that is completely individual and specific and flesh and blood and memorable, with just a handful of sentences, is all because language is stories all the way down.ย The writer does not place these scenes, these people, into our heads, they pull them out of them.

Here is a crude example. Take the sentence,

Dave went to the store.

What does the store look like. Maybe this?

Why this? Well, there is not much to go on here, but the brain has to conjure up something, and Dave is kind of a “guy” name and guys like hardware, so why not? Stereotype? Sure, but brains run on stereotypes. Stereotypes are just familiar stories. If you want more than that from the brain, you have to give it more to go on. So how about this:

Dave went to the store to buy milk.

Okay, that refines our picture a little. Maybe this:

But maybe with a few more words we can get a more specific image. How about this:

Dave went to the store to buy milk because the baby was crying.

Okay, so now we maybe see this:

Why a 7-11? Why at night? Well, the baby is crying. So somehow that evokes the miseries of parenthood and the kind of emergency shopping that you only do because you can’t tell the baby to drink a glass of water instead and postpone buying milk until tomorrow. No, you have to have it now, and when else would that be but in the middle of the night? And where else would you go for milk in the middle of the night except a 7-11?

None of this is certain, of course. It depends very much on the specific experiences the reader has had and the other stories they have been told. Maybe your local convenience store is a Circle-K or a Spar. To evoke a more precise image, you will need more words. But already we have evoked a pretty rich image from just one sentence. Not precise or reliable in its detail, to be sure. Perhaps for some readers the magic does not happen at all yet. But this is how the alchemy is performed. It is how we put worlds into a reader’s head with just a handful of words and the stories they evoke.

If this were not the case, then no reader would ever say of a book that the characters or the settings came alive for them. The dry mechanisms of grammar and vocabulary cannot account for the alchemy by which stories create physical experiences and lead us to weep at the death of characters who are but a confection of words. New stories are made up of old stories recalled and reassembled by the imagination at the bidding of the text.

That is the nature of the storyteller’s craft. Stories are made up of stories, all the way down. Stories are told by the evocation, modification, and decoration of the stories the reader already knows. It is a delicate alchemy. One word too few and the phantom never becomes flesh and blood. One word too many and the flesh and blood collapses into a mess of grammar and vocabulary. One step outside the world that the alchemy has built and the insubstantial pageant fades, leaving not a rack behind. (Does that last phrase seem odd to you, or do you recognize the story it references?)

Even prose that offers only information is made up of stories, all the way down. But fiction must not only draw upon stories but must weave new ones out of the matter provided by the old. They are stories all the way down, and we must never lose sight of that, or the bubble will burst.



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