Last week I did a little jazz riff on the idea of “story space” — where all the stories live — and how the interesting stories we want to hear are all improbable to the point of having zero chance of actually happening (unless, gasp, statistics can lie).
I thought I’d return to that basic story space idea and, in the process, finally deal with a note that’s been on my idea board for years. My problem has been that, while the idea the note expresses seemed interesting enough, I’ve never quite seen how to turn it into a post. I’m not even sure the idea makes any real sense, let alone is worth trying to write about.
However that’s never stopped me before, and it’s (almost) Chillaxmus, so cue the music, it’s riff time again…
Yesterday I was re-watching Arachnids in the UK, the fourth episode of the latest season of Doctor Who, and a somewhat goofy idea popped into my head about how to respond to the charge that sometimes stories are just ‘too improbable’ to enjoy — or to have happened at all.
That certainly is an accusation that seems to apply in many cases. In order for some story to have happened at all, certain events had to happen just so and in the right order. It’s easy to shake your head and think, “Yeah, right. As if that could actually ever happen.”
For many years I’ve had a generic response to that accusation, but yesterday I realized it can be justified mathematically!
At one point in HBO’s Westworld (don’t worry, no spoilers) Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) gives a speech about stories, about the value of fiction. He references a belief that fiction elevates — or at least illuminates to good value — the human condition. The belief also holds that those who read a lot of fiction are in some sense “better” people.
The idea is controversial on several grounds. Firstly, it’s hard to define what makes people “better,” and you can’t measure or test what you can’t define. Secondly, even if “better” is defined, not everyone will agree with the definition. Thirdly, there’s a nature-nurture aspect that makes comparisons like this very hard to tease out of any data you can gather.
Maybe a place to start exploring the idea is to first define “fiction” and go from there…
Here’s something that caught my eye: Researchers at the University of Vermont, in the Computational Story Lab (!), did an interesting word content analysis on 1,700 stories downloaded from Gutenberg. Each story had been downloaded at least 150 times by readers.
The researchers used “sentiment analysis” that measures the positive or negative emotional impact of words. Using a sliding window they attempted to characterize the “emotional arcs” of each story. Their goal was to see if there were common patterns.
Turns out, there are!
The punchline is that I was suddenly struck by how modern fiction seems to have conditioned me to expect an apparent White Hat to secretly be a Black Hat. The question I find myself asking now is whether fiction has actually changed (and if so why) or is it just me? The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think modern fiction has changed.
If so, does that reflect a modern sensibility about people today? Does the rise of the modern anti-hero bring with it the idea of the betrayer? Do we expect so little of people anymore that our heroes need to be dirty and double-agents seem matter of course?
This all started with Diane Duane…
I was catching up on last week’s shows (a word about that in a moment), and it happened again, twice. It’s gotten to the point of almost becoming another “countdown game.” How long will it be until I hear it again? It might also make a drinking game for people who don’t like to drink all that much, because — while very common — it usually only appears once per story. (Still, multiple sightings have been documented.)
Being common yet infrequent, it wouldn’t normally stand out at all, but it struck me as such an odd thing to say (even the first time I heard it), that I’ve noticed it ever since. I suppose my love of LEO stories brings it my way more frequently. The most common context where you’ll hear it is from a suspect or person of interest being interviewed by cops.
It’s the line, “You gotta believe me!”
I had thought, on this third day of Chillaxmas, that to entertain and terrify you, I would post a true tale of alien invasion and species murder. I know you’re expecting the punchline to be that I would if I could, but I don’t have such a tale, so I can’t, ha, ha. Well, I do have just such a tale, and I could, I’m just not.
Not today, anyway. It’s all queued up for tomorrow, and it’s just as well. This will give me a chance to issue a little advance warning. I have pictures of the aliens! War is never for the faint of heart; it’s all the worse with an exoskeleton-wearing alien enemy!
Today, very much like Dug, I was distracted by some virtual philosophical squirrels.
This is the first of a series of articles that discuss something I believe is unique to humans. In fact, I think it’s one of the few things we can point to that does differentiate us from the animal kingdom. And it is something that goes deep into our past. It is our ability to use language to create and tell complex stories.
It is also one of my favorite topics. If you’ve read many of my posts, particularly those about movies and TV, you’ve seen me write about my love of stories.
There is an interesting continuum of storytelling modes. Books lie at one end; movies at the other. Plays and TV lie between. The continuum describes—in part—the experience of the audience. Here’s the deal…