The Day the Stories Fail

I’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones for the who-knows-how-manyieth time. And in the process, mainly while the credits roll or I’m fast forwarding through the parts that I don’t enjoy as much, I have been wondering why I watch this, why it is so enthralling, and why I can watch it for the who-knows-how-manyieth time and still find it enthralling.

In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief:

“My endeavours” he wrote, “should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

But I don’t think that’s it. It’s not a suspension of disbelief. And it is not willing. There is nothing of choice about it. We are enthralled - or we have enthralled ourselves. But it is not magic - it is neurology that captures us.

I believe stories work because of the imperative of belief. Deep down in the animal brain (which, let’s be honest, is almost all of it), there is an inability to understand that stories, whether on the page or on the screen, are not real. In some small part of the brain, we know, but we can’t overcome the other part. Or we forget about it as the story unfolds.

Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore. There is some understanding that stories, real or not we can’t say, are not happening to us. This gives us the safety to enjoy, to experience the terror and heartbreak and grandeur without the need to run to safety.

One day, far in the future, I imagine, we or our descendants, or the descendants of whatever species are left, will lose this disability, this imperative to believe will disappear. Brains will automatically distinguish between what is real and what is not. Stories, all of them, will fail.

These lucky creatures, unable to see the world other than it is, will not understand the power our stories held over us. And they will wonder in disbelief why we writers spent our lives creating them.

Comments 7

 
Katherine Gregor on Monday, 26 February 2018 20:17

I think you might enjoy the words of the wonderful late Alan Rickman on the subject of storytelling: http://www.ideachampions.com/storytelling/archives/2018/01/alan_rickman_on.shtml

I think you might enjoy the words of the wonderful late Alan Rickman on the subject of storytelling: http://www.ideachampions.com/storytelling/archives/2018/01/alan_rickman_on.shtml
Rosy Cole on Friday, 02 March 2018 23:01

Game of Thrones? I may have heard of that.

Coleridge's observation, I think, is more general than what you describe. In some ways it can be compared, perhaps, to Method acting, a two-way engagement where sparks are kindled and both sides meet in a pooling of emotional resources.

As someone who finds it well nigh impossible to suspend disbelief, I can still find enthralling treasure in stories and enjoy them in other ways. Legends and fairy tales, for instance, have universal resonance. Many authors do find that once they've written their first novel, they are never again able to escape in fiction.

Anthony de Mello maintains that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story. The biblical parable is a fine example.

But, Steve, what hope is there for authorkind, if you, being so tuned into another world, fast forward through tracts of the action to your favourite bits? :-) [sigh]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_de_Mello

[i]Game of Thrones?[/i] I may have heard of that. Coleridge's observation, I think, is more general than what you describe. In some ways it can be compared, perhaps, to Method acting, a two-way engagement where sparks are kindled and both sides meet in a pooling of emotional resources. As someone who finds it well nigh impossible to suspend disbelief, I can still find enthralling treasure in stories and enjoy them in other ways. Legends and fairy tales, for instance, have universal resonance. Many authors do find that once they've written their first novel, they are never again able to escape in fiction. Anthony de Mello maintains that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story. The biblical parable is a fine example. But, Steve, what hope is there for authorkind, if you, being so tuned into another world, fast forward through tracts of the action to your favourite bits? :-) [sigh] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_de_Mello
Stephen Evans on Saturday, 03 March 2018 00:20

I watch the same way I read - skipping the boring bits. ;)

I watch the same way I read - skipping the boring bits. ;)
Rosy Cole on Saturday, 03 March 2018 14:59

...And you a devotee of particle physics! :-)

'Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore.' That does appear to be increasingly true in the virtual reality of the 21st century and I do feel is cause for some alarm about what's happening to the human brain. The late Jean Plaidy always held that we love absorption in history because we weren't actually living through its cruelty. It's safely in the past. Another country. But what about those vicarious experiences that seem immediate and Now and are perceived as happening enough for them to elicit real responses?

...And you a devotee of particle physics! :-) [i]'Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore.'[/i] That does appear to be increasingly true in the virtual reality of the 21st century and I do feel is cause for some alarm about what's happening to the human brain. The late Jean Plaidy always held that we love absorption in history because we weren't actually living through its cruelty. It's safely in the past. Another country. But what about those vicarious experiences that seem immediate and [i]Now[/i] and are perceived as happening enough for them to elicit real responses?
Stephen Evans on Saturday, 03 March 2018 19:35

Reality is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves for our selves.

Reality is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves for our selves.
Rosy Cole on Sunday, 04 March 2018 10:56

There is a sense in which, at some point, the stories do fail for each of us, but they have paved the way to finding real treasure in how we experience the everyday living out of our lives.

There is a sense in which, at some point, the stories do fail for each of us, but they have paved the way to finding real treasure in how we experience the everyday living out of our lives.
Stephen Evans on Sunday, 04 March 2018 14:42

There is a difference for me too sometimes reading as a reader and reading as a writer; it is more pronounced for me watching a play as a playwright or actor or director and watching as pure audience. I can slip in and out, admiring performance and technique and choices, and then get absorbed again in the play. And lighting - I am always figuring out the lighting scheme in the theater.

There is a difference for me too sometimes reading as a reader and reading as a writer; it is more pronounced for me watching a play as a playwright or actor or director and watching as pure audience. I can slip in and out, admiring performance and technique and choices, and then get absorbed again in the play. And lighting - I am always figuring out the lighting scheme in the theater.
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