“And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories?
Here’s a good idea — have a point.

It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!”

— Steve Martin as Neal Page to John Candy as Del Griffith, 
Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

Well, then —

What is the Point of Stories?

When we left off Part III of this blog, we’d taken an in-depth look at the way stories are used in life-and-death situations like battle command and murder trials, and we’d stopped just short of drawing some conclusions. (Important story point, incidentally: always try to end a chapter with a cliffhanger.)

So, my conclusion from the foregoing is simply this: Whatever else they may be or do, stories are explanatory and problem-solving devices par excellence. And what it is they seek to explain, what it is they’re trying to solve for, is the mystery of motivation. Stories are mechanisms by which we try to discover — or, having discovered, try to memorialize — successful theories of what drives the objective human behavior we observe.

You can trust me on this one: Over the course of three and a half years back in the early 2000s, I devoted a significant chunk of my day job to researching storytelling systems and story formalisms. And if one thing came clear in all that time, it’s that stories are all about making sense of the “intention behind the action.” (That latter being a common storytelling trope from Walt Disney all the way back to, for all we know, Sophocles.)

Think back to that Aegis cruiser commander trying to guess whether those Iranian pilots were planning to attack. Or to that Tyson jury deliberating on whether the prosecution’s star witness was lying. Attempting in both cases to find a pattern of intention that best matched the observed phenomena — and making up stories to do it!

Not to put too fine a point on it, stories have survived (and flourished) since time immemorial because they offer arguably the best cognitive structure us humans have ever come up with for performing one of the most survival-critical tasks any social animal can face. Namely, figuring out what’s going on inside the other guy’s head.

And, on an even deeper level, stories are also all about figuring out what’s going on inside our own heads, and in our own lives. Hey, Sophocles was just another Greek playwright till Sigmund Freud put Oedipus Rex on the couch, right? (By the way, If you’re interested in exploring that inward-facing aspect of story, you could do worse than to start with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.”[1])

In functional terms, then, stories are all about weaving a pattern of consistent human motivation for use as an explanatory and predictive device in navigating social interactions. In Marvin Cohen’s words, stories are nothing less than “a general comprehension strategy for understanding human action”[2]

But Wait!

Actually, those last remarks stand in need of some qualification: While I believe that what I said about the purpose of stories being to capture and explore human motivation is true, I also happen to think it’s too narrowly construed.

After all, the world in general bombards us non-stop with torrents of data, and not all of that bombardment originates with our fellow humans. Regardless of origin, somewhere in the resulting chaos are the key facts that will make sense of it all, that will tell us what’s going on and why – and how we ought to (re)act. But how do we identify and extract those keys?

Of the various mechanisms that humans have evolved for capturing and elucidating complex experiences and events, the mental structure called the story is unquestionably the oldest, and arguably still the most important. Over the millennia, the process of story-crafting and storytelling has emerged as humanity’s primary vehicle for managing and communicating the complexity — what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” — that reality as a whole confronts us with.

So, what I maybe should have said is that the function of stories is to capture and explore causation in general. Now, it so happens that one of the perennially most interesting and survival-enhancing types of causation to try grokking is the one that explains human behavior (= motivation). But stories can be used to investigate other modes of causality as well.

Cases in point: mythologies, just-so stories, and the like. How the elephant’s child got his trunk, and how winter turns to spring when the earth goddess Demeter gets her daughter Persephone back from Hades.

Note, though, that even these causal explanations are cast in terms of quasi-human motivation: the elephant’s child’s “’satiable curiosity” and Demeter’s maternal love, respectively. All part, I suppose, of the human tendency to project our motives, and hence our stories, onto the cosmos as a whole.

Too far a leap? Well, maybe. But consider how John Seely Brown, in his “Toward a New Epistemology for Learning”[3] holds that even accomplished scientists, when confronted with a novel experimental set-up, do not immediately repair to their mathematical models, but instead construct a “causal story”:

This sort of imputation of causality — constructing a causal story —involves a great deal of informal reasoning and manipulating of assumptions that standard explications inevitably overlook. Rather than simply pondering abstractions, this essential sort of reasoning involves “seeing through” abstractions, models, and paradigmatic examples to the world they represent, and then penetrating that world to explore the causality that underlies it.

Hey, if we humans weren’t forever imputing human motives to nonhuman forces, “anthropomorphize” wouldn’t even be a verb!

The Anthropomorphosis Conundrum

In a way, I faced a similar problem when it came to writing Dualism[4]: Here I had two central, um, characters, neither of which was strictly human – Nietzsche, an artificial intelligence with a dark secret, and MERGE, a hive intellect formed from the collective consciousness of thousands, eventually millions, of individual human minds.

So, how do you tell a story about those guys? How do you animate them, bring them to life, make them believable?

Essentially, the same way: try to suss out the intention behind the action. Make it believable, consistent, regardless of how outré …

Doesn’t always work, of course. Take the counter-example of Vurdalak, the submicroscopic black hole orbiting within the earth in my first book, Singularity.[5] Vurdalak (Russian for “vampire”) only figured as a (sort of) point-of-view “character” in a single scene, and even then the sole “motivation” I could come up with for it was — an all-devouring hunger.

At the end though, with any kind of luck, you’ll have a coherent character rather than a grab-bag of knee-jerk reactions.

Oh, and you’ll have a story too!


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] Cohen, Marvin S., Bryan B. Thompson, Leonard Adelman, Terry A. Bresnick, Martin A. Tolcott, and Jared T. Freeman, “Rapid Capturing of Battlefield Mental Models”, Technical Report 95-3, 6 October 1995, Cognitive Technologies, Inc.: Arlington, VA.

[3] Brown, John Seely (1990), Toward a New Epistemology for Learning, in Claude Frasson and Gilles Gauthier, eds., Intelligent Tutoring Systems: At the Crossroad of Artificial Intelligence and Education, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 266-282.

[4] Bill DeSmedt, Dualism: The Archon Sequence, Book II, WordFire Press, 2018, https://www.amazon.com/Dualism-Archon-Sequence-Bill-DeSmedt/dp/1614756279/.

[5] Bill DeSmedt, Singularity: The Archon Sequence, Book I, WordFire Press, 2018, https://www.amazon.com/Singularity-Archon-Sequence-Bill-DeSmedt/dp/1614756252/.