Good Story Trumps Great Fact

The Snelgraphix Designing Minds Blog: Narratives Matter More Than The Facts of The Matter

“Family watching television, c. 1958” •  Wiki Commons

“Family watching television, c. 1958” • Wiki Commons

The first entry in this series can be read by clicking this link: Once Upon A Time…


Everyone loves an entertaining emotional rollercoaster ride.

Narratives that captivate us with compelling characterizations and dramatic or comedic tension tend to be the stories we cherish. We enjoy our entertainment so much that we are capable of completely overlooking even obvious continuity errors. Effective storytelling can act like a stage magician’s dextrous misdirection causing the audience to ignore apparent logical inconsistencies.

Generally speaking, authors of works of fiction need not worry about a canon of physical natural law that they must religiously adhere to. The events of the narrative exist to serve the plot and do not exist to exemplify natural physical reality. Hollywood films and television shows are excellent examples that illustrate the many liberties the entertainment industry takes when depicting physical reality. These creators are more concerned with things like huge dramatic, theater shaking explosions than they are with whether or not the explosion would actually occur in the first place.

What the content creator is usually concerned with is continuity canon. Established narrative details are a lot like laws of physics that the audience ordinarily requires the author to adhere to. Of course, even this canon gets ignored for creative reasons. Emotionally engaging plot development can matter more than even internal consistency. There are many works of very successful fiction, many profitable and extremely popular films, for instance, that have continuity errors that either the audience ignored or otherwise dismissed in favor of the rest of the engaging production. The authors themselves might not have noticed any errors at all, or perhaps they took notice after it was too late. There are YouTube channels dedicated to revealing film continuity errors. Sometimes such errors can become the impetus for new stories that attempt to explain the scripted inconsistency.

Transitioning in a natural way from one scene to the next, keeping the plot moving forward in an emotionally satisfying manner, is more important than adherence to earlier established continuity.

A good story has more impact than even the best collection of factual information. Human beings tend to respond to what they find familiar and tend to filter out that which they find foreign. Personal narratives are easy to relate to. Most people can imagine what it would feel like to confront the same obstacles that their favorite protagonist or favorite celebrity might be facing. Human brain physiology explains our imitative behavior. The human brain contains what are known as mirror neurons, which basically means we identify with other human beings empathically. We do not identify ourselves with lists of facts. We do not normally change how we act based on a logical assessment of information. When we do it is usually a long drawn out process with as nearly as many steps backward as forward. We tend to pattern our behavior around the various kinds of celebrities we admire. Celebrity endorsements are ubiquitous and rely on the social appeal of well-known idols and not appeals to reason.

Human beings tend to make emotionally driven decisions based on a whole host of conscious, semiconscious and subconscious associations. We tend to side with those we identify with and generally avoid considering the ideas of those we do not relate to. Our perceptions can easily be influenced by unconscious bias that can cause us to misread reality. We also tend to seek closure, but sometimes the facts of a given matter don’t easily offer this kind of comfort. Embellished narratives provide that needed sense of satisfaction we seek. Reality is usually more complicated, but we humans generally prefer to remain blissfully unaware of this fact.

The practice of emphasizing story and minimizing audience awareness of factual information is not limited to the entertainment industry. Many mainstream newspapers and even radio and television news broadcasters have long relied on emotionally driven, sensationalized formats to grow and maintain audiences. Back during the late 19th century rival newspaper publishers Pulitzer and Hearst were accused of less than noble reporting practices, sacrificing journalistic integrity in favor of tabloid-driven mass media success. During the early part of the 19th century, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer complained about the news media of his day being less than factually accurate. And of course, Plato’s Allegory of The Cave is an apt metaphor that epitomizes how important it is to acquire firsthand knowledge. Gossip and hearsay seem foundational and integral to civilization, as important as the harnessing of fire or the harnessing of any other natural resource.

Hyperbole is the language of celebrated political leaders, global religious figures and famous cultural revolutionaries. Pure information is the language of the faceless, nameless bureaucrat. The fact of the matter is that facts matter less than how well a story is told and who tells it.