Dec 16, 2007

What is a story?

In her essay "Art and Sense of Life," Ayn Rand differentiates "a real-life news story and a fiction story."[1] Her comments and my own interest in history lead me to wonder about stories in general, regardless of type. Following is my personal--not philosophical--definition. What I seek is (1) improvement on the basic approach of understanding a commonly-used but often ill-defined concept, and (2) comments on the basic nature of stories.

EXAMPLES. Stories may be short or long; fictional or factual; vast or minute in scope; and fast or slow in pace. Stories may be told from memory to a single listener, read aloud to a large audience, or read silently alone. Excluding borderline cases, a range of examples from my experience includes: (1) Short stories like the Br'er Rabbit tales, written for children, about imaginary, anthropomorphized animal heroes and villains. (2) Lloyd A. Brown's The Story of Maps (with 86 illustrations and hundreds of endnotes), describing 2000 years of the art and science of map-making. (3) Stories, true or false, that a person tells to explain a fading scar or why he was late for work this morning. (4) Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, a story of the causes and effects of the events happening on one day in one place: the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. (5) Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, an 1168-page novel that has the widest of all possible themes, a metaphysical one: the relationship between consciousness and reality.

DEFINITION. What essential, distinguishing characteristics do all these stories have in common? In other words, what makes a story--a story? I don't yet have a completely satisfactory definition. I can suggest an approach. After collecting a range of examples from personal experience, an early step in defining an idea is deciding what kind of thing it refers to. This is the genus in the definition.

A story is a kind of accounting for things, that is, a story combines (1) identification, (2) explanation, and (3) evaluation of events. A story identifies a series of human events (or natural events important to people, such as a story of the rise and fall of dinosaurs); explains their relation to each other; and evaluates their significance, within the context set by a certain purpose valuable to the storyteller and listener. For example, if a man and his young son are walking through their neighborhood, and the young boy asks why a certain house they pass is decrepit and abandoned, the father might tell a story of how the house came to be that way.

The storyteller chooses which events will be the beginning and end of the story, based on the story's purpose, which may be implicit or explicit. The coherence resulting from an essential purpose distinguishes a story from a mere chronology or random collection of events.

Stories tell a sequence of events that lead causally to an end. The storyteller selects the events. A novelist creates from his imagination the events which will concretize his theme. A historian, as storyteller, picks those events which show the essentials of what happened, why it happened, and why it is important.

USES OF STORIES. I have seen people of all ages -- from toddlers to elders -- enthralled by stories. Why is there nearly universal interest in stories, in one form or another? A storyteller chooses a few events from a multitude of events, ties them together, and offers them as an explanation of something. For example, Leonard Peikoff's Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, tells two stories from history, in parallel: the philosophical slide from the age of enlightenment to the age of nihilism, first in Germany and then, increasingly, in the United States.

For the reader, Ominous Parallels will, says Ayn Rand, "bring order into the chaos of today's events."[2] I think that stories serve a function analogous to the unit-economy function of concepts.[3] In daily life we encounter a myriad of events. They may be large or small, nearby or distant, known through our own experiences or described by distant reporters. Stories help us make sense of those events.

The function of stories is both epistemological (in connecting disparate events) and psychological (in confirming that the world is intelligible). That is true of all stories. Certain stories--the "stand up and cheer" stories, whether they are fact or fiction--can be refueling as well.

SUMMARY. A story is a selective account of logically connected events, told for some purpose that offers values to the storyteller and audience. Stories confirm that events are causally connected, that we can make sense of them, and that--like all facts--they have value implications.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Notes: [1] The essay "Art and Sense of Life" appears in The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, and the quote comes from the hardback edition, pp. 47-48. [2] Ayn Rand's comment about a use of Ominous Parallels comes from her Introduction to Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, p. ix (hb). [3] See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ch. 7, for unit economy of concepts.