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Monday, April 20, 2009


I'm reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It's an interesting analysis of why experts keep missing the big disasters -- Enron, the subprime mortgage crisis, the fall of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Shah. He argues that we are crap at predicting the future because we love narrative so much. We keep trying to fit the future into the story we've been living. The generals who fought Vietnam kept thinking they were still fighting the Korean War.

Think of a farmhouse turkey. According to his narrative, human beings are benevolent gods that provide an endless bounty of corn.

Then, one day, surprise!

(Until the 1700s, all swans known to the Western world were white. So bird experts knew that all swans are white. Then they discovered Australia, where there's an entire species of black swans. Surprise!)

We are so attracted to narrative because it provides a way to shrink the world's overflow of information into something that will fit inside our brains. We tell the story of how Og survived the tiger attack over and over, so that when we run into a tiger, we only have to remember the two or three things Og did.

I think human beings have evolved to appreciate narrative, in the same way that we have evolved to learn language. What is narrative, after all, but a kind of super-language, where stories, like words, are ways of encapsulating information? We are, I believe, hardwired to appreciate stories.

That's why I insist that you all know, instinctively, how to tell stories. And the more you tell a story, the better -- the more organic, the simpler -- it gets. What screws us all up is when we write a story down too soon, before we've had a chance to let our instinctive narrative talent work the material enough. If you tell your story over and over, you will naturally simplify it, to where the characters are the natural ones for the plot, and the ending is the most satisfying one for the premise, and every beat follows naturally from the one before. You have always had this muscle; you just need to exercise it.

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2 Comments:

Well said .

By Blogger DJ, at 1:53 PM  

I feel like millions of years of evolution prepared my brain to enjoy the heck out of this post! I feel inspired to go bang on my story until my late Pleistocene ancestors will love it.

By Blogger Doug, at 1:22 AM  

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