The other day my friend, Eric was over and started telling a story that had us all rapt, including my almost 7-year-old daughter and her friend who usually dismiss grown-up talk as boring. The story was about a summer job when he was in high school as a tennis instructor at a little neighborhood beach and tennis club.
One week they were short of lifeguards and asked him to fill in. He was neither certified nor a very good swimmer but this being the mid-1980’s, that was no problem because they just made him the shallow end specialist.
There was a group of 7-8 year old kids that showed up at the club in the mornings, had lunches their parents had packed and stayed all day. One sunny Seattle morning one of those kids, a 7-year-old boy announced he was going to catch a duck. Eric, as shallow end specialist of the week, said “No way, you are not going to catch a duck.” The boy proceeded to wade in to Lake Washington up to his neck and stand completely still for an hour.
Sure enough, the ducks got used to the boy and started swimming closer and closer until BAM, the boy caught one by the neck. Now Eric had both a boy and a duck, squawking in the shallow end and he was yelling, “Let go of the duck! Let go of the duck!” But the boy was conflicted because he’d spent an hour trying to catch the duck and now he didn’t know what to do.
At this point in the story, Eric had my daughter and her friend’s full attention and they were clamoring to know what the boy did with the duck. He let him go of course. But I was fascinated about what makes a good story.
According to journalist and author, Will Storr, there is a science to story-telling. As writers have worked to understand what captures an audience, psychologists have studied how our brains make sense of the world and both found the same elements. Stories have:
- Change – good stories involve change because our brains are wired to identify change
- Cause and effect – the wiring that makes the events understandable
- Moral outrage – the motivation to act as seen in struggle between heroes and villains, the selfless versus the selfish
- Effectance – humans like to be the causal effect on objects and the environment
- Eudaemonic element – the happiness we get from pursuing goals that are meaningful to us but difficult
- The God moment – how does the hero control the world?
These elements makes so much sense to me. We are all faced with change and we struggle mightily to define who we are in relation to it, what actions we take and how to be happy and ultimately control the world, or at least our perception of it. Stories are one of the tools we use to process our experience and follow the advice Maya Angelou gives, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.“
I love watching how my kids have become pretty good listeners when a grown-up tells a story. I think it helps them try to understand all the factors that go in to how the world works. They listen because they want a happy ending where they can control their world. Chances are, if among other things, they learn to tell themselves a good story filled with their responsibility and agency, they’ll probably have it. Chances are that’s true for us grown-ups too.
Do you have a good story to tell? Do the elements of story ring true to you?
For most posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or follow me on Instagram @wynneleon
(featured photo by Pexels)