Hardwired for Stories

Pareidolia is the scientific term for our tendency to see faces in objects.


Actually, pareidolia is more than that — it encompasses several phenomena, from seeing animals in cloud shapes to hearing ‘hidden messages’ on records played backwards. When presented with random or incomplete stimulus, our brains labor to find patterns or significance. So, we see faces in things that have no face. 🙂

(The broader term is apophenia, finding patterns in randomness, which also applies to the Gambler’s Fallacy, hindsight bias, and Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.)

Similarly, I think our brains are addicted to stories, and strain mightily to find a narrative even when presented with random (or contradicting) events. We want to identify a hero and a villain, we will find some side to root for, and we imagine that every course will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There will be a conflict, a decisive outcome, and a happy ending (or a cathartic release after tragedy). We want to tell stories, and we’ll make them out of the flimsiest of figments, connecting dots and assigning roles as required — facts be damned.

We see this in journalism — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Finding the story or through-line can help us make sense of new and unfamiliar information, and a well crafted narrative makes the end result more readable (or watchable, in the case of documentary film). Indeed, this is why one term used for journalistic output is story, and also why History is History. (actually the etymology there is reversed – we derived ‘story’ from Greek/Latin ‘historia’)

The problem comes with the constant, always-on, 24 hour news cycle of Cable TV, newswires, and internet feeds. We are presented with so much random stimulus, our brains are begging to see the story behind it all, even when there isn’t a ‘story’ per se.

If one already has a story in mind (say, that everything is the fault of Reptilian Aliens working in concert with the Ancient Bavarian Illuminati) then it is easy enough to bend whatever smaller stories you see on Cable News to fit that larger narrative (confirmation bias) — if you watch Fox News, they’ve already done that heavy lifting for you. (* disclaimer: I don’t know for a fact that Fox believes in aliens or illuminati, though I’ve seen enough old scaly white men as commentators and ‘experts’ on the network that I’ll spot them the reptiles.) Forcing events to fit the narrative is easy, especially if you don’t care about the actual facts.


Strangely enough, though, and worrisome for authors is that Readers so love story, if you don’t explicitly give them a story in your book (or other work) the audience is going to dock you points for it.

The same brains that will quite happily invent a narrative to cover random, real-world events will not do the same for a half-assed, sloppily written book.

We love stories, good versus evil, beginning-middle-end, and plot — a plot evolving naturally from motives, consistent with character, and with consequences. If all you write is a collection of scenes but the main character doesn’t do anything (and also, by the end of the book, has shown no growth) then readers are going to be disappointed.

That’s not to say that you have to slavishly follow a Five Act Play plot structure and stick to tired tropes — nor that every book is going to be a Good vs Evil Grudgematch with young Hiro Protagonist always fighting Dread Lord Darkenskaery. We can play with the tropes, and surprise the reader. Anti-heroes are in this year. (Antiheroes are always ‘in’.) Every villain has a backstory, every hero can be a dick (and often is), the Princess can swear and kick ass and decipher the ancient runes no one else can read.

Indeed, our favorite parts of many stories are often the ways the author twisted expectations.

That said: readers will know when there isn’t a plot. They’ll scream. You can play with the tropes, but the cliches are old and hoary and still around for a reason.

We all love stories, so if you are a manufacturer of fiction, remember that your audience is skilled in finding them. Indeed, we’re hard-wired to connect dots and string scenes together — but we do that in the real world, where the amount of material to work with is literally seven billion lives, all of past history, the whole planet, and a galaxy beyond that. As a writer, you are working in a much smaller space and you only have what you brought in with you. If you want a reader to connect the dots, you need to paint all the dots — and maybe an arrow or two so readers know which direction to head toward.

Reposted under a CC license from RocketBomber

images by Tim Hentoff, Wikimedia Commons, Aldan-SallyJD Hancock


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  2. Felipe Adan Lerma5 October, 2015

    Read many variations of this (being hard wired for story), but this is one of the more clear more entertaining of the bunch, nice!

    Especially liked, “The same brains that will quite happily invent a narrative to cover random, real-world events will not do the same for a half-assed, sloppily written book.” 🙂


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