Are you Nora Ephron, or M. Night Shamalan?

People who tell stories do so with two basic outcomes in mind:

  • To support or reinforce a worldview, or
  • To subvert or deconstruct a worldview.

You may not necessarily think about it in that way, but essentially, those are the two main sociological purposes behind any kind of fiction.

Fairy tales, fables and some other forms act basically as propaganda. They take a cultural value or belief and set it in a fictional story to reinforce it to the reader.  You can tell that you’re reading, watching or listening to this kind of story because it ends exactly as you expect it to end. The guy gets the girl.  The virtuous are rewarded and the vile are punished.  The message of this kind of story is “believe, hope, have faith.”

Parables, koans and some other forms of story, by contrast, are designed to screw with your head. Essentially, they’re designed to contradict your pre-existing filters, crack them a bit, and allow you to see a bigger slice of reality than you’ve previously seen.  You can tell when you’re reading, watching or hearing this kind of story because it has what we’d call in our postmodern language “the twist ending.”  You’ve been set up to expect the protagonist to die, but he lives (or vice versa).  You expect punishment, but it lands on the wrong person.  The point of this kind of story is to get you to question your own perceptions and judgments.

Convincing people to believe, or to question what they believe, is a complicated subject. To explain this further, we’d need to get into trances, and I don’t think we’re quite ready to fully explore that topic…yet.  Suffice it to say our we all create certain filters for reality.  This is mostly a good thing, because trying to understand the whole of reality in all its depth and complexity would fry our poor mental motherboards, particularly when we’re infants or children.

So we create filters which set certain expectations about how the world works, to simplify navigating reality.  After a while, we conform our perceptions to those expectations.  We go onto autopilot to a certain degree, and only see what we expect to see–those things that agree with or fit our existing filters.

As we grow up (assuming we grow up!), part of the process of maturing is expanding those filters and letting our understanding of the world become more complex and more accurate a representation of it.

But it’s called “creation” by the poetic and religious for a reason–reality is in a constant state of being edited, remixed and repopulated with people, things and ideas.  So another part of maturity is, for lack of a better way to put it, believing things into existence, even if they aren’t currently “real” or if their existence is currently imperfect or incomplete.   A good example would be the abstract concept of justice.

There is value in inspiring people to trust and believe in a reality they haven’t seen yet.  There’s also value in getting people to question a “truth” that seems unquestionable.

If you’re a storyteller in some capacity, then it is probably a valuable (or at least interesting) question to ask yourself which kind of story you want to tell, and why.


  1. ·

    Kat, the perspective from which you look at storytelling and the tactics by which we make meaning are truly inspired. Keep up this great meta-conversation in future posts.

  2. Kat

    Adam –

    Thanks! I really enjoyed your social media archetypes post a while back. I worry a little that I get a bit too eclectic in my topics and approach here, so it’s good to hear that you’re enjoying it.

  3. Kat

    Adam –

    Thanks! I really enjoyed your social media archetypes post a while back. I worry a little that I get a bit too eclectic in my topics and approach here, so it's good to hear that you're enjoying it.


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