Making up stories: perception, language, and the web

Storytelling is a buzzword with lots of different interpretations. Either the internet is killing stories, or it’s the best thing to happen to them since the printing press.

Stories have been around as long as we have, helping us understand our world and ourselves. We learn and retain information best through stories, because they turn information into more than the sum of its parts. But what makes a story a story, and what does it mean for the digital world we’ve built?

What Dickens knew
Charles Dickens should be the mutton-chopped mascot of the web. He was a social storyteller on every level. His plots spoke to and about society, but his formats were social too: he explored new ways of reaching an audience in the way that his work was distributed, and the way he wrote the stories themselves. He published most of his novels in serial form, in magazines packed with advertisements and illustration, costing far less than the cost of a hard-bound book – but he also wrote episodically – actually creating the stories as each magazine was published.

There are few writers working today as open to public comment – as skilled at manipulating public sentiment, and as concerned with the advancement of his medium – as Dickens was for his time. But his stories have deeper lessons to show us. His formats gave him freedom, but they also forced constraints. Because his stories were chopped up and divided physically, and because of the time that elapsed between various installments, he had to explore new ways to keep readers engaged. And just as though he were an oral storyteller recounting adventures over a series of nights, he used language itself to keep readers interested.

In the last chapter of each installment, his sentences grew shorter, more active, and more visual. This made the text dynamic and active, compelling further engagement. Take the last lines of the first installment of David Copperfield (the

close of chapter three):

The empty dog-kennel was filled up with a great dog – deep mouthed and black-haired like Him, and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get at me.

You hear the dynamism of the words, and feel the suspense of the moment: Dickens was an early master of the call to action. He understood how people respond to language itself, as well as story. And we have the opportunity to do the same each time we tell a story online.

Comprehension: the other side of the story
The reality is that we never perceive a story exactly as it’s composed. As people read, they fill in, flesh out, and fine-tune our stories. There are lots of reasons for this – maybe they began reading part of the way through, are only skimming half of what we’re saying, or reading something in a different context than we think we’ve provided. Comprehension is the reader’s half of the story. And we create it through two psycholinguistic mechanisms: inference and coherence.

Inference: You infer, I imply
If you say “Jess bought a bikini,” we infer that Jess is a woman because men don’t (usually) wear bikinis. If you say “I dropped my earring in the Seine,” we infer you’re in Paris (France, not Texas).

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Making up stories: perception, language, and the web