Armchair Linguist: A Matter of Fact

Since time immemorial, humans have been a race of storytellers.  Cave paintings, oral histories, epic poems, fairy tales, fables, parables; mankind’s history, culture, legacy and philosophy is built with stories.  Religions disseminate their mythologies and doctrines through stories.  Politicians use anecdotes to strengthen their positions and illustrate their beliefs.  People are educated, informed, persuaded and entertained with stories everywhere and every day.  Why is a story so much more effective than just a statement?  Why do we enjoy the escape, the inhabiting of a world which is different than our own, yet often so fundamentally similar?  Are we really the only species that has stories?  I daren’t posit that I can answer all these questions yet, but they are endlessly fascinating to me.

If you handed somebody a list of facts and asked them to read it, and monitored the parts of their brain that were engaged by the activity, would they be different than if the person was reading a story?  Is it similar to acts of imagination, or meditation?  Does it change when they are reading a newspaper article?  What about between fiction and non-fiction?

Let us consider that there are only a few basic types of information we can convey, whether in a story or elsewhere.  What is said, what is meant, what is done, how, why, etc.  Is it describing something immediate and nearby, something the audience could hold in their hand?  Is it describing something detached from the audience by virtue of physical or temporal distance?  Is the information fundamental or supplemental?  Concrete or abstract?

For now, I am calling these types of information “Fact”, “Fiction”, and somewhere in the middle is “Fictive Fact”.

If we were to take a variety of statements, put them on slips of paper and drew them out of a hat, it would be difficult in some cases to determine which of the categories they belonged to.  So as a primary act of authorial… uh, authority… I have included a few example sentences for each category, and my hope is you will bear these artificial contexts in mind.

Fact – This one’s easy.  A fact, for my purposes, is information which describes something that exists (and allowing for the ‘existence’ of abstract things like concepts, emotions, opinions, etc.), and is of immediate or proximal relevance to the audience.  A fact may strongly influence the audience’s actions or beliefs, and the author may intend for it to do so.

“There is an angry dog around the corner.”

“Dan is proud of his new hat.”

“I got a roasted chicken at the supermarket for dinner.”

Fiction – Author John Dufresne brought us the phrase, “the lie that tells a truth”.  It’s a nice phrase, and gets the job done, but let’s not just leave it at that.  Fiction is information that is created or modified by the author, which is to be considered factual within a non-real context.  It is important to understand that the intention of ‘fiction’ is not to deceive, which is why I don’t fully abide by the above quote.

“Once upon a time, Dan was born in a faraway kingdom.”

“Melissa got Jack a book for his birthday.”

“A pack of grey wolves lives in the forest.”

Fictive Fact – This is information which originates in reality, but is not meant to convey something immediate or applicable to the audience.  There is a distance to it.  Though true, the author does not mean to sway the audience with immediacy or personal relevance.

“Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.”

“The moon’s gravitational pull causes the tides.”

“In its entirety, the Great Wall of China is over 13,000 miles in length.”

Lie – A lie is a special case, because it can only exist in contrast to one of the above types of information.  If a lie is just sitting out on its own, there’s hardly any way to tell what it is.  “The sky is green” may very well be a statement of fiction unless the fiction elsewhere establishes that the sky is actually yellow.  A lie carries a deceptive intent, but who is lying is also influenced by the information it is in contrast to.  Versus fact, the author is the one lying to the audience.  Within fiction, a character may be lying to the audience, or to another character, or themselves.  Against fictive fact, it could be a lie between characters or the author lying to the audience (such as for example lying about historical events as an order of propaganda).

Each type of storytelling may rely on different sets of information.  Conversation relies largely on facts (and yes, conversation can be a vehicle for storytelling… consider that most ubiquitous question in any relationship, “how was your day?”, is an invitation for storytelling).  Non-fiction, of course, is king of the fictive fact.  Most others use primarily fiction, but I want to call special attention to games.  Not just video games, but some board or card games as well, use fiction and fact in a very blurry way.  A player may be navigating a fictitious star cruiser but their actions are guided by immediate information (“there are three aliens behind this door”).  While much of how a game tells its story is comparable to other media, using fiction and occasionally fictive fact, a statement of fiction in a game will sometimes double as a fact.  “Grelzar is the traitor”, the player is told.  This may be a massive plot revelation, but the player also then knows they must find and confront Grelzar next.

What psychological processes are at play?  In contrast to a conversation, engaging in a story, be it fiction or non-fiction, requires a modal change in our minds, a recontextualization of how we interpret the information we’re receiving.  It is like imagination and playing, but not like delusion, because we do it voluntarily.

The fourth wall (or more specifically the breaking of the fourth wall) is a concept in meta-fiction where the story acknowledges its fictive nature.  But the fourth wall is something inherent in any story of fiction or fictive fact.  There is a separation between audience and story which, for example, prevents some egregious fellow in the front row from leaping onto the stage and stopping Juliet from stabbing herself in the tomb after Romeo’s tragic mistake.  That would be an example of the fourth wall being broken from the outside, whereas meta-fiction usually breaks the fourth wall from the inside.

Even kids figure out the fourth wall very quickly.  “Once there was a dog,” you tell them, but they understand that there wasn’t really a dog.  “The dog was in trouble.”  They don’t immediately get agitated and start wondering what they can do to help the dog.

Is it tied into the parent-child relationship?  Do they trust that immediate action is not required because their parent is not acting as such?  Is it because of the physical object?  I have recollections of being very young and understanding that a book was something that contained a story.  Since many of my early books were illustrated, it was almost like I was in a different realm, a higher plane, peering into a smaller world.  Maybe there’s a bit of a god complex thing going on.

Hmm, but I feel I may be spinning off towards some other subjects which demand their own posts.  What does this get us, then?  A set of terms which I will probably refer back to in future writings, so at least now we can be on the same page when I start getting all brainy about stories.  That’s a good starting point.

I will leave you with one of my favorite twists on the concept of the fourth wall, which draws parallels to the apocryphal tale of theater audiences reacting in fear to footage of an oncoming train. It comes from a Kids in the Hall sketch, where an author of suspense stories finds success because the audience isn’t switching modes, and interpreting the information in his ‘story’ as if it is factual and immediate instead of fictive.


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