In a class I recently taught on storytelling and personal branding, I asked the group "What is a story?" I only heard crickets at first as everybody totally overthought the question. I did not want to assuage their anxiety so I let the silence continue. Eventually three answers were called out:
"Something that happens to a character."
"Has a beginning, middle, and end."
"A glimpse into somebody's life."
All of those are correct. But the definition could be distilled even further. I intentionally oversimplify the definition of a story to "a data point". That is all it is. Plain and simple. A data point. Sit with that for a second. Does it make sense to you? Does it confuse you? Or does its simplicity anger you?
It should not. Here is why.
The three answers that the students shared were correct because a story is in fact an event that occurs with which someone interacts, it has a sequential structure to it, and the way in which someone reacts to the event says something about who they are. But these events can be huge (like a bomb going off) or teeny tiny, like me turning my head to look out the window a second ago. Interestingly, a lot of people I have taught and spoken to confuse story and narrative. I have found that they often think of story as a large grandiose recount of a period of time but, even though stories do involve an amount of time passing, they are not necessarily large.
What adds magnitude to them, however, is how events affect our lives. Very small things can dramatically affect people. A smile from a stranger on the street, hitting all green lights on the way home from work, catching that perfect sunrise at that perfect moment.
Now think even smaller than that. Me typing this post, me moving my fingers, my thoughts changing from one sentence to the next, what other thoughts come to mind and distract me. Even the act of telling you what a story is is a story. It gets super layered from there but every little thing that occurs, every way we look, every tiny action we make, is a story that contributes to our day and subsequently how we feel about that day and then how that day affects tomorrow, and so on and so on. This is why I call them data points. These miniscule-all-the-way-up-to-enormous events in a given day are bits of information that collect and impact a future.
Think about a classic scatter plot you learned how to make in grade school math class. You plot little dots on the graph and see what sort of trend it makes overall. This is a perfect example:
Each dot = a story
Ultimate trend and overall layout of the data = the narrative
On its own, a data point does not inform anything. It is simply a piece of innocent information. An event that occurs. It contributes to a narrative, though, because we react to it and apply our own meaning to the event based on emotional biases. That is how an event lingers with us longer than the event itself lasts. That is why someone's death affects one person so much more deeply than someone else (sorry for going dark). I alluded to this last week about how meaning that we assign to actions and events make them live on endlessly in the future. Our subjective assignment of meaning is just that, subjective. We have debates and arguments about events and stories that we experience, but our arguments are only ours. We each experience events in our own very unique ways only because we attach our own unique meanings to them. But without the meaning we attach, an event is just an event.
Just a data point.
Think about this for yourself. Think about every little teeny tiny thing that has happened for you and to you today and to which you have reacted. Really think about it. If you are doing it correctly, you ought to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly by how many things actually occur in a given day.
Here is an example. A few minutes ago, I watched a gentleman on the sidewalk get out of a cab with six different pieces of luggage. One normal sized suitcase, a carry on rolling suitcase, a tiny rolling suitcase, and three messenger bag-like briefcases. The briefcases he piled on the large suitcase, looping their handles on the suitcase handle. Then he proceeded to stack the tiny suitcase on the small suitcase and methodically try to match up the handles so that one finger could hold the tiny suitcase in place while the majority of his hand could guide the small suitcase. The whole event lasted thirty seconds and was rather humorous at first (clown-car status) but two things made it less like a circus act and more of a seriously impressive endeavor: the man was impeccably dressed in suit, tie, and trench coat and the man's face conveyed nothing more than straight determination. No distress, no visible embarrassment.
Okay, scene set. Now story time. In that thirty seconds:
- I stopped typing because I saw that this was no ordinary taxi exit,
- I observed his dress and mannerisms,
- I reacted with laughter first and then intrigue,
- my eyes narrowed watching his hands dance around the suitcase handles,
- I felt self-conscious that I was staring for too long,
- I realized he could so easily look up and see me at the window eavesdropping on his adventure,
- I consciously decided to keep watching,
- I picked at a fingernail in anxiety for the man's struggle,
- I felt surprise by his stalwart focus and composure,
- I felt joy when he figured it out and started moving,
- and I was left with immense curiosity for where he was heading...and why he owned so many small pieces of luggage...
See? A lot of stuff happened in a tiny amount of time. I have no idea where that man is but I am still curious about his journey and where he was going with so many bags. I want to know his story. And that event was significant enough for me to spontaneously decide to include it in this post, which took more time, which may have eliminated the possibility to do something else with that time, and the ripple effect continues from there for my day and week.
It was just an innocent event that has now affected my day. And every bit of that story and my interaction with that event is its own story as well. Its own data point. Just like my students said, the Event of the Gentleman and the Suitcases had a beginning, middle, and end, it is something that happened to a character, and, most importantly, it presented the tiniest glimpse into his life. At the same time, my interaction with that event had a beginning, middle, and end, it happened to me - I experienced it - and it gives a little glimpse into my life by how I react to random moments.