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Narrative writing in a Twitter world: Part III

Joel Achenbach recently wrote a piece for the Post's Style section about the survival of long-form narrative writing in this era of short attention spans and Twitter. The piece was called The Vestigial Tale.

Story Lab team member Brigid Schulte wanted to know more. This is the third part of their conversation:

Brigid:Joel, I love how you brought brain research into your piece - that, as you wrote, "the human brain has evolved in such a way as to enable the construction and comprehension of narratives." I'd love to know more about that. Did you find scientific research on that? And, I wonder, how do you design an experiment to test that theory?

, by Andrea Bruce)

Joel: Steve Pinker, who, by the way, I tweaked in my blog recently for his Malcolm Gladwell smack-down in the N.Y. Times, was a source for the scientific research on how we like narrative. Pinker has written on this precise topic.... I also talked, by the way, to Jonathan Franzen, the terrific novelist (The Corrections, etc.), who thought Pinker was all wet with his theories.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Brigid: But Franzen himself says in your piece, "We experience our lives in narrative form ... if you can't order things in a narrative fashion, your life is a chaotic bowl of mush."

So is the distinction that he does agree with Pinker that we are drawn to story to order our universe, but he just doesn't buy the scientific brain wiring behind it?

Joel: Brigid: OK, I looked at my notes on this.

Franzen thought it was unnecessary to bring in the science. He said: “it's sort of like bringing in solid state physics to help you understand why you want a little salt in your cassoulet.” I have no idea if I spelled cassoulet correctly. Where I come from, we have casseroles.

Franzen does, however, agree that we are natural consumers of narrative. He said:

“You don’t need to bring hard-wired into the conversation to understand why narrative is fundamental to the human experience. We experience our lives in narrative form. People progressing in time, things happening in time, is absolutely fundamental to making sense of the world. To imagine narrative as a killer app is sort of like imaging breathing as a killer app, or the power of sight as a killer app. It’s a precondition."

Brigid: I LOVE this!

So, do we do enough of that in newspapers? Tell stories - unspool them, delay divulging information like a good story that packs a punch, or as a former magazine writing teacher of mine said, leaves you with an unexpected "huh." Do we do that enough on the web, with the rush to be first, exclusive - and hopefully right? I'm the first to tell you I appreciate a good graphic. I love maps and timelines. But I'm riveted by a good story.

Joel: Brigid:

I think news stories generally do the converse -- they give away the ending, then give away the moral, then tell you the beginning/background of the story. Which isn't bad. Depends on the story in question. Narrative shouldn't get in the way of a news article about the library burning down. I want to know right away how many books were destroyed, not who saw the first puff of smoke.

The panicked reinvention of the news, due to the business model collapsing, has led some people to think (or behave as though) there is no more room for long stories, or "self-indulgent" stories (Gene Weingarten is particularly aggrieved by the use of that phrase to attack any story that's fun to read). But people love a good story. And even if it's not a pure narrative -- say, Monica Hesse's vampire story on the front page -- if it's written with flair it can be one of those rummaging-about stories that pokes and prods an issue in search of the ultimate epiphany.

By Brigid Schulte  | December 10, 2009; 1:11 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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See, this is what makes Joel so great. Not only is he a precise reporter and subtle thinker, but he also knows Gene Weingarten.

Seriously, I think that we really are hardwired for narratives. And any medium that doesn't exploit this love of stories is being extremely short sighted. Sure, the smoke signals are important. But the stories told around the campfire are what keep people engrossed.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 10, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you RD_Padouk! - (though I think Joel is pretty great with or without Gene)

Posted by: BrigidSchulte | December 11, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

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