Stories vs. Facts

Stories and facts have always been frenemies. Stories can get along fine without facts, though facts are good to have for framing up stories. Facts by themselves are blah, and need stories to become interesting. So: different beasts, often in conflict, which can make great stories too.

Like right now, when my wife and I are watching The Diplomat on Netflix. The whole series is about the conflict between stories and facts. But then, so is every movie or series about journalism, newsrooms, or any topic where what’s true and what’s being said don’t square up.

In Where Journalism Fails I explain that stories are what journalism sells. Back when we still had newspapers with newsrooms, senior editors constantly barked the same three words at reporters: What’s the story? Because stories are the base format of human interest. That’s why stories sell. It’s why you keep watching, listening, and turning pages.

So it helps to know what exactly makes a story. Fortunately, the basic formula is simple. Stories have three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement

The character can be a person, a cause, a team, a politician, whatever. They can be good or bad, old or young, rich, poor, strange, or anything—as long as they are interesting. To be a character is to be interesting. Stories usually have a collection of them.

The problem is anything that creates or sustains conflict. There can any number of problems as well.

Movement has to be toward resolution, even if that never happens. Without movement, the story collapses.

If your team is up by forty points and there are two minutes left to play, the character that matters is you, and your problem is getting out of the parking lot. After all, many stories are happening at any one time, and you are the lead character in most of them.

Here are another three words you need to know: Facts don’t matter.

Daniel Kahneman says that. So does Scott Adams.

Kahneman says facts don’t matter because people’s minds are already made up about most things, and what their minds are made up about are stories. People already like, dislike, or actively don’t care about the characters involved, and they have well-formed opinions about whatever the problems are.

Adams puts it more simply: “What matters is how much we hate the person talking.” In other words, people have stories about whoever they hate. Or at least dislike.

Now we like to call stories “narratives.” Whenever you hear somebody talk about “controlling the narrative,” they’re not talking about facts. They want to shape or tell stories that may have nothing to do with facts.

But let’s say you’re a decision-maker: the lead character in a personal story about getting a job done. You’re the captain of a ship, the mayor of a town, the detective on a case. What do you need most? Somebody’s narrative? Or facts?

Wouldn’t it be better to have facts than to guess at them? Or to take as fact what somebody simply claims?

This is half of my case for Deep News. The other half is the need to formalize the way we accumulate facts over time, so the result is what we might call history-based news. Because history is made of facts. We’ll tell better stories and make better decisions if we base them on facts.

So it matters how we assemble and accumulate facts, and how we do this together. I’ll visit that in an upcoming post.

The image above combines the Story of Golden Locks, a painting by Seymour Joseph Guy (MET, 2013.604), via Wikimedia Commons, and a warning posted on Mt. Wilson in California.

2 responses to “Stories vs. Facts”

  1. […] Searls – Stories vs Facts He refers to Scott Adams’ X from a while ago: " Facts don’t matter. What matters […]

  2. […] In a word, facts. This should go without saying, but it bears saying because lots of facts are hard to find. They get lost. They decay. Worse, in their absence you get hearsay. Conjecture. Gossip. Mis and Dis information. Facts can also get distorted or excluded when they don’t fit a story. This is both a feature and a bug of storytelling. I reviewed this problem in Stories vs. Facts. […]

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