The Shapes Of Our Stories
On carcinisation for the soul, and constrained optimisation
There’s a part of evolution I love, called carcinisation, which shows that crabs have independently evolved at least five times in our evolutionary history. Something about this world seems to require crabs. Something about the shape of the world shapes the way we evolve.
The same happens, as it happens, for stories.
Kurt Vonnegut had this idea on how all stories follow certain outlines. He wasn’t the first, but he certainly was one of the best, at explaining this. There were these eight outlines that he came with, all simple variations of how the main character’s fortunes swing between good and bad over the course of the narrative. Turns out, this wasn’t just a master storyteller making pretty pictures. There’s even been research bearing this out.
Now there are dozens of other forays into the art of storytelling, like for screenplays, that gives us predictable plots like the hero’s journey that eerily seem to mirror the stories that we most find appealing, whether that’s Harry Potter, the Matrix, almost all superheroes, or Lord of The Rings.
One of the abiding strange loop beliefs is that navigating the complexities of the world requires the creation of narratives to guide you. And this idea that stories have shapes definitely makes you wonder how to deal with the world. It’s not the number of stories or the exact taxonomy that’s interesting here, as much as the fact that they are so bounded.
But I wonder, why is it that the stories we like are so predictable?
There are subversions, to be sure. Charlie Kaufman does a fantastic job subverting the genre, but still uses the same tropes. So does Alan Moore. Indeed that’s why they’re so loved.
Wonder how Haruki Murakami novels would fare in this comparison ... Or Geoff Dyer? They are said to break the mold. But The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is great precisely because the story is familiar, a quest. 1Q84 is the same. A Wild Sheep Chase is about as good a detective story as I've seen. Their apparent disconcern with the conventional tropes doesn't mean they don't hew to the archetype. If anything it's the structure in place that allows them to stray and colour differently inside the lines.
One possible answer is that whenever you de-dimensionalise anything, you tend to see simple patters interplaying amongst the variables. After all, if you’re looking at only two dimensions, there’s only so many options available.
But is that true of all stories? Can we think of other closed loop tales that don’t resemble these story archetypes? The religious ones do come to mind as an argument against the trope.
... [the Bible writers] for the simple reason that their subject would not fit into any of the known genres. A scene like Peter's denial fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.
Another group that somewhat fulfils the same purpose is the myths. Here too, there does seem to be mechanical differences, though the structures seem similar. For instance, the ancient Greek myths of man vs nature seems familiar, even as deus ex machina is reviled today. But the shapes are eerily similar.
For instance, Prometheus (of the fire fame), had pathos at the beginning, a victory in the middle, and tragedy at the end. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus also had tragedy, but of a slightly different sort. Story of Persephone, who was kidnapped first but became the Queen of the underworld (happily, apparently) is familiar. The story of Io, seduced by a cloud that was Zeus, turned into a cow by Hera, to come back to the same origin point, seems fairly different, but still somehow relatable. Pandora, a story of curiosity gone wrong with no resolution, could give Kafka a run for his money.
People have horrible things happen to them with no real payoff, gods are indifferent, cruel or manipulative, heroes do reprehensible things, people are turned into trees or animals or fish with alarming regularity.
It’s a capricious world into which we step.
But something about the stories do seem different.
One difference is that the ancient stories seem far more amenable to letting the vagaries of Gods or nature be the primary driver of the narrative, compared to the individualistic ethos in today’s literature and entertainment.
Modern myths like Marvel seem entirely about individual agency, even if shorn of the qualities that make up such agency. It’s the apotheosis of modern mythology that "we can do anything".
A second, rather major, difference is the level to which the modern storytelling revolves around emotions and their roots, as opposed to events and their causes. Drawing on Julian Jaynes’ theses, it feels as if they were pretty unconcerned with what we would think of as justice or emotional resonance, and more concerned with outward acts in accordance with the vagaries of a chaotic divine egregore.
The classic myths don’t really have heroes the way we think of them, or a morality that we would easily recognise, or even a “point” that we are meant to easily identify with. They exist as nature itself, a thing unto itself that we’re meant to live with, not understand or control.
All that said, it’s astonishing the extent to which ancient myths all seem remarkably similar. Whether that’s smiting gods, or flood myths, or lords of the underworld stealing wives, you can see the same themes echo from Ancient Greece to India.
Claude Strauss Levy says it best:
Mythology confronts the student with a situation which at first sight could be looked upon as contradictory. On the one hand, it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. There is no logic, no continuity. Any characteristic can be attributed to any subject; every conceivable relation can be met. With myth, everything becomes possible. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions.
World building is rampant, and present everywhere from the Iliad to the Hobbit. Narrative conventions seem pretty fixed. Vibes remain as a sort of cultural pensieve that only guides living, not building. What's left?
Even outside literature, I can’t help but think how in so much of our discourse too how we re-tread the same grounds. Just like Vonnegut’s tropes, the conversations we too seem to have fallen into archetypes we can assess.
These were first theorised by Jay Forrester and others in the 70s, and later actually systematised by Michael Goodman, Charles Kiefer and Peter Senge in the late 80s.
The archetypes let us step back and see that many organizations—from small startups to huge, established companies—experience similar systemic challenges.
The original list had 8 archetypes, illustrated quite well in this book. Fixes that fail, Shifting the burden, Limits to success, Drifting goals, Growth and underinvestment, Success to the successful, Escalation and Tragedy of the commons. These seem pretty useful in understanding the world around us.
And when you apply the lenses to see the discourse that’s all around us, we see the same themes emerging again and again there as well.
The victory of the small and nimble vs the goliath institutions
The tussle between better optimisation (incl rationalism) and the satisficing philosophies
Formal vs informal vs tacit learning, and their interplay
Competition vs cooperation, the fight against Moloch
Markets vs institutional rule
Positive runaway feedback loops vs negative feedback loops
Legible vs illegible goals
Break existing rules vs make better rules
Linear progression vs cascades
And if I may be so bold, passing the blame between incompetence, malice or bureaucracy
The good news is that if our behaviour is indeed so repetitive, it means understanding the behaviour is more feasible. And the bad news is that if we are indeed living a life so scripted, we’re all prey to acting as players on a stage, as the Bard said.
Also, if we are indeed living in a scripted universe, going unscripted is the one way to create remarkable deviance in outcomes.
Regardless of which realm you look at, it seems to be clear that narratives constrain everything around us. It impacts how we view history. It impacts how we understand discovery, causality and change itself.
Pick any topic and the vast majority of the conversations revolve around but a few topics, a few archetypes. We have the same few conversations over and over about markets, lack of cost benefit analyses, direction of changes we should expect based on history/ circumstance/ our intentions, the necessity of empirical evidence over theosophy. In politics too, though actually it’s probably better if we don’t go there. In metascience, its about institutional sclerosis, attempts towards rationality, focusing on people, and the difficult epistemology of judging ideas or projects.
And yet, its blinkered guidance is what leads us to the next insight along the road, just as it stops us from getting overwhelmed by all that is around us. Its truly fascinating that constraining the option space around us is what helps guide the memetic evolution, at least amongst the theories we like to explore.
Its interesting that our cultural evolution seems about as constrictive to guiding our lives as physical evolution. With all our degrees of freedom in thought we do seem to love to re-tread the same few archetypes over and over again. We could rebel at the very idea of being limited in this fashion, and try break our chains.
But it doesn’t seem to work! Going off script happens so rarely that we seem content to colour between the lines. We do seem to have this in the occasional novelist who breaks the pattern. Those who love him, and hate him, regale how Haruki Murakami’s worlds are like jazz notes. Still structured, with unfamiliar elements albeit, and hauntingly beautiful when put together just so.
Or we could see this as freeing. It's a level of freedom that's remarkable in what it constrains as in what it allows. Within the confines of the mythos we get to write anything we like. Like a universal raga that lets you improvise within the chords.
The mental maps within which we operate are still tightly bound by unseen norms all around us. Without a supreme force of will to step outside that the sandpit seems dangerous. There be dragons.
Whether we let it be chains or our liberation is up to us. Thais too, is a well known story.
Alex Danco had a great essay that everyone needs to be good at worldbuilding. If you want to change a system under a large number of different forces, then you’d have to build a new world for people to believe in. This too is narrative, as any fantasy or sci-fi writer would know. And the worlds we create are conductors of those very same story archetypes, where art becomes a mirror to reality.
Aspects of leadership, product design, engineering, strategy, they all reside inside the theory that is worldbuilding. All too often we think of this as a skill that only the visionaries possess, as if it’s somehow special or specific to a function. But fact of the matter is, we don’t really have a function that brings this together, and we should! And this belief made coming across this Ubisoft job listing quite fun!
In jobs, apart from smaller niches, we don’t think about narratives like this at all. Games do, here’s another one looking for a narrative designer for World of Warcraft. For everyone else, this is somehow diffuse through the company, with pieces of that power held by the CEO, the strategy teams, the product teams.
At its earliest stages, they say entrepreneurs need to be good at storytelling. What this ends up meaning is slightly different though. Our ability to imagine a future and share that with others help us bring that future into being. Storytellers win over strategists.
It strikes me that the toughest part of modern organisations is not having a storyteller. And worse, though its called a talent that most organisations need, its at best left to a few who happen to have it, rather than cultivate it.
List of classic systems archetypes
Because it seems fun, here’s the original 7.
And one more for the road
Leaving this as is ...