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At the Story’s Business End

collateral tales

collateral tales

What happens to stories’ heroes usually varies, after all, from the unlikely to the fantastic, with the improbable as the median in between. So how come that we have such a high tolerance for storylines we wouldn’t expect to be happening to our neighbor?

There is a range of possible explanations which do have some merit: including that we expect fiction to be fiction, after all, or our penchant and indeed our appetite for being entertained (at which reality, mostly, sucks), or our willingness to suspend disbelief. But why would the latter be so easy? Or even be, possibly, an ingrained characteristic?

I would argue that humans might have an intuitive feeling about some of the consequences of their own existence’s massive improbability—a kind of improbability that handily beats almost everything we can come up with in a story. As Richard Dawkins wrote in his book Unweaving the Rainbow at the beginning of the first chapter “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity”:

We are all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.1

And, a little further on on page 3, he refers to yet another and equally stupefying improbability, related to the flow of time: “In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead. In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive.” Stupefying indeed: we are heroes in our own stories, and these stories are ridiculously, outrageously improbable. To argue my case a little further, let me give you another quote, this time from Paul Davies’s The Goldilocks Enigma. Though I happen to have some massive reservations about his overall argument, the following is exceptionally well put:

To get what I am driving at, consider this: not one of your ancestors died childless. [I]magine your pre-human ancestors, stretching back hundreds of millions of years. A long time ago your ancestors were fish. Think how fish spawn countless eggs, and imagine the tiny, tiny fraction that survive and mature. Nevertheless, not one of your ancestors—not a single one—was a failed fish. What are the odds against this sequence of lucky accidents extending unbroken over billions of years, generation after generation? No human lottery would dare to offer such adverse odds. But here you are—winner in the great Darwinian game of chance!2

And, as Davies goes on, “Does this mean that there’s something miraculous in the history of your ancestry? Not at all.” (155) On the one hand, of course, this non-miraculousness has to do with the effects of huge numbers. But what I’m trying to get at here is rather the “observer effect” (which, by the way, is related to anthropic reasoning and the attached cosmological debate, some parts of which I still find rather dubious). This effect implies, purely and simply, that from the viewpoint of the observer, everything that had to happen happened in order to secure the observer’s existence—however improbable these events might have been.

So what I believe is that storytelling works, at least in part, along these lines: the very existence of the hero at any point-in-time during the story’s “present” is taken as an indication, or “clue,” that everything up to that point of his or her existence indeed had to happen, however improbable these events might have been. If your narrative is sufficiently consistent, this will greatly enhance the effect; but a good deal of stretching seems to be allowed even in this department. Where is the point at which this projected “observer effect” in storytelling breaks down?

1 Dawkins, Richard. Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. London: Penguin, 1999. 1.
2 Davies, Paul. The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? London: Penguin, 2007. 154–55. 
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