Monday, August 20, 2007

Man's First Science

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blab, er, blog about an idea that has been floating around in my head for some time now about the nature of writing itself. I've long wondered at the power of stories to define how we see the world and the impact they have in shaping even whole societies and I've come to the conclusion, as strange as it may seem, that stories--telling narratives--is Man's first science.

Consider this, we currently use powerful computers to create sophisticated models of environmental factors which can, with a fair degree of accuracy, project the weather in a given area up to five days in advance. (Let's not talk about global warming right now.) These computer models can be used to test theories of how the weather works, how drugs work and other complicated systems.

However, we each carry around with us a computer far more sophisticated than the most advanced super computer, one specifically designed to model not just the physical world but also human social interaction. Of course I'm talking about the brain.

What got me thinking about this was (re)reading "The Art Of Creative Writing" by Lajos Egri and "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" (I & II) by James N. Frey. They give excellent advice on how to powerfully focus your story by determining its premise. In doing so, they express the premise in something like a scientific formula (i.e. "jealousy leads to the destruction of the beloved").

The story itself tests this theory. If the story works, if it "rings true", then you can say the model has accurately projected one outcome for a given set of inputs. If the writer cheats or the story fails to convince, the writer knows he needs to either change the outcome (abandon/replace the premise) or change the character and his starting conditions. Either way, the model has produced a result that give us insight into how people work and interact with each other and their environment.

We use stories to experiment on people, societies, even the laws of physics (or at least our ability to understand and use them) in ways we could not (or would be unethical to do) in real life. We learn a lot from stories and use them to teach our children.

They may seem like mere entertainment, but its also serious research...or at least it should be.