Monday, November 09, 2009

The significance and drawbacks of stories

An omnipresent but under-discussed element of sports in our modern era is the significance of the story. We often tend to think of stories as just factual representations of what goes on in a game, but the sheer amount of action involved in sports means they have to be both more and less then that. A breakdown of every single play without any kind of cohesive narrative structure or context from the thoughts of players or coaches would accurately relate what went on, but it would be exceptionally long and tedious. Thus, we edit, and we try to relate what we saw in terms of some larger overall angle. This isn't just journalists or bloggers either, but every fan who talks about the game with their friends afterwards; the tendency is always to pick out certain aspects that struck you as the most important and build a cohesive framework of a story from them. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, as it creates much more interesting discussions than a dry blow-by-blow of every play, but as writers, readers and fans, we have to be aware of the storytelling process and careful to think about what doesn't make it into the story as well as what does.

This isn't just a sports problem, either. Think about stories in general for a second. They're as universal as it gets in our world. From the earliest days of the development of language, humans have communicated experiences, views and ideas through stories. Stories precede the written word and existed apart from it from quite some time. They're also a powerful way to communicate information, as studies of cultures with oral histories have shown; these cultures passed their history and traditions down not through systematic listings of facts, but rather via narrative frameworks. Stories began before writing, and in our modern era, they have transcended writing, becoming crucial parts of everything from television shows to video games to feature films.

Why are stories so popular? A large part of the reason is because of their ability to manufacture order out of chaos. Our world isn't easy to understand at the best of times, and recent developments have only exacerbated this. For centuries, mankind has often turned to science and rules in an attempt to explain the world, but recent scientific developments and theories like quantum mechanics, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, imaginary numbers and relativity all go to show that the world is not easily explained. There's a great dialogue on this subject in Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites, when the wizards Cutangle and Treatle are discussing the discoveries one of their new students made in this area:

Cutangle:While I'm still confused and uncertain, it's on a much higher plane, d'you see, and at least I know I'm bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.
Treatle: I hadn't looked at it like that, but you're absolutely right. He's really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.
They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things."

Humans generally prefer order to chaos, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics shows us that the universe is the other way around. Thus, we need to find an orderly way to explain a tumultous world, and that's where stories come in. Unlike Pratchett's Discworld, where the presence of narrativium means that the world runs according to the laws of stories, our stories often fly in the face of the bewildering reality of our universe, though. Thanks to the chaos involved, it's rare that you see an event that can be absolutely neatly and accurately explained in narrative form, but this doesn't stop us from telling stories. In fact, even just "telling stories" is sometimes used as a euphemism for lying, which tells us a lot about the accuracy of the narrative model.

That doesn't mean that stories are bad, or even that they all share the same problems. Some of our stories and storytelling models have evolved over time, developing depth and the shades of grey I'm so found of. Of course, there isn't time or space to represent every detail and every point of view, but many of our best stories now make reference to what else may be out there and anticipate potential objections, even if they don't discuss them in full. This allows for a best-of-both-worlds approach, providing the coherence of the narrative model while increasing its accuracy.

However, this approach is only taken by a small minority. Most of our stories, whether in newspaper, website, book, song, video game or movie form, still feature clear heroes and villains, start with clear rising action, build to easily identifiable climaxes and then tie it all up with a nice little bow at the end. The problem is that life frequently departs from narrative convention. Villains often have redeeming characteristics, heroes have horrible flaws or do things to lose our trust, the climax or a particular story rarely comes at a proper time and complete and tidy resolutions are an endangered species. There's a reason "he lived happily ever after" is a storybook cliche; few people live happily ever after, and the rest of their existence is difficult to summarize in one sentence. Problems are rarely defeated decisively, once and for all; they generally rear their ugly head again at some point, even if it's only in a minimal way. Moreover, even the past is not definitively determined; as battles drag out in court, new information comes to light and legacies are burnished or tarnished, what is alters what was. This is why most biographies of living subjects end with a status update (the text overlay at the end of the movie), and why many biographies are only written after their subject's death. It's more difficult for the story to change if the subject is no longer living, but it still can be altered as other witnesses come forward and new evidence is unearthed. Yet, thanks to the rigidity of narrative and the fluidity of reality, we generally try to stick to our guns and maintain our stories even as new evidence comes to light that suggests they're incomplete. As Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the titular universal encyclopedia, "The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate."

How does all this relate to sports? Well, sports stories tend to be like any other non-fiction story, changing and mutating as more information comes out. An interesting example of this is newspaper game stories, which are frequently mostly composed even before the event in question ends thanks to deadlines; the narrative framework is picked, the key events to relate are chosen, the story is written and then a few choice quotes from the press conference are plugged in. Of course, this leads to frantic rewrites when unexpected events alter the course of the game. Joe Posnanski has a great piece about what it was like to cover Game Four of the 2001 World Series, which resulted in him writing three different columns thanks to rapidly changing events. We accept this as natural, but it's really quite odd if you take a step back and think about it; writing these kind of stories really is writing about the future in the past tense. Most of the time, it works just fine when events fall into the easily foreseen patterns. On occasions like that Game Four, it makes a poignant point about the issues involved in applying rigid, structured narratives to chaotic situations.

This isn't an argument to ditch the narrative form at all. On the contrary, as anyone who's tried to write a game story or column knows, it's frequently quite necessary. It's impossible to present every detail of a game in a way that makes sense or interests anyone, so we search for angles and try to stick events into a literary framework. There's nothing wrong with this per se, and it produces pieces that are significantly more readable, meaningful and important than say, a full recap of every pitch in a baseball game. However, writers, broadcasters and readers all need to think about the context of a piece and what's not being included, and writers and broadcasters need to tone down their claims to being definitive. There is no one "story of the game" in team sports, as any team sport you can name involves a significant amount of people on both sides competing over an extended duration of time and making plenty of different plays.

In any game, there are usually at least 10 or 12 potential angles you could take to turn it into a compelling narrative. None of these are necessarily more wrong or right than others; they're just different, and having as many different perspectives as possible is crucial. It's not even just the stories in a traditional narrative from that are limited by this, as analytical columns and posts often use narrative elements (such as heroes and goats) and are subject to the same constraints. Single narratives leave much out of necessity and only tell part of the real story, but combining several narratives leads to a much more complete picture of what actually went on, portraying the subtleties and the different perspectives that are often left out. This is why ESPN's Around The Horn vexes me so; it deliberately reduces complex stories and opinions to the most extreme and simplistic 30-second sound bites that can be produced, removing all nuance and subtlety and taking us from the realm of partial truth into Fantasyland.

Why bring this up now? Part of the reason is thanks to my ongoing look at the NFL in my Phoenix Pub columns; I talked about the league's superior use of the power of narrative a while back, and my column later today is going to focus on the overemphasis on quarterbacks in the stories about the league. I've also just finished reading Bill Simmons' Now I Can Die In Peace and Jeff Pearlman's The Rocket That Fell To Earth, two excellent books. In both, one of the key figures is Roger Clemens, who has perhaps been portrayed as more of a stereotypical villain than almost anyone in sports recently. I'm hoping to do reviews of these books on their own this week and discuss the different storytelling techniques they use, and the different perspectives they take towards Clemens in particular. Is Clemens really pure evil, Darth Vader minus the final redeeming transformation, is he just a misunderstood soul, or is the truth somewhere in the middle? In my mind, Clemens is a great example of the successes and drawbacks of the narrative form; there are tons of compelling stories and angles you can use to discuss him, but none of them necessarily give you the whole picture.

What's true for Clemens is true for much of the sports world. There are details, subtleties and shades of grey missing from almost every piece, and much of that's thanks to the constraints of the narrative form. I don't think that's a reason to abandon stories or the elements that go with them, as they make for compelling reading and provide us with important information. Instead, I'd suggest that writers and broadcasters move away from the definitive and try to tell a story, instead of "the story". Readers and listeners should engage with the stories they take in and think about what context is being left out; often, that information can be found in a second or third narrative piece. Stories aren't perfect, but they do provide us a way to make rational sense of a complex world, especially when grouped en masse. We can embrace them, but we need to be aware of their limitations.

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