Are Stories Arbitrary?

Are stories arbitrary?

There are no objective stories. There are available facts, pre-processed within the particular context they were first learned and all but impossible to fully divorce from the stories in which they were initially found. The same set of facts can be arranged to create many different competing stories, each arguing for interpretive supremacy over the situation.

How does one then come to terms with this unseemly flexibility of storymaking? Is it fundamentally dishonest to assign any one comprehensive grid of meaning to naked facts at hand? If stories can dress them up any way they want, facts don’t stand a chance.

Ambiguity of meaning need not be totally paralyzing to our ability to tell meaningful stories. Meaning is not so much created by our sheer skills of interpretation as much as recognized. It is much more work to force a story to lie against its own observable data than it is to let it speak the obvious truth. Any lawyer in court would rather represent an innocent man with a clean alibi than to strenuously reinterpret and spin the evidence on behalf of a conspicuous murderer. Stories can lie, but not easily or without sincere effort.

Assigning meaning to the facts of a story is not to whitewash the canvas for sake of convenience. Just as a painter draws from his palette of colors, selecting which shades and tones to feature and ignoring others for the purpose of clarity, the storyteller must choose which facts form the essential spine of their story. Just as the resulting painting portrays its chosen subject with exactness and unity from only a few of the near infinity colors available, the story must be both highly selective and intelligently focused. Extraneous irrelevant details are detours that the medium of story cannot afford. When the painter is finished, anyone can look at the finished work to see if it accurately reflects the object of its focus. A painting of China by someone who has never seen or known China will not impress China upon its viewers. A story comprised of facts twisted and coerced against their nature into service of an unfamiliar meaning will not remain effective, at least not for very long.

The non-arbitrary meaning of story is discovered, not made from crude manipulation. False meanings usually ring false, lacking the intended inspiration for which their creators had hoped. True meanings ring true, carrying with them a powerful agent of change. This is usually evidenced by the storyteller. It is an aura they carry around them. They sincerely believe in the meaning and they sincerely believe it is not merely their self-imposed interpretation. Of course, that does that prove it to be so, but it is a place from which to start.


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