Science of Story Building: True Stories Also Have to Feel True — Verisimilitude

Matt Sheehan
May 10, 2018 · 4 min read

with Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand

Verisimilitude (n.)
The appearance of being true or real
- Oxford dictionary

In the opening scene of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mississippi,” we watch Frances McDormand’s character as she backs up her station wagon to stare at three long-unused billboards along a remote country road. In the last moments of the scene, she chews the nail on the middle finger of her left hand, strokes her chin, throws her car into drive, and speeds off. These subtle, simple details create immediate authenticity and plunge us into the world of a heartbroken mother who has tragically lost her daughter.

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Image for post
Radcliffe Dacanay/flickr (used by Creative Commons license)

As we discussed in the previous section, the audience of the story is one of the most important characters. We bring our own biases and experiences to bear when we process what a narrative is telling us.

Because of this, much of the success of the narrative revolves on its perceived verisimilitude, or authenticity, by the prescribed audience. Simply put, we give more credibility to narratives that we can identify with or are perceived as truthful based on how they see and experience the world.

Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and his colleagues have found that people tend to evaluate information if it affirms their pre-existing beliefs, identities, and social groups.¹ In other words, people do not necessarily accept information about problems in the world based on whether or not it is factual. Instead, on an intuitive level, people look at whether or not it aligns with their existing beliefs and values.

It is imperative that when constructing a narrative we build in points that our intended audiences can identify with, based on their lived experiences, group norms and values and how they see themselves. Jerome Bruner also touched on this when he wrote: “the author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory. So ‘great’ storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are ‘accessible’ to readers.”²

Often when developing narrative constructs, we attempt to bring large, abstract concepts closer to an audience, through “personification.” We see this tactic used by the popular press and media, where larger (and potentially abstract) concepts are told through the story of an individual or smaller groups “within the larger context and exploring the consequences of their actions.”³ We identify with people like us, and trust that narrative, more than the tales of an anonymous large group or story told through statistics. By seeing characters like us, the narrative becomes more authentic and persuasive.

Additionally, letting our communities share their own stories becomes an important tool for building trust. Karin Wahl-Jorgenson, a media scholar at Cardiff University, and colleagues found that user-generated content is seen as more authentic because often they are showing, not telling, audiences what happened. It feels more true and authentic when ordinary people who experienced the event provide firsthand accounts. For example, they found that footage from a woman filming her house as it flooded was evaluated as more authentic than coverage from a news station.⁴

We see this philosophy embodied in this historic moment of activism. On social issues as diverse as gun violence, sexual assault and harassment, and the rights of marginalized communities, individuals telling their own stories and sharing their experiences have fueled #neveragain, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter and the Dream Defenders. In each case, those most affected have shared their own stories. The stories of the students who survived the Parkland shooting, the women who endured harassment and assault in the workplace, victims of police violence or who have personally experienced education policies that exclude young people of color have provided compelling, authentic stories that command and build attention.

Those who are most affected by a situation can be the most effective because we value the authenticity only someone who has experienced it directly can offer. And their willingness to tell their own stories makes them more compelling than if a news organization or social change organization spoke for them. As Steven Pargett of the Dream Defenders said in his 2016 frank talk, “Sometimes you need to support, and sometimes you need to just get the fuck out of the way.”⁵

If the narrative doesn’t feel real to the audience, the information and facts contained within come into question. If the realism is doubted, the narrative loses its power.

As we’ll dive deeper later in this report, realism appears to be a key component of transporting audiences into the world of the story, and narrative transportation is a major factor in getting audiences involved and invested in a narrative.⁶

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Citations:

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

Thanks to Ann Searight Christiano and Annie Neimand, Ph.D.

Matt Sheehan

Written by

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

Matt Sheehan

Written by

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

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