Stories as Emotional Algorithms

August 28, 2019 by

Algorithms are sets of step-by-step instructions that computers use to perform a series of functions, resulting in a particular outcome. Stories are sets of step-by-step instructions that provide your brain with instructions on what to think and feel.

Since each brain is unique, molded and influenced by myriad experiential factors, a storyteller can never have full control over the way an audience’s diverse brains process the algorithm. But we do have some inklings about how brains operate in general, and we can be mindful of these tendencies as we go about crafting stories.

Brains enjoy noticing patterns. Even more, they get excited when they notice disruptions to patterns. Storytellers from Homer on down have taken advantage of this feature of the mind, establishing what’s normal for a particular set of characters, then introducing a disruption or aberration.

There’s no reason for a story to exist unless it demonstrates some sort of exception to the norm. A funny bit from Sesame Street illustrates this counterfactually. Bert is sitting in an armchair reading a book titled Really Boring Fairy Tales. “Wow” Bert says, engrossed, “The prince just drank a glass of water.”

Folktales operate according to the principle of establishing the norm then disrupting it. First the wolf blows down the house made of straw, then the house made of sticks. Then the pattern is disrupted when he gets to the house made of bricks. In the world of comedy, this is called the Rule of Three. The rule of three is pattern disruption at its essence; our brains tell us, things are the same… la-de-dah… things are the same… oh hey, wait, this thing is different.

While exceptions and disruptions can be novel, they can also be scary. History is full of examples of art works that were so forward looking that they were derided or reviled in their time only to later be considered masterpieces. When Maya Lin unveiled her design for the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., 27 congressmen wrote a letter to President Reagan to protest. Now, this innovative monument is widely considered one of the most moving tributes to the fallen ever erected. 

So how does one make creatively disruptive ideas palatable to one’s intended audience? Industrial designer Raymond Loewy figured out a recipe for disrupting the norm when he developed his MAYA theory, which stands for “Most Advanced Yet Accessible.” Essentially the idea is that you have to wrap novelty inside the already known in order for it to be accepted.

If you start looking around, you notice the MAYA principle at work everywhere. Game of Thrones has all the fantasy tropes we’ve become familiar with—dragons, warriors, zombies—with the added novelty of emotional realism. Or maybe it has all the plot scheming we’re used to from watching realist dramas, with the added novelty of dragons, warriors, and zombies.

Pattern disruption, the rule of three, and MAYA are like subroutines you can plug into the emotional algorithm of a story. Word by word and step by step, we process stories much like a computer processes an algorithm, with one crucial difference—algorithms don’t have the power change computers.