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What's the use of stories that aren't even true? (swombat.com)
46 points by adnam on July 25, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

I love this line of inquiry. "Big Fish" is a good movie to watch along these lines if anybody is interested.

Does fiction have a place in business writing?

Yes, and it's sorely needed.

One point Swombat missed was that much of what we read as non-fiction is actually closer to very speculative science-fiction. For instance, nobody really knows what the year 1700 was like in England. We have various accounts, we make various assumptions, we fill in the blanks with educated guesses. In the end, whether we mean to or not, we create a narrative of things that happen that makes sense to us.

The same goes for 1900, or 1200. All of history in this way is a form of fiction. (A very good and very educational form, I might add)

The same goes for what constitutes popular science articles. Somebody wants to write a popular article on how human sexuality developed. So they accumulate lots of studies and data, then create an evolutionary-based scientific-sounding narrative around that. Makes for great reading, and most wouldn't even think of it as fiction, but I don't think it approaches the "truth" of something like 2+2=4, or even the validity of Newtonian Physics.

Our brains love narratives, stories, and will find them even where none exist. It's the way we are wired to learn. Pure fiction, by being unconstrained by facts, allows us to explore how various emotional states are reached and vicariously think about how we would act. It does a heck of a lot of good in a lot of ways, the least of which is that it helps us practice how to learn.

One point Swombat missed was that much of what we read as non-fiction is actually closer to very speculative science-fiction. For instance, nobody really knows what the year 1700 was like in England. We have various accounts, we make various assumptions, we fill in the blanks with educated guesses. In the end, whether we mean to or not, we create a narrative of things that happen that makes sense to us.

I'd argue that you could say the same about supposedly factual stories and accounts. After all, people are highly subjective in the way they remember stories. For example, the way I would tell the story of how my first startup fell apart is very different to the way my cofounder would.

I've heard good things about The Storytelling Animal [1], it is on my To Read list, but I haven't gotten to it yet.

[1]: http://www.amazon.com/The-Storytelling-Animal-Stories-Human/...

I love the point you make here. There are two elements at play in our decision-making, the "cerebrally rational" element, with data, deductive reasoning, and concrete examples.

The other side is the "abstract" (the opposite of rational isn't irrational) element, where reason is inductive, and we can notice patterns in the stories we tell each other. That's the purpose of an archetype, and why Joseph Campbell's work lives on. If you want a good primer on this, pick up a copy of "He" by Robert A. Johnson. It's an easy read.

The purpose of telling a "myth" or sharing an archetype is to communicate something that is true about life, and let the listener induce the meaning. Deductive reasoning has its place, particularly where startups who have to make revenue or die are concerned, but sometimes the answer isn't one we can verbalize. We just "know it." Like Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in "Blink," Einstein's Theory of Relativity popped into his head suddenly one day, and he had to spend the next several years backtracking so he could prove what his mind had unconsciously put together.

I guess my point is that, just because something isn't based in sensory reality, doesn't make it false.

Thanks for the suggested perspective, Daniel. It is interesting to consider using fiction to help spread business Truths. The trouble with that notion, however, is that business is not all that profound; at least not at the level where most people actually want to be informed. It's one thing to write about BIG ideas that relate to business (like the great education in professional excellence we got from Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead). But business non-fiction is dominated by, essentially, How-To books. I find it doubtful that the mundane requirements of transferring tactical and experiential business knowledge to lay readers are compatible with producing great literature. Even the "best" non-fiction business books (like Chris Anderson's Long Tail, for example) fall far short of literary greatness. Great literary works achieve their universality and timelessness by aiming higher, and for a bigger picture. Business books are concerned predominantly with business usefulness, which has a very short shelf life.

I'll tell you a story. Ten years ago I was thinking about trying to create a startup, and a friend of mine was interested in trying with me - but he just couldn't make a decision to leave his full time job.

I had just read a book about starting your own business - how to create a BP, basic accounting etc. - and the book opened with a story; the story of two cats. One cat lived at his owner's home, an easy, comfortable, boring life. The other one lived on the street, was never sure about what he could have eaten for dinner, had some scars and bad memories. But he was really living.

I lent this book to my friend, and he decided to go on with our plan. As he told me, it wasn't all the rational arguments, the data, the real world examples that did the trick, but that little fable at the start of the book.

So we left our jobs, used up all our little saved money and some from our families, failed to find the funding we needed, and our adventure didn't finish in glory. All thanks to that little piece of business fiction.

This reminds me of the codeless code - obviously fictional stories, but written in such a way to make commentary on design patterns and practices in software development. They make for a very entertaining read, and are excellent at driving the point home.

http://thecodelesscode.com/case/45 as an example.

Fiction was utterly destroyed for me in high school where it was rammed down my throat, and when I was examined on finding deep meanings where the author may not have even intended or wanted. Biblical stories would be my pick if I had to move toward fiction, if you can even call it that.

Fiction was utterly destroyed for me ... when I was examined on finding deep meanings where the author may not have even intended or wanted

Post-structuralism[1] has its place, and I'm a big fan of it now, but I also hated having it pushed on me in high-school literature lessons -- that seems to be a very common experience, and one that really can damage people's enjoyment of fiction thereafter.

I'm not sure whether the problem's one of presentation ("find the meaning! it can be anything you like!"; "er, say wot, miss?"), or whether the average teenager just doesn't have the right intellectual frame to really appreciate the idea "meaning is a product of the interaction between text and reader, not a product of the text alone".

Back in high-school, I overcame my frustration at the perceived arbitrariness by approaching the task ironically -- "sod it, I'm gonna pick the most outlandish reading I can think of". The teachers seemed to think the results were great, which I found pretty amusing.

[1] I refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism#Destabilized... in particular.

Interesting. I suppose English teachers like total textbook responses to texts (things they tell their students to say) or totally outlandish stuff to shake them from monotony. I remember creating essays that were great (at least to me) but not scoring particularly well, I also used to think if the author of a text would be marked on response to that text, they'd fair pretty poorly too. It really is a long time ago. I read things my old English teachers write now in school magazines and they are hardly impressive.

Here's a suggestion. Read the story of David, all the way through, continuing into the early years of his son Solomon's reign. Pay special attention to Absalom's rebellion and the aftermath.

Then read "The Godfather" by Mario Puzo. Compare and contrast Solomon with Michael Corleone.

The Godfather movies are also outstanding, maybe better than the books. But they don't resonate the Bible story's theme of generational revenge quite so clearly.

I'm struggling to take what you've said at face value - that the high school situation you've described has destroyed fiction for you. Are you now unable to read without searching for strained deeper meanings for things? Does this also affect television and movies, reading out picture books to children?

Could it be that you've bought into your own fictional narrative? If so, then what you've said is true (the high school thing did destroy fiction for you, indirectly). But you have the tools within you to deal with that.

Being forced to churn through books I didn't enjoy destroyed fiction for me. Also, being forced to analyze things in certain ways also injected displeasure into the experience. I have trouble with fiction now either because I don't find it interesting, I don't need it, I don't trust fiction to inspire me or I don't trust myself to be inspired by it. I'm not sure, I'm not proud of it, but then again I'm not ashamed of it either. People that enjoy fiction have a charm about them, but I have enough of that anyway!

add: I don't watch TV, nor watch films generally unless there's something very special about them. I dream a lot, so that's my entertainment. The real healing component from dreams comes when remembering them part way through the day.. that unlocks their subconscious energy for conscious use.

High school and college literature classes dealt a serious setback to my readership too. Most (not all) of the books I had to read were worth reading, but like a fine beverage, many should be sipped and savored, not gulped and dismissed. What teachers seem to forget is that a student has a great many things on his plate, and can find it difficult indeed to set aside enough time to give a really good book its due.

Then they give you an assignment like, identify ten symbols in the work, and explain what you think they symbolize. Remember, there's no single right answer--symbolism and abstract meaning is a result of the interaction between the reader and the text. When I hear someone say "there's no single right answer," I hear, "...but there are an awful lot of wrong answers, and chances are, yours is one of 'em."

What I can say, though, is that once you get out of academia, give your mind a little time to refresh itself, and no longer feel the threat to your GPA if you interpret a book incorrectly, the enjoyment returns to reading. In some cases, you'll even go back to those books you had forced down your throat, re-read them, and enjoy them this time round!

But not "The Things They Carried." I don't mind being surprised in a story, but I get annoyed when the style clearly suggests one thing, and then in a pique of self-referentiality, the author tugs the rug out from under you and tells you that... well, I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't had the misfortune yet. (No, it's really a pretty good book, and I have to admit the author got me good.)

I plan on buying a new monitor soon. I think when I can read comfortably off a screen for long periods of time it will make it that little bit easier. Is there any equivalent to http://www.sacred-texts.com/ but for literature?

add: perhaps when I find something I like, I can then borrow it at a library for the full the effect. Is there a netflix for books worth using?

Interesting thread. When I learnt music theory (as an adult) the way I was taught is that there is a correct way to go about writing a tune to pass the exam, and that if you evaluate the tune through these criteria it will also sound good. And that you can then reuse these techniques to write more sophisticated and interesting music for other purposes.

I have liked the idea that you can do this creative thing, but come up with something which is validly good to an objective criteria. Somewhat like the market - something that makes money within the law has a certain fitness to it. Or code. There's different ways to go about it, but things that don't compile are broken.

It separates valid creativity from the mind poison of "all opinions are equally valid".

Stories are one of the most important things about being human. When we encounter a situation we have to think about, particularly if we don't have rational mechanisms for evaluate it, we fall back to stories. Fiction can be a great way to distil ideas, and create context for thinking about interactions between humans, and give us a foundation for interacting in real-world situations based on good examples.

But some are better suited than others. Fifteen years on I'm still trying to work out what the essence was of _The Great Gatsby_ and what his point was. You struggle to find a point that you'd make to an examiner, and there's never quite enough evidence to support it. I've decided that Fitzgerald books are a cloud of atmosphere. The author is just trying to communicate a picture of a setting, and in parts his feelings. I could now write a great essay about his brilliant mechanisms, and place that in the context of his times. But - as much as you might enjoy or hate the book, or identify with characters inside - there's nothing else there to share with an examiner.

Whereas Shakespeare is full of clear, valuable, timeless messages. He racks up evidence for the points he wants to make, the situations are timeless, and the soliloquays will keep you brave through the darkness. For a great article about Mandela and Shakespeare in The Australian recently, google for 'The Bard's role at Robben Island' and click through.

If you get a basic Kindle you can get a fair bit stuff cheaply. And there's lots of old books on amazon that cost 0.01 unit of your currency, plus postage. Better would be if you could find someone who you like and who likes books in a non-wanky way, and then they can lend books to you they recommend. Then you can have lunch with them and talk about it every now and then. A friend convinced me not to start an economics program, and instead do this for economic history, and it was a good experience.

Thanks for those insights and tips. As for "let food be thy medicine" I think it's possible to "let fiction be thy medicine." The trick would be to find the right fiction. What is the news but an interface into other people's stories at a time of relevance or interest to the wider community?

Incidentally, my great-great grandfather was an author whereby "he uses the novel as a forum for discussing the nature of Polish anti-Semitism, for defending his fellows against charges of usury and lack of interest in Polish national life. He does this by throwing the characters, both Polish and Jewish, into difficult and sometimes fantastic situations." http://goo.gl/JFBN2

So I suppose what I seek is functional fiction. Maybe I'll have to resort to writing my own fiction if I don't find anything worthwhile. Haha.

"Biblical stories would be my pick if I had to move toward fiction"

That's an interesting choice - why would you choose those? Historicity? Impact on Western culture?

Truly inspired text should inspire the reader to obtain insights they'd have trouble reaching on their own. And yes, getting in touch with archetypes can actually be healing to the psyche.

After reading any parts of the Bible I tend to feel as inspired as Randolph Churchill who, as described by Evelyn Waugh:

"In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible "bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave'" or merely slapping his side & chortling `God, isn't God a shit!' "


Indeed, the Bible is both a narrative and an extended esoteric religious metaphor. Someone looking for insights, healing, gnosis and awareness of archetypes would do well to seek out more modern literature by Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof and Huston Smith.

Very good suggestions, and I've touched on them all. Ken Wilber mentioned that the best thing a person can do to promote enlightenment is to simply share their beingness, not try to push any agenda. I tend to agree. I find Alex Jones' QA sessions to be very interesting. But none of this is fiction.

add: AJ says he uses Linux personally and wants to get more deeply into it. He and Stallman agree open-source is the way to go because it's open, and any spyware or backdoors can be discovered. Keep Big Brother out. If AJ is out there getting Linux and Bitcoin (to a lesser extent) into people's minds, then that is a good thing in and of itself, I think.

Fiction adds flavor that can help the point of a story stick in your head.

I don't think the hacker koans are necessarily retellings of actual events, but they get their points across concisely and memorably. Aesop's tales have the same quality.

Tangential: I recently re-read a book of Aesop's fables that I had as a child. I was surprised that the 'morals' of the stories are often not what we might regard today as good advice.


They were good advice for most of history... I'll be happy if my articles are still providing valuable advice in decades, let alone millennia! :-)

Ha, true. Although I honestly think in some ways your posts are 'more timeless' as I think they're more considered. From what I remember most of the fables are sound advice about morality in general but there's also a recurring theme of not getting above one's station and knowing one's place in the world. It irked my inner entrepreneur.

But now that I reconsider it, perhaps Aesop was right. Ambition has never guaranteed happiness. Perhaps accepting one's lot in life is something to aspire to. In fact it most probably definitely is.

Ah bollocks. Now I don't know what to think.

Actually, the hacker koans are as far as I can tell, all real. The one about the neural network can be found almost identical but with real-world detail in Levy's Hackers book, the one about turning on and off the Lisp machine will be familiar to anyone whose aid has been beseeched only for the problem to disappear when you arrive, and the toaster koan features a Drescher who I recently realized is the philosopher Gary Drescher and who was indeed at the Lab in the right years.

An important aspect when using stories to convey lessons, whether they'd be true or fictional, is to stay faithful to patterns grounded in reality, not simply theory. That usually requires a solid life experience or at the very least some considerable research. Otherwise, you would basically be writing your opinion and it might not sound True in the end.

Just consider a teenager who decides to write a love novel out of her extensive knowledge on the matter. Some aspects of it might resonate with most people, those would be the more common patterns. Other elements however might be missing to the more mature audience, who has gone through a lifetime of more complex relationships.

I would imagine that fictional writing for business is similar. You could write based on general theories and sound somewhat "accurate", but the devil is in the details and having first hand knowledge of more subtle patterns (usually overlooked by most theorists) allows you to measure their importance in that context. Good examples of such intricacies can be found if you dig into the psychological aspect of running a business. What sort of poorly documented, yet very common patterns can you find?

Imo, that's what would give realism to an otherwise very entertaining fictional story and credibility to your lessons.

An important aspect when using stories to convey lessons, whether they'd be true or fictional, is to stay faithful to patterns grounded in reality, not simply theory. That usually requires a solid life experience or at the very least some considerable research. Otherwise, you would basically be writing your opinion and it might not sound True in the end.

It's always your opinion, whether you know it or not, but yeah, some people's opinion is more worthwhile than others. I'd happily read any random stuff written by a Hesse or a Marques, because their opinion is gold dust.

Ultimately, there's no substitue for that but personal growth, observation and life experience, and no way, as far as I can tell, to accelerate it other than having very unfortunate events befall you (a kid growing up in a war zone will easily have more life experience than a much older person with a steadier life).

Case in point to your love novel example is the Twilight series :)

Or 50 Shades of Grey, which started out as a Twilight fanfic.

I think this is really dependent on the author's skill and how gracefully he stretches our suspension of disbelief. Swombat has this skill, so I would implore him to try it.

Wow, that's quite a compliment, thank you. I hope I can live up to it!

Even if you couldn't live up to it now (which is really in your head ;) you would incrementally but surely improve to the point you can, so do not feel pressured when you write those first pieces. I know you know this, but perhaps it's a good time to be reminded of it :-)

Around 15 years ago, I read a fictional book that taught me about what it may be like to go into the field of computers. It was called Microserfs [1] and I absolutely loved it. I thought that it did a great job of describing the world around software development and what working in Silicon Valley may have been like.

A book that would have been non-fiction on the subject, may not have captured my imagination as much, but this did a wonderful job. This is just one example of an introduction to the business of computers through the use of fiction. I think there's definitely a place for it.

For me, there's absolutely room for more fictional books that capture the startup experience and show what life may be like. This would not only be entertaining, but provide some sort of guidance for those interested in the field beyond the Hollywood'd tech movies [2] that are available for them today.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microserfs

[2] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Network

I think that fictionalising stories to make them more palatable, or easier to digest, has its place, so long as it's obvious.

Dilbert, for instance, is famous for taking real life stories, adding a layer of humour on top, and thus making them more memorable and have more impact.

http://dilbert.com/2012-07-22/ for example.

Just wanted to note that fiction does have a prominent history in business writing in the form of case studies. Most issues of the Harvard Business Review include a multi-page fictional story about a middle manager and some dilemma he or she faces, along with a suggested course of action from 4 real-life middle managers.

Some time ago I wrote a short story about a guy moving a boat. Really it was a story about overcoming entrenched thinking, and how small nimble companies can change the status quo.

It was pretty well received, so I've thought about writing a book in the same setting where the young man that moves into the entrenched and old fashioned fishing harbour gradually overcomes the old by using his wit and outlook and eventually ends up owning and running a fishing fleet.

I've spent quite some time thinking through the plot, and I can tell you that creating and telling a great story that also conveys sound and interesting business advice is extremely hard.

You can read the original short story here: http://www.maximise.dk/moving-a-boat/

I've spent quite some time thinking through the plot, and I can tell you that creating and telling a great story that also conveys sound and interesting business advice is extremely hard.

I'd say it's impossible.

What is possible, at least in my experience, is to start with a good story - i.e. characters, a plot, a series of interesting interconnected events - and let the meaning of those events shine through. I've never managed to craft a story around a message - the message always emerged from the story.

If you drop the word "business" from "business advice," at least, it's not impossible. Fables (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fable) and parables (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable) are both types of stories that are built around making a point, and there are examples of both that have been good enough to still be popular thousands of years after they were first written.

I would say that it's harder to write a great fable or parable than it is to write a great example of a general story, though, because the structure of being built around an Important Point makes it easy to slip into preachiness or didacticism. You have to work extra hard to make the rest of the story not sag under the weight of the lesson.


I remember the article you refer to (though I can't remember what the exact story was, actually). I was disappointed at the reaction when people found that it was a fictional story, but at the same time it wasn't really clear from the format that it was a fictional story.

Then again, a good fictional story grabs you and makes you believe in that world, blurring the line between fiction and reality... so it's not so easy to demarcate without being overly blunt. At the same time, I guess if you throw a couple of elves and trolls or equivalently obvious device in at the beginning everyone will know it's fiction :-) (one would hope...)

Interesting idea, btw - looking at the comments as a barometer of whether the format is working. At the same time, if the fiction is being used to convey "profound truths", it may well be that the comment threads end up going round in circle since agreement or disagreement is really neither here nor there...

Thank you very much for your input, much appreciated.

I agree, fiction has its place and relevance. Though my use of it has been to remove a lot of preconceived notions i have about a current problem. i.e: i have a decision to make and can't make up my mind, i go read a fiction(something i've already read) and then after a couple of hours, i come across some event/story-point and realization hits. Ah that's a similar situation to my current dilemma. Related link i think fits here. :http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/05/03/rediscovering-literacy/

My favorite business book of all time (well, joint favorite, alongside the 7 habits) is The E-Myth Revisited. It uses a fictional story to weave together the lessons that the author is trying to teach. The narrative is based around a lady who opened a shop to sell home-baked pies. Now she feels trapped by a business that isn't thriving and that is actually making her miserable. In the story, she meets with the book's author who coaches her on how to turn her business around. The story is gripping, right through to the very end. You really truly want her to succeed! After I finished the book I thought a lot about not only the lessons on business that the book teaches, but also about the way that the book was written and why I liked it so much. I think the story worked so well as a way of teaching precisely because it was a well-written story, and being fictional doesn't change that one bit.

Later I read another book, Made To Stick, that kind of cemented this belief. That too is a great book, full of interesting little insights, and I'd highly recommend it. Stories, especially the simple kind that can hook our attention, are far more effective than facts alone can ever be.

Of course, if you have a real life story that meets the criteria of being interesting and contains all of the lessons you need it to contain, that would work every bit as well as a fictional story (maybe even more so, thanks to the true-story element). But real life doesn't often work out that way. Things aren't so neatly laid out, and you need to be careful not to get lost in the minutia. I think writing from a fictional perspective also helps you to focus on what parts of the story are truly important to what you are trying to say.

As a final, and tangentially related note, I think this crosses over to technical writing too. The best technical book I've read (and over the years I've read quite a few) is Agile Web Development With Ruby On Rails. I think it's down to the way there's almost a story there, with the web shop that they're building in the first half of the book. That makes the book interesting. I raced through that section. The second half has no narrative, it's just a bunch of technical facts laid out -- I don't remember anything from those chapters. No other technical book has made a lasting impression on me like that, and I strongly suspect it is because none of the other books have had any semblance of story or narrative.

Unless you really know the guys in the story or they have influences on your life, what is the difference between a true and a fake story?

A great example of fiction in business writing is "The Richest Man in Babylon". It's focused on principles of personal finance but you could easily construct something similar for start-ups.


Hmmm. I read that book a few years ago, and the only thing that sticks in my mind is the bizarre use of mock-biblical language.

I've read some "business" books like this before and always enjoyed them, even though I knew they really were fiction.

"The Richest Man In Babylon" is a good example of this.

I would very much enjoy a modern, more realistic take on business in the form of fiction.

Any one interested in the power of stories, and the Truth of same, must read Don Quixote.

"OMG it's so long and there are so many Great Books I'm supposed to read." Shut up. I know things. You will listen to me. Do it anyway.

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