Stories are more important than facts.
Facts are important, of course—they offer us precise information about what reality looks like. In that way they’re like photographs. But it’s stories that give us the tools to navigate reality: decisions, identity, relationships. And in that way stories are like maps.
One shows us what is there, the other helps us figure out how to get there. Each has its role, and we need both.
Like I said in my essay on feedback, maps are important because they provide three vital bits of information:
- Where you are: location
- Where you’re headed: destination
- How to get there: direction
Stories are similar, because the primary feature of a story is movement, from beginning through middle to end. There is a character (or more) who is uprooted from where they are (location) and have to achieve a goal (destination) and the story is about how they move towards that goal (direction).
And as we relate to the characters we take hold of tools to find our own way. And that can happen in different ways:
Destination: We might recognise ourselves in a character’s location and identifying a destination we weren’t even thinking of. Like when reading The Lord of the Rings the first time helped me see how deep friendship could go. Or like when I read about Jesus in the Gospels, which portrayed him as gentle with those struggling yet readily direct with the disingenuous, and so pointed me to a way to be I hadn’t seen before.
Direction: We might recognise ourselves in a character’s journey, and find encouragement that we are on the right path when we feel uncertain our decisions we’ve taken—or that we are on the wrong path and need to retrace our steps. Other times we find wisdom for decisions we need to take. The story of Ged in The Wizard of Earthsea did this for me as a child—and again as an adult.
Location: You need a minimum of two points to draw a line. To figure out your direction on a map, you need to identify not just your destination but also your location. And stories help us do just that. It doesn’t happen anymore with map apps, but back when paper maps ruled, there was sometimes the very real frustration of locating your destination but struggling to find your location. Who among us hasn’t at some point felt uncertain about who they even were—and the delight of learning it through a character? Spider-Man stories did this for me as a kid. That’s the power of stories as maps.
But there’s one more important way stories are like maps: for both, less is more.
Maps are pretty basic. Consider this map from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Tower of London in contrast to a satellite photo of the same area.
The extra detail in the satellite image becomes noise when you need to plot your path. The much reduced detail on the map makes it actually better for the purpose.
Similarly, stories aren’t precise in the way facts are. And as we all know from biographies and biopics, even facts are often altered for the sake of a better story. That’s because the storytellers get something those who complain miss:
Stories, like maps, aren’t about getting all the details just right. They’re about making the path clear.
And for that purpose, less is easily more.