Nerds and Words

Creativitate și povești

What does the storytelling animal eat?

At some point, I was talking to you about copywriting and those stories without clichés. A copywriter or content writer’s superpower is turning briefs and consumer insights into stories worth spreading. Whether we’re talking about a sexy tagline, a brand story that goes straight to your heart or about a script for a commercial that carries you away into a distant world, making you forget that its aim is to make you buy something- it’s the story that brings the magic closer to us, making it more tangible.


Here are some examples of brilliant storytelling in TV commercials:


The Western Front, anno Domini 1914. Sainsbury’s masterfully recreates the legendary and spellbound moment of the Christmas Truce– a spontaneous cease-fire between the German and the British army. Leaving rivalry behind, the belligerent sides said farewell to arms for a little while and abandoned themselves into a football match, followed by a gift exchange and caroling.


But Sainsbury’s time machine goes way further than that. Following the skilled storytellers of the supermarket chain, we may even wake up in the Victorian era, following in the footsteps of a poor orphan boy who was wrongfully accused of stealing an orange. The boy eventually grows up to become Santa. These commercials are short, to the point, emotional and highly anticipated by the public. They have become a sort of Christmas tradition that British people are very fond of.


These stories are so short, yet so powerful, consolidating the identity that Sainsbury’s has assumed in the mind of the consumers: Making Christmas Christmas since 1869.


Today I won’t insist on the importance of stories in advertising. Instead, I’m going to embrace a more general approach, showing you how naturally stories fit in various aspects of our lives, without us even noticing it. Storytelling isn’t only a job for advertisers and children’s books authors- it’s the bedrock of our creative species. There is a storytelling animal in each and every one of us, as Jonathan Gottschall rightly observes in his book- The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. And it needs good tales to thrive and keep on imagining novel ways to move forward.


Stories come in different shapes and sizes and we need them especially because we have an innate appetite for escaping the universe we know, for reshaping the world around us and for imagining bold, alternative scenarios. We live in a world of “what ifs” and this is the fountainhead of innovation. So for those of you who are hungry for new adventures and lesser-known grounds, here comes a (subjective) list of the most creative uses of storytelling, along with the reasons why you need them in your life.


Long before he discovered the fire, Man told a story


Jonathan Gottshall’s opening of choice for his amazingly insightful book is a quote by Ellie Wiesel:


God made Man because He loves stories.


This could’ve explained a lot: being made in His own image, our love for tales and anecdotes is inspired from above. Yet this is not necessarily the case. We love telling stories and surrounding ourselves with fiction because we don’t like blank spaces. We don’t appreciate uncertainty. If we don’t know the cause of certain phenomena, we’ll imagine it. We are the only species with the gift of imagination and articulate storytelling. And this is what Homo fictus does: he fills in the blanks with tales and myths.


What does Homo fictus eat?


Adventures in immediate irreality, as Max Blecher would have said. The storytelling animal thrives on an increasingly complex network of events and plots that he skilfully connects in a glorious attempt to find meaning- for him, the world he lives in and the circumstances he is observing. In his brief history of tomorrow (“Homo Deus”), Yuval Harari explains how we have come so far in our journey through space and time: because these pieces of fiction (especially the shared ones) help us cooperate better.


Throughout history, religion and science have been the most powerful stories that helped us survive and make sense of our existence and internal turmoil. And they managed to coexist without canceling one another because they serve different purposes: religion is interested in maintaining an established order, based on a perennial social order. Science, on the other hand, is interested in power. By means of extensive research, science aims at keeping everything under control, eradicating diseases, waging wars or ending world hunger.


Both science and religion need strong narratives to support them. And these narratives are based on shared stories and perspectives, tied together by the common thread of our need to put the chaos in order. National history, too, is nothing by a great fiction that each country develops in accordance with the narrative it aims to spread. For example, the revolutions of 1848 (also known as the Spring of Nations) have only been possible because politicians have told the right stories, the ones that could mobilize people, while also building a new shared meaning in the name of which citizens would be willing to fight.


Cool fields you never thought would have anything to do with storytelling


  • Maps tell us stories. Take, for example, Tim Marshall’s book- “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics”. Only by reading the title, we realize that one of the many things we are taking for granted (maps) gains new meanings if we manage to notice the hidden story underlying it. 
  • Anthropology is another great story- one about humans and humanity. Thinking about it this way, maybe it’s not merely a coincidence that the greatest anthropological studies are structured more like a story than a dry, boring treaty.
  • Archeology means, according to Gottschall, digging up bones and stones, while also consciously and carefully arranging them in order to form a saga about our past.
  • American trials are a conventional storytelling battlefield. The best-crafted narrative and the most skilled storyteller win everything. 
  • Sports commentaries are stories written as the events unfold. 
  • Political commentaries during a presidential election, for example, are competitive analyses in which analysts deploy their own interpretation, based on dominant points of view that are rooted in specific cultural, social and economic contexts.


Our own dreams are vivid fictions, woven by a part of our brain that we will never be able to consciously access. Daydreaming grants us access to a better world, fundamentally different from the one we actually live in. Not even social networks have been spared by the presence of stories: the reason we check them so often is that they provide us with neverending flows of fiction, personal stories, gossip, and causerie.


As we can see, stories are all around us. And as promised, I will now leave you with a personal selection of alternative stories, to help you lose yourselves and feed the storytelling beast inside:


1. Ziltoid the Omniscient, by Devin Townsend

This album from 2007 is a concept album about an extraterrestrial being named Ziltoid from the planet Ziltoidia 9. His visit on Earth is a quest for the “supreme cup of coffee”, yet upon tasting it, he is promptly taken aback by its “fetid” aroma. Naturally, he summons the Ziltoidian warlords to attack the Earth. The rest of the album recounts the story of the greatest confrontation in the history of humankind. Obviously, there had to be a sequel. And that is the album Z that appeared 7 years later, in 2014.


2. Disco Elysium, 2019


This is a role-playing video, based largely on storytelling. And since I’m not much of a gamer girl, I’m going to leave the floor to my boyfriend, who is truly passionate about this topic:

“You’re waking up in a motel room. Everything around you is a mess and you can’t remember what happened there, who you are, what’s your name or why you’re there. All you know is that you’ve been blessed with the ultimate hangover of the century. Talking with others, you understand that you are a detective who has been sent over to investigate a recent murder and that you’ve spent the past few days boozing it up and taking drugs.

In the company of the poor soul designated by a neighboring precinct to be your partner, you will have to answer several questions along the way. Who’s the murderer? Who are you? What kind of cop did you use to be- the good one or the bad one? What kind of cop do you want to become? What kind of memories does it take for you to drown them in alcohol and drugs? How you solve this puzzle is entirely up to you. You can use force, manipulation, ingenuity or adroitness.”


3. The Alternative Hypothesis, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt


What would’ve happened if Adolf Hitler were to pass his exam and join the Fine Art Academy in Vienna? This book follows two parallel realities: one in which young Hitler follows his passion and history goes on, undisturbed, and another one in which things happen exactly as they did, according to the mad plans of a deeply disturbed mind.


4. The Man in the High Castle, TV series, 2015-2019


This series depicts a universe in which the Axis powers have won World War II. As a consequence, the United States have been split into two: the Greater Nazi Reich in the east, with New York City as its regional capital, and the Japanese Pacific States in the west, with San Francisco as their capital. Between the two, there lies a neutral region that encompasses the Rocky Mountains, much like the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The action starts in 1962 and follows the lives of several characters whose destinies become intertwined once they discover newsreels and home movies showing that Germany and Japan had actually lost the war. The title is a reference to the mysterious figure said to have created the footage.


5. Spiritus, by Ismail Kadare


A novel that tells the story of a recording coming from the underworld, a recording that will shake the Albanian communist regime in an unprecedented way. After the delirium of the Secret Police and the tireless chasing of the living and the dead alike, all the pieces responsible for holding the State apparatus together fall one by one, as if haunted by an obscure domino effect. No one is spared, from the enigmatic dictator (that is strangely similar to the one portrayed by Gabriel Garcia Marques in “The Autumn of The Patriarch”) to the chief of the Secret Police and his henchmen. A fascinating story, full of mystery and action, about an event as old as time, whose consequences are still shaking the world to these days.


That’s all folks!


We are human, after all. And stories bring us closer together. Copywriters or accountants, teachers or football players- we all need stories to tie us to each other and train our minds to wander as far from the beehive as possible. Stories make the world go round. And that’s a fact. Until next time, stay safe and keep your mind curious!