Story Metrics

Posted: October 17, 2008 at 8:41 pm in design, stories

So I want to build on my last two posts (which both have excellent comments that you should check out, even though I haven’t managed to be coherent enough this week yet to respond). In particular, if I treat everything as a story and I’m asking what the purpose of a design is, the obvious next question is what is the purpose of a story? Or, to put it more broadly, how should one evaluate a story?

I’ve been thinking about this question on and off for weeks, as it keeps on coming up in different contexts. Here are some different possibilities for story metrics:

  • Truthful: Are the facts in the story true or not? This can be extended to the question of whether all the facts that should have been included in the story are included. This is a popular metric, especially in politics and online forums, where finding one point in a story which isn’t completely true is presumed to invalidate the entire story. But sometimes truth is not the appropriate metric, as is obvious in the case of fiction.
  • Effective: This is similar to the question I asked about design – does the story do what it sets out to do? If it’s telling a fictional story, does it carry us away to a different place? Or does it create memorable characters? Or create an internally consistent world if it’s speculative fiction? So many possible ways to evaluate this, but it comes back to the question of what the author was trying to accomplish.
  • Well constructed: Similar to effectiveness, how well constructed is the story? We can evaluate the quality of construction of a story independently. Latour provides some guidance for what makes for a well-constructed scientific observation (story). We can sometimes agree that something was well constructed even if we don’t like it (e.g. a well-done action movie). Perhaps a better word for this would be craftsmanship.
  • Useful: Is the story useful for navigating life? Does it provide explanatory power? This obviously applies to what I would call stories of science, but also can be applied to fictional works. For instance, novels can give us insights into how people think and behave, which can provide guidance in interacting with others. In another variation of this, our brains are wired to remember deviations from the norm, as that was what enabled us to survive in a dangerous environment, so one could imagine that stories are a powerful way for us to store that non-routine information; admittedly, this has been taken to an unuseful extreme by local TV news – “At 11, see how your pipes are KILLING YOUR CHILDREN!”
  • Experiential: Ei-Nyung rightly points out on my last post that a good design should create an experience for the user. Stories certainly have the same potential. Great stories create worlds that we feel like we could visit or even inhabit. We also love hero stories that inspire us to do more, igniting a spark of heroism in us. In other words, how does the story make me feel? This may be another variation on the metric of effectiveness, but I think the focus on the story recipient is a slightly different focus so I’m including it.

    Part of the reason I listed these different metrics is to note how two people can have wildly diverging opinions of a story if they are using different metrics to evaluate a story. I haven’t been paying attention to politics, but even I’ve heard of “Joe the Plumber” this week. From what I understand, McCain was trying to use Joe the Plumber as an experiential or inspirational story – one to get people to sympathize with the plight of the everyman, and have people think “Yes, yes, that’s how I feel!” The Democrats are striking back by attacking the facts of the story, using the truthful metric to evaluate it. This will be effective with their constituents (Lakoff observes that liberals have an Enlightenment-derived faith in facts), but possibly not so much with the conservative faithful who tend to be more experiential.

    I guess my point is that when having a discussion where there are varying opinions on the quality of a story (“How can you believe that nonsense?”), it might be worthwhile to take a step back and get a sense of what metrics other people are using for evaluation. People might be able to agree on their ratings along each metric, even if they don’t agree on the relative importance of those metrics.

    So where does this post rank on the Useful metric? :)

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