How do stories stick?

They get glued in from a shock, a surprise, a change

Plane at airport

‘Would passenger Mohammed please identify himself to the cabin crew? Passenger Mohammed.’

I froze. Everyone on the plane froze. Pre-take off chitchat stopped. Newspaper page flipping stopped. The cabin crew were scanning the seats, rather wide-eyed. My little packet of fruit and nuts was in suspense about what it should do next.

Terror!

Our plane was about to depart Christchurch airport in New Zealand for a nervous flight to Adelaide. Nervous?. Yes. It was a little after dawn on the morning of September 12, 2001. Just four hours beforehand, according to news reports, Muslim terrorists had flown two jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York destroying them and killing 3000 people or more. The news played in the taxi. The television monitors in the airport replayed the images. Hushed huddles of people stared in shock and fright. Everyone was tossing up between cashing in their ticket and getting home to loved ones.

We had all awakened to the babble of TV chatterboxes and scaremongers telling us that “the Muslims” might have declared a Jihad on all Westerners. All flights were grounded – all except ours. Ours was the first flight to take off anywhere in the world that day.

Passenger Mohammed was duly escorted forward and off the plane.

Now what do we think?

Great! Get rid of him.
But hang on. What about his seven terrorist mates hidden among the mothers and babies in the back rows?
What about the bomb in his luggage beneath us?
Why didn’t they make him empty his overhead locker?

An hour went by in the next three and a half minutes, my shaking snack packet was trying not to crackle.

Passenger Mohammed reappeared at the head of the aisle. He was waving something small in his hand and called to his mates in row 7, ‘Gottem!’ He beamed as he opened a small case and popped his Sunnies on, to the applause of his mates.

Yep. They found the one dopey Kiwi with the unfortunate name Bob Muhammed who had left his specs in the business class lounge toilet. What a boofhead!

Clear recall and rehash of feelings

My heart is racing as I recall that awesome sense of eternity which exploded in me that morning.

• Why has this story stuck like an airline luggage label for 19 years?
• How does it bring back the wobblies?
• How does it capture your attention and make you care?

What is different about my aeroplane story compared with your mother’s shopping
saga about getting the last bunch of carrots before the price went up?

Those are great questions you need to ask every time you tell one of your own stories or when someone else’s story engages you.

It’s a brain activity

Stories arise out of the part of the brain specialists call BA10 (‘Brodmann area 10’). If we’ve done something often, our brain takes no notice of 99% of the humdrum, inconsequential, drabness of procedures such as pre-boarding matters, taxiing, takeoffs, interminable announcements and grudging beverage service, but when something different bursts in on the predictable, our brain races to manage it.
It’s still not clear but it’s a growing view that working memory, episodic memory and multiple-task coordination are set to work in BA10. According to Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace in Storynomics it seems that storytelling works and storytelling sticks when it is wrapped around values, i.e. emotionally charged values. ‘Because a well-told story wraps its telling around emotionally charged values, its meaning becomes marked in our memory. Emotionally charged values work in a binary manner: life v. death, courage v. cowardice, power v. weakness etc …

There are no emotionally charged binary values in a story about a bunch of carrots.

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