...In that Empire, the Art of the Story attained such perfection that the Decennial Census of citizens was replaced with an Annual Census of all stories found within the borders. Politician, businessman, janitor all knew that having a story that framed one’s life and experiences was the only way to be counted among the living. In time, having a nation of citizens preoccupied with story-building was not enough. The all-powerful Story-collectors Guild decreed that it was a treachery against the empire to trade stories with other peoples and other nations; it was the sworn duty of every citizen to contribute ever bigger epics to the Empire’s formidable stockpile. The Generations that followed continued this arms race, but neglected honing the allied art of telling the stories. Since all were busy every waking hour collecting and crafting stories, there was none left to listen to them. In the Deserts of the West, there can still be found abandoned piles of stories half-buried in the sand; in all the land there is none alive who can narrate them1.
— Šahrzâd, ‘On Mutually Assured Narration’ (1706)2
* * *
Apollo Robbins3 is a pickpocket and a gentleman. A theatrical showman, he returns wallets and watches with the same practiced ease with which he pilfers them4. Often to applause, but always to astonishment.
He is also an uncommon pickpocket for one other reason. Not every plyer of his trade aspires to - or has achieved - Apollo’s ability to unravel and articulate the principles that underlie the art of the pickpocket.
His insights have earned him a dedicated following of neuroscientists (and consulting gigs with the DoD5 and many corporations) and even become the basis for a scientific paper6.
But there’s another lot whom he can teach a trick or two - us aspiring storytellers, if only we can tear ourselves away from our quest for the ‘what’ of stories - their hidden structures, blinkered archetypes and sublimated plots.
Because storytelling is as much - or even much more - about the ‘how’, the telling, as it is about the stories themselves.
Storytelling is about the audience, and about knowing if they are willing to play.
“When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left. The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.”7
Storytelling is about attention, and a narrator’s ability to shape it.
“Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”8
Storytelling is about the sensitivity of the indirect over the direct.
“If I come at you head-on, like this, I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable. So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.”9
And storytelling ultimate’s trick? To invoke a calculus of computational hurdles offered by arcs and curves over the predictability of straight lines.
Pickpockets may move their hands in distinct ways, depending on their present purpose. They may trace a fast, linear path if they want to reduce attention to the path and quickly shift the mark’s attention to the final position. They may sweep out a curved path if they want to attract the mark’s attention to the entire path of motion.10
Neuroscientists think that these two forms of motion engage different parts of the visual system. Short linear bursts trigger saccadic eye movements—rapid but discontinuous focusing of the eyes during which visual awareness is suppressed for intervals as brief as 20 milliseconds—while curved movements activate smooth-pursuit neurons, brain cells programmed to follow moving targets.11
This adaptation makes sense given that a straight line is a relatively predictable path, so your eyes can safely jump ahead, while a curved trajectory is less predictable and must be tracked more closely.12
The simplest way to achieve a captivating narrative is to offer and resolve multiple tangential possibilities, every single step of the way13. Leaving the audience with no obvious straight line to DIY.
For millennia, storyteller and pickpocket have worked the same crowd (often at the same time.) We’ll be the ones losing the plot - by foregoing the sweep of the arc for the misplaced gratification of the straight line - if we seek inspiration from only one of them.
References and Notes
1. I have adapted this from Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ ("Del rigor en la ciencia"). The original short story imagines the consequences of desiring absolute precision in place of the necessary abstraction of maps (Wikipedia : On Exactitude in Science). I have retained much of the underlying structure of the original (as seen in this translation by Andrew Hurley), repurposing its payload to instead imagine the consequences of desiring stories in place of storytelling.
2. The original Jorge Luis Borges short story is written as a literary forgery, fictionally attributing it to a Surarez Miranda. I’ve attributed the story to Šahrzâd (or Scheherazade) - the raconteur’s raconteur who spunkily wagers her own life on her storytelling abilities in The Thousand and One Nights. Who better to chronicle the death of storytelling than one who owed her life to it?
The title ‘On Mututally Assured Narration’ refers to the Cold war game theory-inspired stratagem of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I imagine (in the story and outside) a time in the future where everyone is armed with an epic story to tell and is programmed to deploy their own the instant they encounter another’s.
The short story is dated 1706 to mark the year of the first English translation of The Thousand and One Nights (Wikipedia: The Thousand and One Nights).
3. Apollo is a stage name (New Yorker: A Pickpocket’s Tale).
4. You can watch Apollo in action in this Youtube clip.
5. Says a Special Operations Command official who recruited Apollo Robbins: “It’s no big secret that a lot of Army Special Forces guys have a very big interest in magic and deception and being able to manipulate attention. Apollo is the guy who actually gets into the nuts and bolts of how it works, why it works, and oftentimes can extrapolate that into the bigger principle.” (New Yorker: A Pickpocket’s Tale)
6. Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, a husband-and-wife team of neuroscientists have collaborated with Apollo and tested the basis of his insights in the paper Stronger Misdirection in Curved Than In Straight Motion. Apollo is credited as a co-author.
7. Apollo’s words taken from New Yorker: A Pickpocket’s Tale.
8. Apollo’s words taken from New Yorker: A Pickpocket’s Tale.
9. Apollo’s words taken from New Yorker: A Pickpocket’s Tale.
10. These are not the words of Apollo Robbins. This and the next 2 paragraphs are a splicing of two different articles referring to and explaining Apollo’s insights about misdirection in curved motion. This paragraph is taken from Scientific American : Magic and the Brain by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, Apollo’s neuroscience collaborators.
11. These are not the words of Apollo Robbins. This, the last and the next paragraph are a splicing of two different articles referring to and explaining Apollo’s insights about misdirection in curved motion. This paragraph is taken from WSJ: Stealing A Watch Made Easy by Alex Stone.
12. These are not the words of Apollo Robbins. This and the last two paragraphs are a splicing of two different articles referring to and explaining Apollo’s insights about misdirection in curved motion. This paragraph is taken from WSJ: Stealing A Watch Made Easy by Alex Stone.13. In the words of Ira Glass of ‘This American Life’ : “Narrative is basically a machine that’s raising questions and answering them.”