OK, it's a need, but exactly how deep a need is it? How far will we go to satisfy it? How much of an influence does it have on us, and can we find a way to measure it? Yes, we can.
I take you to the world of crime for the answer—heist crimes (banks, Brinks, famous jewels). Let's say three guys pull off the perfect Brinks robbery, except for killing a resistant guard in the process. Nobody knows a thing—no clues, no evidence. There's no chance they can get caught if they play it safe. They each take four million dollars and split for different parts of the country.
We'll go along with Eddie to California, where he hooks up with a woman and moves in with her. Everything is fine. No money problems. Life is great.
Except, after a while, something starts eating at Eddie. He's pulled this great robbery. It's part of his identity. But he's getting no recognition. He can't pull his money out of hiding, or it'll raise suspicion. So, he's got to walk around, feeling like all the other suckers who don't have the brains or guts to pull off a brilliant heist.
Sooner or later, he can't stand it. "C'mere, babe," he says, patting his knee. "What?" his girlfriend says, settling into his lap. "I got something to tell you." "OK," she says, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Something big," he says. "What?" "Real big," he says. "All right. Come on." "First, you have to promise, swear on your life, you won't tell another living soul as long as you live." "I won't. Never." "Well," he says, smiling. "Know that Brinks job in Arkansas?" "The twelve million?" she says. "The twelve million," he says, pointing to his chest. "What?" "I'm the guy." "What guy?" she says. "I did it—masterminded the whole damn job." "No!" she squeals. "Yep," he says, pushing out his chest. "Wow!" "Tell anyone, angel," he says, stroking her neck, "and I'll have to wring this pretty neck." "Hey, what do you take me for?"
He tells his story. He has to, even though he could get the chair if they caught him. It's who he is. But he's safe as long as his girlfriend keeps her mouth shut. And she does—for a while. Until it starts eating at her. "Listen," she says to her best friend. "I'm going to tell you something, but you've got to promise on the soul of your kid, you won't tell a single person as long as you live." "I swear." "If this gets out, I'm dead meat." "I swear." "Between you and me—take it to the grave." "Sure." "Guess what my boyfriend, the one who can't live without me, the one I have to do everything for, guess what the wonderful son of a bitch did." "What?" "Pulled that big Brinks job in Arkansas." "No!" "Yep." "Wow!" "You can't tell." "Never."
And he's still safe—until the secret starts eating at the girlfriend's friend, and she has to tell someone— someone who'll keep his or her mouth shut just the way she did. And so it goes until word gets out and someone turns him in.
One thing that stands out in these heist crimes is: These guys always get caught. Why? Because they can't keep their mouths shut. None of us can. We have to tell our stories. We need to tell them. Stories are who we are. They're how we live. Without stories, we have no identity. We don't exist.
A perfect real-life example of this is a recent (1998) high-profile case. A fugitive, subject of a nationwide manhunt for over ten years, sent his story to the newspapers to be printed nationally. Even after it was printed, no one knew who he was—until his brother recognized the writing and turned him in. Ted Kazinski, the Unabomber. He had to tell his story—give his manifesto—to the newspapers. Why? One theory was that the Oklahoma City bombing was taking away his publicity and he was jealous and wanted to recapture the spotlight. Someone else's story was overshadowing his story, and this recluse needed to tell his story so badly that he risked life in prison to do so.
Most crimes aren't solved by detective work, but by someone tipping off the cops—passing on the story they need to tell. So, at the risk of his life, the Brinks robber tells his story: "Hey, look at me. I'm the guy who ..."
So, why do we have stories? Because we need them to maintain our identity, to express who we are. That's the why of it. The how of it, how stories fulfill our need, is what the craft is all about.
Was this article helpful?