Sunday Salon: Shaping Stories

The Sunday

“Facts don’t do what I want them to”

And so we shape them into something that does what we want. Some other lines from the same section of that song acknowledge that:

“Facts all come with points of view”
“Facts continue to change their shape”
“Facts are nothing on the face of things”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we shape narratives lately – ever since my stint at jury duty a couple of weeks ago, it’s been on my mind. 
If you’ve ever served on a jury, you’ve probably been in on conversations about “I wish they’d told us more about X…” and “Why didn’t they say this about Y…?” and occasionally “What did Z have to do with any of this?” While the jury is tasked with considering the facts of the case in rendering a verdict, it’s highly unlikely they’ve heard all of the facts.
When a case goes to trial, the burden is on the prosecutor (criminal court) or plaintiff’s counsel (civil court) to prove their case. They have access to a lot of facts, and have to present a case to the jury that’s shaped around them – and they’re required to be very specific. For various reasons, they may not be allowed to incorporate all the facts they have, and during the preparations for the trial, they may have to reshape the story according to what’s left. In some cases, that’s not enough to convince twelve people who’ve never heard any of the story before that the story happened that way. 
This was my second time on a jury, and the second time I was on a jury that voted to acquit. In both cases, it wasn’t necessarily because we thought the defense was blameless (and for the record, “not guilty” and “innocent” aren’t precise synonyms). But the facts we were given, in the way we were given them, didn’t convince us that things had happened as the prosecutor said – and under our judicial system, when there’s reasonable doubt, it favors the defendant. 
I briefly spoke with the prosecutor after the trial was over, and she told me that there were facts and evidence that had been ruled out in pre-trial, which made sense to me. We both agreed that she hadn’t been left with much to make her case – and, as a result, she didn’t.
Whether fact or fiction, every story has a backstory. The creator of that story knows much more about it than the recipient of that story ever will. Not disclosing all of that backstory may sound like lying by omission, but it’s really not. There have been times when I’ve said in a review “I’d have liked more of X and less of Y, but that’s not the story the author wanted to tell.” And because it is the author’s story to tell, and they’ve chosen the facts to include in the telling, I have to receive it as they tell it. 
The fact is that “just the facts” are just the facts, and on their own, they don’t do very much. One of the things that makes us human is an ability, and a need, to give those facts a shape – to make sense of them by forming them into a story. It may not always be a true or even an accurate story, and someone else might form a different story from the same facts. But we need story – context – to give the facts meaning.
Facts don’t do what we want them to…and so, by the details we choose to include or leave out, we make them do it.  
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