The Stay Alive Rule


By E. Irving Couse (en.wikipedia)

We are hard-wired to want it simple.  Long ago (400 million years) there was only one basic premise under which we operated –Stay Alive!  The conscious part of our brains was evolutionarily geared for simplicity, so we could decide things like where to go hunt and not worry about how to make our bodies get there. Even today, we don’t ponder how to, say, drink a cup of coffee.  We are happily oblivious of all the electrical, chemical, and muscular complexities required to accomplish the tasks of locating, reaching for, grasping, ferrying cup-to-mouth and swallowing.  We just say, I want it and it happens.

If we suddenly had to consciously oversee all that activity, we would go catatonic with the overload.  The “computer” would freeze up.  Nature designed our consciousness to be left free so we can focus on the Stay Alive rule. But how “free” are we?  Daily choices bombard us—what to eat, what to wear, what to get for holiday gifts, how to balance our checkbook, our jobs, family, health and social lives.  On top of that, the issues we must decide are tangled in complexity—When does “life” begin?  Is it okay to make animals suffer to find treatments for humans? Where is the line between democracy and stability?  Between freedom and security?

What’s a brain to do? Naturally, the mind gravitates towards the simple.  We are emotionally attracted to politicians who speak in one-liners that make sense to us even in isolation from context.  Given a choice between choosing between black-and-white or multiple shades of grey, we go with the B&W.  When an issue gets too nuanced or confusing, we feel uncomfortable.   We want to have a right and a wrong; to know who is the good guy and who is the bad; who wins and who loses.  It’s much easier and, perhaps an evolutionary directive to fit people and situations into categories, even if we have to ignore that it’s a round shape going into a square slot.

Ancient storytelling

Writers wear the modern-day mantle of the story teller, symbolically gathering people together around the fire.  A story can bear the complexities that we reject in other venues.  If well-told, the reader can understand the good in the bad guy, or the bad in the good; see the “other side” of an issue or position or social situation; experience the kaleidoscope of humanity.  This is part of the magic of story, that we can weave the reader into a non-reality that is a truer reality than the one held in the mind.   That is an awesome power and an awesome responsibility.


T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.


About T. K. Thorne

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like her blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her.
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14 Responses to The Stay Alive Rule

  1. Jimsey says:

    I think the “truer reality” happens because the writer injects her heart into the story, offering a greatly needed escape from “the reality held in the mind”. Thank you T.K., for weaving great stories with just the right mix of realities.

  2. Enjoyable post. A writer’s storytelling may well be more true than reality–the reality we entertain, at any rate.


  3. The K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple Silly or stupid, depending on whether you feel polite or not!) rule is similar, don’t you think? I cringe when I overhear an author say he wants to make his readers think. He wants them to work, struggle and fight to grasp the meaning of his words.


    Why would I gather around the fire if the storyteller is refusing to share his story?! I’m not going there for the warmth. I want new worlds, promises, and images. I want sensory overload, and nope, I don’t want to lift a finger or ignite a brain cell! Call me lazy, but at the end of the day I want to be entertained. K.I.S.S!

  4. Fabulous post! One of my favorites things about both reading and writing is exploring the thought processes of the different characters. What makes them who they are? Why did they make the decisions they made? I don’t like reading sound bites – I want nuances.

  5. Smoky Zeidel says:

    Sadly, so many people today still have to live with that “Stay Alive” mentality. Too many still struggle to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Storytelling, however, knows no economic, age, or racial boundaries. As humans, we all love a good story. And Noah’s Wife is definitely one of them. It was my favorite book of 2010. Happy holidays, T!

  6. Thank you! This makes the political strategy of one liners completely comprehensible. We writers live in complexity, but the complexity of the world requires simplicity for survival. And it’s so easy to take advantage of that. You are a great storyteller – and how our times require that!

  7. Sharon Heath says:

    Well, this is a hoot – we both have written protagonists with Asperger’s features! Now I’ve just GOT to read your book! As for me, I LOVE it when a writer challenges my mind, my heart, my perceptions of the world. Thanks for such a nicely mind-stretching post.

  8. Some great thoughts here, including the very insightful words about politics. Many people do get uncomfortable when a deeper truth is revealed; it forces self-reflection and re-evaluation and many people just don’t want to pick that scab.

  9. T.K. Thorne says:

    I agree, Collin. Thanks for your comment.

  10. T.K. Thorne says:

    And I have downloaded yours! Look forward to it.

  11. T.K. Thorne says:

    Thanks Leah! You are right, so many people take advantage of our need for simplicity!

  12. T.K. Thorne says:

    Thanks Smoky and thanks for organizing this blog hop. It was my first and I really enjoyed it.
    And you are a fine writer yourself!

  13. T.K. Thorne says:

    Thanks Melinda. I totally agree about the fun of exploring characters. My job is to think up situations and their job is to react to it. Often, I am delightfully surprised at what they say or do.

  14. T.K. Thorne says:

    I agree that the primary goal of the story teller is to engage the reader/listener, to sweep them into the story-world. The story has to do that and should not be confusing or difficult to understand.

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