Storytelling — Narrative Wet Bulb Temperature

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Telling jokes at a funeral is hard. Even entertaining an urge to do so is perhaps not a decent thing to do. At best, you might get away with telling a poignantly humorous anecdote about the deceased as part of a eulogy. The context of a funeral is simply not appropriate for joke-telling, and it’s not just a matter of social norms and performance expectations of grieving solemnity. People simply wouldn’t be in the mood.

Even if you were a comedian who left instructions for your funeral to be conducted in the form of a comedy festival, if people actually liked you, they’d likely find it somewhat difficult to get into the spirit of the idea.

Jokes at a funeral are a simple example of what we might call poor narrative-context fit, NCF. Not all stories can be told at all times with equal impact. And here I mean any performance with a narrative structure, not just actual fiction. The idea applies to nonfiction works too.

What drives narrative-context fit? I don’t have a general answer, but I have one for a special case: storytelling in a time of generalized crisis, such as we are living through now.

It is no secret that it’s been hard to tell compelling stories in the past few years. Television and cinema have turned into a wasteland of reboots and universe extensions. Thought leadership storytelling has descended from the smarmy heights of TED talks to the barely readable op-ed derps of today. It’s not that there are no good stories being told, but compared to say 2000-2017 or so, we’re definitely in a tough market.

A clue about why this is hard can be found in Robert McKee‘s description of narrative suspense:

“As pieces of exposition slip out of dialogue and into the background awareness of the reader or audience member, her curiosity reaches ahead with both hands to grab fistfuls of the future to pull her through the telling. She learns what she needs to know when she needs to know it, but she’s never consciously aware of being told anything, because what she learns compels her to look ahead.”


Suspense is “curiosity charged with empathy…” Suspense focuses the reader/audience by flooding the mind with emotionally tinged questions that hook and hold attention: “What’s going to happen next?” “What’ll happen after that?” “What will the protagonist do? Fee?”

Suspense is a “what happens next” curiosity you care about that anchors your attention to a period of time leading up to potential resolution. Or to put it another way, suspense literally creates your sense of future time. If you are not feeling suspense about how something in the future might turn out, in a sense, you’re not feeling the future at all. Your consciousness is concentrated in the past and present only, and not in a good way.

No suspense, no story, no future.

Now, extend this logic to the general background of suspense in the environment that a story has to compete with. We do not consume stories against a blank canvas backdrop. Whatever is going on in the world — a pandemic, a space telescope on a fraught deployment journey, a critical election — shapes the suspensefulness of life in general.

In fact, we might frame a hypothesis, which I call the suspense blindness hypothesis: You can’t see past the next big identity altering thing in your future that’s keeping you in suspense. The most acutely felt “what happens next” thing.

Note that this is a spectator point of view. Suspense only exists if you can’t do much to change the uncertain outcome. You can only watch. If you can act, you’re in the story, not watching it unfold from the sidelines.

When there is a high level of suspense in the general background, it is harder to tell stories because you have to beat that level of suspense. It gets especially hard if you have to tell a story that extends far beyond the temporal horizon created by the suspense blindness. If everybody is waiting for the outcome of a critical election in a year, it’s hard to tell a story spanning the next decade. And this applies equally to a TED talk painting (say) a vision of progress over the next decade, and to a fictional story that plays out over the next decade.

Some of this is merely technical difficulty dealing with storytelling in a forking future. If there is no vague consensus around the future being a certain way, it’s hard to tell stories set in that future. It’s a bit like having to choose a foreground paint color that works against many different background colors, ranging from black to white.

Your only technical recourse is to jump far enough out into the future — a century say — that the stark forking divergences of today can be assumed to have been sorted out. But then the storytelling loses access to the emotional energies of the present.

I came up with a weird metaphor for thinking about this — narrative wet-bulb temperature.

The wet-bulb temperature is a complicated measure of the body’s ability to cool itself. It is a function of temperature and humidity, and when it goes above around 35C, the body can no longer cool itself through sweating. This is one of the many ways in which climate change is a more serious threat than you might think, since it can drive dangerously high wet-bulb temperatures.

Here’s the metaphor: we tell ourselves stories to regulate the amount of narrative tension we feel in life generally. Felt suspense is one measure of this tension (though it’s a rich mess of many contributing textures, such as cringe, horror, fear, amusement, mystification). We metaphorically “cool” or “warm” ourselves through stories (where “temperature” maps to a vector of attributes. Like thermoregulation, narrative regulation is a function of context.

Narrative wet-bulb temperature is a measure of how well narrative regulation can work in a given zeitgeist. Beyond some metaphoric equivalent of 35C, perhaps it becomes impossible to tell stories. Perhaps the appropriate scale is a weirdness scale, measured in Harambes. Perhaps above 35H, storytelling is psychophysically impossible.

As with climate, we have some ability to control our environments through the narrative equivalent of air-conditioning. Personal climate control, through management of exposure to the stresses of the general outdoor zeitgeist, can be done through gatekeeping information aggressively (this idea is central to the book I’m writing). But to the extent storytelling is a public act, such “air conditioned” stories can only be heard by those who share your particular cozy climate-controlled headspace.

We appear to have collectively accepted this particular tradeoff, in that we have collectively abandoned public spaces (and by extension, truly public storytelling) and retreated to the cozyweb.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Cringe and the Banality of ShadowsStorytelling — Mediocre Metamodernism >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Wet Bulb Temperature was a literal part of the narrative when I was attending Air Force Basic Training in San Antonio, Texas. I can recall marching in formation when the Giant Voice system would announce something like “Wet Bulb Temperature 88 degrees – RED FLAG” followed by instructions to suspend or limit certain activities. Often this would mean moving indoors or under the overhangs. In the case of marching, it would affect the pace and level of strictness. The following link explains the system –

  2. wirrbeltier says

    Nice concept mashup! This got me thinking of a narrative Overton window – during a crisis, the ground shifts and only the weirdest stories can be told (and a new audience springs up that can appreciate them *at this specific crisis time*). Compare for example the keynote-length explanation of science fiction writer Charlie Stross (who has written some *far-out* shit and is well worth a read) that it has gotten harder to write sci-fi, as the world has out-weirded his more conventional storylines.

    (and here his 2022 update including pandemic thoughts):

    Secondly this got me thinking of the Decameron, a groundbreaking (for its time) collection of stories written in Italy, in the plague year of 1348. The merchant elite loved the stories at the time, yet they were deemed so transgressive in later years by those in power that they were on the Catholic church’s original *index liber prohibitorum* and triggered the book burning that came to be known as the “bonfire of vanities”.

    Lastly, your line about “no future” reminded me of the Sex Pistols – would those be a reaction to the shock doctrine of Maggie Thatcher’s 70s UK coming off its post-war, post-empire high? Does “Managed Decline” raise the wet bulb temperature such that literally no stories about the future can be told?

  3. Visited RF after many years, like earlier I could barely understand the narrative.

    I wish you had a dumbed down version for the less intelligent. After being hooked on your opus “the Gervais principle” I’ve tried many times to follow your posts but lacked the working memory to process the complexity of what’s been said.

    This sentence for e.g “Your only technical recourse is to jump far enough out into the future — a century say — that the stark forking divergences of today can be assumed to have been sorted out.”

    What’s a “technical” recourse when no other recourses are being discussed by add the adjective ? What the heck is a “stark forking divergence”. Why couldn’t we just say something as simple as “imagine a time decades into the future and hope the disagreements of today no longer matter”

    I want another Gervais principle – simple, captivating, relatable, something you can read without a thesaurus.

    All the best my friend!

  4. This brought to mind scifi author Charlie Stross’s comment about how it’s becoming harder to create believable near-future extraoolations, e.g.

  5. this is a famous (in the UK) eulogy: the iconoclastic monty python team about Graham Chapman: sweary btw :

  6. And when we have groups living in different realities (e.g., those driving alone in their own car wearing a mask vs. places where no one masks or is worried) it adds another complication to storytelling it seems. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  7. > Suspense only exists if you can’t do much to change the uncertain outcome. You can only watch. If you can act, you’re in the story, not watching it unfold from the sidelines.

    How do your beliefs interact with the existence of stories that rely on the “reader’s” actions in the story to generate interest in the story’s outcome, i.e. suspense? I’m referring to “branching narratives” / “interactive fiction” / “choose-your-own-path stories”.

    To what extent do you think writers have a hard time telling compelling stories amidst our high suspense lives BECAUSE they tell stories that remove the reader’s ability to act/choose?