CBCA measures the truth of a story using 18 criteria, but for writing purposes, not all the criteria are equally useful. For example, #15 is lack of memory. People telling true stories are more likely to admit that they don’t remember everything, that parts of the experience are fuzzy. But that’s only useful in writing if you’re using a first-person narrator, which I never do. Some of the other criteria are specific to law enforcement, so I’m going to focus on the criteria that are most useful to writers.
I’ll start by telling you three stories.
Here’s the first:
I was burglarized once. The thief cleaned us out.
Here’s the second:
I was once living in a house that was burglarized. I was asleep at the time of the robbery. The thief cut a hole in a window, unlocked it, came in through the window, went through the house and took everything portable—cameras, laptop computers, cash, camcorders. Then he left through the front door. He must have had to make two trips, he took so much stuff.
Two stories. One of them, according to Criteria-Based Content Analysis, should sound more believable to you. Obviously, I can’t read your mind. I can’t know what you think. But if you were a police officer listening to my stories using CBCA, you’d conclude that #2 was more likely to be true than #1.
The more details a story has, the more likely it is to be true. Details, as a criteria, measured by quantity, has a 98% success record in the tests of the viability of CBCA as a law enforcement technique. 98%. The more details a witness provides, the more likely it is that their story is true.
But it doesn’t stop there. Time for story number three.
Back when I was living in Oakland, my house was burglarized. I was living with my brother, his wife, her sister, their two dogs, and my five-month old son and in the middle of the night, someone broke in and cleaned us out. The worst part for me was that he or she stole the camcorder that I’d been recording my son with. I’d actually caught his first laugh on tape, and the thief stole it. Other stuff, too, but it’s the laugh that hurts.
Story #2 and Story #3 have roughly the same number of details. If the only thing that mattered was the number of details, they would be equivalently believable. According to CBCA, they’re not.
Story #3 should seem more believable, because not all details are created equal. Factual details matter. The thief came in through the window, etc. But factual details don’t resonate. People don’t respond to them. And they don’t make people feel the truth of your story. So what does?
Tomorrow: contextual embedding