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Why do we tell story?

This piece came about as a result of reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods, as part of the Community book club. Therein, Yorke opens with the conceit that he is the first to ever address the question of why we write story; he then pointedly fails to answer the question, except to claim that his model of archetypal story structure intrinsically explains its own existence.

So… to fill this gap, I posit a response of my own.

Why do we story? The answer is not a simple one; the question itself is ambiguous. There are three elements – three sub-questions – that derive from this overarching query:

  • What are we – the storytellers – trying to achieve with our stories?
  • Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals?
  • What makes story – and story structure – effective?

What are we – the storytellers – trying to achieve with our stories?

There are many answers to the question of what we storytellers wish to achieve. Maybe we want to impart an idea. Or we want to encourage our audience to think critically, to question their assumptions. Maybe we want to impart knowledge. Or beliefs. In many cases, we simply wish to entertain. These are all valid reasons, and there are certainly more. However, the details do not particularly matter.

We want to pass an idea or thought process from our own mind into others’. It’s as simple as that.

Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals? —part 1

The answer to this secondary question is somewhat self-referential. We use story as our tool because it works, we use it because it is effective at getting into the audience’s minds, and it has a structure that will keep it there.

We use story because our audience wants story. Indeed, the audience demands story.

But that’s not very helpful. I will come back to this question once I’ve addressed why it is so effective, once I’ve covered what the audience wants – needs – from story.

What makes story – and story structure – effective?

To answer this question, we need to step beyond story into the realm of neurophysiology. Without descending into the weeds, we need to consider how the brain copes with the world we inhabit. Every second, it is assaulted by thousands of elements of information: sights and sounds, tastes and smells, several different axes of touch-based perception, and thoughts.

Yet we blithely ignore most of that. We pay attention only to the things that matter. How?

The brain is an amazingly complex filtering system. It weighs each element of information it receives on a scale of disruption: is this different? Is it, in effect, an edge?

The brain then marks these edges with stress. It says: pay attention, deal with this.

The toolkit used for this is a limited array of neurochemical agents. The same ones that play into emotions. That marking of perceived edges with stress is – creates / uses – emotion.

We perceive, and thus feel, edges in our surroundings. That is how we know we are alive.

How does this relate to story?

To tell the story of your day, you wouldn’t recount every detail of all 86,400 seconds. That would be boring. Instead, you would skip over the background static, calling out only those elements that are different. You would speak of the edges.

As many who have written about story agree, the fundamental, atomic element of story is conflict. (Robert McKee said it best: “Conflict is to story as sound is to music.”) Conflict comes in many forms, the most basic of which is divergence, whether from expectation or from the norm. Our inciting incident is jsut that, a divergence to kick things into action, an edge worth noting. This aspect of story aligns perfectly with how our brain works.

Then, there is the second aspect to this stress-marking of perceived edges: deal with it.

In everyday life, that can take many forms, from frantic action to deciding it’s not relevant. But they all work towards the same: resolution. While the brain uses stress chemicals to alert us to that which we need to pay attention to, we do not cope well with their persistence. As we need the hit to feel alive, we also need the anticipation and the reward of resolution to avoid the negative consequences of our brain’s highlighting mechanism.

Story provides this, too. A good bit of story provides the stress-inducing edge (cortisone and epinephrine), the anticipation that comes from moving forward through the challenges (dopamine), and the pleasure – or pain suppression – of resolution (serotonin and endorphins).

Stories work, quite simply, because they stimulate the same elements of the brain as do perception and the handling thereof. Because they cause the successive release of stress, challenge, and success neurochemicals. And, in doing so, they trigger emotion, which makes us feel alive.

You could say – to paraphrase Descartes – I story, therefore I feel, therefore I know I am alive.

Which brings us back to…

Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals? —part 2

I said that we use story because our audience demands it of us.

They demand it because it enables them to feel, to know they are alive.

Thus, we use story because its structure aligns with the way our audience’s brains work: doping with, then releasing from, stress.

We, the storytellers… we are, in effect, drug dealers.

That is why we tell story.

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Comments (12)
  • At first I thought - a rather long exposition but I have to admit the analysis has made me think more deeply about what I am doing/writing - why this way and not that? And analysing my approach.

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    • I'm glad it's proven useful.

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    • Rick, if you haven't read The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr I think you would love it. It's perhaps the 'how to' book which has helped me most so far. Certainly the most interesting. And it lets you be who you are rather than being prescriptive.

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      • And it happens to be the next writing-related book in my to-read pile. Thanks for the recommendation.

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        • Perhaps this could be our next book club read...

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        • LOVE THIS POST, especially this bit here: "to paraphrase Descartes – I story, therefore I feel, therefore I know I am alive." PERFECT. THANKS.


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          • It’s a tale I heard told, that all one needs to develop their mind is mathematics and literature, so I was curious and read copiously from a young age, but story was slow coming because I was mostly driven by blocking emotion rather than that slippery slide of the imagination.

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            • Great topic, especially for storytellers. If we think about it, the need is strong. We've been telling stories since . . . well, since we began. People gathered around storytellers, or family, friends, and tribal members to listen to recounts of hunting trips. I agree telling stories makes the story teller and listener feel alive, but I think it is more than that. I think sharing stories helps us understand one another. We empathize, sympathize, and walk in someone else's shoes and experience their walk resulting in better connection. We also live the experience of the story-teller giving up various journeys we may not always be able to take. 

              Thanks for the topic!

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