What Are Stories?
Before we get into talking about stories and how we relate to them, and what they do to us, we need to talk about what stories actually are. Before we can delve into why these things are so important, we need to understand what we are actually talking about.
We can start with the dictionary, of course.
noun, plural stories.
- a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
- a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
- such narratives or tales as a branch of literature: song and story.
- the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.: The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.
- a narration of an incident or a series of events or an example of these that is or may be narrated, as an anecdote, joke, etc.
- a narration of the events in the life of a person or the existence of a thing, or such events as a subject for narration: the story of medicine; the story of his life.
- a report or account of a matter; statement or allegation: The story goes that he rejected the offer.
- news story.
- a lie or fabrication: What he said about himself turned out to be a story.
- Obsolete. history.
Of course, there is a lot to cover just from this definition, and I'm not going to go into all of the above, but it gives us a good place to start. Take the first definition, for example. A narrative, true or fictitious, that has been designed.
The key word I really want to focus on here, is narrative. OK, I lied, there are two words I want to focus on here, but we'll start with narrative.
We all have a narrative, a story, a history of our own. We all came from somewhere, we have all had experiences and events that have shaped our lives, we are all navigating our world based on those experiences, and we are all heading somewhere, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, there is an end destination for all of us. We all have a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative is what we are living. So, in that sense, when we talk about stories, we are talking about something with more connotation than just a paperback novel that gives us a sense of escapism for a few hours.
We will talk about escapism and novels, but right now I want to focus on story as a more abstract concept, at the most basic level possible.
Let's go back to prehistory. Most of the information available for this period is hard to navigate and consists mainly of pieces of pottery or jewelry, but the one thing that we can really latch onto here are cave paintings. People have always been interested in recording interesting and amazing things that happened to them. One of the reasons that the Bible, and specifically the Old Testament exists is that a group of people simply had to pass on the incredible stories of what had happened to them over their history.
This also brings into the conversation the fact that oral histories dominated culture for a large portion of time. Before things were written down, they were passed on from generation to generation through word of mouth, around a campfire or a significant meal. These were narratives, stories that happened to be histories, and they are what shaped the background of nations and set their trajectories for years and decades and millennia to come. Protagonists prospered, antagonists got what they deserved. Reward and punishment.
I'll even go further to say that most, if not all, of these oral histories where passed on in order to explain the why of things, not necessarily the how. If you think about it, not many people are super concerned with how things happen. Sure, there is plenty of curiosity for individual events for what went down during different periods, or how a certain calamities came to occur, e.g. Plane crashes and what went wrong. But there would have been little reason to pass on the minutiae of events in history around a family meal, just because it's not interesting or relevant to remember exactly how things happened. What was interesting and important to future generations, is why these things happened.
This brings me to the second word that I wanted to focus on from the definition above. Designed. Narratives are designed. Even if they are a true recounting of what actually happened, they were designed for a specific purpose, to highlight something or inform the audience of some important point. They are designed to convey meaning, to explain why something is the way it is.
Stephen King mentions in his book, On Writing, that writing fiction is telepathy. Authors are able to create images and ideas inside the minds of the readers, through space and time, simply with the stroke of a pen or a keyboard. If those words are arranged in a specific way, that same author can create real feelings in a reader, and all of a sudden the story that started out as an idea has become something tangible. In many ways, it has become something like history to that reader, it has connected with them on a deep level, at the core of their being, much like experiences from their own past.
So in more ways than you might think, our lives have been designed. Your past, the way you remember things that happened to have been designed by you, either intentionally or not, to make you into who you are today. Our past gets spun around in the narrative machine that is our brains, and we interpret the events based on our worldview and the things that have happened to us up until that point. We design a story that fits into the mold to explain why these things happened, and we design a narrative for that event or experience that will inform future events and experiences. You are the author of your future.
Story goes much deeper than just art, although art it is. Stories have mechanics, characters, structure, tropes, archetypes, and many other facets that would take far too long to list, even if I was confident that I could list them all. These are the things that I want to investigate here. Why do stories work? Why are we drawn to narrative, and specific narratives or genres? All these questions and more stem from the fact that stories work because there is something in us that is programmed to interpret and consume narrative. We are uniquely wired to communicate in this way, and it's that communication that I want to delve into, to dissect, to figure out as far as I am able.
I'm glad that you are here, and I hope that you'll take this little journey with me. I'll be publishing a new entry into this little series every week, so be sure to check back for more updates. Or, if you're interested, sign up for my mailing list here. I'll even throw in a free short story for you to download and keep.
Thank you for reading. Go live your story.