A story is about a person with a problem, and how they go about solving it. In order to solve it, they will have to change something about themselves or their outlook.
We use story as a way of examining how others tackled a particular problem, so that we can learn those lessons without actually having to put ourselves through the experience, or into that kind of danger.
Readers unconsciously expect these elements to be present. This is probably due to the ancient origins of story, which, experts reckon, originated as a means of sharing information that was vital to survival. For example, those berries might kill you, or that river is infested with crocodiles.
Because we are a tribal species, our relationships with those around us were also a matter of life and death. If you get kicked out of the tribe, your chances of surviving or mating were severely reduced. So the stories also contained elements of how to navigate the turbulent waters of the social realm. We use stories to understand what others might be thinking and feeling, what motivates them and how they might react.
Stories are a way to learn about the world and in particular other people. Perhaps that’s why we tell stories to children to such a huge extent. We read to them when they are very young, and they lap it up. We are anxious that they should learn to read for themselves as soon as possible, so they can launch themselves into the ocean of story telling that is all around them.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker says: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are my options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”
A story, then, is a way to watch someone go about solving a problem or tackling an issue, and seeing not only what they do, but also why they fail at first, and what they must change in order to finally succeed. Or, in the case of tragedy, why they can’t change, and how this leads to ultimate failure.
This post is part of a series called “Storytelling simplified” – which is intended to build, one day, into a book. For the introduction and idea behind the series start here.