Why Do We Tell Stories? – Part 2

Yesterday I spent some time on the question of why we tell stories. I started by going over the functions of story outlined by professor Harvey. Today I wanted to break from her list and start listing some functions of story that I observe, note any overlaps, and examine these functions more closely. I would also like to try and identify which functions of story are most important for socially impactful creative writing, since this is what I am most interested in.

I’ll start with a divergent thinking technique. I’m going to make a list, as long as I can make it, of all the things that a story can do. Remember, in divergent thinking, one does not go for quality, but quantity. Some of the items in the following list might seem silly and many will overlap, but bear with me.

We tell stories to:

  1. teach
  2. learn
  3. understand
  4. categorize
  5. separate
  6. (rationalize)
  7. explain
  8. justify
  9. entertain
  10. boast
  11. laugh
  12. plan
  13. give example of
  14. guide
  15. trick, or mislead
  16. sell something
  17. convince
  18. argue a point
  19. express ourselves
  20. gain attention
  21. condemn
  22. promote
  23. evoke emotion
  24. capture experience
  25. give order to life
  26. heal
  27. provoke action
  28. provoke thought
  29. reveal
  30. express needs and desires
  31. pass on experience
  32. provide a different point of view
  33. honor someone or something
  34. provoke change in society
  35. provoke change in the reader
  36. present questions
  37. connect with others
  38. relieve tension
  39. make a living
  40. gain esteem
  41. describe
  42. highlight an issue
  43. solve a problem
  44. condense information
  45. create
  46. warn
  47. encourage
  48. protect something or someone
  49. expose something
  50. give reason life
  51. explain the human condition
  52. establish social values
  53. establish social ideas
  54. work out an idea
  55. scare
  56. break down prejudice
  57. change minds
  58. challenge minds
  59. pass the time
  60. exercise the imagination
  61. be in control
  62. inspire
  63. be inspired
  64. easy pain
  65. remember
  66. test ideas
  67. live out dreams
  68. define ourselves
  69. define society
  70. gain love
  71. be remembered
  72. live forever

As I suspected, this list contains a lot of overlap. I’ve gone ahead and taken some time to severely condense my list. I went through the list several times, trying to find relationships between the items and combining them into general groups. I ended up with six functions of story.

We tell stories to:

  1. enlighten someone
  2. deceive someone
  3. entertain someone
  4. preserve something
  5. provoke thought, emotion, or action
  6. express thoughts or feelings

These six functions of story are inclusive of those provided by Professor Hannah B. Harvey. Referring back to Harvey’s list: delineating relationships fits within #4 and #6; making life coherent fits within #1 and #6; questioning life fits in #1 and #5; and revealing human truths fits within #1.

As you can see, #2 and #3, deceive and entertain, are two functions of story not captured in Harvey’s list. Also, my list is much more general than Harvey’s list. These six functions of story are subject to change over time, of course, but they will serve as a good launch pad for my further investigation into the art and craft of story.

I have a question: Isn’t the function of story and the reason for story two separate issues?

Yes and no. The functions of a story are all the things a story might do, while the reasons for story are all the motivations behind doing those things. The reason I have focused so much on the function of story rather than the motivation for story is because the motivations are as diverse as the storyteller, while the functions are much more limited and constant — whether or not I captured them all here on my first try or not.

It would be a very long list indeed if I tried to write out all the reasons why I might tell a story, but whatever the reason or combination of reasons — change the world, teach children proper values, honor a loved one, preserve my experiences, make people laugh — the storyteller will be accomplishing one of the six functions.

This might all seem very abstract and inconsequential at the moment, but remember, I am just exploring right now, investigating, grasping at ephemeral concepts, and trying to make sense of them. Generating this crude six-function list will give me a reference point for all my further investigation into story, and that investigation will no doubt require changes to the list, and possibly abolish it. But for now, it will do nicely.

I want to take a moment to start thinking about which of these functions are most important for my creative writing. My motivation for telling stories is to bring about positive change in individuals and society. So it seems to me, the most important function of a story, the most important thing a story can do, is #5: to provoke thought, emotion, or action. While this function seems to be the most important, it relies on some of the other functions to be accomplished. I can ask: If my goal is to provoke thought, emotion, and action, what else must I accomplish?

I think the answer to this question could be: First I must entertain so that I can express, so that I can enlighten, so that I can eventually provoke.

These thoughts are starting to spread outside of the scope of why we tell stories into something else, so I will just leave this for now and come back to it another day when I have time to explore the ideas further.

Thank you very much for reading. In case you missed my first journal entry on why we tell stories, you can check it out here. As always, your comments are encouraged.






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