Why Do We Tell Stories?

“Let’s start at the very beginning / A very good place to start” 
—Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music

Today, as Julie Andrews suggests, I want to go back to the beginning and explore a basic question: Why do we tell stories? Not only in creative writing, but in daily life as well.

A couple of years ago I listened to a lecture series by Professor Hannah B. Harvey, an Adjunct Professor in the Storytelling program at East Tennessee State University, on the art of storytelling. While Harvey focused mainly on oral storytelling, nearly all of her lectures are also applicable to creative writing. In the beginning of the series, Harvey lists some of the functions of story. I would like to use this list as a starting point for my own investigation into the reason we tell stories, what functions they serve, then in later entries explore what story is.

Harvey says that stories serve multiple functions for human beings, including:

  • delineating relationships and setting parameters: establishing boundaries between social groups
  • making life coherent: giving us a sense of who we are, where we come from, where we might be heading, as well as expressing our deepest longings, hopes, and fears
  • questioning life: forcing reflection on the self and society
  • revealing human truths: not the factual, objective truths of our world, but the subjective truths, our ideas and values, generated in reaction to the objective world.

Starting with Harvey’s list, I’ll now attempt to elaborate on these functions for my own understanding.

How does story serve to delineate my relationships? How does it establish boundaries? I tell stories to my wife all the time that are meant for her and only her. I tell stories about people in my family, about my past, about personal struggles. These are stories that in part function to establish boundaries. They say: You are my closest confidant, someone I trust with these highly personal and subjective thoughts.

I tell my kids different stories, or stories modified from those I tell my wife. The tone and content are tailored to my kids, establishing myself as an authority, as someone they can trust, as someone safe and loving, and so on. Here, I am defining my relationship with my kids.

I tell different stories to my brother, my aunt, my in-laws, co-workers, and strangers, stories which establish the level of closeness and categorization of our relationship. I think human beings have a desire to categorize themselves into groups. I think this has to do in large part with self-preservation: we need to establish ourselves as part of one group or another so that we can benefit from that group and protect ourselves from others. Unfortunately this has the side effect of creating prejudice among peoples of any social categorization, no matter how trivial. But this is a little off-topic, so back to Harvey.

How does story make life more coherent? I tell stories to myself all day long. It’s how I process my experiences. If something happens — I have financial trouble for example — I think about myself and the world; I generate a story about myself and the situation which informs my mental and emotional state. I might say: I have been through worse situations; things in life go up and down, and this is just a down; I am able to handle hard times; my mother went through harder times and she got through is; I will get through this; I will be okay, because that’s who I am. This type of storytelling, to myself, forms and recalls my understanding of who I am and how the world works. The same process goes for internal stimuli: pleasurable or painful thoughts and feelings. Here, story functions to give order and reason to life, it makes life coherent.

I tell stories to my wife and kids in the same way. I form stories based on my experiences to explain why things happen the way they do, how we should understand them, and what our reactions should be. I think we do this because the mind craves order. The mind does not function well without order — whatever “order” means to a given individual — because without order, we cannot accurately predict the outcome of a given event; we cannot plan ahead; we cannot take action to protect ourselves and fulfill our needs.

Harvey says that another function of story is to prompt reflection on oneself and society. This, to me, is one of the most important reasons I write stories. Stories that prompt reflection are important in our daily lives as much as in creative writing. When I read a tragic story in the news, one that connects to me, is close to me, I find myself considering the people involved, their choices, and what choices I might have made if I were in that situation.

The same goes for any story that moves me with characters I empathize with, be it a novel, short story, play, movie, whatever. My immediate reaction is usually along the lines of: I wouldn’t let that happen to me, or, I would have done that differently. Most of the time, as I learn more and more about the characters and the situation, I find myself questioning the environment, the society, as well. I ask: Why is the world like this? What might I change about it? What can be done?

It seems to me that empathy, the personal identification with a character or a situation within a given story, is instrumental in prompting reflection. If I do not feel related to the character or situation, if I cannot see myself in that situation, then I have nothing to think about. There is no reflection. It seems true too, that someone lacking in empathy, or unable to suspend their disbelief because of their conditioning, would have a difficult time being moved to reflection on themselves and society, because they do not allow themselves to connect with the story. I’ve had my suspicions for some time that the characteristics of playfulness and innocence are two of the greatest that an audience can bring to the table.

The last function of story on Harvey’s list is the revelation of human truths, of a certain subjective understanding of the objective world. These truths about life and the human condition which the storyteller holds true serve to convince the audience to accept or consider some idea or value. Of course, the audience may perceive different truths than the storyteller intended, and this is where the art and craft of storytelling comes in: pointing the audience toward certain observations and considerations without beating them over the head. If these observations resonate with the audience, they may prompt the audience to thought and action, which is one of the most powerful things a story can do. When I read Chekhov’s “Oysters”, I see the selfishness of humanity, the cruelty of poverty, the violence of indifference, the fragility of life. I see these truths in myself and society, and I dwell on them. I think about them, and through that thought, I change the way I conduct my life.

Art imitates life and life imitates art, so the saying goes. Oscar Wilde put it a little differently: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” I think this goes to the heart of what Harvey is saying here, that story can effectively shape our subjective understanding of our world, and in doing so, our actions and society. I won’t go into my ideas about one’s subjective experiences versus objective reality right now except to say that, to my understanding, one’s perception of the world and what the world really is can be two completely different things, depending on how observant and aware of the present one is. How we think and feel about other races, about class systems, poverty, freedom, and so on — it all starts with our perception of our world, having few, if any, relevant roots in objective reality, and those perceptions often start with story. If story plays such a large part in shaping our perception, it seems apparent to me that the storyteller has a serious responsibility to be perceptive and intelligent in their storytelling.

That’s all I have time for today. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up on this topic of why we tell stories again, try to identify any functions of story left out of Harvey’s list, and see if I can’t isolate the primary functions of socially impactful writing.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or suggestions, I encourage you to leave a comment. I’ll do my best to address your comments in my next entry.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *