What are stories for?

By Adrian Graham on 03/19/2016 — 2 mins read

We hardly think about stories in our everyday lives, but they are there — everywhere. We can’t even have a conversation without using them, and yet it all happens, like our thoughts, or like breathing, in the background — we’re almost unaware of their presence. Nonetheless, stories permeate communication — we are attuned to their recognisable form: a beginning, a middle, and an end — we find them invaluable for explaining and understanding: relationships, confusing situations, troubling events, and for sharing good news.

We need to communicate more than simple chunks of information — wants and needs — that’s where stories come in. They connect sequences of events, over time, and can involve multiple people. Our memories even work through mini stories; we recall a place, a name, a smell, or an emotion, and the mind immediately associates it with other things: it attempts to make a story out of it. And, when we don’t have all the information, we fill in the gaps by inventing when we think might have happened. Stories are an important survival tool for gaining advantage, and predicting potential threats. Our mind even practices storytelling when we’re asleep, in our dreams, and nightmares.

Stories go beyond information — like asking for salt at the dinner table — they bring meaningful order to a sequence of events. This happened, then that happened, which produces such-and-such a conclusion. Stories are repackaged, sharable experiences, which allow us to travel in time, going back into the past (with other people), or to travel into a vision of the future — they’re a critical tool in our search for meaning: what matters to us, how we present ourselves, and where we focus our attention. They provide a revealing insight into our thinking process, our values, and priorities.

When we listen to a gripping story, we’re curious how it will unfold — what will happen next — and at the end of the story, we discuss the experience. Why did so-and-so do this, or that, thing? Why did this, or that, event happen? Just like in the real world, we analyse fictional stories to assess how characters cope with stressful events, gauge their social cunning, or their inept behaviour. As social creatures, our survival depends on making sense of interpersonal, and group interactions, power structures, alliances, and potential acts of betrayal. In short, stories are a fundamental part of living in a society.

Another crucial function of the storytelling experience is bonding people together. Couples go to the cinema, for a shared storytelling experience; friends meet at a bar, and catch up by swapping stories. They laugh at the comic elements of stories; empathise with one another at their misfortune. People feel closer together — connected — through the shared experience. This is part of the appeal of being in a live audience, even watching a live broadcast.

So, stories are literally flowing around in our mind, as it attempts to rationalise the world around us; stories help us understand and judge the people around us. And, as we judge them — and they judge us. By necessity, these judgements lead to an exploration and refinement of who they are, and who we are. Stories are at the very core of self-identity.