If you GOOGLE “Why do we need stories?” you’ll gain some 805 million results, a good many of the top ones pretty darned interesting. Clearly, stories are a device we humans need to express…something. But what is that something? And why the universal need to express it?
In order to answer this, shut the book you were reading before you drifted over to your computer and the Internet, and close your eyes. Think about the story you were reading. What enthralled you about it, kept you turning pages? First, as any decent writer can tell you, there’s the quandary, the pickle some character has gotten him(her)self into. Then there’s the way this character tries to extricate him(her)self from it. Not that this character’s way of grappling with a problem is universal; in fact, it’s not. All manners of grappling are personal, depending on so many factors I fear they can’t be enumerated – certainly not here. But there are at least two pretty good reasons why we keep turning the pages:
AT LAST! Someone with a problem, and it’s not me! There’s great relief in watching another person tangled in a web of lies and complication slowly untie their Gordian knot. They may be superheroes, or average Josephines. Why do we enjoy seeing another person, even a fictional one, struggle with such problems? Here, there’s the personal perspective. We KNOW we’re mortal, flawed beings, and while we enjoy seeing superheroes leap tall buildings or scale walls, we yearn for the commonality of our collective fall from grace so that we can understand it. And so this pleasure of story is currency in our society: novels, movies, songs.
But the more subtle aspect of story is, the more novels and stories we read, the more we grow in our appreciation of the unique differences of other people. And so we have in story a basis for ethics: how to avoid life’s pickles insofar as we can. How to cope with pickles in ways that help us and leave others harmless. For once we understand that while we all struggle in individual ways with life’s issues, there a sameness there, too. Whether we extricate ourselves or not (i.e., we win), the struggle changes us. In a sense we become annealed, the way steel does when subjected to heat and shaping from the blacksmith’s hammer. So what is there to life than to be changed for the better by the way we live it?