Why do we still tell stories and listen to tales? Since humans could first communicate, there have been stories. From paintings daubed on prehistoric surfaces, to the bardic tradition of oral storytelling, to the more recent novel writers and now movies, Youtube, podcasts and tweets, we’re still as addicted to them as ever. For me, the sharing of stories serves many purposes, not all of them obvious.
1) It’s not just me!
One of the reasons we listen to stories is to immerse ourselves in the experience of someone else, so we don’t feel so alone. So we have someone we can relate to, to reassure ourselves that whatever we’re going through, it’s not just us that’s experienced it. Sometimes we don’t even need the story to have the same personalities or events that we’re experiencing in real life, we just need someone to hold our hand as we work through our emotions. Ever watched a tearjerker movie and felt better afterwards, despite your tearstained face? Come to the end of a novel where a nobody succeeds against all odds, feeling like you can take on the world? Then you’ll know exactly what this feels like.
2) I want somebody else to understand me
This is the flip side of ‘it’s not just me’ – the storyteller’s side. When I tell a story about the time I broke my ankle and tried to bend it back the right way in between swearing sessions, I want the people around me to understand, not just why I favour my other ankle still a little to this day. I want them to understand the sick horror of looking down and realising one of your body parts really shouldn’t be pointing in the opposite direction from normal, and why they should be careful trying to stand up on a dead leg! When Wilhelm Grimm retold the story of Frau Holle, he wanted to make his readers understand why it was bad to be lazy and ungrateful, even if the message was told in a fictional rather than a real life format.
3) I want to explore an idea indirectly
Sometimes you have an idea or a problem to puzzle out. You might not be ready to confront it directly, or you might not be able to test it properly within the boundaries of real life without unacceptable consequences. Storytelling gives the teller and the listener a chance to experience ideas and scenarios in a safe, fictional environment. Look at the sales of crime novels or the fascination with murder in shows like CSI – isn’t it better to explore what might motivate a person to commit acts like that within the safe confines of fiction than to test it out on a passerby? Or look at the readership profile of much sci fi and fantasy fiction – adolescents are living through a time where everything, including their own bodies is changing, but they have very little control over it – is it so difficult to imagine that they might be drawn to a typical sword and sorcery epic where they can explore decision making and the gradual taking on of responsibility before they try it out in adulthood?
4) I want to escape
For many people, everyday life can be boring. You get up, go to work, come home, mind the kids, make dinner, go to bed… and repeat… for many years. There’s nothing wrong with your life, but sometimes you yearn for more – for a chance to go to places you’ve never been, do things you’ll never do. Listening to and telling stories (for telling a good story can transport you just as thoroughly into another world as listening to one) allows you an escape bounded only by your imagination. Fly to other galaxies, defend your town from Vikings, spin and manipulate your way through the Court of an Italian City State and you can still be back in time for dinner!
On the other hand, some people unfortunately live more difficult lives. They may be in pain, sick or being bullied, depressed, any number of reasons. Stories are a vital opportunity to get away from the limitations of everyday life. They represent a place where no matter who you are and where you’re from, you can participate equally. When you have little control over your life, the power to control events by telling your own story can be powerful. Stories can set you free.
5) Stories are fun!
No matter whether you’re sitting in a movie theatre with a crowd of friends, watching a Punch and Judy puppet show, are centre stage at the opera or just curled up with a good book, stories are fertile grounds for free play – places where you can be whoever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. Is the movie getting too dark for you? You can walk out and find a lighter rom com. Is the book getting too scary? Close it and find a gentler one. There will always be more stories to be told and heard, so you’re under no obligation to stick to one you don’t enjoy – a more rewarding experience is just around the corner.
Why do you tell, listen to, or read stories?