writing, Writing and Editing

On Story (part one)

I want to spend a little time talking about a subject near and dear to us writerly types (or it should be). Story. What is it? What makes a good story? What makes a bad one? Why are we drawn to them?

We are drawn to good stories because it’s in our genes. Story is hardwired into our psyches. It does not matter what nationality we call our own, what culture, or what language we speak. If we are human, we love stories.

Our distant ancestors told stories while sitting around the fire outside their shelters. Long before writing was invented, when a few scattered bands of humans survived by hunting and gathering wild fruit and berries, stories were how culture and history were passed from generation to generation. Stories told to wide-eyed children sitting around a protective campfire.

People tell stories in an attempt to explain things they don’t or can’t understand. Anthropologists and folklorists call these stories myths.

These myths gave rise to the epics such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Illiad and The Odyssey. Some say they also gave rise to the great religious works: The Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads, etc.

Human beings tell stories. They have always told stories (at least since we began organizing vocal sounds to communicate with each other).

We tell stories still. Not just the writers and filmmakers—the professionals—but everyone, every human tells stories. We tell them around the office water cooler and around the dinner table. We tell them in hairdressing salons and neighborhood pubs, school playgrounds and out on the street. Where ever people gather, stories are being told.

So why do we tell stories?

Three reasons:

1. To entertain. There is a special type of joy found in having your words cause a group of people to sit on the edge of their seats, jump in fear, or laugh so hard they end up in tears.
2. To instruct. The lesson of the parable is that it is often much easier to teach a student something couched in a story they find interesting, than to just tell them. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and most religious works follow this. Virtually every story has some lesson to impart, if you look hard enough.
3. To express oneself. Nearly every human has a need to share their experience of life with someone else, whether to find a kindred spirit, or as an insight into their own behavior. Shared experiences create bonds, even experiences that are only shared virtually through stories.

Next time: What makes a story good?

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