We have told stories probably since we first developed language. Maybe language came about because we wanted to tell stories. There’s something in-built about the need to relate events that have happened, to us or to others. There is a need for companionship, and for camaraderie, and stories are instrumental in initiating and strengthening bonds with others.
Of course, good stories entertain. They might make us laugh, or make us cry. They might scare us, or take us on a wonderful journey. But they are often fun. We don’t have to be forced to endure stories—we choose to listen, or watch them played out, or read them.
But stories do more than entertain. They instruct. It is easy to imagine our ancestors after a day’s hunt, relaxing around a fire and swapping tales of their day’s adventures. They told stories of what worked, and what didn’t. And through these stories, they learnt.
The same thing happens today. Parents tell stories to their children as ways of explaining the world, and as guide to behaviour—Santa, the tooth fairy, all the lessons of good and evil in bedtime-stories. Religions use stories, too—tale of miracles, morality stories, parables and so on. And even science uses stories. Evolution is explained as a ‘survival of the fittest’ tale, where those who are better suited are the ones who live on. The water cycle is presented as a journey.
That doesn’t mean these stories are fabrications, just that they are ways of explaining concepts.
Over time, these stories change. Once, the sun rose because some god-like being willed it so, or because some larger-than-life being dragged the sun across the sky. Then we discovered more about the universe, and our place in it. And now, we know that our fairly small planet spins around a star. We know about the orbits of the other planets, and we know about other universes. We have gone back in time to discover how (probably) things came into being. And we have searched forward, seeking an answer to what will one day happen.
Yet this is still a story. The journey of the universe, from big bang to whatever happens at the end (heat death?) A journey is always a story, and we can learn from any journey.
But stories do more than entertain and inform. I would argue that stories are one of the major things that separates us from other creatures. Stories make us human.
The word story comes to us from the Latin historia, and was originally used to describe a narrative of an important event. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that it came to mean a fictional tale, but we still use the word in that original meaning. We are presented with stories every time we read or watch or listen to the news. Think about the number of times news-readers say ‘…and more on that story later’.
Maybe some people still refer to news ‘reports’, but there is a world of difference between a report and a story. A report sets out to give the facts and figures, whereas a story strives to explain what happened. A report lays an event before us like an autopsy, whereas a story takes us on a journey through the event. A report engages our intellect, but a story engages our emotions too.
It’s worth repeating that—a story engages our emotions.
Those who create news stories know this. That is why they look for the human angle. That is why, rather than simply showing collapsed buildings after an earthquake, they linger on devastated faces and frantic searches for survivors. That is why, after a tragic death, we see (and hear from) those left behind, those who are struggling to understand how their worlds have been turned upside-down.
This could be seen as cynical—using misery to evoke a reaction. But I like to think this drive to display pain serves another purpose.
Most of us will not encounter the kind of tragedy we see on the news. In the UK, hardly any of us will have a friend shot dead. The majority of us won’t be caught up in humanitarian or natural disasters. And so, it is hard for us to understand, on an emotional level, what is happening to those who are involved. It is easier to shut ourselves off, even though we know this is cold, even though we know that we should feel something.
Reports state the facts. Stories engage us on an emotional level.
For a story to ‘work’, we need to empathise with the characters. We need to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and in some small way feel what they are feeling. Facts and figures (a report) of a shooting can leave us cold, because it’s names and dates, nothing more. But a story strives to put us there, with those caught up in the horror. It forces us to join with the victims in their suffering, or (and) feel the elation when the antagonist is brought to justice. If it is a natural disaster like an earthquake, details of the magnitude and the epicentre are numbers, the amount of damage a stream of figures. But the stories of those caught up in it—those who have lost loved ones, those who have been rescued, those who have put aside their own safety to help their neighbours—these are the things that make it real. These stories are what make us care.
And when we care, we are more likely to act. When we not only see people suffering, but also sense their pain, we are driven to help.
Then there are those stories where something negative is given a positive spin. There are stories of people defying disease and recovering, but there are also stories of those who succumb, but in a manner that humbles us. There are those who know they don’t have long left, but who strive to make every day count.
A news report could give details of the disease, or how fast the cancer spread. It could give facts and figures about white blood cells. Or the story could tell us of the person themselves, showing us their determination to life the remainder of their life to the full. It could focus on the way they are trying to help others with similar conditions.
Stories are powerful. They put meaning behind the data. They turn facts into action. They might enable us to live vicariously through others, but they also enable us to empathise with people we have never met, from different cultures in far-off places. They spur us on to do more, or to face barriers within ourselves. They enable us to see those around us not as mere human beings, but as people. They turn existence into life.
Without stories, we are nothing.