The purpose of story: Why do people love stories?

Why do you binge watch episodes or movies on Netflix, Crave or whatever streaming service you’ve subscribed to? What is purpose of story for you?

Why are you willing wait in long lineups line to watch the next great movie? If it’s a really good movie, are you willing to wait in line over and over again?

Why are you continuously on the prowl for the next great novel, or better yet, author who can deliver a truckload of novels? What about that book, or series of books, you look forward to re-reading?

This applies to songs and poetry too. Why do you listen to that same song over and over again? Or return to the same poem?

I’ve been asking myself these questions for a while.

Why do people keep coming back to stories? What is the purpose of story?

Book cover of James Bonnet's book Stealing Fire From the Gods: The Complete Guide to Story for Writers and FilmmakersWhat is it about the story – in whatever form it manifests itself – that keeps me coming back? That keeps you coming back?

I found James Bonnet’s work intriguing. He’s been teaching the nature and purpose of story. He shares how he decided he would study everything there was to know about story, even if it took him twenty years. He jokes about how his wife suggested he should have said ten years instead. Bonnet published his insights in the book Stealing Fire from the Gods: The Complete Guide to Story for Writers and Filmmakers.

Essentially, Bonnet talks about how stories are a way for people to learn how to cope with change.

[tweetshare tweet=”We learn to live in better ways through the hero’s failures and successes, and the villain’s consequences.” username=”campbellxcross”]

By living vicariously through the hero (or the anti-hero), we learn what to do to live in better ways. We learn about this through the hero’s failures and successes. We also learn to live in better ways witnessing the consequences of the poor choices made by the anti-hero or the villain.

“The purpose of story, then, is to guide us to our full potential and the nature of story is to conceal that purpose in an enticing sugar coat that lures us into the experience.” –James Bonnet, Stealing Fire from the Gods: The Complete Guide to Story for Writers and Filmmakers

Reason #1. Stories can help you remember

 What I find fascinating is how much more we remember when stories are attached to memories.

For example, when you listen to a song from your younger years, it feels like you’ve opened a time capsule. Listening to that song unlocks memories and emotions of your state of being at that time in your life when that song played in your background. You remember details you’ve forgotten you even knew. It’s often surprising how you gain an important insight remembering your past through that song. Sometimes, something you couldn’t quite grasp then suddenly becomes very apparent, and an important aspect of your personal journey falls into place perfectly.

Reason #2. Stories can help you learn from others working through big problems

Woman looking away from an ornately framed mirror while the same woman reflected in mirror is holding her head in frustration or confusionWhat I’ve learned studying the crafting of stories is that, ultimately, a great story is one that focuses on the personal evolution of the main character(s).

When we first meet these characters, they have all kinds of fears and issues, which are all muddled together driving them to make poor decisions that are having a negative impact on their life. From the beginning, through the middle to the end, the main character(s) continue to face challenges that force them to wake up to their issues. In a way, these challenges are a mirror to help them see what they need to do to become a better version of themselves. The story ends when they’ve learned to overcome that problem. Or not. In some cases, the character descends further into the chaos of those fears and issues.

I find it intriguing how this cycle is really a metaphor of our own life experiences. For example, we envy a friend’s talent, but we can’t admit that to ourselves. We say and do unpleasant things to that friend because we’re not confronting our own issues. As the friendship crumbles, and our poor behaviour spills over into other relationships with our family, friends and so on, we continually face opportunities to self-improve. Or not.

“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” –Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

Reason #3. Learning to confront your problem is a common purpose of story

But first, we have to have admit there’s an issue. If, and when, we admit and accept this aspect of ourselves, we find peace. Then, that part of our story is over because the issue is resolved.

And that particular story ends.

Fortunately for us, there are always more issues to work out. ? Which is why I’m thinking there are so many stories out there. This infinite collection of stories offer so many ways for us to figure out how we might be able to solve our own problems.

Reason #4. Stories can help you forget your problems too – for a little while

Girl reclined holding remote for TV and making a mess eating popcornBarring everything discussed so far, at the very least, we get to go on a roller coaster ride escaping from our issues and problems. We get to lose ourselves in someone else’s story.

This escapism is important too. By immersing ourselves in someone else’s story, we forget ours for a time. The benefit boils down to coming back to our life and problems with a different mindset. This gives us an opportunity to examine our problems and issues differently. This fresh review can open up new solutions we couldn’t see when we were mired too deeply in the details of our problems.

>>>As we escape into this world, a need for more story emerges. In part, we want to get to know the characters better. They begin to feel like friends in some cases. How much more story do you need to stick around?

It’s fascinating how story can serve several purposes at once: remembrance, new insights and perspectives, vicarious experience, and an openness to new solutions we couldn’t see before we took a little break from our problems.

“When I walked out of here last night I said to myself, ‘Dr. Marvin’s absolutely right. Take a vacation from your problems. Blow em off.  Just say ‘no’. So I did!’: An insight Bob shares with his new therapist Dr. Leo Marvin when Bob knocks on Dr. Marvin’s door where the good doctor is vacationing with his family.” —Bob Wiley in the movie What About Bob?

I’ve no doubt there are many more things to discover and discuss about the purpose of story. For instance, I’m curious about the linkages between stories and oral traditions in both past and current contexts. It’s intriguing how mythology and myth-making play important roles in defining our cultural contexts, and so much more.

A final thought. I think I’m starting to understand why people end up investing a lifetime to unravel the secrets of story. There are so many angles and perspectives and approaches from which to think about story and its impact on human life.

Do you know why you like to lose yourself in a good story?

Images courtesy of the artists at Pixabay and book publisher.

4 comments on “The purpose of story: Why do people love stories?

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