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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Importance of Story

I firmly believe that stories aren't just entertainment or distraction, but an essential part of our how brains operate. As Kenneth Burke says, Stories are equipment for living.

And now the scientists are proving this to be more true than we realize. A Scientific American article titled In the Minds of Others dives into the impact of stories on our brains, on how we relate to others, and how they help us become more empathetic, open and social creatures.

Bookworms around the world rejoice!

A couple of quotes that caught my eye:

"We do not actually experience the character’s emotions—after all, the character is an abstraction. Rather we feel our own emotions in response to the yearnings, actions and circumstances the writer describes. The trajectory of these emotions keeps us turning the pages or glued to the screen."
"As with all good literature, Chekhov’s story prompted people to think and feel in new ways, but the particular feelings and thoughts it evoked depended on the reader."

At last! A scientific explanation for how to hook readers! Seriously, this fascinates me, because it taps into the very real experience that readers have of being immersed in the story, while explaining how each person's experience of the story remains their own, flavored by the life-story that they bring to the pages.

This is the best reason I can think of to use SHOW and not TELL in a story. By showing the character's actions (and thoughts), by having them interact with your fictional world - push and pull, tug and release - the reader's brain literally experiences those same actions. When the character leaps off the train, if you've done your job as a writer, the reader feels the rush, the wind whistling in their ears and the heart stopping moment before you know what will happen next. Whether this thrills or terrifies them remains the piece of the puzzle that the reader brings to the story. 

In one way, many children of today are cloistered in closed environments. Risk averse schools remove hazardous playground equipment. Protective parents shuttle their children to school and back. Kids wear bike helmets and ride in car seats and don't have many opportunities to experience any real risks, much less heart-stopping adventure. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, being one of those over-protective parents myself. And despite all my over-protectiveness, Mighty Mite recently managed to bash his head against a dumpster and bleed all over a friend's kitchen. I'm starting to wonder if the boy needs a helmet full-time. 

But in another way, children of today are immersed in stories even more than children of the past. I grew up with after-school TV shows, the occasional movie, and books, books, books. Kids today have all that, plus the internet, highly interactive games, and even newspaper and non-fiction reporting that are increasingly taking narrative form. They are awash in stories, often in ways that make them a star player as it unfolds.

I can't help but wonder what this is doing to their brains. According to the scientists, that virtual experience of narrative worlds - through reading or other storytelling - expands their horizons, makes them open to new experiences, and helps them empathize with people who are intrinsically different than themselves by stepping into their heads for the duration of the story.

Stories truly are equipment for living, and for children, they are an essential tool for growing up by letting them experience people, places and feelings outside the realm of their own experience.

I just hope Mighty Mite doesn't decide to jump off a train next.


M.A. Leslie is releasing a new novel today, THE MISSING! This is a paranormal ghost story complete with spooky manor house and a boy trying to save his soul as well as the souls of The Missing! Check it out!


  1. I have to admit, I read for the emotion. I want other pieces in play too, but without that emotional investment, I lose a bit of interest.

  2. Wow! This is totally exciting news! As I read this post, I kept nodding my head. It's so true! (Seriously, Susan. This plays right into my platform for the pageant. I'm supporting the theory that reading and writing in young children develops the brain, emotional maturity, and the ability to process information and formulate ideas.)

  3. Great post, Sue!

    And what an interesting connection -- the totally fixation on keeping our children as safe as possible -- and the sudden surge of books about children and teens in impossibly risky situations.

    I hadn't thought about that before.

  4. I totally agree with everything you've written. Stories do more than entertain. Readers have a chance to experience things they don't in their own lives though books and when the writing is good, they feel their heart racing right along with the characters.

  5. This is a great post, Susan, and so true about why some books are better at engaging readers than others. Some authors are just better at plunging you right into the action.

    But that can be learned! :D

    And ugh! Don't start me wondering what all this modern technology is doing to my children. I worry about that all the time... :p <3

  6. Fantastic post and great food for thought. Thank you so much, Susan!

  7. This is something I believe at heart and am thrilled to see backed by science. Thanks for posting this!
    It's one of the reasons I defend writing and reading fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian, because we can learn and empathize with things we will never really experience, and it can be a safer way to discover the world and understand how to deal with dangers.

  8. Yet another post to share with my students. You are wonderful help with lesson plans! LOL. :-)

  9. What an awesome article!! Thanks for sharing that. I love that you point out the newer sources for getting stories these days. But I'm also glad that books have not gone away. Now we have more reason to proclaim their importance.

  10. I think stories are basic form the brain uses to organize information. It designates beginnings, middles, and ends, makes meaningful interconnections, highlights symbols, tropes, and motifs. Our memory is really just our view of ourselves in story form.

    So, yeah, I think this post rocks.

  11. Hi Susan .. great post - what worries me ... is how many kids are growing up not able to read or write properly or at all - because they're texting and can't construct stories sufficiently to write them down ..

    We are learning more via books about all kinds of aspects of life .. thank goodness: adults and children alike.

    Great to read - Hilary

  12. I love when science backs up what I believe!

  13. Excellent. Another excuse to buy/read more books. Thank you!

  14. Hey, I awarded you a blog award! Stop by and check it out!

  15. A while back I read a book called The Death of Patsy McCoy by Levi Montgomery. It took me inside the heads of some rather unsavory (and unstable) characters. It was a great read, but I won't be seeking out another like it. I also was asked to review a book of short stories about abused women. I could not finish the book. Too much emotion. Like chocolate, a little enhances the experience, an overdose ruins it.

  16. @Allan This is a fantastic comment! And brings me back to my firm belief that we are what we allow into our heads. I hadn't quite tied it all to this study, so thank you for doing that for me. I believe this for adults, and doubly for children - that we have to take care to keep the darkness of life that we let seep into our minds (and souls) to a minimum, and embrace the beauty. Thank you for adding that to the discussion! :)

  17. I've been on a life-long quest to discover what makes stories tick, and this here is one tasty clue. I like how you described characters interacting with their world - that push and pull against the boundaries. I need to do more of that.


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers