Why Stories?

Kate Flora: Recently, at Thalia, we decided to do the occasional group post, and the topic for this round was: Why Stories?

In the new information age, we google everything, so I looked up “Why stories” and got pages and pages of blogs discussing the topic. The quote below is from a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik, reviewing Gottschall’s book:

“the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and that the studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t.” Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Other writers had different takes. They wrote:

Stories give shape to experience

Stories provide rehearsals for life

I posted these quotes to the group, and dark responses began to flow:


J.D. “Dusty” Rhoades: I think it was at one of the Thrillerfests I attended where I heard Lee Child speak about the need for stories. Using words as only Lee can, he painted the picture of a group of primitive people, huddled in terror around their tiny fire in their cave, with the wolves, the bears, and the saber toothed tigers snarling and growling just outside. To get through the long, dark, monster filled nights, they’d tell stories about heroes who slew the monsters. We needed stories about monster-killers to reassure us, to remind us that the monsters could be slain. A lot of mysteries and thrillers are about just that: stories of crime solved, justice done, the world made right and safe again, to tell us again that the possibility exists.

But how then do we explain tragedy, those timeless and primal stories where it’s the protagonist who ends up dead, or as in the case of Oedipus, maimed and disgraced? (I always envisioned a Greek guy leaving the theater after the premiere of Oedipus Rex, turning to his buddy, and going “okay, what the hell was THAT?”)

The analogue to this kind of classical tragedy in our genre would be noir, where the “hero” is often anything but heroic and often ends up dead or imprisoned. This, by the way, is what separates noir from “hard-boiled.” The worlds may be equally as dark, but the hard-boiled protagonist may be flawed, but he (or she) is still a dragon-slayer. He (or she) prevails in the end, although often at great cost. The noir protagonist doesn’t, which is why the audience for pure noir ends up being a lot smaller than that for hard-boiled or the even more popular heroic story that makes up the average thriller.

But why have tragedy in the first place? What need does it satisfy to see someone brought to ruin, often by mistakes that didn’t look like mistakes at the time?

Aristotle spoke of tragedy as providing what he called katharsis, which essentially means “purging.” When we experience the pity and fear of viewing tragedy, he thought, we purge those emotions in ourselves.

Well, maybe. But that explanation always seemed a bit too mystical and ultimately unsatisfying to me. I’d suggest that maybe the purpose of tragedy is to make us feel relieved that no matter how bad things are for us, at least we’re not that poor bastard. Going back to our cave analogy, tragedy (and noir) is like hearing the screams of the guy who went too close to the cave entrance and got snatched out by the bear. That pity and fear our hypothetical caveman may be feeling is subsumed by the relief that it’s not him. Or, as our hypothetical Greek audience member might say to his pal “Man, I may have messed up in my life, but at least I didn’t bang my mom. Let’s go find an amphora of wine and tie one on.”

What? Too cynical?

Gary Phillips: I like that line that stories are the rehearsal for life.  I have a family member going through Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 6.50.47 AMaddiction/withdrawal/recovery/relapse — repeat the cycle.  I’ve know others who were addicts (hell decades ago I dug snorting coke with this girlfriend of mine for how it heightened our sex) , even cousins, but this is closer to home as it were.  I have gained insight and dare I say it a bit of Zen — you might find this hard to believe but I tend to be er, less than patient in my life (ha!) —  by going with this member to narcotics anonymous meetings.  There you share and hearing others’ stories, and the stories of family members trying to help this person, knock me out.  raw and emotional, yet also as relapse is part of the deal, in some ways they are clinical examinations of their own life.

So then the L.A,. Times (www.latimes.com/includes/sectionfronts/D1.pdf‎) the other day had a piece on Elementary and how it deals realistically with the issue of recovery — what with Holmes being an addict.  Sure, we’ve had alcoholic cops and PIs, but rarely the heroin addict as hero who does not succumb again.  How hard it is for him to stay sober – that only the complexities of his cases (as covered in Doyle’s original stories) keeps him form being bored and falling back.

I watch the show and had remarked to my wife that while I found some of the contrivances of the various plots too much, the scenes at a meeeting or when a dude Holmes knew who was clean for 30 years, suddenly dies from falling off the wagon by OD’ing, Holmes’ reaction is dead on.

I’ve written about drugs in my fiction, mostly form the viewpoint of a drug lord or some such, but now understand how nuance and shading of these lives is important.  Too, I look forward to the day when I help my family member write that novel based on their life.

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 6.49.24 AMKate Flora: Sometimes I think it’s a circle. That stories are a rehearsal for life, and life is a rehearsal for stories, and then we learn new things from the writing process that we carry into life and that in turn teaches us new things that give depth perception to our stories.

Now that I veer between writing fiction and writing true crime, with the last three years spent helping a game warden who ran search and rescue and cadaver dogs write his memoir, I’m so attuned to how people deal with the real. This is especially true in the arena of public safety. Recently I was working on a new book in Thea Kozak series, and at the beginning of the book, my amateur detective encounters something really horrific. I was writing along when I realized that she couldn’t just move one untouched, she had to deal with what had happened. I ended up sending e-mail queries to three people in law enforcement, asking for advice. Two wrote lengthy answers. The third called up and talked me (and my character) through some of the steps he’d take if he was helping someone deal with such an event.

The real informing the fiction; the fiction and the questions it raises informing the real.

Recently, having spent some time dealing with someone in the real world talking about PTSD and how it changed his life, I read Roxana Robinson’s Sparta. The way that she deals with a returned veteran and his struggles to reintegrate into the world he left, with that world essentially unchanged and he utterly changed, gave me deep insight into the world my real life friend was experiencing. About that book I would say: Stories are a way of explaining and understanding life.

Some years ago, when I posed the question about why people read mysteries to a group of librarians, they talked about the vicarious thrill of experiencing dangerous things from the very safe setting of the reader’s armchair. I think, in our minds, and sometimes in our lives, writers go out there and take chances to get that experience so that when readers read our stories, we can take them to the scary places, the sad places, the places that change lives.

So readers, we toss the question over to you. Why stories? Why do people need them? Tell them? Read them?



One thought on “Why Stories?”

  1. Hi Thalians: In ‘Wired for Story’ by Lisa Cron, she makes the case that storytelling is not only a rehearsal for life but essential for survival. That hardwiring to listen for clues on how to live from the stories of others was a real eyeopener for me.

    Here’s an excerpt from the back cover: “Imagine knowing what the brain craves from every tale it encounters, what fuels the success of any great story, and what keeps readers transfixed… Backed by recent breakthroughs in neuroscience as well as examples… [the book] offers a revolutionary look at story as the brain experiences it.”

    As mystery writers we know the power of the riddle, the clue, suspense, the turning page. Our ancestors around the campfire knew it too. As anyone who must fight off predators and enemies must know, being aware, being suspicious of what’s over that hill, what’s coming around the bend, being hyper-alert might mean you don’t get eaten by the bear. That same feeling translates into tales of how exactly not to get eaten by the bear around the fire. Then today it translates into a natural curiosity of what comes next that fuels our desire to find how what happens in a story. Whether or not we use it as rehearsal for our own life (and I agree that novels help us learn how to behave, absolutely) we can’t help want to know what happens at the end of a story. We’re just wired that way.

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