In thinking about the type of writer I want to be, I’ve begun to consider what attracts people to stories. Obviously, there are a lot of different genres, each with its own audience expectations to be fulfilled. Beyond that, there is high-brow and low-brow entertainment, right? Your WAR AND PEACE and your TWILIGHT. I’m not talking about either of these things, as those are just a matter of preference. What, at a fundamental, elemental, atomic level attracts us to storytelling? What are we searching for in stories?
To be clear, there’s probably no universal answer. Just like genre or high-brow / low-brow art, different people search for different things in their stories. So, I can really only speak to what I want in a story, and what all the writing advice I’ve consumed tells me most other people want in their stories. Things like story structure, the “Hero’s Journey,” and other classic storytelling traditions aren’t accidents. They work.
In my opinion, people like me, MR(S). EVERY(WO)MAN, seek out things that reflect us and give us resolution. Let’s talk it out.
People are vain, self-absorbed creatures, which is why we only ever tell stories about ourselves. Even stories with non-human characters assign them human traits. Emotions that are not natural to an animal, for example, like envy. When there is a purposefully inhuman character, it’s more of a contrast than a true other. Spock, for example, is an alien character whose primary trait is a lack of emotion.
There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that stories are told by people. In that fact alone we’re limited by our experiences. If, somehow, we came across a story that showed truly alien things we probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize it as a story.
But reflection is more than a limitation on our experience. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We tell stories that reflect us because they help us to understand ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures in the Universe that are consciousness of our consciousness. That’s confusing! We understand our own mortality, we have notions of abstractions like “justice” and seek order in an inherently chaotic world.
Reflecting our emotions, our social structures, our politics, our dynamics, our everything back to ourselves through art and storytelling helps us to make sense of it. To pull it apart a little bit and put it back together in a different, perhaps better way. We want stories to reflect ourselves not only because we relate to it, but because we want to better understand ourselves.
I don’t believe we only want to better understand ourselves. In some sense, I think story helps us to enact some control over things we inherently have little to no control over.
Every day new mysteries come and go, in our personal lives and in whole societies. The sock that goes missing. The serial killer that goes uncaught. The $5 bill you found in jeans that you don’t remember wearing. The thought-extinct fish that suddenly shows up on shore.
It’s rare we get answers to these things. Our lives are an increasingly silly machine we’re building piece-by-piece, with little insight into its inner-workings. Stories give us the opportunity to step inside the machine and swap out its parts so that all the pieces fit.
In that sense, I think stories are about resolution. The happy ending. The mystery solved. The family gaining closure, either through understanding or not. In life things are rarely explained, and things rarely end conclusively. Storytelling gives us that satisfaction.
These are the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve thought about the type of stories I want to tell, and the types of stories I think people want to hear. It may sound obvious (because it is), but I firmly believe that sometimes in order to make progress you have to start with the absolute basics and then let those principles guide you.