What Do Stories Do?


When my daughter was two years old, still grasping at the concept of creating her own stories, she still understood their power. I know this because she would sit on her bed at story time, hold the book in her lap unopened, and turn to myself and her mother saying, "scary story." She would annunciate the scary, elongating the "a" understanding even then how it intensified the word from "scary," to "scaaary." 

Then she'd repeat the process with "spooky." Without much more emphasis, the story title and genre took on the same tone and weight as the content:

"Scaaaaary story; spoooooooky story."

My wife and I would clap or make scared faces. Our daughter would laugh with delight because the story she created and shared made an impact.

But what do stories accomplish?

The question of what makes humans different or unique from other animals has many answers—how we communicate, how we cultivate food, how we create intelligence with AI or personhood with corporations; we make tools, use writing, and accumulate culture, then build on it. 

But we also create and share stories. Even my daughter recognized this at two. Part of that argument comes from how we understand and process information. Part of it comes with how we navigate the world. 

In Jonathan Gottschall's book, The Storytelling Animal, the author talks about the anthropological importance of stories shaping our lives, our perceptions, and how we approach those around us, including the stories of monsters and distress we create for ourselves, no matter our gender. 

Whether stories of babies getting sick and needing doctors or groups of friends on adventures battling pirates...

The sense of dread bubbled up but eventually resolved, an underlying message present even as the story turns into a game that informs us while connecting us.

I often say I, as a storyteller, build bridges. Part of my job in telling stories is to connect disparate ideas or people, share culture, uncover, learn, or embrace new ideas and help distill them to their essence so others can approach them. 

Cognitive and educational psychologist, Jerome Bruner said, "Storytelling is a contextual bridge between play and written narrative." And the book Why We Play: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Everyday Life, reflects on how stories are a form of play that helps us develop relationships between listener and storyteller, turning both into learners and allowing us all to navigate the experience in our own way, through our own emotions. 

If I tell you to take a bath, you may prefer to dim the lights, light candles, add some bubbles, turn on the music, and sink into a relaxing space but someone else might want a book, or toys, or bath crayons. We process our environment through our own experiences, and we experience stories through our own specific processes. 

But this comes back around to what's the point?

Story is creation. Story is play. Story is sharing. Story is a pathway to memory and knowledge. Story is a connection between people, between cultures, between generations, crossing boundaries otherwise devoid of reach.

In Pathologies of Literacy, Kate Hurst on "The Importance of Storytelling and Story Creation," says, "…even stories that frighten us a bit, help us to cope because the outcome for the protagonist or hero ultimately turns out well." 

Stories make our information memorable. Stories make an emotional impact. Stories give us a deeper impression of the lives once lived, the lives we could live, and the messages beneath the adventures we've always wanted.

It isn't about the dragon, but the friendships made during the journey. It's not about the buried treasure, but finding out what the true treasure is beyond the gems and gold. It's not about the girl in the woods with the wolf but the idea that strangers cannot be trusted. 

Stories have many purposes. 

In the end—uplifting or adventurous, inspiring or scary--stories make us human.

If you want to dig deeper into stories, keep your imagination open and Don’t Lose Your Childlike Wonder. You can also find the heart of storytelling by understanding Why I Write: The DNA of a Story. Keep informed on new posts by signing up for the Only Newsletter.