Stories are used to encourage us. To warn us. To make sense of the world. To unsettle us. To comfort us. We are a species that shapes reality with narrative.
One explanation of cave paintings is that they provided support for hunting. Here’s what a successful hunt looks like. Here’s what it means. This story gives you power that elevates the hunt. It provides useful information and assures its success.
Are we different from cave dwellers? Don’t we tell ourselves stories to guide us through uncertainty? If you were going into a dangerous situation, like surgery, you would probably look to people who had experience and listen to their stories. Or you’d gather the facts and create your own narrative with a beginning, middle, and ending. This would help you with preparations and provide a sense of control.
When I’m driving and the person in front of me begins to weave, I drop back. I assess the situation — oncoming traffic. Escape routes. Pedestrians. I draw upon my experience and knowledge, I consider the possibilities. Is the driver drunk? Ill? On the phone? My mind projects forward with a number of negative narratives — sudden stops, collisions, police activity. And I generate options from changing my route to calling the police to honking my horn to zipping around the situation and getting gone. These stories are explorations that provide guidance.
In the narratives of my youth — at school, on TV, and in church — the points seemed to be comfort and moral instruction. History was about a series of successes that proved my forebears, society, and leaders had great ideas that kept me safe and free. Situation comedies proved that errors were trivial and balance would be restored in 30 minutes. I think most church readings got immediate interpretations supporting the status quo and emphasizing obedience and punishment for disobedience. (Since I was an avid reader, I often had read the stories by myself, within a larger context. Even in the ten-year-old me, this created a level of dissonance.) So narratives can have a stabilizing, social aspect, reducing conflict.
I often found the opposite of the endorsed stories of my youth in science fiction — a genre my parents abhorred. While there were plenty of status quo stories, the best raised questions and challenged authority. “What if?" It’s a powerful question that presumes the world could be different. And SF used known and projected facts to support new visions. An ending could be great for an SF protagonist (but leave me unsettled). Or formally happy without being happy. (“[Winston Smith] had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” - 1984) Or thoroughly bleak. Or charged with wonder.
Wish fulfillment is big for a lot of readers. By the time I was seven, I’d put even the gee whiz wishes of Tom Swift aside, and I never identified much with macho heroes like James Kirk, James Bond, or Matt Dillon. But, for plenty of people, the exercise of power and getting rewards is a part of the value of narrative. It provides relief and perhaps hope.
So we need stories for:
Guidance - which means the writing must be clear, take great care with ambiguity, and persuade.
Sense - Think of the wonderful tales of why mosquitoes buzz or how the elephant got its trunk. Whimsical stories can help us make sense of the world as much as books on science or math. The greatest tools: taking on the best questions, knowing your audience and using story logic.
Comfort - Which means introducing something that may worry readers in a way that does not overwhelm them (often with humor) and showing that everything turns out all right.
Challenges - Understand people want and don’t want this. I’ve found stories that deviate from the status quo or unsettle people or provide warnings need to be compelling. Creating worlds worth exploring, exploiting curiosity, distracting with wish fulfillment (see below) or poetry or empathetic character can make people welcome opening doors marked “Do Not Enter.” Humor helps, too.
Wish fulfillment - which means the talents of the heroes must be on full display. They need to make all the decisions, never take orders, and enjoy enviable payoffs. Description is a big deal. Challenges must escalate. Increasing tension by withholding fulfillment of wishes (but not too much) is vital. Power scenes are tinged with sex, and sex scenes are tinged with power. The best relationship is usually with the villain.
This list could be extended, but I hope it provides a useful starting point to adding power to your stories through a better understanding of the will toward narration and how to work with it.
Narrative doesn’t always matter. It may be jettisoned in the case where the art is abstract. Like music, poetic works may be more about sounds and silences. Perhaps with the addition of wordplay. It’s possible to touch the spirit and the soul without a narrative, and this can shape lives as surely as a tale. Or the senses can be appealed to without narrative. Porn famously cuts most of the story elements to showcase sex. A big film may be more about spectacle than story.
Narrative isn’t present with every book or film or video, and that may be intentional. But if you choose to tell a story in the medium of your choice, it’s helpful to, at some point, determine which need you are working to fulfill and to choose your tools carefully.