The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

As a former English teacher, I have often argued on the blog and elsewhere that the English curriculum in schools offers a distorted syllabus, in which non-fiction is heavily outweighed by fiction texts – no doubt reflecting the fact that most practitioners have degrees in English Literature – and that there needs to be a re-balancing to reflect more accurately the texts with which we are surrounded in daily life. Time and again however, my attention is drawn to the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. The theory is that storytelling has evolved, like other behaviours, to ensure our survival.

“The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skilful negotiation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction, not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice (sic) reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

But isn’t fiction our ‘escapism’, you might argue. Surely it’s in fiction, whether it be in a good novel or the latest Dr Who series, that we find our escape from the problems of everyday life? Well yes, and no. According to Gottschall the nature of the stories we tell betrays their true purpose.

“There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in The Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm and Drang. Take a look at the carnage on the fiction bestseller lists – the massacres, murders, and rapes. Look at classic literature: Oedipus stabbing out his eyes in disgust; Medea slaughtering her children; Shakespeare’s stage strewn with runny corpses. Heavy stuff. But even the lighter stuff is organised around problems, and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.”

On the morality of stories, or whether stories have a moral purpose, Gottschall is adamant. When addressing the dire warnings of social commentators from Plato onwards that fiction corrodes

The good guy usually wins

morality, especially in the young, his conviction is that they were entirely wrong, and he prefers to accept that, with some exceptions, the most popular story forms are still structured around ‘poetic justice’: the good guy usually does win out in the end.

“As with sacred myths, ordinary stories – from TV shows to fairy tales – steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatise antisocial behaviour and just as relentlessly celebrate prosocial behaviour. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical rewards of protagonists (for instance, love, social advancement, and other happy endings) and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists (for instance, death and disastrous loss of social standing). Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories – in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it.”

Developing this theme, Gottschall cites the Dutch scholar Jemeljan Hakemulder, who in his book The Moral Laboratory, reviewed dozens of scientific studies which indicated that fiction has positive effects on the reader’s moral development and sense of empathy. Other studies show that fiction reinforces our belief that life rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious. Even though this is patently not the case, for a society to function at all it is necessary for people to believe in justice.

The notion of empathy, a core feature of works of fiction, is taken up in this TED talk by Jessica Wise, who argues that the importance of fiction is that it has the power ‘to change a person’s point of view’. I think the short film would make a perfect starter for discussion in any English classroom.

114 thoughts on “The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

  1. Escape. Fiction feels like escape and entertainment.

    Self-reflection. Nonfiction feels like an attempt to make a connection with others.

    Perhaps fiction expands our minds through the vehicle of imagination.

    And nonfiction brings us closer to humanity.

    I believe we need both types of stories.

    Thanks for churning thoughts and for the cool TED video.

    ~Sonya

  2. Sad to say at the age of 31 I am very new to the world of literature. Not in the sense of non-ficition but fiction. Where would I start? Who do I dare to read? I believe everyone has a story to tell. Maybe it’s a fear of telling it or what people would think about it that has kept me in isolation for so long. I like Napoleon Hill, a book that I just read, he sparked a desire in me to want to read more. If one author can do that I could only imagine what more will do. Any suggestions?

    • It’s never too late to start reading. Start with a topic which interests you. Have a look at the current lists in national newspapers and in bookshops. Read reviews. There are so many options you could spend your life wondering what to choose. Don’t waste time, just dive in there and get reading!

  3. Fiction IS infact a way to escape into a different world, to find answers to our everyday problems in a not so everyday setting.

  4. “fiction is, on the whole, good for us.” Ahh… yes. Really enjoyed your post, as a storyteller myself. I do bounce back and forth between believing that it’s the highest calling and the most frivolous nonsense….

  5. first off, congrats on being freshly pressed. and this leads me to ask you, being an English Major, why do they give us readings from fiction books, yet want us to write general fiction when it comes to Creative Writing, instead of genre fiction?

    • Thanks for the comment. Not sure who ‘they’ are, but I can only assume you are referring to school or college. I agree with you in the sense that as teachers we are often obsessed with putting writing into different categories and being too prescriptive. It often stifles creativity rather than encouraging it.

      • Yes, that’s who i meant by “they”. I’m a Creative Writing Major and one of my classes spent a great deal of time discussing why they try to force people into “general fiction” and not let them do “genre fiction” it’s a really interesting phenomenon (the closest word I could get to what I was thinking) of why they do that.

  6. Facts educate us, while fiction stimulates the imagination.

    Both are necessary for a rounded development, and will combine to assist in future decision making.

    As a freelance cartoonist, I’ve enjoyed creating many humorous images for education.

    I feel pictures are a far better educator than a thousand boring words, as the message is almost instant.

    A humor element within the picture will assist the memory in retaining the image (and message).

    Please feel free to take a stroll around the 4 cartoon sections of my blog.

    http://www.cartoonmick.wordpress.com

    Cheers

    Mick

    • Not sure I agree about the clear distinction between facts and fiction Mick – read Reality Hunger by David Shields to blow your mind on that topic – but I agree entirely about the power of pictures and the importance of humour. Had a quick look at your blog – really nice work there.

  7. I don’t know about “constant firing of neurons”, but Gottschall makes some interesting points. The central role of childhood fairy tales – with their ogres and big bad wolves – would seem to be the source of our love of fiction. And there is also something fundamental and archtypical about the storyteller, the poet who helps us with the spiritual connection.

    • At one point Gottschall also quotes Shelley who said, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ I like that.

  8. I think I agree with the premise of the value of fiction. I just don’t think that television or movie fiction even remotely competes with reading fiction when it comes to being able to relate to the characters journey. Reading, we create the story in our minds. Watching a screen I feel is a watered-down version of that. But, I’m not a psychologist, just a writer so I might be biased…🙂

    • Thanks Matt. You know, I think you just put your finger on an issue in schools, and something I touched on in the blog. Since most English teachers have studied literature I believe that there is a bias towards printed texts – and particularly novels – in school, to the detriment of other forms of narrative. Many people prefer moving image texts and don’t regard them as inferior.

  9. I must say I now know why I am a patron of fiction. Before, whenever I was asked why I like fiction so much, I just say that it is my way of temporarily escaping from the word of reality. Today, you shed light on that WHY all the more. Thank you for that!

    Congratulations!

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  14. This was really an enjoyable read, and very thoughtful. I think school curriculum are not only skewed in their overwhelming fiction selections, but they also undervalue non-traditional and ethnic literature. Additionally, there is a lack of attention on the changing medium of writing, and why that change is occurring/how it affects readers. For example, how online writing has become so prevalent versus more traditional mediums, such as bound-books. There is so much to be learned about history and society when viewing the changing movement of literature.

    Thanks for a great read, and for directing me to that TED talk…cheers to you,
    Courtney Hosny

  15. Fiction is observing the effects of an action, without real consequence.

    While the topic matter can be very violent and dark (just ask George RR Martin), it tends to be that you can handle them in a fictional context because it would be an incredible shock to your system to see it in real life.

    Personally, I read fantasy and sci-fi because it gives a ‘detachment’ that you don’t get from stories based in many modern-day scenarios.

    Great post =)

    • Interesting observation – thanks for that. Gottschall is very interesting on that point. Reading fiction as a safe training centre as it were!

  16. – LOVE THIS POST!!! –

    You NAILED it with this line: “the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I have always believed in trying to change people’s point of view on life through my stories! I’m not a writer by any means, just a person who loves to tell stories, real-life stories that I have actually lived through, and lessons I’ve learned through them, and hoping my make a difference, even if it’s just one person.

    • Thank you for the generous comments. Had a quick look at your blog and was really impressed. Especially like the photographs!

      • THANKS! The last 3 posts (about Hawaii) were taken with a crappy camera and many were scanned copies of actual “photographs” (remember those things?). Really appreciate your thoughtful comment and for visiting my site! Look forward to all your upcoming stories!

  17. Reading your post, I can only think of one quote from G.K. Chesterton.

    “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”

    Really great post.

  18. I’ve been a reader and a lover of fiction all of my life…but reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales for the first time with my toddler blew my mind! there were moral and practical lessons- from not talking to strangers to what it means to be consumed by a negative emotion (e.g. jealousy). So much there to provoke thought and conversation! Fiction isn’t the only place to look for a great story, though. My toddler also loves Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories about her life and travels.

  19. My main literary beef in high school and college wasn’t fiction, it was poetry. Analyzing poetry is not a job skill, so why focus on it so much in the classroom? Two reasons come to mind. First, analyzing poetry requires a metric ton of thinking, from all possible angles, and that is a job skill. Second, students will get so sick of poetry that they will take up reading non-fiction with a vengence after they graduate, increasing their knowlege of the practical world. This approach works, but I still wish I would have been taught more directly.

    • While I don’t think high school should just be about teaching ‘job skills’ I understand exactly what you mean. Sometimes we should just let poetry speak for itself rather than analysing it to death!

  20. My blog is almost exclusively fictitious story-telling. I have found it interesting that some of my better stories are the ones inspired by non-fiction events, but certainly the magic of fiction has always been the non-fiction events it inspires.

  21. “…and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.” That’s powerful. Fiction is littered with such chaos that it may seem perverse that we enjoy reading these tales so much. But the truth is that life is riddled with even worse events on a higher scale and frequency and we, as the reader, just want to see if everything will turn out ok for us as well if it turns out alright for the protagonist in the story we read. Very compelling blog post and I thank you for sharing!

  22. yes!!! that video should def be the opener of any english class bc lawd knows we’re all fed up with the first lesson being “what is a similie” “what is a metaphor”. yes, that happened in university as well. hah! thanks for sharing!

    • Agree entirely. We need to start with the big questions and issues, rather than the mechanics of the language – that can come later. Thanks.

  23. Storytelling creates a framework for understanding facts. It unlocks other worlds and times and cultures. Stories create context and present new ideas. One thing I loved about working with high school students as an English tutor/teacher is watching them absorb the idea, and then think critically about whether they agree or not. Stories create a dialogue and engage the imagination.

    • There is an argument for saying that all learning is based on creating and understanding stories. It’s one I’m quite attracted to actually!

      • I agree and find it quit compelling. didn’t the first stories begin with pictures on caves? we’ve since evolved in the diverse vehicles in which we have to tell the various stories there are to share. it is called history … could be herstory or theystory .on the note of authenticity (below) i find there are trivial differences between truth, reality and authenticity. and what is authentic? who authenticates but the author themselves?
        thank you! the video you share below is fabulous🙂

      • I like your play on the word ‘history’ to emphasise the subjective nature of history itself. After all, it is always told or written from a particular point of view. Further complicated by the fact that it is constantly revised by new and powerful editors! Leaves you wondering whether there is any such thing as non-fiction.

  24. I love reading fiction myself, and find it is a door into cultures around the world, so I wouldn’t decry it.

    I do think we have a problem in distinguishing between reality and fiction. As a culture, I mean, e.g we believe that the monster is to blame for the ills that befall us, and play the blame game. (Thanks for summarising the 7 plots, I confess I was to lazy to read the book). Or we accept the idea of poetic justice – someone deserves something bad happening to them – rather than trying to understand why they act the way they do…

    • Interesting comment on the idea of poetic justice. Perhaps it does lead us to simplistic notions of right and wrong, good and bad, and is therefore quite unhelpful. I’m sure we do have a problem in distinguishing between reality and fiction – strikes me that the line is becoming increasingly blurred. If you just take the example of what is now termed ‘reality TV’, you have to wonder how ‘real’ it actually is and what the term ‘real’ is even employed to mean in that context.

    • Absolutely Jenny. They may as well be real, as they were obviously a very ‘real’ part of your life. I think the crucial question about good works of fiction is how authentic they are, rather than how real.

      • When they are authentic then they become real, not so? Transporting the mind to a place that as Jenny says, is indisputably real, our stories have always shaped our future. Today’s idea is tomorrow’s reality and often i like to think of fiction as a snapshot of the culture at the time it was created. Stories since the beginning, from rock paintings, have always served to leave behind some message for the reader. It is still the same. Very interesting questions to ask and surely both has its place. I certainly agree that there is a bias towards fiction in the school syllabus definitely in South Africa and it is not necessarily the ideal situation.

      • I have focused in the blogpost on the significance of story for the individual, but as you rightly point out it is just as significant in defining cultures. Thank you for that.

  25. Another great book on this topic is Robert McKee’s STORY. It begins with the same premise: that stories are the tools we use to navigate life, and goes on to discuss how some of our greatest screenplays do just that. I found it fascinating, and as a writer who hopes to publish a novel soon–after 10 years of work–indispensable. I’m planning to pick up this book as well. Thanks for posting!

    • Thank you so much. You know, I’ve had that book on my shelf for a couple of years and never got round to reading it. I will now!

      • I hope you like STORY, and would love to hear your feedback if you feel like sharing it. For me and some of my writing friends, it was a life-changer. For another person I know, it wasn’t worth reading all the way through.

  26. I was three semesters into college before I accepted that non-fiction had any value. It wasn’t something I had experienced prior, and had I not experienced George Orwell for his non-fiction, being already familiar with his fiction, I might not have experienced Thomas Carlyle, Jonathan Swift, or Ernest Hemingway in their entirety. How sad would that be?

    I enjoy them both: non-fiction for it’s careful presentation of a section of society and fiction for the hole it blows through our constructed realities.

    • I agree completely Melanie. Like you I enjoy them both and tend to read them alternately, more or less. I think the essay form is much under-rated and can be a complete joy in the hands of some of the best writers. I’m thinking of Clive James and Martin Amis for example.

  27. Indeed fiction, in whatever form technology presents it to us, is a means of escape into new and sometimes familiar worlds. When we open a novel or turn on the television, we seek relaxation and/or new ideas- to interact without concern for judgement. The book you read won’t judge you and if you judge the book, it doesn’t change anything; that book will always be (for the most part) as it is.
    The notion of deriving empathy and life-lessons from a text is quite supported. When I was growing up, my parents read to me every night before bed. As a child, my interests were very focused on talking animals and happy-ending princesses. Without fail, I’ve adopted their sense of perseverance, determination, and love. I don’t say hurtful things because I know how it feels to be picked on, not only from personal experience but also from the pains inflicted upon princesses like Belle and Cinderella. Belle- beautiful but “stood out too much” from the crowd; she loved to escape into a world of fiction apart from hers.
    Without the presence of fiction, life would not only be dull but also lacking of the basic foundation upon which we can work towards being compassionate beings.

  28. Found reading this very affirming as I sometimes wonder if being a writer can really be a valid social contribution of if I should be doing more ‘real’. But yes, time and again I am reminded of the power of story as change maker – thank you!

  29. As a high school English teacher and English major, your post has gotten me thinking about any possible loss in education or cultural value that may occur when high schools move to the PAARC tests in 2014. The emphasis for reading and writing is going to shift to non-fiction text instead of the traditional fiction passages. Thoughts?

    • Hi Tom,
      Not being in the US I am unfamiliar with the PAARC tests or in fact with the detail of the curriculum in Cleveland in particular. In general terms though I think there is far too much emphasis on tests in both the US and the UK. Instead I would like to see schools and teachers think about providing a balanced learning environment for kids, which includes a broad range of texts, both fiction and non-fiction, reflecting the texts people engage with in their daily lives. This would also include electronic and moving image texts as well as print.

  30. Hello there. No need to win me over, stories are our lives. We would be a different species altogehter without story tellers. What was the first story ever told? Wouldn’t that be a wonder to know? When man first related to his neigbour by relating a story to him about a hunting trip, or his mate getting eaten by a mammoth? Don’t you just long to know ? Check out what I read, and why. Sometimes I lose the art of reading, and it breaks my heart. I just can’t get access to my reading head. What is that about?
    https://amonikabyanyuvva.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/why-we-read/

  31. “I have never found any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve…” Baron de Montesquieu. Nice post and review. However, I am begging you, to please change your graphics, reading white type reversed out of black is very hard on the eyes and difficult to read! I learned that a long time ago in a graphic arts class and I believe it is true!

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  33. I’m intrigued by an idea, reading this through… Couldn’t fiction be easily used to reinforce negativity and an anti-social point of view? I’m finding it odd that this never seems to be the outcome, even of a horror story. Well, maybe 50 Shades of Grey. Maybe really bad fiction could have the opposite effect.

    I’m encouraged by how powerful a tool it is.

    • From my understanding of Gottschall’s point, I’m guessing his reply might be ‘because it wouldn’t work’ ie because it is in our nature to create stories which develop and build societies rather than undermine them. Just guessing of course!

  34. Hiya, interesting post. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is a troublesome one, as there are always several layers of interpretation between events and their retelling (this is nicely dealt with by Stanley Fish, amongst others). I’m working on a series of short ‘literary snapshots’ of everyday life in Belfast at the moment, which are the outcome of the collision between events and the imagination. I like Ignitethedeaf’s comment about literature as a snapshot of the culture in which it was produced, although I’d add the caveat that there’s always interpretation at work, never mind political agendas – Julius Caesar’s account of the Gauls springs to mind – so a pinch of salt is a necessary ingredient when reading non-fiction. Whatever that is.

    My blog: http://jasonoruairc.wordpress.com/

    • One of my favourite reads of recent times is David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which really challenges traditional notions of fiction and non-fiction. In fact it’s difficult to read it and not come to the conclusion that they are just different aspects of the same thing. Perhaps we just need language to evolve to take account of our differing perceptions of the world, and that’s why I like to talk about ‘narrative’ or ‘storytelling’ as they apply to both.

  35. I love the idea that fiction has the ability to change our views. As an aspiring author, I suppose it’s a dream to be able to influence or at least impact a person through what you’ve written. I certainly think as society changes, and more store is put in education and going to university, getting a degree etc, rather than an apprenticeship, working in a supermarket, being an electrician etc, we’re bound to, as writers, develop our craft to reflect what’s happening in our culture. We all want our opinions heard, and so the likes of Suzanne Collins writing politically minded novels (‘The Hunger Games’) is surely going to expand? And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. A fictional novel certainly stays with me longer than a factual piece of writing. I suppose in that sense it’s about the investment in characters. We certainly have to be aware thought, just how far we allow something fictional to shape our thought processes. At some point, we have to read something and actually decide what our opinion is, rather than just going along with what we’ve been ‘told’.

    Great entry. Enjoyable and thought-provoking.

    – Nina.

    • Thanks Nina. I certainly agree with you that the political novel often has greater power to persuade than a piece of ‘persuasive writing’ – Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm as good examples. I suppose the point at which we ‘actually decide what our opinion is’ is determined by the creative powers of the writer combined with the critical faculties of the reader!

  36. What a wonderful blog you have. No wonder you made it to ‘Freshly Pressed’. Congratulations.
    I am a follower now.
    I love reading (mainly fiction). I agree it is a form of escapism, but I think writers are like historians, in that they reflect the attitudes of their respective generations. I will look forward to your next post.
    Happy Blogging cheers Judy🙂
    judysp.wordpress.com

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  38. Like some other writers, sometimes I feel that fiction reading or writing is useless, maybe even bad for people for fear I’m participating in something of no value. I love it when a reminder like your post shows up and strengthens my confidence. It’s greatly appreciated that you shared your thoughts on this topic.

    I have to agree with hose who say fiction is better for the brain than the moving pictures. I find it engages the imagination more in an active rather than passive way. There are studies showing that reading fiction enhances social skills and empathy in those who read it.

    Plus, people with the strongest memories have a story-telling method of sorts that naturally enhances their recall and recognition than those who have a poor memory in comparison. So in theory, I’d say lessons learned through reading stories would probably be better learned by people than if someone tried to teach it to them through a lecture or video. Neural-pathways won’t be as affected and impressed with lessons or information if our attention is not engaged fully the way it is when focusing on a story.

    Thankfully, there are so many forms of story telling, and I guess many lessons of life are depicted in those forms. Everyday is another story, and every person you meet as hundreds to share. It would be impossible to talk to anyone without sharing or exchanging a story or two in the process, wouldn’t it. It’s just our nature, it’s a human currency for survival, like love, kindness, and mercy.

    • Some great thoughts on storytelling in your comments Lila. Thanks for sharing. Your comments on storytelling and memory reminded me of the ways in which we used to learn lists of elements or the colours of the rainbow or the order of the planets in the solar system – by constructing a story around them!

  39. I certainly have a natural preference towards reading fiction over non fiction. The imagination of the story teller and the reader alike is what makes the best story. Withought imagination even the best of tales would end up as just words and hold no magic at all. I am sure there are great non fiction works out there waiting for me to read and maybe I will one day but I love imagination especially in childrens books

    • I absolutely take your point about the importance of imagination Simon. However, as someone who reads as much non-fiction as fiction, I can assure you that there are some incredibly imaginative works of non-fiction out there. To take just one example, you may want to check out Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.

  40. This a wonderful post – and it looks like I’m adding another book to my reading list.🙂

    Always been fascinated by the significance of narratives in our lives since I read one of my favorite authors referred tothe human race as “storytelling monkeys”. You’ve contributed to my exploration of this topic. Thank you.

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  42. Nice piece. I think you’re right about why the emphasis is on fiction rather than non-fiction. Perhaps the electives at uni’, for literature courses, could be more inclusive of non-fiction texts. I became very interested in the blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction after listening to a lecture by Angus Calder who was working, at the time, on his book The Myth of the Blitz. He spoke about his own uncertainty about the blurring between fact and fiction, after discovering that many of his primary sources had been a mixture of planted stories and propoganda. That area alone, where a work of non-fiction might possibly contain less historical facts and more fiction, than a work of fiction, appealled to me greatly. It struck me then, as it does now, that one could mould some very exciting lessons around the subject of fiction and reality.

    • Thanks for that contribution Rod – I suppose it’s in the area of historical ‘fact’ that the distinction becomes most blurred. I’ve just been reading Christopher Hitchens on Churchill and the Second World War, how the challenge to the prevailing narrative has occasionally been made but rarely given any oxygen of publicity. If you haven’t read ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields I would highly recommend it.

  43. What an excellent read here, Bill, both in your blog posting and then in all the really interesting comments it provoked. It is such an interesting debate and so important.

  44. Really interesting post, I very much enjoyed reading it. Stories are surely a gateway to culture and society as much as they are a gateway for us to be free from the ‘real world’ (if only for a few moments). Thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

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