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  • Leslie Tourish

Stories Are About Getting Real

Henry David Thoreau, the American naturalist and philosopher, wrote: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” From books, magazines, and newspapers to movies, plays, and TV shows, our love of stories is evidence of that. We just can’t get enough. Because even when it’s fictional, a story still has to feel real. A genre can be experimental, like fantasy or science fiction, but it still maintains a coherent reality.

We love the ancient three-act structure: the set-up where the reluctant hero goes out on a quest, the middle where he struggles with inner and outer demons, and the final battle where he summons the courage to battle his foe and comes away changed, hopefully for the better. We love these journeys because we want to learn how to go on our own quests, deal better with our own demons, overcome our own adversaries, and change for the better ourselves.

Humans don’t live long enough to gain in one lifetime all the knowledge we need to be successful. In our prehistoric past, art and pictographs were used as visual stories. From that organic need for knowledge, storytellers were born. They were the teachers who told the tales of the ancients, recounting their mishaps and adventures, so the current generation could learn from the past and hopefully not keep repeating the same mistakes.

Stories, then and now, give us a shorthand for what it is to be a good citizen and a good person. Stories from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Collins’ Mockingjay feature similar underlying themes: Do what’s right, even if it’s scary and hard. Don’t do it alone; it’s okay to ask for help from your friends. Strive for intelligence and compassion.

We are a successful animal on this planet, and one of the reasons is our capacity to learn. Not just learning from direct experience—indirect learning as well, such as the knowledge we gain from stories. Countless studies have shown that people who read gain emotional intelligence as they follow the characters on their journey. It’s a blessing to know we can grow our worldview, even as we’re tucked safely in our favorite chair, reading the author’s reality, one word at a time.

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