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The Use of Stories


Disciplines > Storytelling > Storytelling articles > The Use of Stories

Safe arousal | Fantastic escape | Therapeutic catharsis | Cultural learning | See also


What is the purpose of stories? Why do we need them? How do we use them? Here are four fundamental purposes of stories.

Safe arousal

At a most fundamental level, stories play to our fundamental need for arousal. They stimulate us as we feel the sense of danger and thrill of action created by the author.

At the same time as arousing, stories create a vicarious experience where we are aroused through an empathetic bond with the main characters (this is why 'sympathetic characters' are so important).

All action and adventure stories offer this 'safe danger' environment where the hero is subjected to a series of exciting hazards that can be safely consumed from our armchair.

Fantastic escape

Stories also provide a means of escape from the pressures of the real world as we immerse ourselves in the plot and the lives of the characters. This is a remarkably clever skill that most people have, where the real world fades as we enter the dream world of the story.

Wish fulfilment means doing the things that you would like to do but dare not or cannot do. Stories provide a perfect vehicle for such fantasy.

In the world of fantastic story, anything that can be imagined is possible. We can fight and survive incredible danger. We can have wonderful friends and beautiful partners. We can travel to the stars and meet strange new beings. We can have super powers that let us fly or cast magical spells.

Escapist stories include science fiction, fantasy, romance, body swap, and so on.

Therapeutic catharsis

Another use of stories is to help release inner tensions. When you see in front of you a re-enactment of a past problem then this experience can help you re-think and revise how you feel about it. For example a man who has been upset when rejected by a woman may be helped by a story that shows a man recovering from being rejected.

Catharsis is a triggered release of emotions that have been repressed or otherwise held back. When we do not release emotions they can build up inside and gnaw away at us. Stories can both trigger and facilitate release these emotions.

Problems can be things that have happened to you or things you have done that are wrong or bad. Therapists may use story as a way of helping a person get past a stuck problem from their past. One way is to tell stories of other people. Another is to encourage the person to tell their own story.

Stories of tragedy offer vehicles for catharsis as you cry with the characters, releasing pent-up grief. Comedy also provides simple catharsis as laughter allows release of inner tensions.

Cultural learning

Another important use of stories is to transfer knowledge and understanding. Rather than learn the hard way from bitter experience, it is far better to learn the lessons of the past. Stories provide an easily-digestible and credible format for which to present the lessons of life.

This is a very traditional use of stories, for example where parents tell their children cautionary tales or where tribal elders relate cultural knowledge that are encoded in stories of monsters and magic. In the days before writing, much knowledge was embedded in stories and professional storytellers would travel the countryside spreading understanding and effectively acting as a peripatetic teacher.

Cultural stories can take many forms to transmit social knowledge. Children's stories embed basic cultural norms. Tales of heroes show how people should behave under stress. Villain stories warn against bad actions. Journey stories help transition to adulthood.

See also

Need for Arousal, Story is...

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