Discussing Why We Like Stories #AuthorToolbox (Part 1, The Unconscious)

Storytelling is a lifelong journey, full of unexpected detours; learning subjects that can include psychology, philosophy, history, and various scientific disciplines. We point to specific examples of stories and marvel at how they “do it”. Funny or sad, light-hearted or serious, simple or complex, but they’re all stories, which means on some level they share certain basic attributes. One of those attributes is what they do for the audience. I’d like to propose that all stories represent different ways of satisfying two basic desires: the desire to feel, and the desire to think.

Feeling (Entertain us)

A person is a combination of both a conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind thinks, but the unconscious mind feels. The unconscious mind represents those immediate reactions, emotional or otherwise, the place where all of our most basic desires take shape. The conscious mind attempts to bridle and guide the unconscious mind, but the conscious mind can’t stop the unconscious from feeling, or wanting to feel. The question is, what do we want to feel?

1. A Focus

Humans evolved with an emphasis on communication. Our vocal chords can produce a wide array of sounds, and our minds are designed to look for patterns, to try and make sense of what we know. Our minds are always thinking, always trying to make sense of things, even while we sleep. Left to our own devices, the mind will often continue to look for order. Unfortunately life is rarely that neat, but telling the unconscious mind “not to think about it” doesn’t work. The unconscious mind doesn’t think in negatives, hence the classic example, “If I tell you not to think about elephants, you do, if only briefly.”Stories provide the unconscious mind with something to focus on, something positive that is designed to be easily understood, often with an underlying message that “the world is a good, kind, and beautiful place.”

2. Safety, Reassurance, and Relief

Stories are often a leisure activity, something we enjoy after the day’s work is done, and work can be tiring, not to mention stressful. Stories represent a way to relax. Unlike the real world, a story can be carefully constructed to avoid stress. “Nothing bad’s going to happen.” Sitcoms and other serial stories are a good example. Many of them are built on the premise that each episode or chapter will create and resolve its conflict, with no lasting change from one segment to another. Audiences can enjoy any episode without worrying about what came before.

3. Beauty & Aesthetics

Stories are an art form, and all art engages our concepts of sensory pleasure. We love beauty, we’re drawn to it, whether it’s the beauty of nature, or the beauty of man-made creations. We’re drawn to the order, and the simple…pleasure of it.  And sometimes we’re also drawn to the dark, to the strange, to the unsettling, even the ugly. We’re curious, we want to explore the “other” that lies, hidden in the dark. Beauty makes us feel safe and happy, but sometimes we want to be frightened, within the safety of a story.

4. Fantasy (Wishing things were different)

It’s human nature to imagine, to ask “what if”. Most people live within a carefully managed status quo, which only changes gradually. It’s a very safe way to live, but it can be boring. It’s natural for people to wonder what it would be like to live a different life, perhaps a life of adventure, where events move quickly, with dire consequences; or a life without responsibility, where every day is an opportunity to pick a new direction, and see what comes of it. Of course the conscious mind knows that such a life would have serious drawbacks, but the unconscious mind wants to pretend, if only for a little while.

It’s also natural to regret. Everyone has moments in their past where they didn’t handle things quite as well as they would have liked. To err is human, and mistakes make for potent memories. But we don’t like making mistakes; we don’t like how it feels, knowing that we could have done better. So we try again, sometimes in real life, sometimes through stories. We suffer with the main character, and crow with delight when they overcome their shortcomings, and prove that they can “do it right”.

5. Catharsis

A handful of words can invoke powerful feelings: joy, safety, love, fear, anger, sadness, etc. Emotions can be intense, terrible things, but they also help us feel alive. In our daily lives we strive for stability, but the truth is that over time any status quo becomes unsatisfying. To appreciate life, we need change and contrast, particularly in regards to our emotions. We feel joy when we succeed, when we spend time with people we care about, but it’s in the absence of joy that we learn to appreciate it.  Stories offer a safe and stable emotional experience, they take us to dark, unpleasant places, but they also bring us back, with fresh appreciation for joy, and life.

Through conventions like genre, tone, and back cover blurbs, audiences learn recognize what type of story they are experiencing, and by extension what kind of emotional journey the story will guide them through. Consider how many stories sample every emotional tone in their first few pages (see 101-01 Establishing the Story). Consider how many fantasy stories follow the Hero’s Journey; the gradual build up, the hard fall, and the ultimate triumph that leaves audiences filled with exultation.

This is what the audience’s unconscious mind craves, the opportunity to delve into emotions, including the darker ones, safe in the assurance that the story will see them through, and bring them back to a “good” place before “the end”.

Next time…
Part 2, Thinking (What does it mean?)

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.

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22 thoughts on “Discussing Why We Like Stories #AuthorToolbox (Part 1, The Unconscious)

  1. I’m all about the “What if.” Probably why I write so much genre fiction (especially Science Fiction).

    What I absolutely adore is when an author asks a question I’ve never thought of – and then cuts into it, deeper and deeper, until you realize how massive the question really is.

    • It’s definitely interesting how, even as we never thought to “ask the question,” once we read it, it seems like such a natural and fitting thing. By tapping into the collective unconscious, the author is able to give audiences that wonderful experience of feeling connected and understood by someone who never even met them. Truly remarkable.

    • I agree. I think escape represents one of the most common motives for most recreational activities. I often like to say “We work in one world, but we live in many.”

  2. Interesting perspective. I usually read for entertainment and to get away. For whatever reason, I find suspenseful murder mysteries the most entertaining, but I also like historical non-fiction.

  3. Can anyone turn off the elephant thoughts now? 😉 (If only it worked that way.) What an interesting way to think about the ‘feeling’ aspect of why we read. Thanks!

    • Thank you as well.
      It is interesting. I recently attended some panels that were a mix of therapists, professional presenters, and entertainers, and it was interesting listening to them talk about how the conscious and unconscious mind work. In the wake of the experience I’ve been really considering how what they talked about has relevance to storytelling, communication, and self management.
      I think there are definitely times where we strive to achieve a goal, but we don’t really understand what makes it difficult for us to do so, like the classic elephant example. In that case the key is to create a positive focus. “What should I think about?” instead of the more difficult “What should I not think about”.
      At the end of the day it’s all about finding ways to make it easier for yourself to achieve the goal, within the confines of what’s honorable of course.

    • Mmm. Lately I’ve been really craving catharsis. I find myself rewatching or rereading stories that I know will provoke a strong emotional response in me, because sometimes, even when the emotion is negative, there’s something freeing about “letting those emotions out”. The story takes me on a journey, and safely gets me to the other side of those emotions…I love stories.

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  5. I love the “what if” and exploration of the unknown. My other favorite type of story is one that gives me a deeper understanding of cultures or experiences outside my own.

    • Mmm. Stories have that wonderful habit of disarming us, teaching without making it obvious. I love reading stories from another culture, and learning about the culture through what’s shared among many of them.

  6. A couple of years ago I was part of a writer’s group where we posted a story a month on our blog. Each month we had a particular topic to write about. Later, a reader told me she loved reading the stories with her coffee each morning. “They were just the perfect length and they helped me start my day.” It was too bad when we stopped doing this.

    My stories are often a bit stressful because I write mysteries. But, I love to add a bit of surprise in the story, even when it’s not a typical “mystery.”

    Thanks for your post.

    • There’s a lot to be said for getting into the routine of writing regularly, especially creating lots of little pieces. I imagine you learned a lot from those experiences.

    • Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say. It actually took me a bit by surprise. I listened to a talk on the conscious and unconscious, and while mulling over what was said I started to think about how we tend to engage stories for different reasons, some emotional, some intellectual. Next month is part two, “Thinking”.

    • Thank you.
      I often find that as readers we can and often do simply “enjoy” without questioning why, but as a writer I do want to try and understand. Though I also hope to sometimes “forget”, at least for a little while.

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