We live in stories all day long—fiction stories, novels, TV shows, films, interactive video games. We daydream in stories all day long. Estimates suggest we just do this for hours and hours per day—making up these little fantasies in our heads, these little fictions in our heads. We go to sleep at night to rest; the body rests, but not the brain. The brain stays up at night. What is it doing? It’s telling itself stories for about two hours per night. It’s eight or ten years out of our lifetime composing these little vivid stories in the theaters of our minds…
Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they’re always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that’s what a story is—a problem solution narrative.
Why are stories that way? On one hand, it may be obvious to you that stories are that way, that they’re problem focused. That’s the first thing you would learn in your first day of creative writing class. You get there, your teacher would say, “Hey, your story has to have a problem, a crisis, a dilemma, otherwise no one’s interested.” But if you think about it, it’s not at all obvious that stories should be that way. You might really expect to find stories that really did function as portals into hedonistic paradise. Paradises where there were no problems and pleasure was infinite. But you never, ever find that.
Why are stories so trouble-focused? You have quite a bit of convergence among scholars and scientists who are looking at this from an evolutionary point of view, and what they’re saying is that stories may function as kind of virtual reality simulators, where you go and you simulate the big problems of human life, and you enjoy it, but you’re having a mental training session at the same time. There’s some kind of interesting evidence for this, that these simulations might help people perform better on certain tasks.
So in the same way that children’s make believe helps them hone their social skills, it seems to be true of adult make believe, too. If adult make believe is novels and films, it seems they’re entering into those fictional worlds and working through those fictional social dilemmas actually does, as hard as it may be to believe, enhance our social skills, our emotional intelligence, our empathy. That’s kind of a neat finding. Maybe stories have a function as a simulation of the big problems of life that helps us cope better with those problems when we do experience them.