What Is a Story? And What Are You Supposed to Do with One?

What is a story? What's the best way to read one?

            This is one of those questions to which, even though you’ve never given it much thought, you’re reasonably sure you know the answer. So let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. A story is an imagining or a recounting of an event or series of events which can be conveyed through spoken words, written words, or images. This thing happened, which led to this next thing happening, and so on. 

            There’s more to it of course. I could describe my walk from the kitchen to my office as a series of events, but that wouldn’t constitute a story. The next ingredient most of us think of as essential is conflict. My walk to the office isn’t a story unless I have an encounter along the way that impedes my progress and forces me to rethink my route. Even then, though, if we do indeed have a story, it isn’t a very good one. But let’s start by saying you need, at the very least, a character encountering an obstacle in pursuance of some goal.  

            I would also argue the obstacle must somehow present the character with a dilemma. Indeed, such dilemmas are what make stories emotionally compelling, as opposed to something resembling a mere list of instructions or a technical description of an incident. In other words, it’s not a story unless it features some choice forced on the character, with both options arousing strong emotions. 

            To go back to the basic formula then: character plus goal plus obstacle plus dilemma equals a story. Nothing revolutionary here, I know. But my purpose in posing the question is to set up another one. 

            Why is this most basic of questions seldom brought up in literature courses? 

What to Do with Fiction

            Every day in this country kids and young adults are sitting down to read literature, which means they’re having to figure out where they stand in relation to what’s going on in the pages before their eyes. Instead of helping students orient themselves to the story, though, teachers instruct them to approach the text as a coded message to be deciphered—implicitly suggesting that’s what a story is and that’s how it should be dealt with. 

            The simplest way stories could be interpreted as messages is to focus on the decision arrived at by the character and the consequences that ensue. If the decision results in the character achieving the goal, the decision must have been a good one, and the message would be that readers should choose a similar course when faced with a similar dilemma. This brand of messaging appeals to advertisers: when faced with a choice between our product and the competitor’s, choose ours. 

            But, once you open the door to symbolism, allegory, and social constructivism, there’s no end to the possible interpretations. A character may be standing in for a belief system. A plot twist may recall some historical event. Every encounter between characters may be an effort at perpetuating a balance of power between the group each represents. Unfortunately, this all-too-common type of code-breaking method reduces the art of narrative to algebra, robbing it of its emotional resonance.  

            By the time kids are old enough to read more serious literature, they’re so accustomed to the decoding approach that they almost never get around to asking whether stories are really best treated as conveyances of secret messages. This is strange in light of how much fiction most of us consume that we never bother trying to decipher. 

            Postmodernists may lucubrate at length on the hidden hegemonies promulgated through superhero movies, but most of us just watch them, hoping to be enveloped and held in suspense. So it is with Netflix series and horror movies. Tellingly, such entertainments are thought worthy of scholarly attention only when the purported hidden messages undermine the values and beliefs shared by the academics who like to sift them out. If an academic uses a summer blockbuster as course material, you can rest assured mere immersion and enjoyment won’t be on the list of acceptable treatments. 

            This probably isn’t much to the detriment of TV shows and movies as art forms. But when this type of analysis is held as the only legitimate treatment of literary fiction, the idea of reading for any direct connection with the characters inevitably suffers. What was intended as a series of emotionally fraught encounters with characters as their fates unfold in something like real time gets twisted into an exercise in confirmation bias (of the least fair and most sanctimonious sort imaginable in the case of postmodernism).

            Let’s take an example many of us were assigned when we were still in grade school. What is Lord of the Flies? You remember the story, the one about the boys marooned on a tropical island who try to set up a society of sorts but end up breaking into rival factions and trying to kill each other. It’s easy to read the book as an argument about the nature of man absent the strictures and enforcement mechanisms of civilization. And there are plenty of characters and objects that can be seen as symbols for abstract ideas or principles. Simon, the first boy to die, could be a stand-in for Jesus. The severed pig’s head affixed atop a stick sharpened on both ends—the boys’ offering to what they suppose is a monster—could be seen as representing our capacity for evil. 

            Then there are all the postmodern readings, which would examine the ideas about maleness conveyed by the story, the way the book bolsters our belief in boys’ propensity toward violence and attempted domination. The phrase “toxic masculinity” will inevitably be uttered. It may even be suggested that the novel is somehow meant to excuse male dominance of women, since boys will after all be boys, and why should they stop at lording their flies over each other? 

            But is that really the message innocent readers take away?

Reading Stories the Natural Way

            What’s the essence of a story? A character pursues a goal and faces a choice. 

            The character Lord of the Flies centers on most closely is Ralph. Indeed, he pursues a goal—getting off the island, or in lieu of that, figuring out a way to survive and thrive on it. In the course of pursing that goal, he’s met with an obstacle in the form of Jack and his followers’ increasing dissatisfaction with his pacific governance. This presents him with a dilemma; he can appease Jack and follow his lead, or he can stick to his guns and continue standing up for what he believes is right, which includes protecting a weaker boy named Piggy.

            If Ralph is the character readers most identify with, the one whose unfolding fate holds us in suspense until the last page of the novel, then how can it be said that the message of the book is one of violence? If you were like me when you read the story, you were scared for Ralph, but not for Jack. You hoped Ralph would be the one to prevail against all odds. Yet Ralph is the character representing—if we’re obligated to reduce him to an abstract principle—peace and self-sacrifice, not force and dominion. 

            If a dynamic of sympathy similar to this one operates in most other novels, we may have another criterion for our definition of story. Perhaps, stories must have a character whose behavior somehow induces us to root for him. What types of behavior make us favor one character over another? In the case of Lord of the Flies, it’s behavior that’s altruistic. Ralph tries to do what’s best for all the other boys on the island, including the weakest among them. Jack meanwhile seeks to establish a hierarchy with himself in the highest position of authority. 

            Recent theorizing about how storytelling became universal across human cultures focuses on the need for members of a group to be on the lookout for individuals who would subvert cooperative norms. Babies too young to talk or even walk show preferences for puppets they witness behaving helpfully or cooperatively with other puppets (in shows that just meet our minimal requirements for categorization as stories). 

           Stories featuring moral dilemmas are also prominent in hunter-gatherer cultures. Anthropologist Daniel Smith and his colleagues recently reported that 80% of the stories shared by the Agta, a group of traditional hunters and foragers in the Philippines, focused on a character who had to choose between a deed that benefited him or herself at the expense of the group and a deed that benefited the group at some expense to the character. The groups with the most in-depth knowledge of the stories performed the best on tests of cooperation. And individuals who told the best stories were disproportionately chosen as partners for cooperative endeavors, including procreation. This suggests a selection mechanism that may have driven the evolution of storytelling.

            What about literary stories? Researchers have surveyed readers of 200 novels ranging from those of Jane Austen to those of E.M. Forster and analyzed their responses. Unsurprisingly, readers tended to have positive emotions toward protagonists and negative ones toward antagonists. But it was the commonality among the antagonists that proved most revealing. Summing up their findings, the researchers write:

Antagonists virtually person­ify Social Dominance—the self-interested pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. In these novels, those ambitions are sharply segregated from proso­cial and culturally acquisitive dispositions. Antagonists are not only selfish and unfriendly but also undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectu­ally dull. Protagonists, in contrast, display motive dispositions and person­ality traits that exemplify strong personal development and healthy social adjustment. They are agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and open to experience. 

It would seem stories are an exercise in programming altruism and an ethic of egalitarian cooperation into the minds of listeners and readers. 

            Could storytelling have evolved because it increased our ancestors’ odds of surviving and reproducing by helping them to establish more cohesive social bonds? Not in any simple way of course, but the theory goes a long way toward explaining why stories are found in every human society and why infants too young to understand language can nevertheless appreciate basic plot dynamics. 

             Other researchers have shown that reading fiction actives parts of the brain associated with social, as opposed to abstract, cognition. You have to wonder if this holds true in academic settings where theoretical approaches to reading and analyzing texts are de rigueur. And, if readers are being prevented from engaging their social cognition, wouldn’t that make it less likely they’ll have the attendant improvements to their ability to empathize? 

            Have we robbed literature its power by trying to reduce it to algebra? 

How to Teach Kids (and Adults) to Read Literature

            First, we must rid ourselves of the silly notion that literature somehow encourages prejudice. This idea never added up in the first place. If it were true, then the most literate societies, and the most literate sections within a given society, would be the most prejudiced. We can be reasonably sure the opposite is true, and given the research on the effects of reading, we have a good idea why that’s the case.

            Next, we must recognize that immersion in stories comes naturally to us humans. There’s no trick to it beyond assigning stories the kids (or the grownups) will be able to comprehend and to some degree identify with. If the writing is too sophisticated or the topic too mature, no amount of highlighting, summarizing, or notetaking is going to engage the students’ emotions, meaning the story will be lost on them in the only ways that matter. 

            Another thing to keep in mind is that anything that makes the story more vivid and more meaningful will increase students’ interest, and hence their attention. Taking the time to parse sections of the book in class is a good way to nudge the kids toward closer reading, as is reading parts of it to the class aloud as they read it on a screen or a board. Likewise, reading with the foreknowledge that you’ll be discussing the story with the rest of the class fosters more intense focus. 

            Sadly, two things are working against an emphasis on natural reading: The first is the ridiculous pressure on teachers to get their students to pass tests, which represents a constant push to force material on kids they’re not ready for. The second is the prevalence of postmodern ideologies in academic departments. The good news is that alternatives to postmodernism, like those emerging out of evolutionary psychology, are helping scholars point a spotlight on its myriad weaknesses and absurdities. The bad news is we’re dealing with an entrenched ideology, and literary scholars have a long history of being wary of science. The other bad news is that the pressure on teachers to make kids work harder—whether or not working harder is more conducive to learning—shows no sign of abating. 

            There is a longstanding trend countervailing these forces however. Kids tend to find books they like no matter what adults try to push on them. And, if you have a real aesthetic experience with literature as a child or young adult, you stand a better chance of seeing through your lit teachers’ bullshit—a better chance of indulging your love of narrative art no matter what message the squares insist you read into the story. 

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            Also read: 
Putting down the Pen: How School Teaches Us the Worst Possible Way to Read Literature

HOW TO GET KIDS TO READ LITERATURE WITHOUT MAKING THEM HATE IT