One night when I was in college, a group of friends were thinking about going to a movie, and someone said, “No, I don’t want to go to a movie where you have to think.” It bothered me that someone could ever feel that way. I thought those were the best types of movies. What’s the point of watching a movie if it doesn’t make you think?
I was reminiscing about that night from college recently while contemplating the purpose of stories. They’ve been around for the entirety of human history. Storytelling is what makes humans human; it’s what separates us from other species. No other animal can tell stories to each other and pass on wisdom and knowledge through language.
Stories were key to our species’ survival. Long ago in prehistoric times, a caveman may have told a fellow tribe member a story about how his brother was eaten by a bear after going into a certain cave. They could then use the knowledge from that story to either avoid the cave or plan to kill the bear. Storytelling became an evolutionary survival advantage because the information shared through stories helped save lives. Over time, storytelling progressed, creating more elaborate and sophisticated stories about morality, religion, and philosophy.
Throughout the progress of civilization, as new technology is invented, people have always continued to tell stories—even more so, in new and inventive forms: books, movies, TV, video games, virtual reality…it will never stop. Stories are how humans learn. It’s how we’ve always learned.
The point of stories is to teach. If there’s nothing to learn from a story, then there’s no point in telling it. No story, be it fiction, nonfiction, a movie, TV show, reality TV show, book, video game, or otherwise, should just be pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake. There should always be something to learn, be it empathy, morality, lessons about life, science, psychology, history, the human condition, etc. The story need not have the answers, but it should at least spur the questions.
This doesn’t mean stories shouldn’t also be entertaining. Nor should they be preachy or heavy-handed in their message. Education should not come at the expense of entertainment. The point of a story is to disperse knowledge or teach empathy in an entertaining way, so others will pay attention and remember it.
To create a story as pure frivolous entertainment with nothing to learn or better your life in any way seems pointless. Perhaps it makes you happy for a couple hours, and you think that’s enough. But if you need mindless entertainment to distract you from your life just to make you feel better, then you have deeper issues that ought to be addressed. Create a life for yourself worth embracing, not avoiding. This is not to disparage all light-hearted stories that make you happy. There are plenty of stories that may appear frivolous on the surface but contain deeper meaning.
Because humans have been telling stories for so long, I think we’ve become a little too good at it. We’ve essentially hacked that part of our brains that’s addicted to hearing stories and hijacked it, figuring out the tricks to get people’s attention with cliffhangers and formulaic story beats. Storytellers build their narratives around those hacks, rather than around a valuable lesson or idea about life or the human condition they want to convey.
It’s not just mindless entertainment that’s a problem. There are quite complicated stories that are ultimately meaningless. We’re now in an age of post-story stories, which leads to metafiction. People have become so familiar with stories—they’ve read/heard/saw so many of them—that they require more and more sophisticated variations of stories to deliver the satisfaction that a classic simple three-act narrative used to. The result is stories like Pulp Fiction or Memento, told out of order, or various other experimental narrative forms. Those particular two examples are great films and I think worth the effort, but they’re exceptions to the rule. Many copycats result in poor puzzles devoid of meaning.
Humans are story addicts. We become so obsessed with the form of telling the story rather than the content. The most important part of a story—the entire purpose of telling a story—is the idea, the lesson, the knowledge embedded within it. That is always the most important part. A story should contain some useful piece of knowledge to the audience. If not, it’s a waste of time for all involved. A story about clever storytelling is just as futile as a story about nothing. (Unless there is valuable knowledge embedded in the clever story about storytelling.)
I think that is the ultimate story form today: a cleverly told story containing valuable knowledge. We are so accustomed to stories as a culture, after a couple hundred thousand years of hearing stories, that we require more sophisticated forms of narrative. But we still always need the story to contain valuable information—life lessons to help our survival as both individuals and a species. Those lessons can be about crime, murder, technology, pollution, or about the human condition (death, grief, depression, anxiety) to help people cope with daily life.
The storyteller is one of the most important figures in society, and they take many forms: writer, director, artist, teacher, journalist, and more. Whatever form a storyteller uses, they must not take their position for granted. We must tell stories worth telling, teach others things worth knowing, and do so in an entertaining way.