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Why People Read Stories

20 November 2011

From author and master teacher Dave Farland:

Many people will tell you that they read for “Entertainment,” which is a vague and unsatisfactory answer. After all, one person imagines himself laughing when he’s entertained, while the woman standing next to him imagines herself crying.

The answer to the question is quite complex, and the reasons for reading aren’t necessarily the same for all readers.

For example I don’t read horror. I’ve seen enough real horror in life that fiction seldom fazes me. Those tales that do touch me often strike too deeply. I found Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity to be far too chilling. I had friends murdered by a serial killer when I was a child (they were hacked into pieces and thrown from a speeding car). The killer was a man whose property bordered my father’s farm. I don’t like reading about serial killers.

. . . .

But here’s a key: In part, we are attracted to fiction that arouses emotions that we find pleasurable. Wonder, humor, horror, intrigue, romance, adventure—they’re all code names for “genres” because we really categorize our books by their subconscious emotional draws. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

There’s something deeper than that going on. Regardless of which genre that you’re attracted to, there is one attraction that is common to all fiction. It strikes at the very essence of “story.”

As a writer, you need to understand how it works, and how to best use that knowledge.

. . . .

Why do people read for recreation instead of doing something else? Why not go skiing, watch a movie, play chess, or hang out on Hollywood Boulevard?

Why do we crave stories?

I’ve never seen a definition of “story” that encompasses all types of entertainment, and there are many forms – sports, listening to music, attending parties, watching movies. When I was a prison guard, I knew killers who killed for pleasure, women who tried to seduce men for enjoyment. What do these have in common with fiction?

. . . .

Why do people crave stories, good stories, written down?

One clue came to me by accident. I happened to meet a professor who was talking to a friend. The professor was one of my favorite writing instructors, a woman who vehemently forbade her students from writing trashy genre fiction – romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, westerns or anything of that ilk. She discouraged her students from even reading it, fearing that it would subvert their higher impulses as artists.

So imagine my astonishment when I heard her discussing with another professor how she had wept the previous night after reading a trashy romance novel. I was flabbergasted to discover this . . . this deceit. Why, she was nothing but a hypocrite!

So I confronted her, asking why she would even bother to read a romance novel. She explained that she read romance to relax. When life got stressful, her job got hectic, it was a good way to unwind.

. . . .

But on the face of it, that answer seemed absurd! People go through tremendous difficulties in a novel. People get run over by cars or stalked by serial killers. People get raped, beaten, sold as slaves and struggle through constant turmoil.

Books aren’t relaxing at all, are they?

And that’s when I saw a possible answer.

In early writing classes, like every other writer, I had learned about Feralt’s triangle (also called Freytag’s pyramid. Apparently there are a lot of people who want credit for the idea, or who elaborated upon the structure). Feralt was a French writer who studied what made successful stories. He said that in a successful story, the tale begins with a character that has a problem. As we read, the suspense rises, the problems become more complex and have more far-reaching consequences, until we reach the climax of the story, where the hero’s fortune changes. Afterward, the problem is resolved, the tension diminishes, and the reader is allowed to return to a relaxed state.

. . . .

But shortly after my experience with my closet romance-reading professor, while I came upon an article in a medical journal, I suddenly found myself looking at a chart remarkably similar to Feralt’s triangle, and the confluence of the three ideas helped me strike to the core of just exactly why people read for recreation.

The article explained some recent experiments on endorphins – internally created opiates that our body uses to help control pain. You see, as we live through our daily lives, we constantly are faced with minor pains. Cells age and die, we get minor cuts and abrasions, and to fight the pain that comes with these cellular deaths, our body creates a certain low level of endorphins. In essence, our body is constantly drugging us. If not, we would literally feel ourselves dying, wasting away, from moment to moment.

However, when you get injured – when you get cut or stick your hand in a vat of acid – cells die on a massive level and your brain suddenly registers the pain. This of course serves as a warning to get away from the source of pain – the vat of acid, the scalding hot chocolate, or whatever. But the brain also begins creating more endorphins in an effort to diminish the pain.

Eventually, the level of opiates produced by the body matches the level of damage involved, and then the pain you experience diminishes or vanishes completely. Depending on the severity of your injury, the process can take hours or days. A small cut may stop hurting in hours; a severe burn might not quit aching for weeks.

. . . .

Think of it, the body has to have some way to cope with stress. Otherwise, we’d get more and more stressed out until we all went over the edge.

At that point I recognized that reading a formed story that conforms to Feralt’s outline might be a type of emotional exercise that allows us to handle stress.

Obviously, each of us has background stress in our lives. Your stress may come from problems in your marriage, or fear that you’ll lose your job. It may have to do with concerns for your health, or the health of a friend. It may have to do with deadlines or other time pressures. Right now, without thinking much, you can probably come up with a dozen stress-inducing problems you have to deal with in your life.

To cope with life’s little problems, we have three options:

• We may remove the stressor. For example, to get rid of monetary problems, we can make more money.

• We may retreat from the stress – by taking a vacation perhaps, or a night on the town. (I will refer to this from now on as escape).

• We can perform emotional exercises to help cope with the stress. (I’ll refer to this throughout the rest of the article as rejuvenation).

The fascinating thing about a story is that it lets you escape and rejuvenate simultaneously. By reading a book or watching a movie, to a degree you escape from your own life, your own world, and become immersed in a fictive universe. You take an emotional vacation. Typically this is most true in the opening of a story, where the author spends a good deal of time establishing the setting and characters. There, the conflicts may be less significant and may appear more easily resolvable than at the end.

. . . .

Merely distracting a reader isn’t satisfying enough. If it were, then people would read travelogues instead of stories.

No, in order for a story to be really satisfying, it must also be rejuvenating. When you read, you must enter a world where you are placed in meaningful conflict.

In short, as many other authors have noted, the situations that are intolerable to you in real life are those that you crave in fiction.

. . . .

Your subconscious mind does not completely recognize the difference between your real experiences and those that occur only in the imagination. So, when you become Frodo Baggins walking the road to the Crack of Doom, chased by dark riders, the subconscious mind responds to some degree as if those incidents were really happening. When you are Robin Hood, grieving for your dead father, your mind reacts as if it were really happening to you.

Indeed, the more completely you become immersed in a fictive tale, the more totally your body will respond.

How often have you found yourself reading a book with your heart hammering so badly that you had to stop? How often have you found sweat on your brow and your breathing shallow? So the body responds. It says, “I thought life was bad at the office, but this stress is killing me! Let’s handle it.”

In short, as your body gets stressed it releases chemicals to help you cope with the stress. It’s the adrenaline and cortisol that gets released that makes your heart pound, your senses become keener, and forces your body to begin to store energy as fat.

At that point, some biofeedback mechanism kicks in. Your body, in an effort to handle the imaginary stress, creates some type of endorphin-like substance to help you cope.

. . . .

At some phase of the story, you reach the “happy ending,” and your brain rewards you for a job well done—by releasing large amounts of serotonin into the brain, which makes you feel happy. It’s the same chemical released to the brain when you eat delicious foods. Only in this case, it’s the reward for defeating the “Dark Lord,” or overcoming a similar problem.

You’ve just performed an emotional exercise, very similar to a physical exercise. Reading is to the mind as aerobics is to the heart and lungs. Because you have performed this emotional exercise, you will be better able to handle the little stresses in your day-to-day life. The minor problems at the office seem to diminish in intensity and even the major catastrophes aren’t so intimidating.

. . . .

Do you see the relationship between reading and other forms of recreation yet? Here it is: When we read, we buy into a shared dream, a shared fiction, and by doing so we put ourselves in emotional jeopardy.

To some degree, we thrust ourselves into the hands of a storyteller, trusting that he will deliver us safely from a daydream that swiftly turns into a nightmare. But we don’t want to trust him too much. If the emotional jeopardy is too small, we get bored. If the emotional jeopardy is too great, we’ll close the book. If the author abuses our trust – if for example he doesn’t end the story, but leaves us instead in greater emotional jeopardy, or if the ending is too ambiguous, we will no longer trust the author and we’ll shun his fiction.

This same need for a happy outcome is true in other forms of recreation. Have you ever noticed that when your team is winning regularly, the stands at the football or basketball stadium rapidly fill up? We don’t want to invest emotional energy in a team that will let us down. We don’t want to view games that our team can’t win. We won’t gamble on the lottery if no one ever hits the jackpot.

So here is the secret that I couldn’t learn in college: Reading for recreation generally works best only as we read well-formed stories – stories where there is an ascending level of stress, of doubt as to the outcome, followed by a conclusion where the stress is relieved.

In short, those “trashy” genre stories that my writing teachers didn’t want me to read—the romances, fantasy, westerns, and so on – sell so well precisely because the audience does know within certain parameters how the story will end.

Link to much more at David Farland

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

4 Comments to “Why People Read Stories”

  1. What’s really interesting about this is that if good stories are problem–tension–release stories, then the writer turns into a kind of psychopharmaceutist who must figure out how to get the audience into the endorphin release spot through the vehicle of a story.

  2. Thank you for writing this article. It was very well written and I really enjoyed reading it.


  3. Thanks for this. Explains a lot. (especially the stack of trash I keep in the back of the bookcase)

  4. Another book, which takes the psychological and developmental view of this same subject (instead of physiological) is “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” by Bruno Bettelheim

    While the bulk of the book is perhaps more specific and theoretical than most writers would want to get into, the introduction is a great essay on how we take stories to our hearts as individuals.

    Part of Bettelheim’s thesis (or at least what I remember of my interpretation of it) is this: stories take on the same purpose as dreaming, and for that matter, as playing.

    Stories and dreams both process our experience, study it, and help with both healing and emotional maturity. Via stories, we gain emotional skills.

    And this is me, not Bettelheim, but: it allows us to practice our emotional skills.

    One thing I think is missing from Ferault’s Triangle is the most important component of all: The character’s reaction.

    It isn’t just that tension rises as the problems rise. It’s that the character responds to the problems. The character faces the problems. And though they get bigger, the character continues to face and respond.

    Storytelling is always about problem solving. It’s about what we feel when presented with problems, and how we deal with them. We rehearse both success and also failure.

    And that takes out the tensions, fears and uncertainties.

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