Discussing Why We Like Stories #AuthorToolbox (Part 2, The Conscious)

For Part 1, the unconscious, Click Here.

The conscious mind represents the more complex side of every person. The conscious mind takes the simple desires of the unconscious mind and builds more elaborate goals around them. Where the unconscious mind wants to feel and enjoy, the conscious mind wants to overcome a challenge. The conscious mind is the problem solver; cracking codes, assembling pieces, all in an effort to achieve some kind of new understanding, a moment of insight that can only be called an epiphany. The question is, what does the conscious mind want to understand?

In this case, I’m going to propose that there are three levels of understanding: understanding the story, understanding the reason, and understanding the meaning. Each represents a stage of understanding, a foundation for what comes next.

1. Understanding the Story

Understanding is all about answering questions, and the first question is usually “what happened next?” Stories are all about a series of events, and how the characters respond to and work to resolve them. This inevitably leads to the resolution, “how did it end?”

Beginnings and endings represent the most basic order there is. The beginning is how the status quo was disrupted, and the ending is how a status quo was reestablished. Once the audience understands both, they can move on to the next question, why.

2. Understanding the Reason

Everything that happens can be considered both a cause and an effect. Understanding why something happens helps us understand how we might cause or prevent the same thing from happening again. This grants us a greater measure of control over our world. (Remember, most of us strive to achieve and maintain a healthy status quo.)

“Why” lies at the heart of most conversations. People like to discuss why. Sometimes it’s why something is morally right or wrong (ethics), why certain plants or animals are the way they are (science), why people make specific choices (pop culture), why someone likes or dislikes a specific piece of art (personal preference), or “why we are here” (religion and philosophy).

Stories represent a wonderful hypothetical scenario. Audiences learn about the characters, their goals and conflicts, building a model of who they are. Then, a difficult choice, one that forces both characters and audiences to really think. Of course the character does eventually make their choice, but that doesn’t stop audiences from continuing the debate, gaining new insights about themselves in the process.

3. Understanding the Meaning

In one sense, every story is unique, but every story is also an example of the types of experiences that people encounter throughout their lives. Most have never woken up one day to find out they are a famous wizard, long lost heir, or chosen one, but most people do know what it’s like to feel the weight of other people’s expectations upon their shoulders. They know what it’s like to struggle with identity when everyone around them is in a hurry to label them and guide them on a path they themselves don’t fully understand.

This is the third level of understanding, translation. “What does it all mean?” Remember, stories are hypothetical examples, both of what could happen, and how someone might respond. By comparing stories with our own experiences, we develop a better understanding of the problem, the key components that lie at the heart of the issue. By comparing ourselves to the characters, we learn what we could do, and how those choices might unfold.

It’s not always easy to discuss a topic, particularly if someone is very confident in their opinion, or if someone is uncomfortable with the topic itself. Stories represent an opportunity to disguise the issue. Not everyone is comfortable discussing issues like inequality or prejudice in regards to the modern world, but through stories like Harry Potter, Star Trek, and X-Men, audiences are able to engage those same issues in a way that’s more accessible, with less risk of upsetting someone who might have a more personal issue with the real world issues.

Of course it’s also important to bring those realizations back and apply them to the real world, but stories represent a safe space, a place where we can begin that conversation, laying the foundation for the next step.

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.


16 thoughts on “Discussing Why We Like Stories #AuthorToolbox (Part 2, The Conscious)

    • Agreed. In my mind good storytelling is about providing the proper “frame” or “means” for audiences to engage all 3 questions, if they so wish, while simultaneously making sure that each level is more subtle than the prior, ensuring that those who want to stay at “level 1” are not forced to engage “level 3”, though there are definitely some stories that are rather aggressive with their broader meaning, and I have enjoyed them. But yeah, I tend to favor the light touch, leaving enough room for audiences to feel like it’s their own personal realization, rather than the meaning they’ve been taught/encouraged to reach.

    • Hello Erika. Happy belated hop day to you as well.
      I definitely spend most of my story time enjoying the first, but I like to think I’m also engaging the others, if only subconsciously…

    • Escape is definitely my first, and often favorite reason to read or write. And in many ways, I think all the other layers/reasons only heighten and deepen that experience.

      Offhand, if I may, I imagine that there are already audiences engaging in rich conversations with your stories. I think one of the more subtle aspects of writing; how, in most cases, we as the authors don’t “know” that audiences are having a strong experience with the stories we send out into the world, but we trust that they are, just as we do with the stories we read.
      Of course there’s always the ARC option, which is almost guaranteed to lead to an interesting conversation.

  1. Disguise is such a great word in this context. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been able to disguise why I’m writing a story. Perhaps because I tend to write more contemporary with some spec shorter fiction mixed in, dystopian mostly. Something to think about. I’m going to spend some time contemplating novels I’ve read recently and whether there was meaning deeper than what I found and what felt like it was quite close to the surface.

    • Thank you.
      I think it’s particularly challenging for the author to see their own work, since we know it so intimately, and we often write with very specific intentions.
      I think my favorite stories are the ones that walk that fine line. Some audiences can enjoy them as “a simple tale of what could have happened,” never feeling like they’re missing out, while others can delve as deep as they wish, and still uncover fresh insights.
      When it comes to good stories, there are no wrong answers, just “right for me”. I think that’s part of what I like about Neil Gaiman, his belief that stories are a very personal experience, and whatever experience you have, it’s yours, and it’s right.

  2. I like your point about how science fiction and fantasy can discuss real-world issues in a non-threatening environment. I find good historical fiction does the same thing – it points out historical problems (e.g. racism) in a way that can challenge us to consider whether our attitudes have changed for the better.

    • Agreed. The familiar gradually becomes “normal”, but when stories present us with familiar issues in a new context, we’re better able to really “see” without that often unconscious “dismissal” of “this is normal”. One of my favorite aspects of storytelling is how new perspectives help us see things with “new eyes”. Of course some would say that’s rather obvious, and they’d be right, but it’s still quite remarkable.

  3. Another very interesting point. I love that you are breaking down why we read. If we can understand this as writers, we have the potential to hone our craft to make it more appealing to the reader. Thanks for your insight, Adam!

    As a side note: I had trouble accessing your site on Wednesday, which is why I didn’t comment that day. I kept checking back, but it would not load for several hours. Hopefully, the issue is all worked out, but I thought I should tell you in case you didn’t know a problem had occurred. Also, your link to the unconscious post is pulling up Understanding Audiences Through Blogging.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you found this post so helpful. I like to think that we are all both students and teachers, learning and evolving our understanding together. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves, how various “forces” coalesce into “me”, but those forces are not always seeking the same things, and how in turn, different stories (or types of stories), can appeal to me at different times.

      Thank you for letting me know about these issues. I’ve updated the Unconscious link, so that should be all set. In regards to the inaccessible issue you experienced on Wednesday, I’m not sure what that could have been, but I will look into it.

      I’m playing a bit of catch up. Just came back from a week away, which was very refreshing, but as is often the case, there is much to do now that I am back. All good things though. I’m looking forward to virtually catching up with everyone here, both commenting, and reading the latest posts by all my fellow readers.

      In any case, thank you again.

    • Thank you as well. It is most heartening to hear someone enjoyed one of my posts.
      I look forward to trading more ideas in the future.

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