Why storytelling works
Stories are more interesting, easier to understand, and easier to remember than text that just explains things. This might be because stories are similar to how we interpret our world, and the actions of trying to follow and understand a story line are similar to what we do in life in trying to understand other people.
The 4 Cs
Stories have four features:
- Causality: Events are linked; one event causes or initiates the next.
- Conflict: There are obstacles between the main character and his or her goal.
- Complications: When the character tries to remove the obstacles, this causes new problems to solve.
- Character: The characters are interesting, but we learn about them through their actions (show, don’t tell)
One reason stories may be more interesting than just text that explains or describes something is found in their structure. The typical story structure leads the reader to make inferences. The text doesn’t tell everything, but also isn’t too difficult to understand — it makes the reader puzzled but able to figure it out. Willingham (2004) gives a short passage as an example. It is a story of 3-4 sentences about a woman who worked hard to make a pot of soup for her husband. He tried the soup, and she swore she would never cook for him again. One group of people were given a 4-sentence version that included a reason for her proclamation; the other a 3-sentence version that did not explain it. People preferred the story without the explanation.
One reason stories are easier to understand is because we are familiar with the format of a story, and so we know what to expect from it. We already accept that a story will have a format that provides us with The 4 Cs.
Stories are easier to remember — a lot easier. One study found that ‘[s]ubjects remember about 50 percent more from the stories than from the expository passages’ (Willingham, 2004). This may be because of the causality feature of stories. As mentioned about structure, people remember elements of a story best when there is a link between events and the reader has to make a small inference to get the link. When the reader makes these causal connections, they are making associations that improve memory of the story’s points later in time because if they remember one part of the story, they can surmise the rest based on causality.
In most cultures, stories include causality and goals. This is so true that people will insert these features into their remembered stories even if they weren’t present in the original stories. And if asked to recall expository text, they will describe events in order of causation even if the original text did not present the facts in that order.
A compelling set of conflicts and complications is critical to get and keep the reader’s interest. If you look at movies as an example, they usually do not present the main conflict until about 20 minutes in. If there is a conflict before that, it’s usually not the main conflict — it’s just there to get the audience’s interest in the characters and the situation. (The authors give Star Wars and all James Bond movies as examples of movies that start with a conflict but not the main one.) This build-up or crescendo of conflicts can be done in other stories, too, not just movies.
Leaving room for inferences in a story:
- Kim, S-i. (1999). Causal bridging inference: A cause of story interestingness. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 57–71.
- Keenan, J.M., Baillet, S.D., & Brown, P. (1987). The effect of causal cohesion on comprehension and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 23, 115–126.
Psychological expectation for seeing causality and goals in stories: Bartlett, F. C. (1932/1995). Remembering. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.