Book review: “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human”

News flash! IT’S OK TO READ FICTION! Even if your goal is to write true stories, it’s OK to read fiction!

If you’ve read my post on Little Bee, the last novel I read, you know I have an inner Yankee who stops me from reading fiction on the grounds that as a memoirist, I should read the genre I aspire to write. Or how-to-write books. But certainly not fiction.

I’ve just finished Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human and he’s faced down that inner Yankee with arguments drawn from recent research in psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.

He shows us how reading fiction gives us a “flight simulator” in which we can explore problems and experiences without having to suffer their consequences in real life.

In The Storytelling Animal Gottschall writes,

Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly–to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story–comic, tragic, romantic–is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.

Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication

Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values. We judge whether the character is a good or evil person from how he attempts to extricate himself from his predicament.

In another passage, Gottschall calls our attention to how for most of time, story was an intensely communal activity.

For tens of thousands of years before the invention of writing, story happened only when a teller came together with listeners. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that books became cheap enough to reward mass literacy. For uncounted millennia, story was exclusively oral. A teller or actor attracted an audience, synched them up mentally and emotionally, and exposed them all to the same message.

He concludes with a few recommendations:

  • Read and watch fictional stories–they make us more empathic and help us navigate life’s dilemmas.
  • Remember that fiction pulls us together around common values.
  • Realize that our story instinct has a darker side. Suckers for story that we are, emotionally absorbing stories make us easy to manipulate.


Favorite quote:
“The brain stays up all night telling stories while we sleep.
We just call them dreams.”



About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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