Charles Chu recently reviewed Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Gottschall, a distinguished fellow in the English department at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, analyzes literature from the perspective of Darwinian evolution.
What E. O. Wilson did for sociology, and Deena Weisberg for psychology, Jonathan Gottshall has done for literature. The resulting insights are both fascinating and useful.
Gottshall notes that every human society tells and passes down stories, and not just histories of actual events. Since imaginative tales are universal, he argues, storytelling must be essential to survival. People everywhere must deal with problems, the key concept behind what some have called Gottshall’s Grand Unified Theory of literature:
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.
As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
But wait a minute! If fiction is an evolutionary adaptation, surely some cultures could find it advantageous to avoid wasting the tribe’s time on stories about things that never happened. Wouldn’t it be more practical to spend that time perfecting survival skills? Not so, says Gottshall:
“Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.”
The stories every human culture tells about itself are a vital part of that culture, and the most basic requirement for a successful culture is teaching the next generation how to survive. So the acid test “survive or die” is the core of not only Darwinian evolution, but of good storytelling. That’s why James Scott Bell advises writers that EVERY plot must be about death:
That’s what great fiction is about—how a character transforms when forced into conflict (I contend that to be great, the conflict must be life or death—death being physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual. This includes thrillers, romance, literary…any genre).
Conflict — critical conflict — is the heart of a good, rousing tale. It reveals character, opens our eyes to the world around us, and even manages to teach us a thing or two about ourselves.