Story 101: Why Do We Tell Stories?

On top of acting, animation and drawing skills, an animator has to develop an understanding of storytelling. If you approach this fascinating and complex topic, you shouldn’t forget to think about the most basic question: Why do we tell stories? Taking a look at the roots of storytelling in history and in human nature is essential. It reaches deep into how the human mind, our life and our society works.

It is in our blood…

Cave art proves that humans started telling stories as soon as the brain was able to. We developed abilities to communicate – more differentiated than any other animal. Gestures and simple phonemes came first, and formed the foundation for complex languages. It took an amazingly long time to develop, over ages and ages (which children are able to accomplish in super high-speed as they learn how to speak), but eventually it gave human kind its most incredible superpower: A tool of extensive communication!

First of all, communication is quite useful for making surviving easier. A fellow caveman could tell your caveman ancestor exactly where those deadly saber-toothed tigers lived. He could then stay away from them and lead a happy, long life. Detailed communication is perfect to spread knowledge, advice, rules, and ideas. It made us able to advance in ways that weren’t possible before.

But humans are no robots that try to be as accurate as possible. We are always tempted to add some juicy extras to the facts. The fellow caveman might already have exaggerated his encounter with the tigers by describing a heroic fight, although truthfully he only observed the predator from a safe hiding place.

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Why did he lie? To make himself look better and make the whole thing more interesting. There’s another benefit, though: It makes the information more memorable! If we can make a better story out of something, we prefer (often unconsciously) to go for that – the real version can often be much more boring and difficult to listen to, or to keep in mind. Fictional storytelling is never true in a factual sense, but it is always built around influences of reality and our human nature.

We can’t help it. We love story patterns. We even see them when there is nothing there. In a particular study, people had to say what happened in a short film that showed geometrical shapes randomly moving across the screen. A clear majority of the participants came up with an interpretation and tried to think of what the shapes symbolized. Only a very few people described what it really was: Just a bunch of randomly moving shapes.

Oh, the wonderful and foolish human mind! The ship got caught in a bad storm? People can swear there was a sea monster. Stuffed animals are alive to kids and they go on adventures with them. That guy on the shopping channel tells us about people who lost so much weight with this miraculous new pill. It’s the story that we look for and that captures our attention.

Feeding the Extelligence

Storytelling is a very human attribute, an instinct, a need. It has always been there and always will be, as long as humans exist. Over the ages we perfected the strategies of storytelling: We discovered guidelines and rules that make appealing and interesting stories. We developed a variety of media forms (books, theater plays, films, games) – but the main reason why we tell stories hasn’t changed much: We want to get a point across in an appealing, memorable form.

Storytelling is an exchange. There is a storyteller on one side and a listener on the other. The story contains the experiences, opinions, knowledge and moral values of the storyteller wrapped up into a nice, (more or less) imaginative package. This is vital for our species. Instead of bringing new abilities to the next generation by long evolutionary processes, we keep our species up to date by providing information through language – and the story form makes it fun for us.

I like the term “Extelligence” that was coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (they wrote great books together with Terry Pratchett). Opposed to an individual’s intelligence, it refers to the pool of knowledge and experiences stored outside of us in our culture, society and, of course, in books, films, plays and so on. A storyteller contributes to that pool with a tale which includes everything that has influenced him previously; his ideas then get reflected by his listeners and maybe become part of the extelligence forever, inspiring other future listeners and storytellers. A child develops what it takes to deal with stories (and other more dry forms of information) and can form his personal intelligence by learning from the extelligence. Through tales we can prepare ourselves for the ups and downs, the good and evil of our existence without being in any real danger. Isn’t that amazing? Through stories we can live somebody else’s experiences and go on fantastic adventures that might be otherwise impossible to have in our own world. Most importantly, we pick up thoughts of all kinds that other people started thinking about long before us, and we are able to remember and continue them.

Be aware of your power

So what does this mean for you? First of all: Professional storytellers, please be aware of your responsibility! Your stories contribute to our cultural pool – the internet made it easier than ever to share your ideas with millions. You might want to just entertain people, but you can’t get around showing human interaction and you provide a potential influence that can change something in your viewers’, readers’ or listeners’ minds.

As a storyteller, an animator, an actor, we have a privileged view of our fellow men. We observe human behavior, gestures, reactions, social structures and (e)motions on a meta-level. We take a close look at how and why those things happen. We have to analyze and understand them – almost like a psychologist – to create convincing characters, dialogues and movements. That is something normal people don’t do! But we need this knowledge to make our stories authentic. Stories are something artificial but they capture the essence of life, human feelings and problems, that we as storytellers have to explore each and every day. Luckily, we are humans ourselves surrounded by other humans so there are more than enough opportunities to study for authenticity and inspiration. 

The brilliant acting teacher Ed Hooks refers to actors and storytellers as the shamans of our time. With your ideas, your observations, and your fantastic art you do impressive and entertaining magic. But most importantly you do it to tell your tribe what it needs to know – about life, society, feelings, problems, hopes, dreams and fears. That’s what it is all about. It is not about squeezing money out of the tribe. Use your stories to hold up a mirror, to make a point, to enlighten, to help and to inspire! Fill the extelligence with something of value!

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Annie L.

I’ve been following the website since you started it and I have to say I think this is my favorite article yet! Story is so super important in life in general. Also the picture of smokey the bear made me laugh. XD

J.K. Riki

I don’t know about ALL kudos. To be honest it was your enthusiasm, Ferdinand, that really made me feel like this was something we could accomplish! Let’s just share the kudos and be happy. 🙂


Absolutely fantastic article. Will there be more, like Story 102?


great stuff to keep in mind, THANKS!

Yamir H.

Will there be a Story 102? I’d love to see this continue more.

Ashley Britts

I tell stories to help me get to sleep at night, lol. 😉


As we say in England – spiffing! Thank you for a great article on story!


Glad that I went sorting through old articles, this is a great one. More people should read it! XD


Very cool breakdown, thanks!


I was going through old articles of yours and this is a good one. Thanks.

purple kim

Love this post! Really cool to see the details of the why of story.


This is a really nice primer on story telling. 🙂