What does fiction contribute to our lives? Really? Why do some of us dive into books or spend so much time thinking about the writing projects we’re working on? Why are some of us film addicts? What is it about stories that hooks us? One could say that different types of fiction do different things. And this is not inaccurate. We read and expect certain things from romance fiction, horror fiction, thriller fiction. But I believe that there’s something even more basic that goes beyond the specific expectations associated with genre. There is something quintessentially human about narrative. Stories, most of the time, give us something we are always searching for in our lives, something that we too rarely get.
We pass through a succession of days that collectively we call our lives and for the most part it doesn’t add up. That sounds really depressing and cynical but I don’t mean it in to be so. What I mean is that life is this ongoing process that is never really finished and most of the time runs like a stream. There may be unity and an underlying cohesion in that life is continuous, but that does not necessarily mean there is a point or closure or that we can make sense of all the random eddies and ripples that run through and over the current. We live because we are alive. Whatever meaning there is in our lives is what we make for ourselves. And this can often lead to confusion or, if we are unsure what to make of our lives, ennui and unhappiness. Furthermore, life itself is complicated and often doesn’t make sense. Between the random events of life and the unpredictable behavior of our fellow creatures, life twists and turns like a snake on an electric fence. But fiction takes life and transforms it which is why we still love it, and I’d say, need it.
When you read a story, you expect it, unless it’s modernist or experimental, to conform to a schema that has been in use for centuries. What I’m talking about is the three act formula. It’s possible to write a story in five acts or we can further break the three act structure into exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution,respectively. However what most of us are familiar with is the beginning, middle, and ending structure. And it works. In fact it works so well that if you ask a person on the street the three parts of a story they’d tell you in a second. It’s common sense. But of course, in life, common sense may not be so common and things are never so clear cut. This well defined scafold is one of the important things that we wish we had and that fiction can give us.
In fiction we get the introduction of a problem, the confrontation of the problem and working towards a solution, and the resolution. This can also be called the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Whatever you call it, we know it’s coming. The villain will be thwarted, the dreams made real, the treasure found. We expect these things because in the world of fiction there are certain rules. Of course sometimes the protagonist doesn’t get what s/he wants or what s/he wants is destructive but we know there will be a resolution. We, the readers, will get closure. Too often in life there is no neat finale. Goodbyes are left unsaid and wrongs remain unrighted or are still perpetuated. But in fiction we get what we want and need. This might not seem particularly realistic sometimes but fiction is more than reality can be. It provides order to a chaotic existence. It extrapolates from life in order to create something with the semblance of reality but arranged neatly in a way that actually makes sense and leads somewhere. While life meander, fiction hones in on its target like a missile. The reader benefits from this as one might expect. In the midst of a seemingly out of control world, fiction provides an ordered existence in which the reader knows that by the end the problem will be solved. Along the way, not just the characters’ problems will be fixed but maybe ours as well.
Fiction, even the most outlandish, takes life as it’s starting point and condenses its complexities into something comprehensible and something meaningful. Fiction and fictionalization imparts meaning. When we write, even if we don’t mean to, we give the events subtext. The story is transpiring on one level but we also engage with the reader to tell them something or suggest something about the world as we see it. In this way, fiction can help to understand the world. Even if it doesn’t answer any questions it may lead the reader to regard the world in a different way and ask questions s/he may not have thought of asking. I’d go as far to say that a good piece of fiction can be a psychedelic in the sense that it can alter perceptions and expand the boundaries of one’s mind. Fiction can make us consider how we live and relate to the world. This is a vitally important function since it has the potential make us better people or help us see the world in new ways.
Usually we think of stories as just things to entertain us or occupy our minds when we have free time. But there is a reason we turn to fiction instead of some other pursuit. Fiction helps us look at life anew and also steps in when reality proves to be too chaotic. This is why narrative fiction has existed throughout our history, across nearly all cultures, and all time periods. It is part of what makes us human.