will books become extinct

Why Story Survived Evolution

Will books become extinct?

In 2015, the publishing industry generated $27.78 billion in net revenue in the US alone.

That’s a lot of books, and I mean A LOT of books.

Which translates to a lot of readers willing to part with their hard earned income just to lose time they could be watching TV, washing the dishes or sleeping…And what for? The biggest reason most readers would say they read is for escapism, and that’s certainly how I would justify my over stocked Kindle shelves, but as a psychologist with a strong grounding in science I realised that isn’t enough. Evolution but doesn’t have the time or the energy to carry useless, frivolous, potentially dangerous traits through the generations. And if you think about it, getting lost in a story isn’t smart: from centuries ago, when keeping an eye out for sabre tooth tigers was pretty essential for survival, through to modern times, where keeping down a job keeps food in your fridge.

But story was with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories thousands of years ago, it’s stamped in the hieroglyphics of the pyramids and was carried in the beaded necklaces of the American Indians. Story now thrives in Marvel comics, Call of Duty games and generates billions of dollars in movies about blue-skinned, long-tailed Avatars.

I realised that story is EVERYWHERE

Think about it, everyone does story in one form or another. I devour books, my husband loves to watch TV, my son absorbs himself in games of breeding dragons or building pixelated forests. Gossiping is story, seeing a psychologist is all about telling your story, marketers know that a good story will invest you in their product. I realised that story is EVERYWHERE.

Which means escapism isn’t a good enough reason for story to be with us. Story has been so pervasive and universal that it’s survived the ruthless mill of evolution, that unrelenting process that screens out anything that doesn’t ensure our species will be here to produce future generations. If it’s not securing our survival, then its cut. Gone.


Why then? Why is story still around? Why is it woven so tightly into the layers of our life?

Essentially, story was, and continues to be, our first virtual reality. Just like it’s much safer for pilots to learn to fly in simulators, we get to learn the complicated lessons of life through the experience of others. In the same way pilots prefer to make their mistakes much closer to the ground, we get to see what could happen if our baby sitter didn’t turn out to be who we thought they were, how to take down a zombie, what a serial killer is capable of, how to navigate a dystopian world, how you would choose one child over another. In real life, mistakes can be devastating for pilots and us alike. With story, we get to do all of this and more, all without the deadly crash landing.

Evolution thought this was so important that it actually wired us for story. In fact, it thought it was so important, it deeply embedded it into our grey matter it in a deeply primal way – namely dopamine, the little molecule involved in pleasure and reward. Food, sex and cocaine all trigger the release dopamine in our brain. And so does devouring a good book.

In the case of reading, dopamine is your brain’s way of rewarding curiosity, so you can learn the hard-won lessons the character is enduring (in the safety of the library or your lounge room). Interestingly, the more dopamine is released, the more of a high we get, the more we want to keep doing what we’re doing. Most importantly, if the brain anticipates doing that activity (like reading) again, it will release dopamine accordingly. Think about it, we’ve all been there when our favourite author releases a new book. When that book finally rests in your palms, that happy, heady feeling is already weaving through your mind and body before you’ve even started reading (right there in the bookstore/lunchroom/toilet). It’s the brain’s way of encouraging you to go for it because it felt so good last time.

But as a writer I was fascinated.

When I learnt all this, as a reader I felt validated. I finally figured out why I turn up to work gritty eyed and wishing I drank coffee because ‘just one more chapter’ turned into ‘there’s only a hundred pages to go, I might as well finish it’. It’s not about poor self-control, an addictive personality or a belief I can function on three hours sleep. My brain is wired to want this! (Okay, fine…maybe self-control got skipped in my DNA…)

But as a writer I was fascinated.

I realised all this knowledge is the foundation of what readers are unconsciously looking for in a story. Why some books are ‘meh’ and why some will be OMG IT’S PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO PUT THIS DOWN! Readers want something from reading a book, its almost subconscious, and its deeply primal. They want something to be different from when it began. They want a question they didn’t know they had answered. They want to feel like they’ve learnt something – the strength of humanity, the power of one, the consequences of our choices. You still need an amazing cover, you still need to swallow them whole with your words and your wit, but you must give them a character they care about as they fight, fail but ultimately learn. If you’ve done that, you’ve got them. They’ll connect with your protagonist, your story…

Your book.

And if it’s really got them hooked, the ones on your backlist, and the ones yet to come.

What writer doesn’t want that?

What do you think? Does this resonate with you as a reader? And a writer? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Tamar Sloan
Tamar really struggled writing this bio because she hasn’t decided whether she’s primarily a psychologist who loves writing, or a writer with a lifelong fascination for psychology. Somehow she got lucky enough to do both. Tamar is the author of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Come and explore it at www.psychwriter.com.au. Tamar is also a passionate writer of young adult romance, with her first book, Prophecy Awakened, set to be released in April 2017 by Clean Reads Publishing. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com.