"What is the 'substance' of story? In all other arts the answer is self-evident. The composer has his instrument and the notes it sounds. The dancer calls her body her instrument. Sculptors chisel stone. Painters stir paint. All artists can lay hands on the raw material of their art--except the writer. For at the nucleus of the story is a 'substance,' like the energy swirling in an atom, that's never directly seen, heard, or touched, yet we know it and feel it. The stuff of story is alive but intangible."
Story does not have an instrument. It does not have color or texture. It has letters which represent words which represent objects which represent ideas . . . but those do not make story. Story is a medium of feeling, belief, and action. In other words, it addresses and accesses the emotional, spiritual, and physical elements of a person - that is to say all of him.
Stories have connected with humanity since the beginning, no matter the form. They assimilate and become a part of the way a person observers/reacts, hopes/fears, and does/does not. Stories change us because they become us.
How can that work? How can letters made to represent feelings, beliefs, or actions connect to our brains and create a startling, if not lasting, reaction? Our minds are not wired into books or screens. Why does this phenomenon work?
After all the letters are useless. We forget the exact words, special effects, etc., but we remember how it made us feel.
(Implicit memories, emotion, last much longer than explicit memories, facts, which degenerate over time). The images created lead to comparisons, a journey of introspection, that form identification.
Perhaps this is a reason we enjoy fiction. Fiction is safe. It's not alive. It wouldn't lie to us. Sure, the writer might have an agenda, but the characters are innocent - thrown into situations much like most of us. Furthermore, the story can only live inside one's imagination. Once it's in my imagination, it's mine. No one can touch it.
Once a story is within us, we reflect, ruminate, wonder, relive, and reconcile. Over time, the characters, their ideas, the demands of their lives influence ours. We draw parallels and use them as mirrors.
If something can affect so deeply, be recognized and invited in so freely, it must be made of the same substance. Thus it is my conclusion that the substance of story is us, humanity. And we are them - we are our stories - those that we've lived, those we've imagined, and those we taken on. Stories exist because humans do.
I have a dear professor, Dr. Brown, who is always saying there will never be a day where computers write stories, because it is the very flaws of humanity that makes a story rich and alive.