“…I’ve had nothing to do but think these last few weeks – about our bloody history, about the mistakes we’ve made. What unites people? Armies, gold, flags, stories? There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. …”
Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, writer
Stories are currently enjoying a bright public spotlight. Jobseekers have them ready for telling on elevators and authors write best-selling books about them. Insurance commercials rely on humor as they show the adventures of characters like Flo, Jamie, Doug, Limu Emu and Zoltar. A magazine article tells about The Moth, where people tell their personal stories to live audiences, and StoryCorps, an organization that travels the countryside recording stories.
In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, professor Lee Gutkind shows readers how to apply storytelling techniques to nonfiction. A college uses storytelling to ensure that their publicity “not only informs, but also engages and inspires…”
In my world, storytelling hasn’t always had a good reputation.
Stories and lies
As a free-range child in Louisiana, I would likely have been suspected of storytelling—and punished accordingly—if I came home later and dirtier than expected with an explanation that didn’t hold water. If I did that a lot, people might have said I told stories all the time, which would be a nice way of calling me a chronic liar.
While some stories are untrue, some of the best true stories contain little lies or at least embellishments on the truth.
I had a FEMA pal who said he preferred working to hanging around “swapping lies” with other septuagenarians. He didn’t seem to mind the stories—he had plenty of his own—or their embellishments as much as spending time with contemporaries who acted like their lives were visible only through a rear-view mirror.
My mother sometimes said of people that they “wouldn’t let the truth interfere with a good story.” I don’t remember what raconteur she had in mind, but the expression stuck with me.
Momo Bertrand, a student at the University of San Diego, has a compelling personal story, having come from Cameroon, where he and his siblings were reared by their single mother.
“’Around the dinner table, my mom would tell me all these stories,’” he told an interviewer for a campus magazine. “’I know some of them were not true,’” providing as an example the “’one about her great-grandfather, and how she saw him actually transform himself into a black panther.’”
Elements of Stories
While stories may or may not contain lies and embellishments, analysts have different ideas about what the essential elements are.
In Think Like A Freak, economists Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner include scale, perspective, data and the passage of time. They write:
A story, meanwhile, fills out the picture. It uses data, statistical or otherwise, to portray a sense of magnitude; without data, we have no idea how a story fits into the larger scheme of things. A good story also includes the passage of time, to show the degree of constancy or change; without a time frame, we can’t judge whether we’re looking at something truly noteworthy or just an anomalous blip. And a story lays out a daisy chain of events, to show the causes that lead up to a particular situation and the consequences that result from it.”
I attended a meeting in fall 2019, where organizers led attendees through the process of telling their own stories. The idea was to deliver a short, compelling commentary at a public meeting. The elements the organizers listed were a challenge, a choice and the outcome. The challenge is “a critical question that drives the story,” the choice is a “decision made by a main character,” and the outcome “rounds out the story with the results of that decision.”
An online source lists five components: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. A magazine article emphasizes the importance of details, suggesting these could make people fall in love with a story.
The Power of Story
Levitt and Dubner call story “the strongest form of persuasion, even stronger than argument,” adding “if you really want to persuade someone who doesn’t wish to be persuaded, you should tell him a story.”
Similarly, the student Momo Bertrand said his mother “had all these myths. It sort of shaped my belief system. I feel like there’s nothing as powerful as a story.”
In Stories That Stick, professional storyteller Kendra Hall encourages the use of four categories of stories in business. These are listed as follows on Amazon, a global purveyor of stories:
- The Value Story, to convince customers they need what you provide
- The Founder Story, to persuade investors and customers that your organization is worthy of their investment
- The Purpose Story, to align and inspire employees and internal customers
- The Customer Story, to allow those who use your product or service to tell how it contributed to their lives
Even physically, stories can be powerful. They lead to connection and catharsis and, according to some, this results in better health and wellbeing. Business neuroscientist Lynda Shaw writes, “when we hear a story the sensory cortex in the brain is activated, we feel a connection with the narrator, we feel empathy as if we are in the story. Our emotional engagement and imagination are drawing us in and securing the information into our memories.”
While I can’t recall a time when storytelling was as prominent as it is now in public forums, stories have been around as long as there were humans to tell and hear them.
Historian Wilfred M. McClay writes, “The impulse to write history and organize our world around stories is intrinsic to us as human beings. We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events. What we call ‘history’ and ‘literature’ are merely the refinement and intensification of that basic human impulse, that need.”
Sometimes, a believable story told well could even keep an errant free-range child from being sent to bed without dinner.
Like just about everybody, I love stories. If you’d like me to help you in writing yours, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The editor for this post was Louisiana engineer-turned-writer David Grouchy, who authors technical and humorous articles for trade and general publications.