The Power of Story

Writing is such a strange profession. When I’m not sitting with my laptop making up worlds that do not exist and having conversations between figments of my imagination, I’m lost in silly daydreams and having bizarre flights of fancy. Too much of this could get you committed to an institution, but slap some cover art on it and offer it up for sale, and you’re an author!

There are times that I feel guilty for what I do for a living. It’s party because I love it so much that it doesn’t feel like work. In fact, what began as a hobby was never meant to support me. I’d gladly do this for nothing — which is how it all got started.

The other part of the guilt comes when I forget how necessary story is in our lives. I often compare my profession with someone cooking and delivering a hot meal, or shelving groceries, or building a house, and it feels like what I do isn’t that important. But then I consume the right kind of story elsewhere, the core of me shifts in response, and I remember why I got into writing in the first place. Stories are powerful. They might be the most powerful thing humans have ever invented.

That’s a bold claim, I know. But so much of what we build comes from the stories we tell. Look at how powerful world religions have been throughout human history, and they are little more than story. All their power comes from the written and spoken word. Look at the impact that sports and contests have played, and they are at their heart little more than stories of triumph and conquest. Wars are waged because of the stories we tell about ourselves and others. Countries are created and borders drawn because of stories we accept. And few things move by the fickle of story like markets and economies.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal is a fantastic history of our chattering, gossiping selves. A must-read, in my opinion. The book details how central story is to our very being, so much so that even when we sleep we continue to create little fictions. I believe that story lies at the heart of human consciousness, that it’s the running account of what we are seeing and experiencing that gives us a sense of self at all.

Story + Language = Us.

I fiction, therefore I am.

My screenwriting partner Matt Mikalatos has a brilliant analogy for the power of story, an analogy that I will now mangle in the retelling. When we bombard people with facts, what we often find is a natural resistance to being swayed. We build walls around our current knowledge and understanding, and shifting those walls is rarely done willingly.

Stories are a Trojan Horse for the human heart. Rather than repel them, we gladly bring them inside where they change us from within. The best stories then are the ones that contain truths we would reject in any other form. They are the subversive stories. The ones that feign to entertain while shifting our cores.

For the past few months, Matt and I have been dreaming up a new world from scratch. And as we create characters and predicaments, the chatter between us continually touches upon the message we hope to convey. What truths will scurry inside when readers and viewers accept this Trojan Horse of ours into their imaginations?

It works both ways, realizing how powerful story can be for shaping our thoughts. As writers, we can unlock powerful tools for generating stories when we understand the themes we are trying to explore. The central problem of writing is knowing what not to write. The choices and possibilities are endless! Themes and kernels of truth narrow our focus and winnow those possibilities, creating not just a stronger story but usually a more entertaining one as well.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever stumbled upon came from a book called The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler. The book is meant for screenplay writers, but it applies equally well to novelists. One of Vogler’s contentions is that every good story can be described with a single word. That’s right, just one word to sum up your entire work. Finding this solitary word can be difficult, but once you do, it unlocks so much power in shaping the details of your world and its inhabitants. It gives every facet of your work focus.

A challenge I offer here to take the power of story seriously in your own life. Look more broadly for the stories you allow in, and be discerning with the stories you tell. Because it’s a power we all wield. We tell stories with our social media, with the tidbits of world events that we share with our friends and family, and with the gossip we choose to share and the moments we grace with silence.

All of us are constantly playing a part, inviting others within our walls while invading our neighbors in return. Pay attention to this and you’ll see it everywhere. Study it, and you’ll find you can often condense each story down to a single theme or solitary world. Practice all this, and it’ll make you a better participant in the exchange of story happening at all times all around us.

It’s the most powerful tool we’ve ever invented. We might as well learn how to use it.

7 responses to “The Power of Story”

  1. The natural companion to this is the contention in the book: “Sapiens,” by Yuval Noah Hariri, that the main thing that has shaped human behavior throughout history is our ability to believe something that isn’t “true” in the empirical sense. In other words, it’s been demonstrated that 150 is about the maximum number of people any individual can really “know,” and therefore the size limit of the number of people who can be persuaded to cooperate to achieve a goal. Beyond this number, cohesion is nearly impossible to achieve. Unless…they share a common belief. Like, say, the resurrection. Then vast numbers of people can be persuaded to coordinate their efforts, and entire societies–even civilizations–can arise. And what is the basis of most myths, legends, and religions, but an amazing story?

  2. This is beautiful! Thank you!

  3. This really has me thinking. Especially with regard to what we say by what we share—or don’t share—on social media.


  4. “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: Entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. ”

    -Stan Lee

  5. No hay nada más gratificante , que tú trabajo te haga feliz (independientemente el trabajo que realices) para mi leer, es soñar con los ojos abiertos. Creo que es algo mágico, gracias a ella podemos y informarnos, aprender y adquirimos conocimientos y mejora personal. Cómo beneficio de la lectura, aumentó de la curiosidad, conocimiento, estimulación, explotación de otros mundos, hacerte sentir, vibrar, entusiasmar, reír, llorar, etc, el poder de la lectura . El saber comunicar, y llegar a otras personas, no es fácil.

  6. Annette Martinak Avatar
    Annette Martinak

    Spot on Hugh! You cease to amaze me with the clarity of your writing. Please continue to tell your stories…they are amazing.

  7. “The young lady, Emmaline, would often find some small way to get the attention of Kohlar, the young man who was enamored of her, sometimes asking him to do incredible feats to prove his commitment to–”

    “Is this the tale of Emmaline and Kohlar where she sends him to defeat the Trolls of Umbarbridge, he gets caught, and she has to distract them with riddles until daylight? I’ve heard this one.” Rhiannon slouched and crossed her arms over her bosom.

    “No, Miss, this is a tale of their later Annos. I have a notion you’ve yet to hear this story, since most Weavers won’t tell it, because it leaves their audience with such a feeling of disappointment at the ending.”

    “Well, you’ve practically given it away, now haven’t you, Sir Gavin.” She grimaced and rolled her eyes, not believing he’d be so clumsy a storyteller.

    In the dim light, Gavin took note of her expression. Nevertheless, he pressed on. “Now, Miss, just because one can guess the nature of a tale doesn’t make it any less worth the telling. One might even find a treasure they’ve missed before, or see a glimmer of true things therein…”

    —excerpt from the novel Chasing the Dragon
    —used by permission from the author, Sam Westhoek
    (I know the guy.)


    Consider all the interactions you have with your friends. Aren’t the most memorable times when someone shares a life experience? Their recounting of the event, the people involved, the location, and all the details that matter doubtless made an impact because you could relate to it, and it may have been the knowledge gleaned ‘then’ that saved your bacon ‘now’.

    When a Writer pays attention to the world around them, especially the people and their actions, those are the most important observations. Those details creep into the stories told, adding spice, and often making palatable a subject perhaps not normally addressed in polite society. Stories are a catalyst to open up a dialog of ideas, and THAT can change the world!

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