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.