David Farland on the true impact stories make on ourselves, each other and society.
David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—What Stories Can Do
Few people would argue that stories are unimportant to us. Humans are wired to communicate perhaps more than any other animal on earth. (Whales and dolphins seem to need to talk almost as much as we do.)
If we aren’t talking, we are listening. Not only is our personal survival tied to gaining information from others, our emotional health is tied to it, too. Tests have shown that children raised in total isolation die from failure to thrive.
Indeed, societies are created and blossom based upon the input of thousands of individuals, and if you look at any civilization, you’ll find that its intellectual roots go back thousands of years—often to popular storytellers. Thus, Homer and Shakespeare both had a strong hand in building western civilization.
What does that have to do with you as a storyteller? Everything. One might say that storytelling is intimately tied to the way that we learn, as I will discuss in depth later in this book.
One might equally argue that the only reason that stories work is that they play upon the biological roots of how we learn. Understanding how these two are tied together will help you become a better storyteller.
But what is the right use of stories? That’s a question that has bothered me for thirty years. You see, stories can do a number of things.
Entertain. On the simplest level, stories can merely entertain us by arousing powerful and pleasing emotions. That might seem like a frivolous use of a story, yet many of our bestselling movies and books do nothing more. Remember the movie Alien? It was a masterpiece of horror. Yet when you’re finished with it, other than an epic scare, what did you get from it? Nothing of value. The big lesson from it might be summed up as “Don’t mess with my family!”
There are those who would tell you that such stories are a waste of time. I’m going to argue very strongly that simply entertaining people can be a worthy endeavor, a profoundly moral deed, because it enables your audience to engage in emotional exercises that people need in order to remain emotionally healthy.
Readers have often written to tell me how valuable this simple act of entertaining is. One reader with a painful medical condition is in so much pain that he is forced to stay on a morphine pump. He said that the only time that he was able to turn it off in the past eight years was while reading The Runelords. The book transported him so fully, he forgot the pain. Another woman dying of cancer begged that her son read On My Way to Paradise to her. She died before he could reach the end, and so he finished reading it to her at her graveside. Another young boy read my Star Wars novel The Rising Force over and over again after his mother died. He said that he realized that the only time he was happy was when he was reading that book.
Don’t undervalue the worth of good entertainment.
Educate. In addition to entertaining an audience, a story can educate. It can transmit valuable information that benefits the audience member. I’ve known readers who have said that they’ve learned valuable life lessons on how to cope with spousal abuse from novels, or how to handle business affairs, or how to act honorably in war.
I mentioned before that stories are tied to learning. Recent studies indicate that in the absence of powerful emotions, information that is received will not be remembered for long. In short, in order to transport memory from the short term to the long term, powerful emotions are needed as a catalyst. A number of emotions can work—fear, love, longing. But the important thing to remember is that those emotions must be aroused before the information can be permanently transferred.
In the past 140 years, there has been a lot of backlash against the use of stories as learning tools. A lot of people are afraid that stories will be used for propaganda purposes, and it’s a rational fear. Stories can be used to transfer information that is helpful, but they’re also used to relay misinformation, and this happens on so many levels that in some ways, we’re always engaged in “story wars.”
For example, if you write a story about a thirteen-year-old boy who has sex with the beautiful woman next door, and feels alive for the very first time, it might seem like a beautiful and powerful story to you. Indeed, it might inspire boys everywhere to try to seduce the neighbors.
Others might look at your story and conclude that the neighbor woman is engaged in child abuse. Or maybe they’ll feel inspired to write a story about a thirteen-year-old boy who waits until marriage to give up his virginity, and is eternally grateful that he did.
Just about any story that you write will have its detractors. That’s because a good novel or movie might bring up dozens of conflicts, but as a writer you don’t have time to adequately deal with every side of each of them. Even if you do deal with them adequately, ignorant people will insist on misunderstanding the story anyway.
That doesn’t mean that we should “quit educating” in our stories. There is a strong and vocal group of critics who decry moralizing in stories. However, those who decry your stories the loudest are perfectly happy to push their own agendas.
So don’t denigrate stories that try to impart valuable information. Sure, some of those stories are clumsy and inelegant, but a well-crafted story can do more than entertain, it can change a reader’s life.
Binding People Together
Every society is constantly evolving, changing as different voices are added to it.
In any given year, some 1600 movies will be distributed nationally in the U.S. Tens of thousands of novel titles will be released. Thousands of television shows will air for the first time. Add to that the influence of hundreds of thousands of musicians, millions of YouTube videos, millions of Facebook advertisers, hundreds of thousands of newspaper and magazine columnists, and so on, and you begin to realize that a vast argument is going on, with literally billions of speakers around the world voicing new thoughts. Because of this, national opinions shift like the tides.
The big argument last week was “Will Mitt Romney or Rick Perry get the Republican nomination?” Well, Perry is apparently out and old news this week, and two more “front-runners” seem to be vying for his place. It’s reasonable to believe that in a week, the big names out front this week might not even be in the race.
Some societies become ill and collapse as their inhabitants adopt destructive attitudes. Storytellers often recognize this, and even see the source. But sick societies can heal, too, in a matter of hours, as a storyteller spins a healthy new tale. So as storytellers, we’re always working.
Because of their ability to entertain and educate, and do so on a level that makes them virtual superstars, storytellers have always been feared by their competitors, which may include politicians, lawyers, and religious leaders. (If you don’t believe that politicians, lawyers, and priests are storytellers, too, look more closely at what they do.)
Puppeteers have been thrown in prison, right next to the cartoonists. In some regimes, being a novelist can get you shot just as quickly as if you try to assassinate the prime minister.
Yet at their highest level, stories can bind communities together. If millions of people read a novel, and feel that it is good and valuable and true, it can literally change the world. The “Tale of the 47 Ronin” riveted and transformed Japan.
In the same way, Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” transforms audiences year after year.
The missionaries that carried the tale of Jesus into Europe were storytellers, much as the monks were who carried news of Buddha into Asia.
Stories don’t have to change the world to be revolutionary. They can start quiet revolutions in the heart of any person who reads them. Some books, I’m sure, have helped only one or two people. But as one audience member recommends your book or movie to others, and the story spreads like a wildfire, it can touch millions of people in a matter of hours or days. A movie like Harry Potter can have, literally, billions of viewers.
The tales that we tell create communities. As our audience is guided through a fictive narrative, the audience feels that it literally “lives through” the story, the audience forcefully experiences the emotions of our protagonists, listening in on their thoughts, and adopts new attitudes.
This becomes a powerful force, cementing people together. Have you ever met someone and become friends simply because you both felt transformed by the same story? One of my closest friends in college grew on me as we discussed the works of Tokien in depth. For you, the story might have been something else. I’ve had several couples get married after one gave the other a copy of my novel Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia.
Don’t underestimate the power of tales to unite people. The converting influence of the tale, combined with its popularity, can be stunning.
Your Time is Almost Gone
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