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    How to Harness the Magic and Power of Stories

    power of stories - fairytale book

    “I don’t think you can write – at least not well – if you don’t love stories.”
    ~ Nora Roberts

    “To hell with facts! We need stories!”
    ~ Ken Kesey

    An Ancient Greek Parable on How to Captivate Your Audience

    Demades, the Ancient Greek orator, is about to address an assembly in Athens on a matter of vital importance. Though widely recognised as one of the greatest speakers of his time, he can’t get his audience to listen. They’re joking and laughing among themselves, ignoring Demades as he stands alone on the podium, babbling, struggling in vain to attract attention.

    He pauses briefly before starting to speak again. At the words he now speaks, the audience falls into an enchanted silence, focusing on every syllable coming from Demades lips.

    Demades’ words were these: “Ceres set off on her journey with a swallow and an eel as her companions.”

    Demades’ opening words – after his pause – contained a simple magic: the magic of storytelling.

    The Magic and Power of Story

    As a writer, it is not words, but stories, that are your elemental tool.  Stories are an enchanting magic that grip the reader to the page.

    Here is the power of storytelling: People make sense of the world through stories.

    Stories are fundamental to being human.  Without stories, life would appear as a meaningless jumble of facts and ideas.  Stories make facts, and great ideas, meaningful.  They connect with the everyday life and experience of their listeners or readers.

    The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
    ~ Muriel Rukeyser

    A Short History Lesson for Writers

    Take history, for example.  As a collection of dates – seemingly random numbers to a neutral observer – history has no meaning.  428, 1,564, 1,757, 1,812, 1,899, 1,947. These become meaningful, firstly, when you realise they’re smaller than 2,009 – so they could tie in with the story of Christianity and western history.  They become more meaningful when letters are attached to them: 428BC, 1947AD. They’re more meaningful still when words are added: 428AD, Plato born; 1564AD, Shakespeare christened; 1947AD, Stephen King born.  These letters and words add meaning to the numbers only because you know – or know of – the stories contained within them, hidden behind them: the lives and works of philosophers, playwrights and poets.

    If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
    ~ Rudyard Kipling

    Invoking Your Readers’ Imagination

    Stories hold truth more deeply than facts or statements.  As a mixture of images and ideas, stories cross the boundary between two types of truth. Storyteller Robert Bela Wilhelm calls these two truth types ‘day-time talk’ and ‘night-time talk’.  Day-time talk uses sentences to clearly explain ideas.  Night-time talk – the talk of dreams – gives your imagination free reign to use images and fantasy in whichever way it likes.  Story provides a way of writing that bridges these two types of truth – allowing the rational conscious mind to be co-present with the creative unconscious mind.  Stories satisfy the order required by left-brain thinking while provoking the imagination of right brain thinking.

    All well written stories are fairy stories.  A well written story enchants the reader – casting on him or her a spell that will leave them transformed in a way that simple, blunt facts never could.

    “People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.”
    Chinua Achebe

    Stories inspire lasting change for two reasons.  First, they are memorable.  A well told story is never forgotten; it lodges itself deep in the reader’s subconscious mind. Second, the reader has to find out the purpose of the story for themselves.  The reader is responsible for working out the truth of the story.  Instead of being told what to do, how to act, where to look, how to think, they must discover this by thinking the story through.  And in finding the meaning of the story for themselves, the change will stay with them.  New ways of life learnt through stories are never merely an idea that seemed nice to read, but a new truth that has become a deep and lasting part of the reader’s inner world.

    To conclude, a story.

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    Leave Your Readers Craving for More

    King Shahryar of Persia loves his newlywed wife more than all the world.  It is his greatest happiness to meet her every wish, and to treat her with the finest jewels – diamonds, rubies, and sapphires – and beautiful silk dresses.

    Shahryar’s Queen, however, is in love with another man.  For many years, the Queen and her lover have a secret affair.

    When King Shahryar finally discovers his Queen’s infidelity, he is furious.  Breaking down and losing his mind, he has the Queen executed.  As revenge on his former wife, he decrees that all women are unfaithful.

    He soon marries a new bride, but has her executed the next morning, before she has a chance to cheat on him.  He marries again, and again executes his new wife the next day.  He repeats this pattern until his chief advisor can find no more women for him to marry. The only single woman left in the whole kingdom is the advisor’s daughter, Scheherazade.  Reluctantly, the chief advisor agrees to let her marry the king.

    On their wedding night, Scheherazade tells the king a story.  At the climax of the story, she stops her storytelling, and refuses to continue.  The king is determined to discover the ending to the story.  He begs her to finish, but she will not tell the ending.

    The next day, the executioner knocks on the king’s door, as has become custom the day after each wedding. The king sends the executioner away.  Scheherazade’s execution can wait until tomorrow; he must first hear the end of her story.

    That night, Scheherazade finishes her story.  The king is satisfied, and will have her executed the following morning.  However, while he is plotting  Scheherazade’s demise, she begins another story.  Again, she stops telling the story at its climax, and refuses to continue.  Again, the king holds off her execution so he can hear the ending to her story.  And again, that evening, when she finishes the previous story, she starts another.

    For 1,001 nights Scheherazade captivates the king is this way, holding his curiosity each night with a new story.

    During these years of sharing stories, the King has fallen in love with Scheherazade.  He can no longer imagine having her executed.   Scheherazade, too, has fallen in love with the King.  Together, they live happily ever after, with a reign of justice and truth, always listening carefully to the stories of their subjects.

    Stories are like fairy gold, the more you give away, the more you have.
    ~ Anon.

    Photo by smcgee>

    About the author

      David Masters

      David Masters is a writer, storyteller, blogger, and amateur photographer. Follow fragments of his life on Twitter.

    • Natural says:

      fantastic story. i try to use the same principals when writing and even when i finish a story, i hope it was good enough to leave people wanting more and wait for the next story or post.

    • I love the way you used a well known story to truly define your point at the end of this post. 1001 Arabian Nights is one of the best examples of giving an audience exactly what they want, enthralling readers/listeners, and creating hooks and hangers.

      Of course, as a writer by trade I’m constantly in awe of the fact that Scheherazade’s very life depended on her not falling victim to writer’s block. If for a moment on any of those nights she had faltered and been unable to find inspiration or fumbled as she attempted to tell a tale she would have been killed.

      Thank goodness, the pressure to perform as a writer is no where near so great. A writer has a chance to build, develop, and craft their stories. We have time to make mistakes. A writer’s story is often in the editing. For that I’m very grateful. lol

    • Larry says:

      David — unfair… you’re a pro. And you nailed it. CONFLICT. If you had to pick one word, that would be it. Other words come out when I ask that question — mostly character, plot, meaning, a few off the wall things, and sooner or later somebody nails it.

      Amazing how distracted we can get with all the things that make conflict work in a story, without really taking the conflict to the limit.

      Thanks, David. Loved your article.

    • Thanks for the dose of inspiration re: stories David.

      Have you found research on the following…? I’d be interested in the exact findings.

      “Stories satisfy the order required by left-brain thinking while provoking the imagination of right brain thinking.”

      Thanks,
      Casey

    • Janice,
      I agree completely. Language, especially the language of fable, is vital to the storyteller’s craft.

      Caroline,
      It’s not every day I get to meet a Managing Director! How do you do? I read through your nuclear fusion story and you had me captivated.

      Nina,
      Thank you. I tried visiting your blog, but the link didn’t work.

      Larry,
      How about ‘conflict’? Conflict is central to human experience, and thus central to story.

    • Personally, it’s why I read, why I write. There’s truth in fiction, there’s wisdom in words, but there’s a sense of magic in the story. There’s so much more I could say, but your post says it all. Wonderful article!

    • Larry says:

      Great post. Story is the center of everything.

      Here’s an interesting little exercise I ask people to do the beginning of my workshops. Try to define “story” using only one word. There’s no perfect answer (though one word comes close), because no one word can adequately cover all the elements.

      What’s interesting is that when some of the words are offered and I say that’s not the word I”m looking for, people get anxious. Because the word they offered is almost always something wonderful and even necessary. It’s not wrong, it’s just not the “essence of story.” That said, the essence of story CAN be summed up in one word, and when that word isn’t the first thing that pops into your head, there’s a learning opportunity.

      Try it out. I’ll weigh in later with that “one word.”

    • I enjoyed reading this blog…if you’ve got some time, come and read ours: http://www.screwiow.com (under “sustain your writing life”

    • Caroline says:

      I so agree – stories are wonderful, important, memorable and not at all easy to tell. Great blog posting about a subject I personally have much to learn. Thank you!

      PS Agree – is it just my age or are these comments tiny, tiny, tiny?

    • janice says:

      Mary and Leo, Thank you for choosing this. (A respectful aside; please change the comment box font colour and size back to what it was. It’s now so small, I can barely see to read or write.)

      David,
      This was wonderful. Thank you. For me, it’s not just about the content or the narrative of the story. I like when people are brave enough to interweave the language of poetry and song through the threads of fact and fable, even when they’re telling simple tales of their own lives. The oral tradition is still strong throughout the world; fables and fairy tales, as you say, contain universal truths, and we can all learn from the mesmerising skills of the storytellers who can command our rapt attention.

    • Chania,
      I greatly enjoyed your Contemporary Folk Talk. Have you ever read ‘Tokyo Cancelled’ – it’s full of fairytale magic mixed in with the modern world.

      Jadefyre,
      I love that story too. I hope to read 1,001 nights sometime soon.

      Harrison,
      Thank you.

    • Good post. That was the best post about the importance of story tell I have ever read to be honest.

    • jadefyre says:

      This post was very informative! I especially loved the story at the end, as I played the character of Scheherezade in a play my drama class recently did.

      I will definitely keep these points in mind. Thank you!

    • This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. Thank you, David, for writing something both lovely and thought-provoking.

      I am a great lover of stories and prefer fiction to non-fiction any day. I love fairy tales and myths, especially, and the enchantment they can weave.

      This is something that I try integrate into my blog, as well, but perhaps could do more of. (Thank you for the gentle nudge). But I did write (and post) a piece recently that I was quite proud of, “The Traveler: A Contemporary Folk Tale.” It was thrilling to write, and I still enjoy going back and reading it.

      Thanks, again.

    • Chung,
      You’re right. Unless a book connects with our own experience, we’ll rarely remember any facts we read there.

      Susan,
      Part of the magic of great stories for me is that they can never fully be grasped, so they always have something more to teach us. I’m glad you enjoyed my article, thank you for your kind words.

      Ms. Present,
      You should have a campfire sometime. You’ll never forget. Great name, by the way.

      Dan,
      You don’t sound Wonk-ish, just sensible to me. Those are fascinating studies. I learnt these insights on stories from studying narrative theology for an academic degree.

      Oke,
      Our personal stories are some of the most powerful we have access to. Unless we can weave the stories we tell into our own experience, they won’t be told with integrity, and so will not connect to the experience of others. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      Summer,
      That book for me is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I read it in a couple of hours one afternoon at college, and have never been the same since.

      Chase,
      You’re welcome. And thank you for taking the time to read my post.

    • I really enjoyed this post. I truly believe in the power of story and it is nice to se how eloquently you were able to write about it.

      Thanks!

    • Summer says:

      This is a really fantastic post for writers, especially those who aspire to write novels or stories with meaning as well as entertainment value. Almost anyone who reads has at least one book or story that they will never forget, the inspired some lasting change in their thinking or way of life. What more could any writer hope for than to have written that story that inspired a reader to live better, love more, and reach higher.

    • Oke says:

      David,

      Thanks for the informative post. While writing blog post, I often try to tell stories of what is going on in my life and being able to relate to my readers. I like how throughout the blog entry and story, it kept me wanting more and more. Your approach to letting the reader stay focus is what is powerful in your writing.

      Thanks.

    • There’s more truth to this than the anecdotes tell.

      Bear with me, this will get a little wonkish.

      Certain sources (e.g. my lovely graduate student girlfriend who’s studying the mechanics of reading remediation) cite research showing that infants’ earliest grasp of syntax comes through oral narrative. That is, they don’t simply absorb vocabulary and syntax. They need the context of stories that people tell about their day.

      The same applies when we learn how to read apparently. Take an early reader off the shelf (something pre-Seuss level), and you’ll notice it’s comprised largely of single active-voice sentences.

      That’s why typical elementary school curriculums focus on teaching fiction from first to fourth grade, when students are learning how to read. After fourth grade, non-fiction is introduced and the focus turns from narrative forms to content analysis.

      I know, wonkish. But in certain conversations it’s been known to close the deal on a proposed case study assignment.

    • Great post on stories! I both love reading and writing stories so I really got a lot out of this post. You make some excellent points here and I love how you’ve tied in the campfire idea. While I’ve never actually been around a campfire (I’m more of a city girl, haha), the word sparks my imagination and makes me think of great storytellers of the past. Thanks for writing this post! It’s awesome!

    • This is a remarkable post on the power of stories and writing, in general. This one line sums it up best: “Here is the power of storytelling: People make sense of the world through stories.”

      Personally, it’s why I read, why I write. There’s truth in fiction, there’s wisdom in words, but there’s a sense of magic in the story. There’s so much more I could say, but your post says it all. Wonderful article!

    • Thank you David

      I think a lot of people fail to understand that we often read books not for the facts and the words, but the experience, understanding and information that we get from them.

      Great article on reminding people – it’s not the words. It’s the story and what we get from those words.


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