“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.”
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.