Do you want to make a difference in the world? Tell a story.
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most effective forms of communication, and we still crave it today. From the earliest days of language, people told stories around campfires. Why? For entertainment, yes, and to be social. But they also told tales to communicate knowledge—to educate, and to persuade. “I want you to understand that you should not go over that mountain ridge. Trust me, bad things will happen.” Such words are not always convincing standing alone. (You know this if you’ve ever tried to instruct a teenager about, well, anything.) But, “Let me tell you a story of the ancient Grandmother from our tribe who ventured over that mountain and met wolves bigger than mastodons; she was never heard from again,” is different. That gets people’s attention. They draw closer and listen. They won’t forget.
If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly a fiction writer, and you appreciate a good story. You probably can put words and sentences together well. You are a storyteller.
Congratulations. You have the tools to make a difference in the world. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a walk together.
Let’s start in 2016, with the election no one liked. Pretend you don’t know the outcome. Try to think back to late summer, early fall of that year. Can you think of what was missing from the presidential campaigns? (Remember, at this point, you know nothing about Russia.)
There was no Joe the Plumber in that election. There was no couple like Harry and Louise. Remember them? Joe the Plumber originated in the 2008 presidential election—a generic guy who wanted to buy a small plumbing business and who became a short-term conservative hero when he asked then-candidate Obama a question about small business taxes. Harry and Louise were purely fictional characters created in 1993, played by actors, to portray the average fortysomething couple considering various aspects of healthcare reform. They then appeared in television ads on and off through 2009.
Regardless of what you may have thought about these three characters, there’s no denying their effectiveness. The electorate paid attention. Candidates talked about policy and spit out attacks, but these characters offered personal stories to the electorate. They communicated, “Once upon a time I was a person just like you, this is what happened to me, here’s how candidate X would change that, and happily ever after.” (Sometimes it was “unhappily ever after.”) And people responded, “Yeah, I get that. Me, too.” The characters’ stories became short-hand for entire political positions, and for some, the candidates themselves.
Just as there’s a saying that all politics is local, a lesser-known axiom states that all politics is personal. People want to hear stories that reflect their own experiences, their own feelings, their own future possibilities. This shows empathy on the part of the candidate and lends his or her statements and promises credibility. But that element was missing in Election 2016. Hillary Clinton eventually brought out the story of Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, but it was too late by the time she did. And Donald Trump’s “story” of “forgotten people” (eerily reminiscent of the “forgotten men” in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here) wasn’t a story. It was a caricature. But in the absence of a more complete story, people fit their own details into the shell.
Fast forward to the 2020 campaign. Did you watch the first Democratic debates? Think about the moment that led to Kamala Harris’s dominance of the two-night event. She told a super-quick, emphatic tale of busing and then: “That little girl was me.” In other words, she said, This is my story. BOOM.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the Democratic field. (We’re staying here because at the time of this writing, there’s a lot to work with. You can count all your fingers and toes and still not arrive at the total number of candidates.) Pete Buttigieg, for example. I can listen to Pete Buttigieg stories all day long, and it seems there’s an endless well of them. The one that first grabbed my attention—and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this crowd of writers—was the one about him learning Norwegian so he could read all the books written by an author he liked who had only published one book in English. Wow. Tell me more. All of these stories have worked: six months ago, most of us had never heard Mayor Pete’s name, but we sure as heck know who he is now.
Then there’s Cory Booker. Have you heard him tell the story about Virginia Jones, one of his life mentors? She lived in his building in Newark—the same building in which her son was murdered. Go listen to him if you get the chance. You will feel you know something meaningful about Senator Booker after he tells this story. It’s revelatory and when he’s done telling it, you’ll feel like he’s given you a gift. Senator Booker is—and I mean this in the best of ways—a skilled storyteller.
“That’s very nice,” I can hear you saying. “But I’m not a presidential candidate. I’m a fiction writer. How does this help me?”
First, as a writer, you possess the skills to create effective narratives on paper. You can tell someone’s story, bear witness and record it. You can write letters, op-eds and social media posts. You can make yourself heard.
And you can do more. You are a creator of stories. Think about what you’re trying to communicate with each of them.
In other words, do you have a message? If so, what is it, and for whom is it intended? Perhaps you don’t have a message; you’re writing purely to entertain people. Fine; just know that as you write. But maybe you’re trying to write a thriller about scientists who hide climate change evidence, or literary fiction that touches on the impact of sexual abuse. Don’t smack people over the head with your message, because then you’re writing a long essay, not a novel. Remember that readers are thirsty for the people and action in your story, not a lecture. But knowing why you’re writing your book can offer you guidance when you’re stuck. That knowledge can help you create structure, and assist you in figuring out what elements of your story to keep and what to throw out. It, along with other elements like character and plot development, can help you determine what’s important.
Mohsin Hamid struck this balance beautifully when he wrote a love story set against the world’s growing migrant population in Exit West. I first learned about the existence and peril of the Great Pacific garbage patch when I read The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi. These are only two of literally countless examples of fiction addressing real issues without preaching.
I want readers to care about the characters and their story in my WIP. But I also want to believe that by telling my characters’ story, I can communicate a message that will be important to someone else in the world. If I get the story right, it will touch readers in a way that makes them think just a tiny bit differently about an aspect of their lives. In a best-case scenario, it will offer a perspective shift, a moment of empathy—a tiny bubble of something like, “the person who seemed to act badly is actually good. Wow, what might that mean in my life?”
Story is a more powerful medium than we sometimes give it credit for. No matter what you’re writing, your storytelling and writing skills give you power. We are living in a time where we can see the history being written all around us. The news can be so discouraging day after day after day, but storytelling can improve that. Storytelling can entertain, and even as it does, it can empathize. Storytelling can witness as it provides temporary escape. Storytelling can expose, even as it offers ideas that become the catalysts for other ideas. Storytelling can appeal. Storytelling can question and strengthen. Storytelling can build up. Storytelling can change minds. Storytelling can offer a light in the darkness.
Storytelling is a superpower. How will you use your superpower?
If anyone is interested in various writer-driven efforts to benefit and advocate for children and others being held in detention camps along the United States southern border, please let me know and I will get back to you with information.
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