Today I was browsing the internet when a friend of mine posted a link to this article all about the way that storytelling enhances our understanding of a subject.
Having now read the article and thought about it a while, I felt like it was the perfect stepping stone for a post in this blog. After all, this whole thing is supposed to be one large examination of stories on every level, so why not go back to the basics? Not just what makes a good story, but why stories are good.
I did think the article did a great job of summing up the science of it (and I’m not going to sum it up here), but one quote in particular stuck out to me:
What’s interesting about this is that you are very likely to never forget the story of who invented the sandwich ever again. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented to us in bullet points or other purely information-based form.
The reason it stands out? Because it’s true. I will probably never forget the story of the invention of the sandwich. Sure, I won’t remember the inventor’s name, and I won’t remember the time period or the meat involved, but I sure will remember an image of a man playing cards with one hand and eating the first sandwich with the other. While the article looks at the science aspect of this, I’d venture that from a writing point, this isn’t so much about aiming for certain areas of the brain as it is about making a story memorable. Because at the heart of every writer’s story, isn’t there at least some tiny aspiration to be remembered?
When I was younger I remember reading a quote that said being a writer was one of the most pretentious professions a person could aspire to have because it meant they thought that they had something to say that was worth another person’s time to read. Although I can’t find that quote now (if anyone does find it, please link me to it! I’d like to give credit), I still remember it after all these years. Because while it is true some people write only for themselves, I would say that the majority of people write (or in a more general sense, tell stories) to really say something. They tell a story to make a point, or to pass on a meaning, or to create an emotion. Stories are tools used for a greater purpose, to try and convince the audience that the storyteller has a point worth making.
The thing about a good story is that it can really make a point stick. In my time I have read, watched, and listened to countless stories in every type of medium. Obviously I could not possibly recall them all if I tried. Yet if I’m talking to someone and they mention, say, that they drink a lot of coffee, stories that I’ve encountered immediately come to mind. I might mention that my favorite TV show, Gilmore Girls, has main protagonists who drink a ridiculous amount of coffee, and recount the first time we see the mother, Lorelai, beg her friend Luke for an extra cup of coffee. Or I might mention the time my theater director got me a coffee shop gift card as a thank you for being stage manager, not realizing that I didn’t drink coffee.
The reason for this? Because certain words and phrases bring up memories, and memories, at their core, are just stories that have been stored in our mind as important.
I’ve always done better in school with subjects like English and history class because at their core, they are stories. They tell fictional stories, or show history as stories, or paint a picture of life in easy to remember snippets of the past. Perhaps that’s why the only science class I ever really enjoyed was physics because every problem I solved was a story. The more memorable the word problem, the more eager I was to solve it. And it wasn’t just me who realized that; my physics teacher tended to use word problems like “If Tarzan drops Jane accidentally while 50 feet above the ground, moving right to left on a vine at 38 mph, how long would it take Jane to hit the ground?” to get our attention.
I still remember things from high school that were stories– my own experiences, stories from class, and random facts, but I can honestly say that every one of them is a story. And if it wasn’t a story to begin with, I turned it into one. At work if I can’t remember where a certain file is, it only takes one frustrating experience looking for it before it becomes a story. Then, the next time I’m looking I can go “oh yeah, I remember that one time that I took forever, and it turned out to be ___.” And the reason I can find it the second time? Because at that point, it’s a personal experience– a story.
But what does this mean for a storyteller?
Well, it means that we’re pretty pretentious for one. But let’s be honest, that can’t really be news. By definition a storyteller is trying to get another person to listen to them. Even if we’re only demanding attention for a moment, it’s a moment that we stole from a person’s ever-limited time alive.
The neat thing about stories, though, is that while the storyteller might only steal a moment, that moment can last a lifetime. If a storyteller chooses their words wisely and really nails home some sort of point in whatever means they choose, if they really cause the audience to think, then that story never goes away. There are stories still in todays society that are hundreds of years old. Stories that are passed down as “classics” because they have something to teach, or because they’re supposed to be “better” than other stories. Those stories resonated with the right audience at the right time and now they have the possibility of living forever.
The stories that I analyze in this blog are all moments that I will relive for the rest of my life. They are all part of me now. They all influence my writing, they influence what I read and what I study. They influence my life. And what those stories and this article have really made me realize is that my goal in life isn’t to write a story that lives forever.
I just want to write a story that lasts longer than the moment it takes to tell.