What are stories for?

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Why bother writing one? 

Some ponderings…


You and your friends walk out of the movie and one of you says, “Now, if that happened to me, I’d….!” Or  “I just don’t buy how that helicopter could come out of nowhere. Wasn’t that weird?” You all nod, agreeing that it didn’t make any sense at all. 

Experiencing a story, thinking about it, is kinda like a “rehearsal” isn’t it? I place myself in the hero’s situation, sometimes agreeing with his actions, others considering how I would handle it differently. In that way, the story acts as a rehearsal for the little dramas in my own life. 

Stories offer a safe place to consider what is fair or unfair, true or not true and how we would face the same challenge. 

As writer, my job is to make sure my hero faces a worthy challenge.


Buddhists believe an emotion must be fully experienced, processed, before it leaves us. 

And yet expressing emotions can get us into hot water. Too much and you’re weird. Too little and you’re cold. But when caught up in a story and the girl dies, somehow it’s okay to cry. When the dog comes home, it’s okay to cheer. 

As writer, my job then is to focus those emotional situations so the audience can feel them too.

Ask why

Stories give us clues as to what is acceptable and unacceptable in our culture. They push boundaries by asking, “why is this so?” or “why is that not so?” By exploring these questions and encouraging the audience to empathize with the point of view of the protagonist, stories introduce us to new ways of existing we could never imagine on our own.

As a writer, I’m bringing the audience into a new world. I need to create a clear, full world so the boundaries I’m exploring are honest and true.

metaphors, symbols, myths

The best stories have layers. They will use metaphors, symbols and myths, to allow the viewer to consider how aspects of the story interconnect with other parts of the human experience. Layering a work, distilling it to its essence, can’t happen in the first draft. It takes careful consideration and reflection. 

Develop empathy

In the tiniest of nutshells, all stories teach pretty much the same thing: Don’t be a self-centered, egotistical maniac and show some empathy, won’t ya?

How do they do that? Well, bad guys are usually self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic, greedy doinks. They are mean to the people around them. They don’t care.

The more sophisticated the story, the more the writer explores why the antagonist acts in evil ways. In literary fiction, even the antagonist is a protagonist, because we can understand why they do the things they do. We understand how the world damaged them. 

dealing with Change

At the end of every story the hero is changed. He is more mature. She has been to hell and back and is more powerful than ever. They have faced the antagonist and won or lost and the world is a different place now. 

As audience, by engaging in the story, we are changed too. 

Life is full of change and it’s the hardest thing to deal with. A birth, a death, a win or loss. Stories help us to learn how to manage those changes throughout life. Stories may not contain the answers, but good ones will ask the right questions.

Writing is power

Telling a story gives you the power to frame events and interpret them. Framing an event, whether real or fictional, is a kind of power. You decide what to emphasize and minimize, the importance of each detail, the opinions of the characters. You decide what it all means in the grand scheme of things. It is a power to be taken seriously.


The magical canvas of the imagination


I’ve heard some writers say that when they write, they use their words like a video camera. What they put on the page has to fit within the visual frame of a film screen or it doesn’t work.

Using this metaphor, they couldn’t merely write “Ted is angry,” because how can the camera show that? But if they said, “Ted’s cheeks became red and he bared his teeth like an angry dog,” that’d work.

I like to take this metaphor a little further and say:  The prose writer’s canvas is the imagination of the reader. 

Without a budget, and in just a few words, a writer can take the reader to the moon or Mars. We can plop them into a bubbling soup of molten lava at the heart of an erupting volcano, or put them up on a cloud couch in heaven looking down and sipping tea. And all while they’re reading on the bus to work!

What I like about this metaphor is how it nudges the writer towards creating an experience for the reader, rather than a lecture.

This metaphor is, in fact, a way to get yourself firmly rooted in your point of view, whether first, third or omniscient.

Now, I’m as guilty as any writer out there of falling in love with my own words. I think this happens when I’m writing from MY point of view.

But if I see the reader plopped inside the experience of the words, whether it’s first person, third or omniscient, I’m less likely to go all purple. It’s less about how brilliant I am, and more about the roller coaster ride I’m taking them on.

Another benefit of using this is it forces writers to show, not tell.

Here’s an example from a recent Guardian article by Joshua Williams on his anxiety. Notice how he takes you inside his anxiety attack:

“…there was no good reason to be covered in sweat. The train was steady; there was no good reason to be stumbling down the aisle, legs shaking. There was no need to feel faint. Or to be seeing through an ever-narrowing tunnel. Or to have a tingling in my arms. Or for my heart to be pounding through my rib cage. I wasn’t at all hungry; there was no good reason to be buying a ham and cheese sandwich. But I was, because I was having a panic attack and I didn’t know what else to do.”

In this paragraph, he shows us passage of time, transition from one place to another. We feel his sweat, see with his tunnel vision. We can feel the rock of the train, the trembles in his limbs. The desperate, confusion of his mind.

The canvas of the imagination is made of more than just 2 dimensions.

You don’t need special glasses, only words. 

Here, anything is possible.