I started to leave, then stopped. “Is it true? The story.” I made an inarticulate gesture. “The part you told today?”
”All stories are true,” Skarpi said. “But this one really happened, if that’s what you mean.” He took another slow drink, then smiled again, his bright eyes dancing, “More or less. You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way. Too much truth confuses the facts. Too much honesty makes you sound insincere.”Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
All stories are true. Which means storytelling is the act of telling truth. Stories are the foundation of who we are, as individuals and as cultures and societies. Stories have existed for as long as we have been able to tell them, and the role of storytellers has evolved with the diverse means through which we have learned to share truth. Stories define us, stories hold the power to bring us together or drive us apart. Stories hold history and they remind us of who we are and who we could be. Stories and storytelling have been a part of my life in so many ways, and now more than ever, I am reminded of their significance. I invite you into this journey, both to better understand and then engage with this beautiful aspect of being human.
What is Storytelling?
Storytelling is the act of creating and retelling stories or narratives, whether fictitious or factual. Stories can be shared for entertainment, education, cultural preservation, or preserving and conveying moral ideals or values. Stories allow us to share what is important or significant to ourselves or the larger group, whether it is history, lessons, ideals, mythology, or religion. Every culture has stories, they are universal. In fact, those stories are what made and continue to make them unique and special.
It is largely accepted that stories emerged only shortly after the appearance of spoken language. Stories began with oral traditions, such as songs, epic poems, and performances by skalds, bards, and other verbal storytellers. These storytellers served a unique role within communities, holding the histories, legends, traditions, and myths, and when they shared their tales, it brought people together. As time went on, stories began to transition to written histories and tales, evolving with the expanse of mediums and the access to materials and knowledge. The development and more readily accessible implements of parchment, paper, and ink, along with the wider access to education and learning to read and write all served to expand the scope of story and storytelling. Fast forward to the modern day, and we have nearly limitless means by which to create and share stories. Libraries and online archives give us access to books beyond our wildest imagination, while digital media gives us movies, tv series, and other online content. We even have the beginnings of access to augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) to put the recipient nearly literally within the stories they are consuming. So if stories are so tied to the human journey, what is it about them that draws us to them, what keeps them a cornerstone even as societies and technology change?
Why are We Drawn to Stories?
Before stories are a part of the human species, they are a part of the human individual. Stories are tied to our cognitive processes. They are how we remember and bring significance to the things that are important to us. There are chemical reactions in our brain when we hear a story that resonates, and oxytocin releases when a story touches us on a deeper level. There are biological reasons behind why we feel connected to certain stories, whether these stories connect to something within us, or fulfill a need or desire we feel is missing within our own story. Stories can motivate us to greater heights, or they can manipulate us. The intense emotional responses we can have to stories can serve to bring people together and rally behind a greater cause, or they can serve to push us apart and sow a deeper divide.
Stories help us feel in control. They give us the opportunity to find purpose and meaning, while at the same time help us make sense of the world around us. The earliest mythologies are examples of this, they formed to help explain the unexplainable. They gave meaning to the unknown, making it a little less terrifying. Stories also give us a sense of belonging. If we can believe we are a part of a story or narrative, whether putting ourselves in a story or by seeing the story around us, we can see how significant we might be, how beautiful our role in something greater might be. And if we can bring others into that, if we can share that sense of purpose with others, then we only fulfill the base need of ours for community. Storytelling is communal by necessity, and by entering into it with others, we only allow ourselves to grow.
For there to be stories, there also must be storytellers. The people who not only have stories to share, whether their own or those of others, but with the desire and the passion to tell them. Everyone has heard the difference between stories told by storytellers, and stories told by great storytellers. It is the intersection of a great story and storyteller that creates significance. Those are the stories that stay with us.
Storytellers are, at their core, searching for the truth. Their role is to show and share what is important. Stories are for sharing, they are the furthest thing from selfishness. As told by acclaimed Pixar director Pete Doctor (Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out), “What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.” Storytellers have to be intimately versed in skepticism, because they both need to understand and articulate the difference between the text and the subtext, what is said and what lies beneath. A storyteller looks for the real thoughts, and feels beneath the surface of life.
Diving deeper into their search for truth and necessary skepticism, a storyteller must understand that self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling. The empathy of the storyteller for every character within the story is what brings them to life, it’s what makes them real. By placing themselves within each of the characters of a story, whether it’s retelling or creating the tale, they understand them. More than allowing the characters to become real, the vulnerability of the storyteller creates an honest experience that allows a reader or listener to respond authentically to. Honesty allows the storyteller to convey something important or significant to them, their vulnerability inviting others in. When storytellers can guide their search for truth inward, when they share stories from a place of honesty, it is readily apparent. And if you have experienced it, you know how powerful it can be.
Why Stories Matter
Stories tell us the truth, even in fiction, especially in fiction. That’s what people need, what we respond to. We are drawn to stories that we put ourselves into, stories we can empathize with, or invite others to empathize with, the stories that mean something personally to those that engage with them. Those are the stories that matter, those that persist, and likely the ones that should endure. The stories that we continue to tell become the truth. Whether or not they are factual, it doesn’t always matter as they can still be true. The stories we tell ourselves become who we are, in the same way the stories that a culture tells share their values and what makes them who they are.
Neil Gaiman has a description regarding truth in storytelling, particularly fiction, that I find especially eloquent. He says that we use memorable lies to tell truths. We don’t remember details, we remember stories, and this is how humans are wired. An example he uses is the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the lessons it teaches us within the folktale. That story isn’t meant to tell us that wolves will eat our grandmother, wear her clothes in order to hide in her bed to deceive and eat us. It tells us that the wide world has dangers in it, that strangers don’t always have our best intentions in mind. More important than lessons, they teach us important truths for our lives.
Stories are good for us. Stories show us more than our world, they expose us to the good and the bad of the wide world that lies beyond our narrow scope. Through stories we meet people who did wonderful and selfless things, we can experience the greatness of people, of cultures or ideas. Stories also show us the worst in us, how great we can (or have) fallen. They can serve as a reminder of our darker nature, not to deny it, but to bring it into the light. Stories bring to light that which we never want to see, to be a warning so that we might seek to be better. Stories bring us escapism, though in the healthy ways that we need. The creativity that comes from stories allow us build, to imagine, to stretch ourselves to something better. If we can dream into the world of a story, why would we not seek to make this world better? If we find higher ideals and safety within stories, something better than our daily lives, should we not acknowledge that? Stories can provide us more, or sometimes less, than our daily lives. While this is not sustainable, the escapism within stories can open the window and usher in that breath of fresh air in a stale or stagnant room.
Stories are how we connect and relate to each other, they are the point where community and empathy intersect. It is the commonalities that we find, the threads that we can understand through our own experiences. If someone has experienced a journey similar to our own, we kind a kinship and a closeness in that. It is also the differences that we find in stories, those that excite or draw us in. Characters that have a different experience to our own, a perspective or perception that challenges us, or forces us to rethink how we see ourselves or the world around us.
Stories are for people. We are social creatures, and stories are meant to be shared. We have done this since the start of our history as a species. We have done this ourselves from a young age when we could hardly contain our excitement to tell a friend or family member the exciting events of our day. There is a special significance in stories, a power in the stories I hear and read. They move me, they make me feel, they inspire me. Those are the stories that make me want to share my own stories, to create my own significant experiences to share. As much as my own experience with stories has been meaningful, I never want to reach the point where I cannot experience the power of stories with others.