Everybody loves a good story. We like to connect with others by recognizing what is familiar and similar between us. We like to be shocked and awed by what is different and unique. We want to know the history of how people became who they are. We also love to live vicariously through them, enjoying the opportunity to step into the shoes of others, even if only momentarily. Women especially love stories; according to The Atlantic, we are the largest demographic of book buyers and read more regularly than men.
Scientists have long been fascinated by our natural predilection for stories. Our brains, studies show, are somehow wired to prefer information in story form. When we read our stories of choice, fiction or non-fiction, we like to connect with others by recognizing what is familiar and similar between us. We like to be shocked and awed by what is different and unique, to know the history of how people became who they are. A good book has the ability to break us open and to put us back together. There is no doubt about it: storytelling is a superpower.
When you share your story with your reader, you have the power to envelop them with your experience. Princeton researchers found that the brain activity of the storyteller can synchronize with the brain activity of the listener when a story is shared. So if I am relaying a story that activates my frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for reason, discernment and other higher thinking functions), that area will light up for my listeners as well. The same is true for the emotional regions of the brain. Thus when we tell a story that has an emotional punch, we have the power in the telling to impact others in the same way, at the same time. We know this from our own experiences.
I recently read There Was a Fire Here by Risa Nye. Nye tells the story of how she lost her Oakland Hills, California, home to a wild fire. There were so many memorable moments in this story where I was immersed in the experience–when she and her husband must decide whether or not to evacuate their family home (when is the right time to abandon all that you have in an effort to keep your family safe?); the surreal moment when she takes the ride in the police-escort car to see her home post-fire and looks out of the car window at her devastated neighborhood (how do you wrap your mind around the sight of sky where your two-story house used to stand?); and when she has to tell her child that she forgot to take his most precious cat blanket when she left the house for the last time (how in the world do you decide what of your belongings you take with you in those too brief minutes when you must choose?). When she tells the story of her husband finally breaking into tears from the loss and the stress, I felt weepy, too.
After three of her artifact stories, each story focusing one artifact (an item that she once treasured, but lost in the fire), I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to stop reading, call my insurance company and check the details of my own home renter’s insurance.
“We have fire coverage, don’t we?” I asked my broker. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered after checking our policy, bewildered by my random call. I felt this story in my heart and in my soul. And this is what good storytelling can do. Transport you. Pierce your skin. Change you. This is why storytelling is the best way to connect with and influence others across all purposes. In the industries of our world, stories reign supreme. In the best films, the story is more important than the stars and the fanfare. In business, the story is the core of all marketing.
In every religious discipline, we are called to tell others—fellow worshipers and potential believers—about those transformational moments—an awakening, a conversion, a fall from grace, or a deliverance—because those testimonies instruct others about when and how the divine shows up in our lives.
And so, knowing that humans are wired for stories and crave them like sugar, we women writers have the power to change the world by connecting to, inspiring, and transforming each other. We must be very deliberate with our words. When we promise a story, we must do our best to serve it up with those classic elements that make a story a story. The five essential elements of a story are well established: character, setting, plot, conflict and theme. But the way to ensure that these elements are present in your story is to illustrate the story fully. Often, we are moved to share a trial that we’ve endured and survived, or a significant ah-ha moment that changed the course of our lives because we are pretty certain that the story will hold life-changing lessons for others, too.
Risa Nye’s There Was a Fire Here, for example, is not just a story about the destructive nature of fire or of profound loss. It contains within it a lesson about the lightness and liberation one can feel when all of her stuff is gone, as Nye calls it, the “freedom from having.” With lessons as profound as this, you may think you are being merciful by stating the lessons in a straightforward, concise manner—like a laundry list—with bullet points and numbered paragraphs. But if you want the message to stick, you must to put aside the laundry list of lessons and focus on the story behind them. The magic is in the laying out of the ah-ha moment or the tumultuous trial.
Don’t cheat your readers by skipping the juicy details, the meat and the potatoes. If you do, not only do you miss transferring onto them the experience that you lived in a memorable way, but you take the risk of foreclosing the additional treasures they may pick up for themselves. True storytelling is too important a superpower to abandon for the sake of expediency. And one of the powers of a story is that people experience the same story differently.
Good stories give us context and furnish social and emotional hooks upon which we can hang our own baggage. Without the story, we want to know who you are and why you think we should listen to you. Your lessons will only matter to us if your story matters— the story part is how we make the connection to what you want to impart.
Gina Carroll is an author, speaker, and editor who believes that everyone has a story that matters. Also the author of 24 Things You Can Do with Social Media to Help Get into College, she helps students use their social media to share their best stories and show their highest selves online; and as a partner at Inspired Wordsmith, a writing services business, Gina helps aspiring writers and business professionals get their life stories in print. A longtime freelancer and blogger, she has written thousands of articles on an exhaustive variety of subject matter, in addition to maintaining her own four blogs.
Her book A Story That Matters is coming out on SparkPress May 2.
No matter who you are, your story is a part of something big—the fabric of history and the human experience. Once written and shared, your story will change someone. And that someone is most likely you.
A Story that Matters offers an accessible and simplified way to get your stories written. Each chapter is divided into three sections: the first discusses memoir writing in the context of themes—motherhood, childhood, relationships, professional life, and spiritual journey; the second provides basic writing and editing prescription, with a focus on common beginner mistakes and roadblocks; and the third provides a sample story related to the life theme discussed in the first section of the chapter. Chock full of writing and editing lessons that focus on how to get a first draft written and how to craft the draft into a compelling story, A Story That Matters explores our ability to help, heal, and connect to others through story, reminding us of the greater need for a broader array of authentic voices in the story-sharing universe.