The Incredible Power of Stories

Published: April 20, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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Occasionally, someone will ask, “Why do you use stories to give us the message?  Why not cut to the chase and just give us the message?”

Stan Williams’s excellent book, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box-Office Success was written with that question in mind.  Here’s an edited version of a question about that issue and Stan’s response from his blog.

“Dear Stan:

“If the ultimate purpose of a story comes down to passing on some fundamental truths, then why do we need stories to convey those truths?

“For example, if I say to you, ‘Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat, while battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory,’ why won’t my communication have the same profound effect in your life as watching [the Pixar movie] The Incredibles?

“Also, do you think a good story with a true moral premise can really change people and make a difference in the world? …[are] storytellers… really able to make a difference in the world…?”

Stan’s response:

“Human beings transcend everything else in creation. They ask questions like ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What am I suppose to do?’ and ‘How can I be good and not bad?’ And it is in asking those questions that we touch the very essence of the human condition—we are made in God’s image. Bang!  We have a self-conscience. Nothing else does.  We know there is something more than the moment in time we are experiencing. Why story?

“Our thirst for stories proves the existence of something… beyond us, looking in on us, giving us meaning, and someone who most likely put us here. The idea that we can know what life means, is evidence that a transcendent answer exists.

“The essence of life is change and transformation (up or down). We hope things, life, situations, ourselves, can change and get above (transform) our current miserable life. It is only in reliving the lives of others (from true history, or metaphor, and parables) that we have hope of that change, because it has already happened to others.

“If you simply tell me I can change, I don’t see it, understand it, or comprehend how the change can occur. But, if you tell me a story or show me the life struggles of someone who has changed, then I believe, I envision, and I begin to work toward that end. I have a role model, an example, in short — proof.

“Why won’t my (didactic) communication have the same profound effect in your life as watching [a story like] The Incredibles?

Because didactic communication (telling me what to do) does not let me relive the decisions of others and see the consequences of those decisions. If you simply tell me to do something and explain the consequences, the degree to which I believe what you say will happen or not happen depends on a long relationship of trust between us.

“That trust is the result of many stories and shared experiences passing between us. But if that deep relationship does not exist then there is no realization of the consequence.  But a story simulates my life, convinces me that the moral decisions and the consequence have meaning.

“I can see what happens to Mr. Incredible when he tries to do things alone. I can see what happens to the Incredible Family when they battle adversity together. Because of the relationship with those characters in the first two acts, I identify with them. I have established a relationship with them and I am emotionally attached to their decisions…. I see myself in them because I have made decisions like they have, and to some degree lived the consequences. They reinforce the pattern of my life (assuming their story was created around a true moral premise.)

“Unlike didactic communication (telling), narrative communication shows, demonstrates, simulates, and dramatizes the effect of time on those decisions and consequences. Didactic communication has no power to demonstrate, show, or dramatize.

“You’ve heard the expression that “experience is the best teacher.” Why is that? Because experience creates the drama of time as it relates to decision and consequence, and the suspense between those two nodes. We make a decision (and take an action) and then suspense sets in as we wait to see what the consequence will be. That suspense and intrigue create an adrenaline rush that sensitizes the synapses in our brain to remember the consequence when it occurs.

“Movies especially, but all stories too, rely on this natural method of time, decision, consequence and help us to identify with the characters as if we were them, … because the story depends on time to work, it can create drama, which gives us an adrenalin rush that triggers our brain to remember the relationship between a particular decision and its consequence.

“[Can] storytellers really make a difference in the world?”

“They do, undoubtedly. Newspaper and novel accounts of behavior and its consequence convince far more people than didactic preaching. Movie fans that watch the lives of movie stars come and go, learn a great deal about what not do to if you want to be happy. It’s one thing not to get caught with a hooker on Sunset Blvd (e.g. Hugh Grant) but I’m sure Elizabeth Hurley wish he had avoided the hooker altogether. If Hugh didn’t learn anything from that story out of his life, we sure should have.

“We can easily say that storytellers have value, because people spent billions of dollars each year to watch stories, or listen to them. Stories come in all forms, from the $200 million block buster to the weather report. News, magazines, gossip, parables… they all communicate the cause and effect of moral decisions and their consequences. We can’t escape storytellers, because they are as important as time and morality.”

Or as a couple of geezers in The Incredibles sum it up:

Geezer #1:  That’s the way to do it.  That’s old school.
Geezer #2:  Yeah.  No school like the old school.


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