Why do we make stories? That’s an open-ended question, of course, given that the potential answers to it are legion, ranging anywhere from making a living to leaving a legacy to I-was-just-bored-and-needed-something-to-do. Even in the course of making a single story the reasons for doing so may change several times. When I first started sharing bedtime stories with my son, the only motivation was just trying something new to help him relax and get sleepy. My decision to continue with it, though, evolved into trying to engage him with important life lessons.
I want to promise that there are wonderful worlds out there waiting for him to explore them. I want to impress on him that there are dangers out there, too, which he needs to be wary of. I want to reassure him that he is a wonderful boy of infinite worth and always will be. Certainly I can and do tell him these things plainly and directly throughout the day, but I’ve come to appreciate that these concepts last longer in the mind when reinforced with a good story. We love to learn by analogy, and fictional stories and events can ring more deeply with our cores than any other communication.
I am by no means the first person to realize the great power of stories in teaching lessons and conveying messages. This purpose for creating them seems to be both ancient and universal, perhaps the most prevalent answer to the question I opened this blog with. There can be found samplings of moral tales from every region of every time in the world. There are Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights, Russian bylinas, African myths, Aesop’s Fables, Chinese proverbs, Christian parables, and more. Many of these were written without knowledge of the others, suggesting there is something inherent in our humanity that seeks to preserve important wisdoms in the form of stories.
And which of us today wouldn’t want to communicate something of meaning and importance in our own stories, too? That might be easier said than done, but it is a distinction most authors hope to achieve. Do I really have the right to ask people to give me their time and attention unless I have something important to say?
Of course, to be able to say something important means you have to know something important, and then you have to be able to communicate that important something effectively. That first part might seem the harder ask, but really I think it is the simpler of the two. If we are willing to set aside our false modesty and go through a little introspection, I’m convinced each one of us will find that we have a nugget of real value that we could share with the world. This is part of our human condition. We live, we learn, we internalize, and do so in a way that is unique to our character. If you dig down in your heart, you’ll find an important lesson or two locked up inside. Now comes the second bit, the actual communicating of that kernel of wisdom. This part is tricky, and it’s entirely possible that the would-be author might not yet have the skills necessary to give voice to those insights. Please don’t take that as a discouragement, though, the way is there for any who are willing to try. It is simply a matter of putting in the work and practice, and there are a few techniques that can help you along the way.
First off, what is a kernel of wisdom anyway? The definition I find most helpful is it is a truth. It is a principle. It is universal. It is a constant that any reader in any situation will be able to find a place for in their own lives. Our actual situations and events are periphery and context that can change, but the principles at their core remain the same.
James’ neighbor asked if it was his baseball that broke his window, and he honestly admitted that it was, offering to help fix it.
James’ drunk father asked if he was the one that broke the television set, and he dishonestly said ‘yes’ so that his little brother wouldn’t get hit.
At first these scenarios seem like complete opposites, yet at the core of each is the same kernel, one of using the truth (or lack thereof) as a tool for taking a burden. If you think you have found something of significance to say, but want to be sure of its merit, try giving it this litmus test: does it apply universally? Anything that does is worthy of a story.
Now one of the tricky things about these little wisdoms we have is that they can resist the written medium. These are not events that can be laid out in a chronology, nor are they a dialogue that can spoken. These vague concepts tend to be things we are better able to feel than put words to. Sometimes the best way we have to express them is in recounting the entire experience where we discovered them, which of course, already presents the concept within a story form.
My mother passed away and I felt a gaping hole left in my heart. More than anything I just wanted to hear her voice again, to hear her tell me that I was still her son and she loved me. One night I dreamt she was alive, but I had traveled away to a different country. In the dream I again had that desire for her to call me her son and say that she loved me, but I realized it was alright even if she didn’t. I knew she was still thinking those thoughts away where she was, and that was enough. When I woke up, it was the same.
There’s something poignant in this, but it can be difficult to extract the core and transplant it into another story. Generally I think when we try to express this sensation it gets reduced down to something like “your loved ones are always with you in your heart,” although I do feel something gets lost in that translation. Perhaps you might not ever be able to reduce the concept you wish to convey into a succinct sentence, but you still need to become thoroughly familiar with it. Then you will be able to look over what you have written and know whether it evokes the intended feeling, or diluted it.
Have you noticed that each of the miniature story examples I’ve given have opened with a lifelike quandary, one similar to what a reader might face, after which the principle reveals itself to give the solution to that problem? If you want a blueprint for how to build a story around the principle you want to teach, you can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true method. It’s been kicking around the narrative world for at least a couple millennia and still remains relevant.
Problem: the tortoise is slower than the hare. Solution: the tortoise remains consistent and steady.
Problem: Simba runs from the past and his guilt. Solution: Mufasa helps Simba to remember who he is, the son of a noble king.
Problem: Arjuna is conflicted about going to war and the losses it will entail. Solution: Krishna teaches Arjuna to let go of worldly attachment and just pursue the greater good.
The thing about principles and truths is that when you live without them, problems come up in life. You feel like you aren’t progressing towards your goals as quickly as you wish, or you feel burdened by shame and think yourself worthless, or you feel directionless with no clear path to follow. But then, when you find truths and principles, they free you from the problems you faced. When a story follows this pattern, it is merely reflecting back to the reader shades of real life and will therefore resonate.
One burden you don’t need to worry too much about is if your audience will “get the point” of the message you have embedded into your story. It can be tempting to try and spell it all out, but doing so denies them the opportunity to tease out the lesson on their own, which will give them the longer lasting impression. In fact, it’s not necessary for your message to be consciously comprehended at any point in the telling. As I suggested before, many of our life lessons do not come to us written in fortune-cookie sentences, but rather in an experience that elicits an emotion. If your story does nothing more than to replicate that emotional experience in another, then the message has successfully been taught. For this reason, lessons can be incorporated into stories for any age. Perhaps my toddler son doesn’t know how to put the words to the principles I am trying to share with him, but if I do my job right then he’ll naturally internalize them based off the feelings he felt, and they will guide him just the same.
There’s another reason why you don’t need to worry about whether or not the audience is capable of receiving your message, but for this one you’ll have to let go of any sense of ownership you thought you had. Because, you see, the reader already knows whatever it is you’re trying to share, and you’re not going to give to them anything they don’t already have. That’s just the way principles work. All of the universal truths already exist inside each one of us, and we do not need anyone to tell us what they are. What we do need is someone to remind us of them when we have forgotten them, to awaken the parts of us that have always been present, but asleep. A truly profound story is one that resonates, and it resonates because it has attuned itself to the message that is already in the heart.
Finally, I think it’s important to address a question that might be nagging some of you right now. What if the author is just looking to write something mindless and fun? Does every story have to have a message? Quite frankly, I would say yes. The reason being that even if you don’t intend to put a message into your story, one will be there anyhow. It’s unavoidable. There never has been a story told that didn’t have a message, and your story, too, will suggest something about the world, whether for better or worse, whether honest or deceitful. As such, there are plenty of “mindless” flicks and novels out there that are laden with unintended and irresponsible messages such as “the only way for a hero to resolve a dispute is through violence,” or “a woman might be tough, but she could never be a match a real man,” or “it’s okay to be a bad person, so long as you’re funny at the same time.” Given that your story will be saying something, isn’t it worth ensuring that it is a something you believe in and that will be good for the world to hear? There’s nothing wrong in perusing your story ideas and taking a fun one out for a ride, but just drive responsibly and be sure you go somewhere good with it.
As I said earlier, I think all of us want to be able to take some of our inner light and put something important into our stories. I would go further still, and say that as a writer it is, in fact, your duty to use that skill to make the world a little brighter. That’s not an easy thing to do, but the very fact that it is difficult is what makes it a worthy quest. Best of luck, and I hope to see you on Thursday when I introduce a couple more Phillip the Mouse stories, each that I told to my son as an effort to resonate some life lessons to his heart. Until then.