Story’s “Sugar Coat”

Since we read and watch stories in order to understand ourselves and our world, it follows that we are looking for meaning in story. In fairy tales, it is the moral of the story – a clear lesson a child (or adult, for that matter) is supposed to learn in order to better navigate society. The most effective stories have a moral, but organically weaving one into a story is tricky. Make it too subtle, and the audience is left wondering, “what was the point?” Make it too obvious, and the audience will feel like its being bludgeoned with a moral hammer and likely reject it.

I hate being told what to do or what to think, so if a story’s lesson is too on the nose, I tend to discount it. I’m thinking of the overly saccharine Hallmark-style movies about “being true to yourself” or “how family is the most important thing” or “following your dreams.” It’s not that these messages are not helpful. In fact, the world needs more messages like these, but how can stories use them in a way that doesn’t make us squirm?

If a story resonates with us, we “drop our intellectual guard”, as Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal. “Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneading us, shaping our minds without our knowledge or consent. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence.”

And that’s the key — a story needs to masterfully weave together plot, character, dialogue, and setting in order for us to understand its meaning. Oh, and it must also be a really well-told story, full of excitement, suspense, mystery, and passion. And as anyone who’s written a story can tell you, this is no easy task.

To borrow from James Bonnet in Stealing Fire From the Gods, the story is the “sugar coat” that helps make the medicine of the meaning go down. Gottschall calls it “the sweet jam of storytelling.” We’re like kids who need our medicine (the moral) but don’t want to take it. The best kinds of stories are the ones working to make us healthier.

When a story draws us in, we are like putty in the hands of the storyteller who, like a hypnotist, has the power to shape and influence our minds. The example might sound a little extreme, but think of how we describe our experiences with our favorite stories. “I become lost in the story” or “I was totally absorbed by the story” are common phrases we use.

This is the power the storyteller wields, and in the right hands, it’s a power that can be used to inspire us to overcome obstacles in our lives or help us feel a connection with our fellow man.

I highly recommend the two books I mentioned if you’re interested in storytelling as a craft or social phenomenon. I’m sure I’ll return to them many times throughout this blog as a source of inspiration and ideas.

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12 thoughts on “Story’s “Sugar Coat”

  1. If I could make one wish, just one is that…Why can’t people today have the same mind set as you? A lot of people’s attitude/personality today is based on how one was raised. If we have things/shows/books or even music with a positive message, the children of today will grow up with a positive message…Society complains how more people grow up with a disobedient manner, yet the Media society puts out there can sometimes affect who we are today. Believe it or not Avatar; TLA positive message does help to heal because the struggles in that show strongly reflect on people’s lives…Not many things give a “positive/strong being” today… I will definitely show my kids Avatar one day. It gives people hope! And we carry those traits from the show to real life. I will read the books you suggested, but keep up the good work! You, Bryan and the rest of the team help reflect today’s tomorrow! -Best wishes J.R.

  2. Hey Mike, nice references you have mentioned in this post! I am putting “The story telling animal” on my wish list..

    “When a story draws us in, we are like putty in the hands of the storyteller who, like a hypnotist, has the power to shape and influence our minds. The example might sound a little extreme, but think of how we describe our experiences with our favorite stories. “I become lost in the story” or “I was totally absorbed by the story” are common phrases we use.”

    The example is not extreme, well told stories should actually always have that effect I think 🙂 You talked about Life of Pi some time ago, and I hadn’t seen it yet (nor read the book, obviously). I did see it a week ago and wow, what an experience! I was completely sucked into the story. Although most of it isn’t “real” since a lot is computer generated, it sure felt like I was on the boat.

    As far as I can visualize, all my favorite stories had that effect. Unfortunately, some of it is lost after the first time you read/watch them. But if the “sugar coat” is sweet enough (hehe), one will keep coming back for yet another taste of it, for all the beautiful sensations it brings along. If the sugar coat isn’t sweet enough, well then, I guess, the story won’t be a favorite 🙂

    – Ivan

  3. Thank you,.. thank you,… thank you…(she says while bowing) I have a sincere and warm question. Why did you just give us the keys to the treasure? Your generosity is overwhelming and how can I work with people like you?

    I have studied J Campbell and had come up with my own version of his wheel that is about a quarter of the way out and a bit different than Bonnet’s. I’m so thankful that Bonnet shared his wisdom so the wheel can change and expand and grow even more beautiful.

    Again, no matter what your answer is, this household appreciates you!

    1. Well, I don’t know that I have the keys to anything. Writing these posts has been a helpful way to absorb some of these concepts myself. Glad it’s been helpful for you too. Thanks for reading.

      1. I waited to see if I wanted to write this and I still do. This is why I love the series you both created:

        1. You took other people’s life work and made it your own just like Lucas did to Campbell, Campbell did to Joyce & Jung, Jung did to someone I don’t know and the ancients, etc. etc.

        2. You presented it in a joyful, empowering way without being sticky sweet. There is death, worry and believable pain. I think the movie tried to be like “Lady in the Water” (I actually like that movie a lot for it’s teachings) but didn’t have the joy and empowerment which I so craved.

        3. My favorite episodes from ATLAB, that I watch over and over if I need a little boost, are the bending being taught and the secret tunnel episodes. My friends love the spiritual ones. I feel the sugar coat worked. 😀

        4. My favorite moments for Korra were when Toph’s daughter (sorry I don’t remember her name) and Korra settled their differences and worked together to fight as the only two fighters. I grew up with all brothers, video games and sci-fi and I’ve never seen that before. I’m not ashamed to say it made me misty eyed.

        5. You developed a “real” world of all ages and each age group has flaws and potentials. That alone is gold to me.

        Thank you for all of the above and feel free to delete this post if it makes you uncomfortable. I swear I’m not a stalker! 😀 (Although I’m sure a stalker would probably say that…ha ha ha) I just have loved this kind of stuff since I was very, very young.

        Cheers!

        4.

  4. I just came here to say thank you for Avatar. The show is as good as reading an awesome book, thank you for bringing Iroh, Aang and friends to life.

    Your posts in this page are great. You’re fantastic. Take care man.
    A lot of people are waiting for the next season of Korra.

    Again, thank you.
    Greetings from México.

  5. I just starting following your blog Mike and It amazes me how much we think a like. I enjoy your blog because I also love stories, telling stories, and analyzing stories. When I draw there is always a long story behind my artwork. Even if it’s just a quick little sketch. I only draw it though because I’m not much of a writer. I wish I was. Anyway, everything you have said has spoken to me and inspired me. I will definitely check out those books you mentioned. It is people like you and Bryan that make me want to become the animator and storyteller that I have dreamed of since I can remember. Avatar: The Last Airbender has literally changed my life. And to many of my friends as well. We all think you and Bryan and the rest of the Avatar crew have created something beautiful with a rich, exciting story. And now Legend of Korra is doing the same. I just can’t thank you enough. Maybe one day I will be able to create artwork and stories like these that provide great messages to the world. -V

  6. The “Sweet Jam of Storytelling” reminds me of the “Mead of Poetry” of Norse myth, which reminds us that words have the potential to intoxicate and inspire. I don’t think a story is in any way a “sugarcoat” for the “bitter truth” of meaning though. Meaning doesn’t exist as a singular thing in a vacuum, it depends upon context, connection and causation, so meaning and story are really one and the same. A name without meaning is a name without story, and is therefore useless (but even the fact that it’s a name among many names is already a “story” of sorts, connections and relations are implied, potential for cause and effect is created). So Meaning, Language, Name and Story are more closely intertwined than usually thought and may even be just aspects of the same thing (that’s probably the reason why the Ents in Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” name everything by reciting its full history).

      1. When he starts getting in the the theory of it all, I think in his second post, I get sucked in. Thank you sir!

  7. This is exactly why James Cameron’s Avatar was a bore, and why your Avatar was so riveting, also you guys wonderfully weaved in multiple more messages that refused to belittle the audience regardless of age or gender. Wonderful.

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