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.