As a prolific writer, I sometimes challenge myself by asking the question “does this story need to be told?” More often than not, I find that when I really think hard about it, it does not seem so. And thus, I often resolve myself to thinking that I just do not have enough good stories to tell and have not seen the world well enough to capture it in words– whether written or spoken. But, here is the thing: no one sees the world quite as I do, and by not telling stories because I am afraid that mine are not needed, I may be robbing the world of a story deeper than those I wish I had the capacity to tell.
And that is what is so interesting about stories. Any good storyteller, whether he is a filmmaker, a songwriter, or a novelist, knows that there are always many stories intertwined into the one that takes up the main pages. Take, for example, the story of A Christmas Carol. Within its plot many tales of struggle, sacrifice, and self-discovery surface. By the time this work finishes, many a reader sees a hint of himself in the character of Uncle Scrooge, and goes away puzzling over the meaning of life. It is not so much the fact that Uncle Scrooge has major character flaws and decides to finally do something about them that makes this story intriguing; rather, it is the way in which the author chooses to tell his story through the visits of three ghosts. By taking Scrooge on a journey to different points in time, these ghosts help to illustrate how actions have consequences and help to convince Scrooge that he, too, is part of a bigger story in which he plays a part in shaping the final outcome.
The end result of a good story is not so much about the subject matter as it is about how the story is being told, and the particular slant that the writer takes in telling it. That is, after all, what can make one book about a particular topic fascinating, while another book on the exact same subject may never make it out of the bookstore. Good storytellers know that they must know a subject well enough to be convincing; beyond that, storytelling is mostly about thoughtfully crafting compelling narratives.
One of the places that I have seen the art of storytelling illustrated well is in culinary television. When I was little, I loved to watch cooking shows. There is one show that used to come on in the afternoon and featured world-renowned chefs making up their dishes with a voice-over describing the process involved. I enjoyed it mostly for the intriguing accent of the European lady who described each of the dishes, and occasionally for the looks of the culinary escapades in their prepared states. However, as much as the chefs featured on this show had mastered their techniques, the stories that accompanied the cooking often left me wanting more. In the end, the show read a bit boring. Now, contrast this show with one today where the chef makes the food sound so interesting that one hardly cares what is being cooked in the first place. Typically, such a chef excels in commanding an audience and bringing dishes to life through tying their own personality and stories into the food that they are preparing. Whether their cuisine is Indian, French, or backyard barbeque, what matters most is not the cuisine but rather the presentation that goes with it. What keeps viewers coming back for more is a hint of life and meaning beyond the food itself.
The best storytellers can use nearly any subject to tell a story that is interesting. They might use two men dueling over a woman to show the consequences of greed and jealousy; they might place characters in the midst of a tornado to illustrate the importance of family; or they might use a shared evening at an art gallery to depict the power of relationship. The art of telling stories is not about finding the perfect ones, but rather about learning how to use language, metaphor, plot, conflict, resolution, denouement, and more, to give readers a taste of something that is both beyond themselves and yet also deeply resonant.
One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors, Madeline L’Engle, reads as follows: “We turn to stories and pictures and music because they show us who and what and why we are, and what our relationship is to life and death, what is essential and what, despite the arbitrariness of falling beams, will not burn.” We tell stories because they help us remember who we are, and what in the world we are doing here. Sometimes a story is a tool that helps an author remember who he or she is. This was often the case with Madeline L’Engle, who needed her time for writing so that she could truly be Madeline. Whether her stories were published or not, the time L’Engle spent writing was still important. At other times, stories become the vessels through which others are reminded, perhaps for the first time, of who they are. Here, stories become needed, not because the author felt that they were needed but instead because there is a deep human longing for truth, meaning, and relationship that extends beyond material need. Good stories scratch the itch that lies just below the surface of things, churning up just enough dust to make others curious. Needed? Yes, they are needed, although not in the same way that we might think food, and water, and shelter are needed. They are needed because they speak to the unspoken realities that surround us and provide us with tools for navigating the oft-murky waters of everyday life.