Why are stories important?

Stories provide us with a mean­ingful emotional exper­i­ence. They are both meta­phors and equip­ment for life.

Robert McKee

I am constantly reminded that we human beings are basic­ally storytellers. More ‘Homo narrans’ than ‘Homo sapiens’. We see ourselves in others’ stories. Every genuine work of art contains a small frag­ment of glass from a mirror.

Henning Mankell

Storytelling is as old as human society. Stories fulfil a basic human need. Turn on a tele­vi­sion any night and there will be a stream of them on tap: comedies, dramas, soaps and documentaries.

Our culture is founded on stories, both those written in books and those handed down by oral tradi­tion. In a large measure, we define ourselves by the stories that we hear and those narrat­ives we fashion for ourselves.


What is a story?

A story is a stra­tegic sequence of events or moments of change but perhaps, more import­antly, it is the embod­i­ment of an idea or an idea wrapped in an aesthetic emotion.

WhatIfThe Premise is the name given to the “idea” that lies at the heart of a story. It tries to answer that most basic ques­tion: what is the story about? All the decisions that a writer makes about a story (struc­ture, char­ac­ters, action, setting) are or should be based on this key concept.

When thinking of a premise, it’s helpful to put the invis­ible ques­tion in front of it: ‘what happens if ?’ 

What happens if:

A mad bomber rigs a crowded LA bus so that it explodes if it goes under fifty miles per hour and a cop is on board to stop it?

A meek man finds an ancient Viking mask and, when he wears it, has magical abilities?

A divorced dad, missing his kids, pretends to be an English nanny, and is hired by his ex-wife?

In each case, the story consists of the answers to these questions.

Finding, exploring and refining an effective premise is, there­fore, the first step in devel­oping a story.

David Clough ©2010

The Echo Chamber

Nothing happens in a vacuum and partic­u­larly not the writing of stories. We’ve already talked about the vast repos­itory of stories that form the found­a­tions of human culture. What is true of soci­eties is true of indi­viduals as well. It’s worth remem­bering that when you invent a story, you can’t help but be influ­enced by every story you’ve ever heard, as well as those that you aren’t even aware have shaped your life.

It’s like standing in the middle of a cathedral-like space, a vast echo chamber. These influ­ences can range from reli­gious fables, (perhaps from the Bible or the Quran); to Greek, Roman or Norse legends; to folk stories, popular culture and liter­ature; to our families, and even our own private ‘myth­o­logy’ that is embedded in, and grows out of, our personal history.

These influ­ences are not distinct from each other, they constantly over-lap just as echoes do. They are not intel­lec­tual abstrac­tions either, they directly affect the way you use language; the vocab­u­lary you possess, the patterns and tunes you hear in your head; the images, places, scents and sounds that carry partic­ular meaning for you. Consciously or uncon­sciously such influ­ences –  or ‘echoes’ – resonate in us when we tell a story and have a bearing on every decision we make about it.

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