How to Benefit From the Biggest Reason for Storytelling

How to Benefit From the Biggest Reason for Storytelling

How to Benefit From the Biggest Reason for StorytellingI have a theory. My theory is that a person’s ability to engage with art is directly proportional to that person’s willingness to explore the inner depth of their own lives.

Consider two different people who walk out of a movie theater together (or we could switch out the setting for an art gallery, a concert hall, a library, a playhouse).

They ask each other, “What’d you think?”

The first person is bubbling over with excitement, having glimpsed insights and gathered the beginnings of interesting revelations about life in general and her own life in particular.

Upon hearing all this from the first person, the second person just kinda shrugs and says, “Well, I liked it, but it was just a fun movie.”

Why Appreciating Art = Appreciating Life

This is a scenario I’ve witnessed countless times in my own life (with me admittedly playing the role of Person #1 to someone else’s unenthusiastic Person #2). It’s often made me wonder how two people can experience the same story (or song or painting, etc.), with one person carrying away untold riches and the other person coming away empty-handed.

Inevitably, I’ve chalked it up to the subjectivity of art. After all, what rings one person’s bell won’t always ring another person’s.

But I no longer believe that’s the sum total of the solution.

In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing someone close to me begin growing out of a shallow perception of the world and into a deeper understanding of himself and, even better, a deeper desire to search out the hidden mysteries of life.

The really interesting thing, however, is that his awakening into a deeper curiosity and passion about life has been directly proportionate to his ability to interact with stories. Where before he would have been Person #2, shrugging off a story with a casual “yeah, it was fun,” now he’s starting to look deeper, starting to see meanings and interpretations that apply to his own life.

Life is helping him experience art, and art is helping experience life.

And so it goes.

And how incredibly awesomesauce is that?

3 Reasons Storytelling Is Inherent to the Life Experience

As writers, we are artists—which means we already have an “in” to understanding the power of art. We’re daily training ourselves to look past the surface of stories, to see not only the technical workings behind them, but the deeper meanings.

It’s a gorgeous cycle: we use our art to interpret life, but, as artists ourselves, we also get to use our art to create and expand upon life. As Caryl Phillips wrote:

Caryl Phillips

The reason art matters at all—the reason any one of us bothers to write a story at all—is because stories are life. They are the mirror through which we see the reflection of our own existences. They are the framework by which we organize a chaotic world. They are the metaphor that helps us make sense of the infinite.

The most important question in the world is Why? If we can understand and claim the reasons why art is important—the reasons why even Person #2 keeps coming back for more stories—the reasons why we write, then we will also be able to understand how to write better, more pertinent, and more powerful stories.

Here are three reasons why stories (and all of art) exist in the first place.

Reason #1: Stories Are About Asking Questions

As in writing itself, life is not about finding the right answers. Rather, it’s about asking the right questions (because if you discover the right question, the right answer will already be inherent within it).

Every story you experience is asking a question. It asks the big questions: Is life worthwhile? Is there a purpose? Does good really triumph over evil?

But it also asks smaller, instantly applicable questions: What makes a relationship work? Is it possible to find forgiveness? What makes evil people do evil things? What makes heroic people do heroic things?

Inherent in the very act of asking all these questions are their inevitable answers. But, as a writer, your job isn’t so much to dig up those answers with a triumphant “aha!” as it is to simply be willing to go into the unexplored corners where you don’t know what the answers will be. William Trevor offered what should be every writer’s mantra:

William Trevor

Reason #2: Stories Are About Growing

This is why stories are fundamentally about change. A story is about an arcwithin the characters, within the plot, within the theme. What is found at the end of the story is not the same as what is presented in the beginning. Stories are never static, just as life is never static.

Although we read for comfort, entertainment, and even distraction, a good story should never be an entirely easy experience. If your story is asking those important questions we talked about above, then what it’s really doing is putting life under a microscope—both generally and for the individual reader and her personal experience in particular.

Here’s a worthwhile challenge from no less than Franz Kafka:

Franz Kafka

If readers are able to leave your story without at least feeling the prick of discomfort from the life questions being presented to them, then your story will never truly matter. If you want to write truly memorable fiction, you must be willing to challenge your readers to self-growth—by first challenging yourself in the writing.

Reason #3: Stories Are About Finding Patterns

I’m a pattern-seeker. It’s just how my brain works. I’m always looking for frameworks, organizational systems, similes, and metaphors (I have a probably unwelcome habit of looking at someone’s outfit and immediately turning it into a simile: “You look like an… avocado”).

I’m not alone in this. All of art is ultimately a categorization of life. As Jean Anouilh wrote:

Jean Anouilh

The patterns we recreate in our fiction are all present in real life. The structure of plot and character arcs are everywhere around us. The difference is that, in life, we aren’t always aware of the story beats in the bigger picture. They’re there, certainly, but we often lack the perspective to grasp them in a way that lets us immediately make sense of our own lives.

And so we turn to art to translate our raw observations into smaller patterns we can get our heads around—and which, in turn, help us get our heads around the bigger picture.

I write to make sense of the world. I don’t doubt that, on at least some level, perhaps purposefully, perhaps subconsciously, you are doing the same. Barbara Tuchman said:

Books are humanity in print Barbara Tuchman

Stories are a metaphor for life. We read about Jean Valjean or Katniss Everdeen or Steve Rogers—and we see ourselves. Their crazy-dramatic adventures are really just metaphors for our own experiences. Through them, we gain perspective on our own lives. We begin to see the patterns. We catch a better glimpse of the big picture. We find some of the answers to our hard questions—which then, in turn, allow us to ask even better and harder questions in our lives and in our own stories.

What Art Demands From All of Us: Responsibility

As writers, we wield untold power to influence the lives of those around us. Whether you wield it wisely or carelessly is up to you. If you choose to forget that the very reason for art’s existence is its power to help humanity understand itself, your stories will still affect others. But not only will you be achieving, at best, a scattergun approach, you’ll also be missing out on your own opportunity to not just grow your art, but to grow yourself through your art.

Writers bear a great responsibility to be brave and honest in their fiction. But readers, too, must be responsible. John Locke famously wrote:

As both a reader and a writer, would you rather be Person #2—who refuses to look deeper into life by also refusing to look deeper into art—or Person #1—who rides art like it’s a thundering warhorse, ever upward and onward into the greater exploration of the only thing that can truly matter to any of us… life itself?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion? What do you think art teaches us about life? And what do you think life teaches us about art? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Wow, that’s terribly interesting. Part of what you say is what I’ve been trying to tell people for a long time, in so many words. I’ll tell you what though, you’ve got guts for trying to determine the relationship between art and life. That kind of thing is not up everyone’s alley, but it sure is up mine.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It does take guts. But I’d go so far as to say it’s *the* courageous act of life. If we can’t do this, on some level, then we’re missing out on everything that matters.

  2. Spot on. And that quote:

    “A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.”

    That is literally one of the most sublime quotes I have ever encountered.

    I feel like I’m in some ways experiencing that and, now that you mention it, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I write, if not the biggest. I love the vulnerability of art. It’s an art of war really. We go into the darkest places of our lives and souls and we shine the light of a big picture view there and then we learn the truth that frees us–not just in the head, but in the firmest ways possible. There are some things I’m too fearful to write, but I keep digging deeper and I hope that someday I’ll be able to write those things.

    I’m currently planning a fantasy trilogy and it’s come to the point where if I could choose one thing to accomplish before I die, it would be that. I’ve thought that before, but never so strongly. The story is about me really, not as a person, but just like you described–writing this story is my personal journey in some ways. I live in wonder that I even came up with this story idea. I don’t think it’s because I’m a great storyteller, but I think it’s because my story is true. Truth and beauty are one, and I can never get over how awesome that is.

  3. I love this. Three of my family members are sometimes amused by my enthusiasm for stories, and I have several friends who don’t really care about stories one way or another. They seem to think “it’s just a made-up thing; why does it mean so much to you?” not realizing that very fictionality (pretty sure I just made up that word :S) is what enables stories to teach us truths about life we would never accept in a different form. I read a quote once along the lines of “the best stories are true ones,” but I have to disagree with its author. Rather, the best stories are those that, despite being made-up, are overflowing with deep truths. Such stories show us a reality that is deeper than the real reality, if that makes any sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although (of course) I have a bent toward the art of storytelling, I would like to point that stories aren’t the *only* art form through which people explore life. Someone can be a painter, or love paintings, and not really care about books, and still get the same effect of broadening their inner horizons. Still, I tend to think the more artistic mediums we can engage with, the better!

      • I totally agree. I find great truth in music and poetry as well. Not so much visual art, but I haven’t spent as much time exploring it and I’m sure it is just as deep. Non-verbal art forms can be wonderful at communicating truths and expressing emotions that are too deep for words.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I like to say that music, in particular, is the purest form of storytelling. No words required. 🙂

      • I believe everything offers this opportunity — from people to rocks, it’s all speaking to us. Love this piece, K.M..

      • I love the thought that “the more artistic mediums we can engage with, the better.” I’ve sometimes felt that my passions for writing (both stories and poetry), painting, and music are a little much. But I’ve also begun to see that practicing one art can, in some way, enhance my ability to appreciate and practice others.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, honestly, I wish I was a little more versatile. I want to start playing with poetry more this year, and I’m doing quite a bit of design work just for fun. But it’s all definite sideline to the main event of writing.

  4. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    I agree. Writing is hard – like coal mining, but using your brain instead. Why would one work that hard to make a story that doesn’t have a deeper theme? That doesn’t resonate on a deeper level? You need to make bumper stickers, Kaya: why be a 2 when you can be a 1? Most people would not understand, which perfectly illustrates the problem, lol.

    Once again a profound piece that inspires one to achieve greater things.

  5. Hail and well met, fellow seekers!

    Definitely there are two kinds of people. Those of seek deep meaning in art, and those yet to do so.

  6. Great advice. As someone who’s spent considerable time in tech and science and only recently turned to writing, I’ve been surprised to discover that:
    “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” (Muriel Rukeyser) At this point, I wouldn’t bother with a story that merely expresses a cool concept, or displays a vivid imagination, or adheres to some fad or genre convention. Those may be useful ingredients, but to write with conviction and power, it has to be personally meaningful. And for that I have to draw on my life experiences and imagination, dig down deep into themes and characters that really matter to me, and find a way to communicate the story as best I can. Write the novel that only I can write. I’d rather fail at this than succeed at a pulp novel.

  7. HonestScribe says:

    I love your image of art as a thundering war horse. Awesome!

    This is exactly why art is important. In our information-overloaded, interconnected culture, it’s so easy to become callous to the world around us. A good story will make us see the full spectrum of existence again. Life and art feed each other, and I know my life wouldn’t be as rich without art.

    Thank you for this inspiring post. I’ll be sharing this with people when they don’t understand why I spend so much time typing about imaginary people.

  8. This is some really deep stuff! I have to say, your posts are always great, but I feel like you really have been taking it up a notch lately.

    One of the many things you’ve said which resonates with me is the importance of asking a question over giving an answer. There is so much to be said on that alone. I think the right question can often lead us into deeper and more honest thought where an answer puts it to a stop – a hard period. Both are important, but we tend toward answers first because they’re more definite and, thus, safer.

    I wonder, sometimes, whether my goal is to encourage creatives to keep being more creative and not give up or to help the “non-creatives”, that second person in your scenario, to open their eyes and see how important creativity is for life. Hopefully, in some way, I can do both.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Regarding questions vs. answers: exactly! That’s actually something I learned while outlining. If I just stated the problem, all I did was stare at it on the page. But if I phrased it as a question–ahh! all kinds of possibilities opened up. It’s the same in life. When we think we have the answer, we become close-minded. I’d much prefer to think I have a *part* of the answer and continue searching and being open to the rest of it.

      • Joe Long says:

        I do numerical analysis of sports. I learned to never start by trying to prove a conclusion. Ask questions.

        I’ve even kept notepads by my side, jotting something down every I thought , “Is that true?” when listening to an announcer describing the game.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Which is just a smart way to go through life, I believe–to never take statements for granted at face value without stopping a moment to affirm it really *is* something you believe.

      • J.M Barlow says:

        I work with some rather mule-headed individuals who *think* they have all the answers… answers are boring! I can find those on the interwebz.

        Asking questions provokes thought. Giving answers ends the thought process.

        Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a major factor in why I follow such a curious philosophy.

        So yeah, I totally agree that our job is to ask the questions, presenting them in an engaging light. That is art.

  9. What an interesting premise, Katie! I write to make sense of life, whether is fictional characters, or me journaling about a personal challenge. I LOVED this post. Really gave me a lot to ponder. Many thanks.

  10. Joe Long says:

    Ms. Weiland has been reading my mind again. I was late in reading the last post on descriptions, but my considered response flows into this post as well.

    I was in church yesterday listening to the pastor describe different ways that people react and of course I started thinking of my characters. He also talked about saying things with truth and love. When I tell my story, I want to present situations where the characters learn the hard truths of life.

    I’m also in the habit of presenting pairs. A character finds himself in a situation which sets up a complimentary one later. Some things are the same, some are different.

    My main character’s world is shaken when he’s struck by the beauty of a girl. It’s a visual experience that drives how he reacts, so the description of her appearance is necessary.

    Later he has a similar reaction to a different girl, and again what impresses him so about her appearance requires description. However – this time he’s taken. How should one handle meeting some new fantastic person when you’re already promised to another?

    Even later he meets a third girl, a coworker. I decided to initially not mention a thing about her appearance, not until a friend questions him, because it was irrelevant. She takes an interest in him because he appears so glum and she starts conversations. This was setup early on when he talks about meeting girls on the CB radio, where one basically does blindfolded speed-dating. How much should appearance matter in developing a lasting relationship.

    This is very much a coming-of-age. I can look back at the person I was then and what I’ve learned since to give examples of stumbling through relationships with friends, family and love interests.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s endlessly interesting to me how even the themes I arbitrarily choose to write about end up being almost blatant reflections of things I’m seeing play out in life at the same time. It’s a coming of age all over again–writing about things I think I have a handle on, only to double my learning in the actual writing.

      • Joe Long says:

        Well, I meant a coming of age story, documenting the character’s transition to adulthood – but yes, we also learn a lot about ourselves when we ponder the themes and events of the story we’re writing.

  11. That is interesting, but, sometimes, if you overthink something, it can lead to no sleep, and sleep is important.

  12. How existential, Katie Camus. I hope I can live up as well as write up to your challenge!! Thank you for giving me a more meaningful reason for writing. I’m afraid I’ve been a little selfish.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It all starts with wanting to write for ourselves–just like understanding Life starts with trying to understand our own lives. Nothing wrong with that!

  13. Ms. Albina says:

    My characters need to learn how to work together and find another place for the village.

    When you write about the area of a palace do you put in square miles?

    I mean The palace grounds was about 8 square miles or 5,000 acres.

  14. Wonderful post — this is a good reminder of why it is worthwhile to write, even if one doubts the value of one’s work, and even if it takes time away from pursuits that are obviously “useful.” At the worst, even if the story doesn’t connect with anyone else but the writer, the writer has deepened her own ability to perceive and strive. And if the story does connect with readers, how much more valuable. I’m reminded of a speaker I heard in law school who said, “You aren’t going to law school so you can get a job to pay off your law school loans.” Likewise, we aren’t living our lives so we can do “useful” things and survive. Survival has a purpose, and beauty puts us in close touch with that purpose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Even if the story doesn’t connect with anyone else but the writer, the writer has deepened her own ability to perceive and strive”–spot on! 😀

  15. Rebecca L. says:

    Wonderful post! For me, it was a wonderful moment when I found out that writing stories helped me make sense of life (so does reading them). I’ve also found that writing gives an outlet to my passions for justice, meaning, beauty, and the triumph of good over evil.

  16. J.M Barlow says:

    Sometimes I come across to others as Person #2, but usually when that happens, I’m still taking things in. Once I actually get outside, breathe some fresh air, and continue thinking for a bit, I have a lot more to say.

    If a movie straight up doesn’t engage me, it’s usually because the characters are boring/flat/meh… If the plot sucks, I can usually forgive the movie if he characters are good.

    Looking at artwork is different. An image more often projects a mood rather than a question, unless it is high-concept.

    Speaking of high-concept, this post of yours here. Linking the art-life relationship. Art is a vessel on which life can be displayed. It offers a different perspective on the subject matter – and a different perspective is commonly necessary to get the point across.

    When I try to explain things to someone and I get that deer-in-the-headlights look from them, I start asking them questions. They answer the questions as they think. They eventually come to the conclusion that I initially was trying to present them with. That’s what art can do. But art isn’t just a fleeting conversation. Art is put through a medium that then becomes permanent (published, etc). That is the value of art.

    Art is a conversation that has been recorded and put on display.

    As artists, we are merely information brokers. But not just that, we are -insight- brokers. If we ask questions and people learn and develop by thinking and answering those questions on their own, then that is insight. That is our job. We’re not here to tell – to teach or preach.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interestingly enough, many of my favorite works of art (of any medium) are ones that didn’t necessarily engage me right off the bat. Some of them I’ve even adamantly disliked. It took repeat exposures for me to really “get” them and see past the surface to truly appreciate the great depth being offered.

  17. I believe everything offers this opportunity — from people to rocks, it’s all speaking to us. I love you blog so much. Reasons you provided are really very great.

    This tips will help to grow business

  18. I’ve said this before, but this is why I could never consider reading fantasy (or fiction in general) to be an escape from life. Fantasy is a way to ground myself to reality. Fantasy is for expanding my mind, heart, and soul and it teaches me to value the things and people in my life. And I love the type of strength I can gather from my characters when I write. I’ve never really considered feeling any other way about it. I know this might come across as judgemental, but I’ve always felt this sense of emptiness from people who don’t or won’t appreciate writing and art, as if there is a crucial piece of themselves missing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hear, hear. Couldn’t have said it better. 🙂

    • Why is everyone so quick to label someone who didn’t connect with their story, movie, painting, or whatever as a luddite needing to grow out of a “shallow perception of the world and into a deeper understanding of himself and, even better, a deeper desire to search out the hidden mysteries of life?” Really?

      What’s wrong with simply enjoying (or not) an interesting story with interesting characters? Does it have to be cathartic or a the result of a deep self journey. Can it be just fun and adventurous? And if you think it is(fun and adventurous), and some people don’t agree, are they merely empty souls with no appreciation for art?

      I enjoy and eagerly read all your posts so I apologize for being negative. Maybe it is just my mood tonight. The whole thread feels a little bit elitist.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Nothing wrong with a story just being “fun.” What’s important to note here is that art’s effect on each person is individual. We certainly don’t all have to get the same thing out every story–because we won’t. We also don’t each have to find all the same stories worthwhile–because we won’t. The point is that art is never *just* fun, just entertainment. It’s always more, whether we acknowledge it or not. So why not acknowledge it and get more out of both it and perhaps life as well?

  19. This is a really, really great article. Honestly, I started to get a little sick of all of your how-to articles. Not because they’re bad, but because of information overload. So this article really is a breath of fresh air for me. Your reasons and philosophical touches are great. Hopefully you’ll do more like this.

  20. Nice post.
    And your points about writing and introspection – interesting perspective. Made me ponder my writing habits/productivity.
    Cheers.

  21. This post was so good it was satisfying to my bones. You’ve put all my vague feelings into actual words! Thank you so much!

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