Tapping the Storyteller

by Virginia Parker Staat

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn.
Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.
But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
~ Native American Proverb

Years ago I attended a literary reading series. After one of the writers finished reading his essay aloud, he asked the audience an intriguing question, “When did you enter this piece?”

The answer for me was easy. When he told a personal story. Up until that moment, I had not connected with the reading. But when he used a story as his example, I was hooked. His essay came alive, and his purpose became clear to me.

Long before we had written languages, we had storytellers. Folks would gather around someone who imparted wisdom, preserved history, explained traditions, warned about dangers, motivated, persuaded, inspired, or simply entertained. As writers, when we inject memorable stories into our work, we tap into the same transformative power as the storyteller.

Stories are one of the most powerful tools we can use to connect with another human being. In Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, he explains that people remember facts longer and are persuaded more quickly and effectively when information and ideas are presented in story form. Outdoor writer John A. Murray agrees, “Nature writers have… a dual responsibility: to educate their readers about the processes of nature and to entertain them with a memorable story along the way.”

The stories we use in our work should evoke empathy and create emotion. We include stories that connect with our readers and their values. We include stories to immerse and draw readers into our work. We include stories to illustrate our facts and our motives.

We write good stories by using the essential elements of oral storytelling. We tap into our emotions to set the story mood. We include action and tension to propel the story’s narrative arc to a climax. We use tight, vivid descriptions with sensual imagery, metaphors, and similes. We create satisfying endings that reinforce our reason for including the story.

Facts, numbers, and mere words don’t connect a reader to our work, stories do.

Writers need both good stories and great words to capture readers. The best stories share something meaningful about our subject. Done well, using stories in our writing helps our readers relate to our message, making our work accessible and transformative.