Why We Tell Stories

Wednesday, March 01, 2017
My English classes are reading The Things They Carried this month. One of Tim O’Brien’s fundamental ideas in the novel is the importance – the purpose - behind storytelling. This made me consider my current work in progress. Why was I telling this story?

The answer distressed me: I didn’t know.

While initially stunned by this realization, it also enlightened me. No wonder I struggled chapter-to-chapter. Without a clear goal in mind, my story was going nowhere.

I believe stories need to have a purpose. But what kind of purpose? Must it be life-changing? Should it fundamentally strike the soul of the reader and change them forever? Or can the message be small, subtle, yet still important?

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, I visited Hadrian’s Wall in England, which was built in 122 AD and spans 73 miles, serving as a border between the Romans and the “barbarians,” as they called them. To get there, I hiked up a hill, surrounded by nothing but lush, green farmland, before the tour guide set us loose to meander about the ruins. Grey clouds tumbled and churned above me, a bit like a science-fiction movie where time reverses while the present stands still. I nestled my hands in my pockets to keep warm and wandered away from the group until the strong wind drowned out their noise. The ruined wall was cold to the touch, but I climbed on it anyway and drank in the rolling hills, which looked nothing like the suburban town where I lived. Forever ago, someone else had surely done this same thing. Now, it was just me, the ruins of the wall, and the mysterious world. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The air tasted wild and untamed. I was thousands of miles from home, but felt more connected to the earth than ever before. History will do that to you.

This story never saved anyone’s life, but it has meaning. It has a purpose, as all stories need to have. And when I think of this moment, I realize that sometimes authors forget why they started telling their story in the first place. Have you ever read something with which you couldn’t connect? Maybe you wondered why the author wrote it? My guess is the author lost the reason behind it.

It’s easy to miss when your story has lost its meaning, so find ways to keep yourself on track. Try writing your ideas in a journal. Jot down your intended themes and messages, and re-visit them as you craft your words. Imagine what you want your readers to know or understand when they are finished with your story. If there is nothing to think about at the end of a tale, what’s the point of telling it in the first place?

When I realized the message of my story was lost, I took some time to find it, which gave my book renewed life. Perhaps reevaluating your story’s purpose can help you with your writing. It might be one more positive step in the publishing direction.

Bethany Masone Harar is an author, teacher, and blogger, who does her best to turn reluctant readers into voracious book-reading nerds. Check out her blog here.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Beth--The idea of backwards design--when it comes to a story--is a great one. I've read some mediocre books lately, and if they'd determined what they wanted their end-result to be and then worked backwards, they might have been better books. Thanks for the post. (And I love O'Brien's book. Your students are lucky to be reading it.)

Beth said...

Sioux - I agree with you. It's not enough to just tell a story. It has to be meaningful in some way - otherwise it bores the readers and leaves them wanting.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Excellent point, Bethany. It's easy to get mired in the details of the story and forget the bigger picture. Your post was a great reminder to pick our heads up and see the forest through the trees, so to speak.

Loved your Hadrian's Wall story. England does that to me as well. Didn't get to the wall, but definitely felt it as I traversed the countryside.

Beth said...

Thanks Karen! It was amazing and surreal at the same time!

I'm always reminding my students to find the purpose of literary works. Ours should be no exception!

Mary Horner said...

I haven't read O'Brien's book yet, but have it on my "list" because of all the good things I've heard about it. I think one of the reasons we read and write is to connect with others, and reevaluating our purpose is a great way to do that!

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