The Stories We Tell Others

The stories we tell others

I’ve been exploring STORY a bit in the last few weeks, and here I’d like to focus on the stories we tell others. Dragging along from last week is the stories we tell ourselves–and those, to a certain degree, shape the stories we tell others. There’s a whole lot of other things rattling in my head as well: Terry Pratchett’s new book, Dodger, The Story (a chronological account of the Bible), and Significant Objects. In a way, the stories we tell others are a form of world-building. We include details that fit within the parameters of the world we wish to create. We ignore the ones that don’t.

Life is a rich and complex interweaving of inner and outer stories. Here are a few threads that seem to run throughout.

1. We tell others stories based on our perspective of the truth.


I just finished the book Dodger by Terry Pratchett, and in the book (a historical fantasy according to the author’s note at the end) Charles Dickens explains to Dodger how truth is a fog. This explanation comes after Dodger’s encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd. Dodger is hailed as a  hero, but he dislikes the description because Sweeney Todd “wasn’t bad, he was mad, and sad, and lost in his ‘ead.”[ ] “I mean, I ain’t no hero, ‘cos I don’t think he was a villain, sir, if you get my drift.” Charlie then explains how truth is anything but simple because it all depends on perspective. “Truth is a fog, in which one man sees the heavenly host and the other one sees a flying elephant.”

Think about eye-witnesses. Every single one sees a different accident because every one of them sees it from a different perspective. That’s part of what makes eye-witnesses so terribly unreliable.

So what does this mean for your writing? First off, it’s a great way to develop character. Second, who you choose to be the narrator determines the story. Sometimes people go with more than one narrator for that very reason. And finally, think about how aware (or not)  your character is about their and others’ bias in perspective. What do they do when something challenges their “world?” How close does their story stick to the facts? Reliable narrator or unreliable narrator.

Best Foot Forward

2. We tell others the stories we want them to hear. This, of course, involves not only what we say, but maybe even more importantly, what we don’t say. A lot of our self-esteem is tied up in what other people think of us, and so it makes sense that we–both consciously and unconsciously–try to shape that image with the stories we share. If I want people to think I’m strong and practical, I might not want to share how I got all teary-eyed when the cat died in the Ramona and Beezus movie I was watching with my daughters.

This summer I got a bit bogged down in how to start the story I was working on. Mind you, I’d already written several different beginnings, but I wanted to use the “best” one. I finally figured out how to start the novel when I remembered to “ask” Jane (the narrator) how she would tell the story. To make a story ring true, the author must always remember who is telling that story. What would that character share or keep secret?

On the flip side, sometimes people hear what they want to hear–no matter what they are told. Terry Pratchett (being a master writer) uses this in his book, Dodger. The main character tells the crowd that he didn’t fight off the terrible villain Mister Sweeney Todd, but it doesn’t matter. The people are sure Dodger is a hero who valiantly fought off a savage murderer. That, after all, is a much more interesting story than carefully disarming a war veteran who is in the midst of a post-tramatic stress flashback.

The Upper Story

 3. We tell stories we think our audience can understand and relate to. 

I’ve worked with 7th and 8th graders for many years now, but still find myself talking over their heads. All those blank looks, and I know I need to change my story into something easier. Think about it, the story you tell about where babies come from changes depending on whether you are talking to a 7-year-old or a 13-year-old. (And, for those twenty to sixty ((and above)) you might get something like Fifty Shades of Grey)

On a less physical note, I was thinking about this idea of story and audience at church where we are reading through The Story, which is the Bible put in chronological order. As we study each chapter, the pastor makes a point of talking about the Upper Story and the Lower Story. The Upper Story is what God is doing to bring about His plan of salvation. The Lower Story is all the daily lives and dramas of the Israelites–and us. So maybe God tells the story of salvation through the daily dramas because that is what we can understand. Think of myths. Zeus with his thunderbolts was something the people of the time could understand and picture. Could it be that when the Bible was written, the earth being created in six days was understandable, whereas millions of years of change was not so understandable.

In your writing — How do your characters shape their stories based on audience? And of course, some of the conflict comes in the misunderstanding between characters, so maybe your characters don’t understand each other’s stories.


4. Stories give value.

The book, Significant Objects, talks about a study where authors were hired to write a story about an object and then sell that object online along with the story. The results of the study showed that a good story made an object more valuable. I thought a lot about this. It seems to hold true to more than just objects. Think about people. So easy to stereotype–until you get to know an individual’s stories. That is when we start to see them as a person of value, maybe because so often our stories share common elements. In each story, we can see a small reflection of ourself.

And finally,

5. The stories we share with others either let people in, expanding their world and ours, or shut them out, locking us in. In your writing, do you (and your characters) shut doors or open them? Something to ponder as you build words and worlds.

Worlds of Stories


The Lies We Tell Ourselves

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

One of the things that fascinates me the most about being hardwired for STORY, is the stories we tell ourselves. How much of those stories are true, and how much are lies? And are we even aware when we lie to ourselves? I know I am sometimes, but what about the rest of the time?

We all tell stories to ourselves that aren’t true. This is partly because nobody can ever be completely objective. We see the world through the filter of our past, our experiences, our upbringing, our expectations. This means the stories we tell are biased. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing–as long as you realize it. This is where it becomes important to listen to the stories and opinions of others, even those that are opposite of ours–especially those that our opposite. What scares me about today is how many people get their “news” from Facebook or Twitter. The ability to filter the world is both a blessing and a curse. What if we only follow those who are like us? Those who have the same beliefs and the same ideals. Those who say only things we like to hear. How will we ever know if we are lying to ourselves if we never check our stories against what others say and believe?

Sometimes it is good to lie to yourself. How can this be, you ask? Well, let me tell you about student teaching. The only way I survived was to keep telling myself I was confident, it was no big deal. I needed that “story” to act confident. It’s the whole, “fake it til you make it” thing. (Which, now that I think of it, was how I survived high school too.) Still, I was aware that it was a story I was telling myself. Head games.

Use this in your writing. In my first novel, Black Dragon, the protagonist tells herself a story

Dragon Fighter

to stay alive. She tells herself that she is a dragon fighter because dragon fighters fight, they don’t just give up and die. Think about the stories your characters tell in their heads. How can you use these to help your character survive and grow?

Sometimes it’s not good to lie to yourself. I’ve listened to people tell themselves stories about being incompetent, uncreative, or stupid. The saddest part is when they really believed those stories. Here’s the thing about stories–they have power. Even if you say those kind of things without really meaning them, eventually, if you tell yourself that story long enough, you start to believe it. It becomes true–to you.

Use this in your writing. The negative self-talk can tell us a lot about a character. But the opposite is true too. What if you have a character who thinks German are superior and Jews are inferior? Or what if you have a character who’s inner story is that he is a genius and all other people are idiots? What kind of things would that character be willing to do? Take a look at the Columbine shootings if you want the answer to that question.

Columbine by Dave Cullens

I’d read and heard a lot about the shootings at Columbine–of course, working in a school made me extra sensitive to all of it. But I couldn’t wrap my head around how these two boys could walk around that school shooting people and whooping it up like they were having fun. What kind of things were they telling themselves that made it “okay” for them to do such horrible things to people they knew? Finally one of my friends recommended the book Columbine by Dave Cullen. The book is non-fiction, but reads like a novel. I couldn’t put it down. Sifting through thousands of reports, police records, journal entires and more, the author paints a very chilling picture of Eric Harris as a psychopath who believed he was superior to all. Eric Harris’s warped inner story is what allowed him to shoot classmates in cold blood.

At the time I was reading Columbine, I was struggling with one of the characters in my YA manuscript, I Feel For You, and I started to think the solution involved that character’s inner story. So what do I do when I’m stuck in my writing? More research, of course. (not that I’m advising this) I read the book, The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule (An excellent book about serial killer Ted Bundy) and Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare, PHD. One of the things that struck me most was the sentence, “Psychopaths frequently see themselves as the real victim.” How someone’s inner story could be so far from the truth was astonishing to me. Ted Bundy worked on a Crisis Hotline helping people through some terrible dark moments. Yet he was a brutal killer. The disconnect still boggles my mind.

Broken Inner Stories

One of the reasons I write is to understand myself, others, the world around me. And those things that boggle my mind keep me writing. Hope it works the same way for you.


Made Of Story (& 5 Ways This Impacts Your Writing)

Made of Story

Back in the early days of February, I wrote about how I began thinking about The Importance of Story. Story kept cropping up in all sorts of places, and it eventually got to the point where I knew I’d have to write about it to connect all the dots. So today I want to look at how we as humans are essentially made of story.

First off, stories help us remember or learn what is important–the things that help us survive. Don’t believe me? Think about the difference of having someone tell you not to drive a car while texting, and then watch this BBC film that tells the story of a fictional 17-year-old girl, Cassie Cowan (nickname Cow), who is distracted for a few seconds while driving with two friends. who texted while driving (Warning, it is very graphic) The story makes the lesson much easy to remember than just the warning.

Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, explains how story is uniquely human.

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but important as opposable thumbs. Thumbs help us hold on to things and story tells us what to hold on to.

Second, story is how we know who we are, and how we explain our behavior. In the book, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales, the author quotes Tilmann Habermas, a psychologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, who wrote:

“memories are strung together into a ‘coherent, ongoing narrative’ to create what we know of as identity. From the age of about ten, the left hemisphere of the brain begins to create that narrative, arranging it in episodes and giving it coherence as adolescence ends and we enter our adult years.”

Gonzales also quotes Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology who refers to the left brain as a “baloney-generator” that helps us explain our behavior.

Baloney – Generator

“Often those explanations have nothing to do with reality. They’re simply the stories that we tell ourselves to help us get around in the world. ‘The conscious mind,’ Pinker said, ‘is a spin doctor.’ LeDoux concurs: ‘People normally do all sorts of things for reasons they are not consciously aware of.’ And: ‘One of the main jobs of consciousness is to keep our life tied together into a coherent story.'”

Of course, Surviving Survival is a book about what happens in the brain when a person goes through a traumatic event. A trauma causes problems even after it ends because it has interrupted that narrative of life. But this brain science has relevance to all humans–partly because we all go through at least one traumatic event in our lives, and partly because this linking of memories, this created narrative defines our identity. Who we are is determined, in part, by the stories we tell ourselves.

Another interesting post on this topic is by Eva Grayzel.

Story World

And finally, story helps us understand the larger world/universe in a way that we can understand. I became interested in this idea of story when I was reading Terry Pratchett’s books this past summer. In his book A Hat Full of Sky, a Hiver (a creature who consumes the minds of those he takes over) comes after Tiffany. A one point Tiffany finds out that the Hiver is afraid of everything. Tiffany thinks she understands, but the Hiver thinks otherwise.

“Lucky humans, who can close your minds to the endless cold deeps of space! You have this thing you call…boredom? That is the rarest talent in the universe! We heard a song–it went ‘Twinkle twinkle little star….’ What power! What wondrous power! You can take a billion trillion tons of flaming matter, a furnace of unimaginable strength, and turn it into a little song for children! You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds, and that keeps infinity at bay and allow you to wake up in the morning without screaming!”

In summary, story helps us learn or remember what is important, know who we are and explain our behavior, and make sense of the world in a way that doesn’t drive us mad.

So what does this mean for your writing, your characters?

1. What stories help your characters learn or remember important events?

2. What is the narrative your characters use to establish their identity and explain their behavior?

3. How do traumatic events break that narrative?

4. How does your character write/develop a new narrative? 

5. What stories do your characters cling to in order to find meaning in the wider world? Or, for that matter, what happens when your character cannot find a story to help him/her understand the world in a way that keeps him/her sane? (Insane can be fun to write.)

Tune in later for How To Lie To Yourself and How To Lie To Others.

The Importance of Story

Perfect Storm (picture by Roger Kirby)

I started thinking about the importance of story in one of those perfect storm sort of ways where a bunch of things all seem to converge at once. It began with a good book–which, I personally believe is where most good things start. I had become rather bored with the current rash of dystopic fiction. Not that I didn’t enjoy Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Legend (which, by the way, now has a sequel out), and Divergent (among others). But between the fictional and the real world doom and gloom (think politics in Michigan), I was in the mood for something a bit lighter. That’s when I found Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books: The

1st Tiffany Aching Book

Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. The books are all great fantasy adventures, but as a great storyteller, Pratchett weaves in the truths of humanity–some light and some dark. And many times throughout the novels, he talks about the power of stories, both the ones we tell ourselves, and the ones we tell others.

Right about that time (end of summer and beginning of a new school year), I came across a book (see? books again. I’m telling you, all good things….) called Significant Objects. The book:

Significant Objects

Collects the results of a literary experiment in which a best-selling or popular author wrote a short fictional prose story about an object on eBay, raising its value; the profit from the object’s sale then went to charity.


It was determined that in each case, it was the story that raised the value of the object. People bought the object because of the story. It got me thinking about what I value and why. How much do we value people because we know their story? And what happens when we learn the story of someone we previously didn’t like, or trust, or understand? Do they then gain value in our eyes? Could sharing stories destroy prejudice or racism? This was, so to speak, the second storm.

The third “story storm” came from, believe it or not, church. We started reading the book The Story, which is the Bible put in chronological order. Each Sunday the pastor talked about the Upper Story–what God was doing to restore humanity to His original plan to

The Story

create a place where He could live with us in perfect community–and the Lower Story–which is all the drama and actions that occurred on a daily basis among the Israelites (or us, for that matter). So this is God’s story, but it is also our story because He wrote us in as characters. We are not, however, the main character or the narrator. Sometimes it’s very easy for me to forget that. Human nature, I believe. We all want to be the hero or heroine of the story. Each Sunday I would hear more about the upper and the lower story and it would add to the swirling story storm in my head.

Of course, in the creation of this storm, there are other factors besides the three listed above. These are other things I have heard, read, experienced, written that shape my thinking as well. The Book Thief, Fahrenheit 451, Black Dragon, or other stories I’ve told myself to survive hard times… we live and breathe story.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring the importance of story and what part it plays in our lives. Come join me and be a part of this story.

Story Storm