Marc Graham

Transforming Lives Through Story

What Is Story?

Welcome to the New Year! I hope you all had a restful and joyful holiday season.

As we return to our discussion of the Source of Story, the most obvious starting point is to define what exactly a story is.

At first, that seems a silly notion. I mean, everyone knows what a story is. Any toddler trying to put off bedtime knows what a story is.

(Of course, if you’ve ever listened to a 5-year-old try to tell a joke, you know that not everyone grasps effective story structure. More on that later.)

Perhaps the better question, then, is, What Is Story? Capital S.

In the broadest terms, Story is the oldest artificial construct known to humanity.

Before there were laws. Before there was religion. Before political parties or special interests or the world-wide funny-cat forum. Indeed, even before writing or language, there was Story.

Story is how events of the hunt were shared with the tribe. Story is how the young were taught appropriate ways of being and interacting with the tribe. Story is how the tips and tricks of survival were passed along, generation to generation.

In short, Story is the mechanism by which we interact with the world and make sense of the chaos around us.

Now, neuroscientists suggest that the brain receives some 400 billion bits of information every second, but only about 2000 bits get relayed to your consciousness. Put another way, if every person in the United States had something to tell you, by this same ratio only one or two people would actually get their message across.

Our physical brains make up the story of how we experience the world around us, deciding which sensory inputs get communicated to the thinking part of you, and which get filtered out. And not everyone’s brain works the same. This is how several people witnessing the same event can have vastly different accounts of what happened.

So, as creatives, what does this mean to us? How does understanding the nature and function of story make us better storytellers.

It begins by understanding your own story. Not simply acknowledging that it exists, but recognizing that there is an infinite number of stories that might have been concocted from the exact same set of inputs (i.e., your specific life experiences).

You were abused as a child? Okay. You can use that input to create and live the story of someone trapped in a cycle of abuse and pass that along to the next generation. Alternately, you can create a story where you break the cycle, turn trauma into strength, and set upon a mission to better lives and change the world. The possibilities and permutations are boundless.

Understanding your personal story, seeing where you’ve accepted a particular interpretation of events and experiences as The Story of You, defining who you are and how you claim your place in the world, this is the beginning of effective and impactful storytelling.

Yes, it’s possible to become a successful writer (or storyteller in other media) without plumbing the depths of your psyche. However, in order to prepare to step into and explore the Source of Story, it’s critical that you develop the capacity to look behind the fragments of story to the events underlying them. Examining the Story of You is the easiest and most productive way to begin.

To do this, I encourage each of you to get in touch with your personal story. How does it serve you? How does it get in your way? Using the same facts of your personal experience, how might you filter the experience of those events to craft a new story, one that serves you even better.

Sometimes it’s easy to answer these questions with just a bit of reflection and introspection. Sometimes it helps to discuss with a friend or even a professional counselor. Whatever works best for you, I encourage you to take the extraordinary step to consider these questions.

While this takes some effort, the good news is that the thalamus–the part of the brain that decides which bits of information from your environment get passed along to your consciousness–can be trained. By deliberately looking for the sensory cues that support whatever new story you wish to tell about your circumstances, eventually your brain will pass those along by default.

So take the time to consider the questions above. Develop a practice of peeking behind the curtain of stories, looking past the filter to the events underlying them.

Feel free to give your answers or general thoughts in the comments below. And, as always, please share this within your circle of friends and colleagues, particularly with those in the creative arts.

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Until next time,

Slainte!

*Photo credit: Shutterstock / Chaiwut

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About Marc

I help writers use the power of Story to change their readers' lives.