Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Power of Stories

Last summer my husband and I contemplated taking our girls camping for the first time. We scoured the internet looking for the perfect site. My husband sent me a link to a campground. It was breathtaking; sharp mountains staring down on a clear glassy lake guarded by tall pines. I could almost smell that fresh pine scent and feel the cool mountain breeze coming off of the lake. It was perfect.

But at the end of his e-mail he wrote, this is the place where the boy was attacked by a bear.

I hate to admit it, but my heart filled with dread, and suddenly the campsite didn’t look so appealing.

Statistically speaking, there are approximately two fatal bear attacks per year in the entire United States. This is only the second one that occurred in my state in my entire adult life. Being struck by lightning is far more likely to happen. And honestly the most dangerous part of a camping trip is the car ride. And there are plenty of precautions that can be taken to significantly lower the probability of bear roaming into your campsite.

But I remember hearing the story of the bear attack on the news, and it struck an emotional chord. I was a new parent and hyper-sensitive to anything involving children being harmed. I felt for the parents who were just trying to take their kids on a nice trip. I imagined the terror of the little boy when the bear dragged him from the tent, and the pain of the parents who were powerless to save him. The story got to me on an emotional level.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Emotion is powerful. It persuades us in a way that nothing else can, and it is vividly stored in memories. In fact, emotional events in our lives are recalled more frequently and more accurately than non-emotional events.

Don’t we all remember exactly where we were on 9/11 or when we heard about the Columbine shootings? What are the events you remember most vividly from your childhood? Aren’t they all tied to strong emotions?

Stories seek to evoke some sort of emotional response. Think about the books you’ve read or the movies you’ve seen. Aren’t the stories that resonated with you on an emotional level the ones that stay with you the longest? Aren’t they the ones that had the biggest impact on you?

There is power in creating a story that emotionally connects to the reader. The power to introduce new ideas and open minds. Not all stories do this or want to do this, but some stories do.

The real life story of the boy getting attacked by a bear had a big impact on me. The emotional connection I made with that family (people I don’t even know) was persuasive enough that even years later, it made me pause. I knew better. I knew I was being irrational. That beautiful campground was as safe as any campground can ever be, but still, the story was powerful.

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Joseph Stalin

I believe we humans are story telling creatures. It is how we have learned from others’ experiences. “John ate those red berries, and he got sick.” “Mary chewed on this leaf, and her toothache went away.”

Cause and effect is not that simple. It may not be true that the red berries made John sick or the leaf cured Mary’s toothache. But it gives others a good idea of what to try and not to try.

Anecdotal evidence is the thorn in the paw of science. A lot of people are more likely to believe in anecdotal evidence than statistics. And I understand why. Stories draw us in and speak to us on an emotional level.

The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it really isn’t evidence. Just because B happened after A doesn’t mean that A caused B. That is a logic fail. The only way to really determine if A caused B is through careful, meticulous testing. Also, anecdotes don’t tell the whole story because not everyone shares their experiences. The sad truth is that dead men can’t tell their stories. So honestly, making serious health decisions based solely on anecdotal evidence can be dangerous. All of this is explained better here.

But numbers just don’t have the emotional impact that an anecdote does. Numbers aren’t a story. But it is important to remember that every statistic has a human face. There are real people behind the numbers. Stalin may have been right when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic,” but really every one of those millions of men had a story.

I do understand the impact that those anecdotes have. They have the same emotional effect on me. I knew that statistically speaking a bear attack was so unlikely to happen that it really didn’t warrant any concern, but I still hesitated. A lot of times I have to separate myself from the emotion of an anecdote and focus on the facts. Truth is in the numbers, but those emotional connections, especially those that feed into our fears and our hopes, are hard to ignore.

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?” William Shakespeare

The most powerful part of storytelling is helping us connect to other people. They help us to learn how to empathize with each other and understand each other.

This is particularly important in bridging gaps. Stories have the power to connect us to our past, to our future, and to those who are different from us whether those differences are racial, religious, political, socioeconomically, or cultural. Stories have the ability to strip away those differences and show as that at the core we are all the same. We are all human.

I don’t remember what the family of the boy attacked by the bear looked like. Honestly it doesn’t matter. I connected to them through the basic human emotions of love, fear, and loss. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live, everyone has experienced these emotions. Everyone can imagine the horror of losing someone you love in such a tragic way.

The racist tweets about Rue from the Hunger Games only emphasizes how important this is. I was shocked that anyone in this day and age would be unable to connect with a character based only on her race, especially one like Rue. Amandla Stenberg did an amazing job. Honestly to me, she was Rue.

I’ve read a lot on the internet of whitewashing covers of books or characters in movies. I’ve heard that Hollywood and publishers do this because the majority of white America connects better to white characters. I've always thought that was a ridiculous notion, but after the Rue incident, I honestly don’t know if this is true. I hope it isn’t. I hope that those upset with Rue being black are in the vast minority. Whether it is true or not, these attitudes are not going to change until we stop whitewashing. Perhaps we just need more stories about people of color with covers that accurately represent those characters. Stories have the power to change these types of racist attitudes.

I really do believe there is great power in stories. Perhaps they are not the best way to decide where to camp or how to treat an illness, but they do have the power to change minds and hearts. Although I don’t think I have a world-changing story in me, the fact that some stories can and have is awesome. :)

Happy writing,



  1. I was thinking of the Hunger Games as I read your post. When I went to see it, my son teased me that I was going to cry because all the girls in his class cried when Rue died. So, apparently, the people making those tweets are idiots, because his class is nice and diverse. (My son was right, btw - I bawled lots).

    But I think I bawled just as much when Katniss took Prim's place - and that was because I could relate as a mother of children.

    There is as much variation in why a book resonates as there are people who read them. Reading, I truly believe, is a contact sport, and so is writing. Once a work is published, it's never wholly ours again because it meshes with the memories and experiences of those who read it.

    Great post.

  2. Stories are pretty powerful. I remember in my history class in college books that changed history. Uncle Toms Cabin made a lot of people in the North empathize with the slaves. The jungle about the meat industry.

    I also fear bears when in the wilderness, but if you don't have any food in the tent and change your clothes to ones you haven't eatten any food in.

  3. I disagree with you, I think you do have a world changing story inside. Even if you only change one persons world, there are always ripples.

    I dig this post. There are stories that I know I will never forget, and it's because of the emotional ties that connected my life to the characters. I think that as writers, the only way we can write stories that connect with our readers, is to write truth, even within fiction. Connect our own experiences to our stories, so that we are the first ones that won't ever forget our stories.

    Even if the only world we change with our stories is the one within our heads, there are always ripples, and those ripples can move mountains.

  4. @Susan- Yeah, I cried pretty hard when Rue died too. I knew it was coming, but I still cried pretty hard. I wasn't alone. I heard a lot of sniffles around me.

    I like what you said variations in why a book resonates with some people. I know that at various stages of my life, stories have had affected me in different ways. For example: I always loved Finding Nemo, but it resonated with me on a completely different level when I watched it after becoming a parent.

    @Anonymous- Thanks for the examples. There are a lot of important books that really have changed the course our society has taken. Some writers are just geniuses.

    @Sheena- Yeah, you got me there. I didn't think about ripples. Ripples can move mountains. :)

  5. My oldest daughter was a baby when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped. I SILL make my kids sleep with their doors open and make sure they are in bed before I go to sleep.

    The story would have had just as big an impact on me no matter what color her skin was. I'll admit that the fact she came from a wealthy home had an impact on me--not because I think rich people are better than poor people, but because I thought they would live in some kind of protected bubble. It made me feel extremely vulnerable.

    Whenever I think racism has died, a story like this appears to shock my back to my senses.


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