Everyone loves a good story. For good or ill, stories help us make sense of the world.
They can teach us an eternal truth, like one of Jesus’ parables, or manipulate us for political ends.
We can use them to spread the gospel or, in our post-truth, hyper-connected world, convince people to vote for a presidential candidate. Stories have a persuasive power that mere facts or abstract ideas lack.
Dan Taylor, a Christian expert on storytelling, remembers watching the parting of the Red Sea in the film The Ten Commandments at a California drive-in in the 1950s.
“It was enough to make me stop chewing on the popcorn and start chewing on the idea that God was God and that, when he wanted to, he could do eye-popping things,” he said.
Taylor compared that experience with just telling a child, “God is powerful.” “Certainly true,” he said. “Nothing I would disagree with, then or now. But also nothing that would make me stop chewing on my popcorn.”
The mysterious power of story
Today’s storytellers have more tools than ever before.
“We’re living through a big bang of storytelling—a shockingly rapid expansion of the universe of stories in every direction,” Jonathan Gottschall wrote in The Story Paradox. “We’re living in the age of social media, peak TV, twenty-four-hour news channels, and skyrocketing total media consumption.”
Stories draw power from a mysterious quality called “narrative transportation.”
“We all know this delicious feeling of being swept into a story world. You forget about your surroundings, and you’re entirely immersed,” Liz Neeley, an expert in telling stories about science, told NPR.
Scientists have even found that when you listen to a story, your brainwaves can start to synchronize with the storyteller’s. No wonder facts seem to have lost much of their persuasive power; stories have become more important than substance.
When story trumps facts
As an example, consider President Donald Trump’s phone call in July 2019 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, when Trump urged Zelensky to announce an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
“The substance of the investigations was immaterial,” Bruno Maçães wrote in History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America. “What Trump wanted was for them to be announced in a television interview. As the Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland—a major character in the plot—would put it in his House hearing, the Ukrainian president ‘had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them.’ Having entered the media bloodstream, the news would slowly work its poison.”
Democrats also know how to use the power of story—or narrative, as it has become fashionable to call it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can discuss the subject like a literary critic or speech professor.
“Everyone in public service needs to be a master storyteller,” she told the podcast Pod Save America. “My advice is to make arguments with your five senses and not five facts. Use facts as supporting evidence, but we need to show we are having the same human experience. You have to tell the story of me, us, and now. The America we had even under Obama is gone. That is the nature of time. We have to tell the story of the crossroads.”
Maçães described her entrance into national politics as “straight out of a fairytale.” With no previous political experience, she unseated a longtime Democratic congressman from Queens, New York, before she turned thirty.
“Her Green New Deal is carefully crafted not as a policy plan but as a quest,” he wrote. “Politico called it ‘the Impossible Dream of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.’ She knows that the proposals will never be approved, but that hardly matters because opposition and rejection are part of the story.”
The words “the Impossible Dream” refer to a song from Man of La Mancha, a play inspired by the early seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. When it comes to effective narratives, the classics never go out of style.
The 7 basic plots of a story
The late PBS correspondent Christopher Booker wrote a 700-page book identifying “seven basic plots” in the narrative arts:
- The quest
- Voyage and return
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
These archetypes of stories have been told and retold—with contemporary twists—because they have a timeless appeal, whether they are fact or fiction.
“Crucially, a good story will also have some sort of meaning,” Philip Seargeant wrote in The Art of Political Storytelling. “It’s not just about what happened, but about how we feel about what happened.
“It’s this aspect of stories which makes them such an important form of emotional engagement. In fact, we could say that we primarily understand a story in emotional terms, empathizing with the hero, detesting the villain, getting caught up in the jeopardy of the narrow escapes and sudden reversals in the plot.”
How stories transform us
Stories also have a way of breaking down barriers between people.
“To understand others and help them understand us, we must make a human connection, and the way to do this is through stories,” Arthur C. Brooks wrote in Love Your Enemies.
It’s hard to hate someone when you know their personal story. That’s one of the ways stories can help us change our minds. The real world is messy and complicated, but a story also can simplify things into an understandable pattern.
“We consume fact-based arguments with our defenses on high alert,” Gottschall wrote. “We’re critical and suspicious—especially when those arguments run counter to our existing convictions. But when we’re absorbed in a story, we relax our intellectual defenses.”
When it comes to transformative power, nothing matches the Bible, a collection of stories centering around the overarching story of Jesus.
“Once we have heard it, we are not allowed to stay the same,” Taylor, the Christian expert on storytelling, said. “The gospel story judges our story and finds it wanting. It is a judgment we are invited to accept or reject. If we accept it, then we choose, like characters in a story, to change the plot of our lives. In so doing we do not give up who we are; we become more of who we are, that is, more of who we were always meant to be.”
That’s one of the reasons it’s called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”