The Power of Story
“Tell me a story.” From children’s bedtimes to corporate boardrooms, stories have power to shape our dreams and fuel our imaginations. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, the historian Noah Yuval Harari argues that stories are what make us human: “Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.”
Every culture around the world tells stories. These stories are a way to share ideas, experiences, beliefs, and cultural traditions. Stories teach, inspire, and create community.
WHY Stories matter
Words have power. Liza Long, an English professor at the College of Western Idaho and one of the authors of this book, learned firsthand how powerful stories can be when she shared an essay about her struggles to parent a child who had mental illness after the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The essay, published by Boise State University’s The Blue Review under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” went viral. One person who read the essay was Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA), a member of the U.S. Congress tasked with investigating the causes of Newtown and proposing ways to prevent future tragedies. Murphy reached out to Long, who testified about the urgent need for mental healthcare services at a March 2013 House Energy and Commerce Committee Forum, “After Newtown.”
Although many other experts shared their experiences, it was Long’s personal story of a sweet, kind, bright little boy who had been sent to jail four times because of his illness that really caught lawmakers’ attention. Four years later, in 2016, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act passed the House with a vote of 422 for and 2 against. Elements of this bill, including the creation of a new Assistant Secretary of Mental Health position, were incorporated into the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act signed into law by President Obama in 2019. (For more ideas about writing for social change, see here—link to Writing for Social Change chapter).
“I thought I was alone,” she said when interviewed about the impact of her essay. “I soon learned that millions of other people were living my story.”
Long’s experience shows that powerful, well-told stories can connect our writing to our audience. Stories can be used in a variety of writing contexts—as stand-alone narratives that entertain, as “hooks” for persuasive essays, and as ways to illustrate concepts in essays written to inform.
What Is A Story?
What is a story? Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We call this time order (or chronological order). Sometimes a story may use a flashback or skip around in time, but most stories follow a narrative arc, described by the 19th-century German novelist Gustave Freytag in five stages:
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Dénouement (or resolution).
Writers may be more familiar with these terms from studying short stories or novels. However, the same narrative arc applies to effective nonfiction stories. The journalist’s questions—who, what, when, where, how, and why—are useful to developing a story arc.
Key Characteristics of Narrative Writing
- Tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end
- Uses a subjective tone (not objective)
- Can use first or third person
- Uses descriptive language and imagery
- Often includes dialogue
- Makes a point
Essay Types within this Chapter
- Personal narrative essay
- Literacy narrative essay
- Narrative nonfiction essay