January 10-16: “Why do stories matter?”

Why are authors compelled to tell stories? Why are readers compelled to read them? Here’s what ITW members Matt Lynn, Amy Robertson, Teresa Burrell, Lisa Black, Pam Callow, Steven James, and Karen Dionne had to say on the subject.

Matt Lynn is the author of a best-selling series of military thrillers, featuring a group of special forces soldiers working for a Private Military Corporation. ‘Death Force’ was published in 2009, ‘Fire Force’ in 2010, and ‘Shadow Force’ will be out in 2011. He is currently working on ‘Ice Force’, which will be out in 2012. Interviews and free short story at www.mattlynn.co.uk.

Amy Dawson Robertson writes the Rennie Vogel Intrigue series, thrillers featuring the self-reliant operative Rennie Vogel in action-packed stories drawn on current events. Amy is a native Virginian and graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis. She lives in the Washington DC area and her writing interests include genre fiction, short stories and graphic novels.

Teresa Burrell has dedicated her life to helping children and their families in both the courtroom and the classroom. As an attorney in San Diego, Burrell maintained a private law practice for twelve years, which specialized in domestic, criminal, and civil cases. Her work in juvenile court focused on representing abused minors and juvenile delinquents. Burrell has received several awards and special recognition from the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program for her countless hours of pro bono work with children and their families.  Burrell has also enjoyed a satisfying career as a teacher. She has taught children of all ages with diverse backgrounds and special needs. After creating an after-school program that kept kids off the street, she received a community service award.  Now in semi-retirement in California, Burrell continues to educate groups about social issues impacting children and write novels, many of which are inspired by actual legal cases.

Lisa Black is a latent fingerprint examiner in Florida and a former forensic scientist for the Cleveland coroner’s office. She is a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and has testified in more than forty-five homicide trials. Evidence of Murder is her third Theresa MacLean novel.

Pam Callow is the author of a new legal thriller series featuring thirty-something lawyer Kate Lange. DAMAGED, the first novel of the series, was a Levy Home Entertainment “Need to Read” Pick for June, with Top Ten Bestseller placement in Target and Wal-Mart. Two more Kate Lange thrillers will be released in 2011: INDEFENSIBLE (January, 2011) and TATTOOED (Summer, 2011). A fourth will be published in June 2012. Prior to making writing a career, Pamela studied English Literature, became a member of the Nova Scotia Bar, completed a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, and worked as a strategy consultant at an international consulting firm. She lives in Halifax with her husband, two children and a pug.

Steven James is the award-winning, national bestselling author of four critically acclaimed thrillers: The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight and The Bishop. He has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling and has taught writing and creative communication throughout the world since 1999. When he’s not writing and speaking he’s playing basketball, rock climbing or eating pepperoni pizza with his three daughters.

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming is forthcoming from Berkley December 28, 2010. Karen is cofounder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. She serves on ITW’s board of directors as Vice President, Technology. She is also Managing Editor of the International Thriller Writers’ newsletter and webzine,  The Big Thrill.

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  1. Why do stories matter? It’s a good question for a writer to ask themselves. If you made cars, or taught kindergarten, or worked as a farmer, it would be much easier. Your work matters because people need it. It fulfils some function. But do people need stories? What function do they have?

    You could argue – not much. After all, they are just a made up series of events.

    I think they do have a function. After all, we’ve been telling stories ever since cavemen sat around the first camp fires. Probably a fair numbers of those stories were thrillers (featuring hair-raising bison chases, and the inevitable double-dealing Neanderthal). A fair number would have been romances as well. It must be the case that stories perform some kind of useful function, otherwise they wouldn’t have been a feature of every human society we’ve ever known. Their function might not be obvious, like a spade, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

    So what is it? In my view, the function of a story is to make sense of the world. Its takes the chaos and randomness of life and gives it some sort of shape and purpose. In fiction, there are no co-incidences, and no loose ends. That isn’t always terribly realistic. But it is a lot more satisfying for the reader because it helps to make the world seem a more structured, ordered place than it probably really is. It helps make us feel our lives move towards a destination, rather than just wander around. Along the way the stories may also be entertaining, diverting, amusing and sometimes even educational. But that is their core function – and realising that helps you to become a better writer.

    1. Matt, I like how you note that stories help us make sense of the world. Also, that romance and thrillers were some of the first genres… There’s a Jewish folk saying: “God created man because he loves stories.” Indeed, however you look at it, stories have been with us from the beginning. Good thoughts.

  2. They’re still what human beings love above all else. From cave paintings to tweets, humans will tune in for a continuing narrative. We like stories in our songs (from “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” to “Bohemian Rhapsody”), our homes (how many people set up a series of their children’s photographs showing the progression from babyhood to present day?) and our box of cereal (remember our fascination with the Folger’s coffee neighbors and their developing romance?). It’s one of the most basic and most charming things about human beings; it makes me, at least, feel happy and calm to think that while so much in the world has changed, that hasn’t.
    I also believe that fictional stories can fall into two camps: problem-solving and what-if. Sometimes a plot is rattling around in your head because you noticed something that intrigued or upset you. Your home was burglarized. A friend’s child is developmentally disabled. The country goes to war. You think: how could I have handled this better? and a plot is born. The what-ifs are perhaps more fun: What if there was this whole other planet, where people had green skin and personal spacecrafts? What if I were psychic? What if I turned into a wolf? Or not so fun: what if the Allies had lost WWII? What if my child never came home from school one day?
    Of course the two can be combined. What if my friend’s child were developmentally disabled and then found next to a murdered teacher, and my lawyer character had to keep him from a jail for the criminally insane? And, incidentally, figure out if he really did it or not, just for his own peace of mind?
    The possibilities are endless.
    That’s the other thing human beings like about stories.

  3. Another reason stories matter is because they excite the emotions. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. A factual news report, “xxx number killed in tsunami,” gets the job done. But “When Toshimi Katamura saw the wall of water racing toward him, he –” is far more involving because it appeals to our emotions.

    Stories connect us to each other through shared emotional experience. Even when they’re fiction!

    1. Good example. I think that lots of news reporting actually undermines the dignity and value of human life by muting evil–“A suicide bomber killed fifteen people today in Baghdad and the Cubs won four to two.” There is not grief, there are no tears, no humanizing of the tragedy and the victims. But when we hear their stories, when we find that emotional connection you mention, we become more human. At least in the ways that matter most.

  4. Double-dealing Neanderthal — I like it!

    When I was thinking this morning about this question, like Matt, the prevalence of romances and mysteries and thrillers came to mind. It’s no accident that they are most popular genres and will always outsell more highly regarded literary fiction because they take a world where there is injustice or illogic or where something is off-kilter and set things right. And the first rule of romance is that it there is always a happy ending. There is a comfort in that.

    I agree with what others have said, that the consumption of stories is universal and seems to have a myriad of functions. They can be culturally instructional — showing children how to live, what behavior is appropriate, and what their world view should be. They can show us what we should fear and give us a safe haven to explore that fear. More subtly, stories can offer the reader/listener a way to navigate relationships — or on the other hand the way not to. Fundamentally, we humans find nothing more endlessly fascinating than ourselves and even though we remain in so many ways inscrutable, stories allow us to contantly scratch away at our psyches, continually mining our own psychological conundrums.

    1. “It’s no accident that they are most popular genres and will always outsell more highly regarded literary fiction”

      More highly regarded by whom? 🙂

  5. As a writer, I write fiction because it’s just plain fun to write. I use the juvenile court venue because I not only know it well, but it’s also a way of providing information about the horrendous things that go on in the world of child abuse. If I wrote a non-fiction book about child abuse…who would read it? I wouldn’t. But by creating a legal suspense novel, the reader can be entertained and still be enlightened about a subject they likely would otherwise choose to ignore. As Matt said, stories have been told since the caveman and they were often a learning tool. Legends passed on from one generation to another were a combination of knowledge and entertainment.

    As a reader I read fiction so I can experience a world different from my own. I feel like I’m in that world when I’m reading. In a well-written book the descriptions give me just enough to see in my mind what something is like, but they leave enough for me to put my own life experiences into understanding the scenes so that I can fit in.

    Stories come in all forms, but there’s noting quite like the novel. Movies (don’t get me wrong, I love them) give me such a visual that they leave little of me to put into the scenes. I go to a movie when I choose to not use my brain cells, or if I want to eat popcorn (because movie popcorn tastes so much better than what I make at home.) But if I want to have a new adventure where I’m totally absorbed, I read a good book.

  6. Everyone loves a good story. It starts when a mom tells a child a fairy tale and continues to intrigue us all throughout life. Stories matter for me because they provide an escape. Whether I’m the narrator or the audience, the moment the words enter my mind, the pictures start to play out in my imagination and the next flight of the magic carpet begins. Without stories, we would always be stuck in the here and now.

    1. Joe, I think you’re right to note that stories offer escape. Tolkien was once asked by a reporter why he wrote escapist stories and he said, “If you’re living in prison, who wouldn’t want to escape?” For all of the glory and wonder of our world, there is also grief and pain and heartache–this is a deep part of the paradox of the human condition, and providing people a glimpse at hope amidst tragedy or wonder or laughter amidst pain is a great calling.

  7. The topic this week really got me thinking. Obviously, stories matter to us all, they help us make sense of the world, we enjoy them, we find deep meaning in them, empathy, etc… but is there more?

    When I was considering all of this, I remembered watching Braveheart and how, amidst one of the battles, I’d realized that one day I will die.

    Yes, obvious, I know.

    But here’s the thing, the paradox of it all—I while already know I’m going to die, I don’t seem to really believe it. After all, if I did, I would live differently, worry about different things, prioritize in other ways.

    In a way, the story opened my eyes to a truth I already knew. Novels use a pretend world to help us to better see the real one. And it seems to me we need constant reminding. Because we know all sorts of things that we don’t seem to believe: love conquers all, eternity is but a heartbeat away, relationships are more valuable than possessions, etc…
    I know this sounds a little odd to say, but stories help us to start believing the things we already know. After a story that has deeply engaged us, we drink in life more deeply, notice the sunsets more, the laughter of children more, value relationships more. Maybe that’s why we cry at the movies even though we know the stories aren’t real. Because the truths of life and death and love and hope and romance are real and we start to resonate with that.

    If a story is well-told, when we “suspend our disbelief” during it, we actually open ourselves
    up to finally stop suspending our disbelief in reality and—if only for a moment—-to begin to truly believe in our hearts the truths we already know in our heads.

    1. Steven James: I really appreciate your thoughts on this topic, the idea that stories help us to believe what we already know. With stories, we are willing to think about controversial issues and to let down our guard, as opposed to real life, in which many of us seem to double our defenses.

      Karen Dionne: I fully agree that stories help connect people. News reports that tell a story impact more people than stories that list lots of statistics.

  8. Great comments, everyone! My view on why stories matter is that stories allow people to digest universal truths in a personal, accessible manner. A few years ago, while I was struggling with how to develop a story arc, I attended a workshop in which a writer synopsized Christopher Vogler’s “The Hero’s Journey.” It was an epiphany for me as a writer. In “The Hero’s Journey”, Vogler applies blockbuster movie examples to Joseph Campbell’s examination of (if I recall correctly) mythic story structure. What Vogler demonstrated was that blockbuster movies rely on a story archetype that has been around for thousands of years — and what made these movies into blockbusters was how they revealed universal truths.

    Personally, I prefer the layers of character arcs that a good book provides over a blockbuster movie, but the story archetypes are similar. I’ve been asked by interviewers, “what makes a good thriller?” In my mind, the answer is simple: the same thing that makes a good book. Suspense develops when readers care about what happens next to the characters — and readers care about characters when they can relate to a universal experience.

  9. On a recent interview I admitted I had an issue reconciling the commandment that “thou shall not lie” with the idea of writing lies, even if we refer to them as “fiction”.
    The clincher for me was that, as opposed to lies where you usually generate evil, a fiction or tale can bring something good. And it should.
    As some authors already pointed out, we relate to the story characters and would like to know what becomes of them.


    1. Years ago I found that conundrum so interesting that I based part of my master’s degree thesis on it. Augustine defined a lie as “something spoken with the intent to deceive.” Stories in novels aren’t told to deceive people, but to tell them the truth about life. Reader expectations affect all of this. So, for example, if I told you a campfire story, a tall tale, and then someone asked you if I’d told you the truth, you would likely reply that I did not. But then if they asked you if I lied, you wouldn’t accuse me of that either. I entertained you, perhaps amused you, or bored you but your expectations and the context helped you understand the storytelling event. On the other hand, I think that if we present novels as true (or based on true events) then we are changing reader expectations and by doing so run the risk of creating instances where they might feel deceived (such as when a book comes out that claims to be true but is not closely based on the truth, like the Million Little Pieces book a few years ago).

  10. I agree with Steven. How can it be a lie if the receiver of the information knows upfront it isn’t real. And if fiction is a book of lies, then what is a painting? Does an artist intend to deceive when he/she paints a picture? If fiction is a lie then most, if not all, artwork would be a lie as well. Artists often paint scenes that don’t actually exist or they may paint their interpretation of something real. I guess that would make Picasso a real sinner.

  11. This is such an interesting question. Along the same lines, what about when characters, especially villains, aren’t presented in a way that approaches reality? I think I’ve noticed this most often in the presentation of serial killers. They are regularly glamorized, their crimes are depicted as clever puzzles, and their back stories often have a direct causal link to their crimes.

    Of course, the public seems to have an unquenchable thirst for this type of character. And I think it’s possible that if writers wrote the charaters more realistically, readers might be turned off since in reality these crimes can be simultaneously gruesome, bleak and banal.

    Then there is also the question, especially with thrillers, of stoking reader’s fears. I wonder if writers generally feel any sort of ethical responsibility when approaching hot button issues. I’m not saying they necessarily should but perhaps there is a kind of blurring of genre boundaries when events and villains are exaggerated — then the thriller comes nearer to horror.

    1. I think that in our culture violence is often glamorized–or muted, and when it is portrayed in either direction, it desensitizes people to violence. For example, in a slasher movie the villain ends up being the most interesting character and evil is made to look glamorous or attractive. On the other hand, when you watch the news they might say, “A suicide bomber killed fifteen people today in Baghdad, and the Cubs beat the Phillies 4 to 2.” In this case, there is no grief, no pain, over the loss of human life. I try in my books to hold up the dignity and worth of human life by making the crimes gritty and real–and the worth of something is only shown by how much it hurts to lose that thing. So, I want to show the pain of grief and loss, made it real. It’s my goal to make evil disturbing rather than alluring or titillating.

  12. Steve,
    I brought the subject up, but you summed it up beautifully. Your thesis must have rocked!
    Yes, the intention to gain something by deceiving is what separates us from plain liars. Thanks!

    Great question. Maybe not my place to answer you, but please bare with me as I think I have an example of good morality shown by an author:
    Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” deals with some terrorist planting a nuclear device withing US land. By then, Tom had already plenty of fans that loved his technical details in weaponry, and indeed he went on and explained in length how the nuke worked. But on a post script on the last page, he said it not all real as he did not want to give a manual to make such weapons so he changed a few things. (I’m paraphrasing here, I read the book so long ago.). Hope this was helpful.
    So, as author, I think we have the responsibility not to make bad deeds look so good people may imitate them.


  13. Digressing in another direction, does our question beg the further question: do some stories matter more than others? I don’t think that can be answered because it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Is “Jack and Jill” a sweeping summary of our basic human condition–you find your hill but you’ll fall down a few times too–or is it just a silly rhyme that popped into someone’s head one day and became disproportionately popular because any lilting cadence will amuse children? I would never make a value judgment of a book (well, not out loud, at any rate) or believe that literature with a capital L is somehow more important to our society than (sniff) genre fiction.

  14. I also have no desire to help criminals become more proficient criminals. I’ll always gloss over certain details and leave certain things out rather than give them a good pointer they wouldn’t already know.

  15. Fascinating question by Lisa – do some stories matter more than others? The answer is surely yes. I was watching a fllm of ‘A Christmas Carol’ a few weeks ago with my kids, and it struck me what a fantastic story that is. The characters and themes have seeped into our culture so completely it is amazing to think they started with one guy, a pen and a sheet of paper. So clearly a story like that matters more than most.

    I think one of the things we all try to do as writers is to make our stories matter more than all the other books on the shelves. We do that by telling universal truths in a way that is so vivid and compellig that they have real impact. Probably none of us will ever be quite as good at it as Dickens, however.

  16. Interesting and thought-provoking conversation. I’d like to weigh in on the question—do some stories matter more than others? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes.

    That being said, certainly most/all of us would agree that there are standout stories with universal themes that promote values, ethics and/or teach life lessons. However, the beauty of storytelling and story receiving, so to speak, is that the reader is the arbiter of whether the story matters. And while A Christmas Carol is likely remarkable to most, every story has the potential to matter to someone in a meaningful way.

    As writers, we never know what is going to provoke an emotional response or resonate with readers. I think that’s why people keep reading, regardless of what they choose to read–genre fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry. They are eager to experience stories that matter to them, whether or not they matter to anyone else. From my perspective, reading is somewhat of a spiritual journey.

  17. And let’s not forget, stories matter just for the pure entertainment value they provide us. As far as I’m concerned anything that brings me pleasure certainly “matters.” And stories definitely do that for me.

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