January 14 – 20: “Why do stories matter?”

This week we discuss the wide-ranging impact of our stories and try to answer the question: “Why do stories matter?” Join ITW Members C.E. Lawrence, Amy Lignor, Derek J. Goodman, J. G. Faherty, James Grippando, Mike Befeler, Merry Jones, William McCormick, Chris Allen, Catherine Stovall, Maynard Sims, Catherine Jordan and Lee Weeks.

Besides THE BURNING, JG Faherty is the author of the Bram Stoker Award®-nominated GHOSTS OF CORONADO BAY. His other books include CEMETERY CLUB, CARNIVAL OF FEAR, THE COLD SPOT, and HE WAITS, along with 25-odd short stories. He enjoys urban exploring, photography, hiking, and playing the guitar. As a child, his favorite playground was a 17th-century cemetery, which many people feel explains a lot. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and his website.

Len & Mick writing as Maynard Sims have had numerous novels, novellas and stories published over the past thirty five years. They have run a small press, been editors, essayists and reviewers. Currently they are writing novels, screenplays and stories.

Chris Allen writes escapist action thrillers for realists. A former paratrooper, Chris retired from the Army as a Major in 1996, transitioned into humanitarian aid work during the East Timorese emergency, served with three major law enforcement agencies in Australia, protected the iconic Sydney Opera House in the wake of 9-11 and between 2008 & 2012 was the Sheriff of New South Wales. His novels DEFENDER and HUNTER feature Alex Morgan of INTREPID.”

Catherine Jordan is a Pennsylvania author of paranormal thrillers. She is a wife and mother of five children. Born in Indiana, she was raised in Northeastern PA. She is a graduate of Penn State University with a BS in Finance. Catherine has been writing stories since learning to hold a pencil. She loves family, travel, good food, great stories, and writing. “I do what I love.”

Derek J. Goodman trained as an industrial designer (hence the interest in robots and speculative fiction), and when he’s not writing he is surrounded by books in a Wisconsin library. THE REANIMATION OF EDWARD SCHUETT is published by Permuted Press.

As the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL were her heroes. Beginning with Amy’s first book of historical romance, her career flourished when her YA series THE ANGEL CHRONICLES arrived on the scene. She began developing the storyline for this new seven-book series which moved her into the world of action, adventure and romantic suspense. Working as an editor in the publishing industry for decades, Amy is now the Owner/Operator of The Write Companion, as well as a contributor to various literary publications and websites.

Merry Jones is the author of the suspense novel THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, the Harper Jennings thrillers (SUMMER SESSION, BEHIND THE WALLS, and WINTER BREAK), and the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS and THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS). She has also written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.)

Catherine Stovall is the author of the fiction series, The Requiem of Humanity, and the short story, Fearful Day. Stovall received a degree in Criminal Justice from Colorado Technical University. After working in the field for several years, she has decided to dedicate her life to her true passion, creating captivating works of fiction. She lives in Southeast Missouri with her husband, three children, and pets.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Slaughter and the eBook Silent Stalker are the most recent stories in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Her short story Silent Justice appears in Mystery Writers of America’s 2012 anthology, Vengeance, edited by Lee Child.  Her short story The Vly will appear in the MWA 2013 anthology What Lies Inside, edited by Brad Meltzer.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.  Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Star of India.

James Grippando is a New York Times bestselling author of suspense. BLOOD MONEY is his twentieth novel, the tenth in his acclaimed series featuring Miami criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck. James was a trial lawyer for twelve years before the publication of his first novel in 1994 (THE PARDON), and he now serves as Counsel to one of the nation’s leading law firms. He lives in south Florida with his wife, three children, two cats and a golden retriever named Max who has no idea he’s a dog.

Mike Befeler writes the Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery Series including CRUISING IN YOUR EIGHTIES IS MURDER, SENIOR MOMENTS ARE MURDER, RETIREMENT HOMES ARE MURDER and LIVING WITH YOUR KIDS IS MURDER, which was nominated for the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery of 2009. Mike is vice-president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

A graduate of Brown University with degrees in Ancient Studies and Computer Science, William McCormick earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester. He also studied at Lomonosov Moscow State University. His was a finalist for a 2012 Derringer Award, and received a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2013.

Lee Weeks was born in Devon. She left school at seventeen and, armed with a notebook and very little cash, spent seven years working her way around Europe and South East Asia. She returned to settle in London,marry and raise two children.She has worked as an English teacher and personal fitness trainer, a tomato pollinator and a nightclub hostess. Her books have been Sunday Times bestsellers. She now lives in Devon.

Latest posts by ITW (see all)
    With Len Maynard (as Maynard Sims) I write thriller novels – supernatural, crime and action, and also ghost stories. Stories don’t matter. Not as much as real life. Given the choice between reading and playing with my granddaughter I am afraid Peppa Pig and Lego win every time. But then again, her favorite “toys” are her books, and she has a lot. Many of them were her mummy’s, my daughter, and she loves to flick through the pages. I read to her, sometimes with her standing at my feet and sometimes with her perched on my lap.
    I remember vividly reading bedtime stories to my daughter, and talking with her now she remembers specific evenings as well as favorite stories. She remembers the nine hour drive from England to France when I made up stories the whole time to keep her amused. So to her, stories matter because they are a good memory from childhood.
    And stories matter because they take us out of the real life I mentioned above. They elevate us above the mundane. They feed our imagination and our souls, giving life to dreams and making us elated and sad and angry and satisfied. Stories matter.

  2. I’ll be one of the author’s leading this week’s ITW Roundtable Discussion, “why to stories mater.” I’d like to invite folks to talk about “stories” in the broadest sense of the word. Fictional stories. True stories. Myths we pass down from generation to generation. My perspective may be colored by the fact that I’m a novelist, but don’t let that narrow the discussion.

    There are so many fun things to talk about on this topic—why do stories matter?—from the therapeutic effect that creating stories has on the storyteller, to the way stories capture the “spirit of the age” for posterity. But a logical starting point for me is the effect that our stories have on readers, listeners, viewers… in a word our “audience.”

    Here’s one unexpected “effect” that a reader shared with me recently. It came to me from Abigail Goldberg, Senior Librarian, The Queens Library at Ridgewood last November, after Hurricane Sandy: She wrote:

    “After attending the QPL Mystery Book Buzz you mailed Blood Money to me. I live in Sheepshead Bay and suddenly lost power. Then the cell phone tower went down indefinitely. I had no tv, no radio, no phone, no Internet. But I had the Harpercollins galleys! Blood Money got me through–hour by hour–two very long days and nights. And I’m not even a mystery genre fan! Thank you so much for the brilliant timing and engrossing reads! Even in a disaster, all you really need is a good book.”

    I’m sure many of you had similar experiences with stories. But there’s a wide range here. Are stories mere diversions? Or is it a little deeper. Do they give us the power to cope? Do they even have the power to heal? And is there anything about “stories” that makes them especially powerful in this role?

  3. Why do stories matter? Really? The question might as well be: Why does breathing matter? Or food, or companionship or shelter.

    Human beings need stories, just as we need air. They are essential to us. Our brains crave them and constantly create them, whether we are writers or not.

    Think about it. You make stories all the time. You tell someone the scintillating saga of traveling to work through traffic or riding the subway beside a gum-cracker. Or standing in line at the supermarket behind a person paying with pennies. You might create a tale about your first date, your first puppy. Or about how the car got dented. Or what happened when you drank too much last night.

    On a daily basis, whatever seems significant gets formed into a structure with a beginning middle and end, and thus becomes a story to be told to others. Often the story resembles the actual event upon which it’s based. More often, it’s embellished, its drama enhanced and details exaggerated. Why?

    Because part of being human is trying to understand what’s around us. We sort through infinite streams of stimuli, plucking tidbits, lumping some of them into clusters, defining events. Then we try to make sense of those events, looking for patterns or relationships such as cause and effect—a relationship that helps us understand our world.

    Somewhere along the line, the story becomes more than an entertaining telling of an actual event; it becomes its own entity: A mechanism for sharing experience and dispersing wisdom, wonderings, ideas, information and insights.

    People have done this forever. They have made stories that depict variations in “normal” routine. And they have made stories that go way beyond—Stories that explain life, death. The universe. The imagined. The feared. Creation. Destruction. Justice. Injustice. Love, hate, generosity, jealousy, sorrow. Gluttony. Sloth. Good and bad, heroes and villains.

    Stories define not just events of our days, but of our existence. We relate to each other’s stories, finding familiar themes. Finding meaning. Tracing causes so that we can foresee effects. We feel connected, comforted. We give shape to what we know and what we don’t know, to what we think and what we feel. We give form to the intangible. We teach lessons by example. We paint pictures and travel and dream and dread—all in the course of a story.

    So, why do stories matter? They matter because they allow us to express and to share the experiences of being human. They matter because they help us find structure and define meaning in life. They matter because, just as water and air sustain our bodies, they provide sustenance for both our spirits and our minds.

    1. I LOVE that! Why does breathing matter? I completely agree. Without stories you might as well just close it up and say forget about it 🙂 Great post!

  4. If you look back through history, stories are what every culture, country and society was founded upon. Whether it’s a historical story, myth or legend – they are a part of everything we do, believe, investigate and think about. To me, everyone has a story – way more than one, actually – inside them. And these stories engage, entice, thrill, make us laugh, and they provide us a chance to go into the past or fly into the future.

    Stories excite us when they give us that hero or heroine we want to be or find, and these characters can instill qualities of courage, skill and – above all – imagination. With just someone putting pen to paper (more rightly, finger on keyboard), we can go to Treasure Island, fight in the Civil War, explore the ancient pyramids, or even take a walk on the Acropolis with Zeus. We can face the ultimate nightmare with that ultimate hero by our side that saves the world from a zombie infestation to an all-out Apocalypse.

    Without stories there’s no imagination. In fact, the world would simply become one large and never-ending reality show without stories, and a world where ‘The Real Housewives’ becomes ‘creative’ would be frightening. And I have to add in here that libraries are a true source of all that magic; they house the unimaginable AND the real, and we need them to be the vault for all those stories that the next generation can be thrilled by!

  5. Why do stories matter? Because life matters! As does imagination and emotion. Stories are an expression of life written with emotion and imagination. Being a writer, I get to choose the life my characters live. Being a reader, I want the author to suck me into their imaginary world.
    And I often feel the need to escape into that imaginary world. Do that for free at the library. Do it with a ninety-nine cents download from Amazon.com. Or, if I really feel like splurging, I can escape for less than twenty dollars at my local book store. I snuggle into a comfy chair, whip out reading glasses, and immerse myself into someone else’s life story. That’s why stories matter.

  6. As writers many of us look at the question “Why do stories matter?” and think “Well, duh, do we really have to answer that question? Isn’t it blindingly obvious?” And I think the others who posted above me have already done a good job of answering that. A question that follows from that, though, is “Why do specific TYPES of stories matter?”

    Since I mostly write horror and/or post-apocalyptic fiction, when I talk about what I write I’m usually greeted with one of two responses. One is “Oh, that’s cool,” with varying degrees of enthusiasm, while the other is something along the lines of “Why would you want to write that?” or “Why would anyone want to read that?” It’s tough to answer that question to someone who hasn’t already figured it out for themselves, but basically it’s just that sometimes need a specific type of story to get through the day. The horror story can be cathartic, a sort of “Well, no matter how bad my life is at least I’m not going through THAT.” Whether the monster or the apocalypse in question is really intended to be a metaphor for something bad going on in the world, we can see the parallel anyway.

    This, I think, is why zombie/post-apoc stories have been so popular in western culture, especially the U.S., for the last decade. When something like 9/11 happens, many people don’t know how to deal with it. They go about there lives but the event sits somewhere inside them festering. This is why we create heroes that fight against all odds or villains that do despicable acts for no apparent reason.The story can help us make sense of something that is by nature senseless.

  7. Why Do Stories Matter?

    In ancient times, people gathered around a fire to tell and hear stories. Stories have been a part of communication since language began. We can all think of boring lectures we’ve attended or presentations that came alive with a story or personal antidote. We learn best when there’s a story involved. We wake up (and stay awake late at night) when a story catches our interest. Stories with good characters matter because we come to care about the characters and want to spend time with them. A good story pulls us in to share the characters’ pain and joy. I may not be the best writer in the world but I can tell a story that makes people laugh. What keeps me going as a writer is the knowledge that I’m entertaining readers.

    Here are a few emails I’ve received that indicate why stories matter:

    “I have read your books and enjoyed them immensely, but even more fun was listening to my husband read them. He snorted, chuckled and guffawed his way through them. And the idea of geezer lit tickled the bejabbers out of him.”

    “This book realistically covered a lot of the issues that seniors face but no one wants to talk about. I felt like I personally knew all of the characters and hated for the book to end.”

    “Thank you for the joy you gave me in reading the above book. Paul Jacobson is my new hero. Whilst I am traveling towards the twilight zone myself this book makes me feel so good about myself that I can rest easy in the knowledge that all is not lost.”

  8. If you have ever sat on your grandfather’s knee and pictured a world very different from your own or watched a child’s eyes light up as you told them fantastical tales, you know why stories need to be told. As an avid reader, I find nothing that equals the joy of submerging my mind in a well-told story. When prosed with the question of why stories remain important, I instantly thought of everything good books have done for me through my life.
    The importance of story telling lies in the basic need of the human condition. The purposes may very but the results are the same, we benefit intellectually and emotionally from their existence. A story can be a learning experience, an escape from day-to-day life, or a comfort that lets someone know he/she is not alone. In a world of technology and science, stories are one of the few pieces of magic that remain. If humankind could not sink in to tales of wonder and amazement, the world would be a droll and unimaginative place.

  9. Stories matter because it is impossible to tell of the human experience, from the personal to the global, without them. Whether they’re true stories or fiction, accounts of events have been around since the birth of language, since the first hunter returned home with the first “One that got away” story. Any human interaction beyond the individual (and often within the individual) requires storytelling. As much as fire and tools, it differentiates us from the animals.

    Now, why do fictional stories matter? I’d say because fiction allows us to step outside ourselves and explore the hypothetical. What would it like to be a great explorer? Or famous lover? Or a diabolical murderer? To live on a nineteenth century plantation? To be stricken with a fatal disease without actually dying. To climb a mountain without risk of falling? To leave your husband, or hunt the white whale, or dream of sharing a rabbit farm with a man like Lennie Small. True experience told by others always has a degree of untruth, Consciously or unconsciously, as any lawyer or historian will tell you, we are all unreliable narrators.

    But fictional storytelling, brilliantly, wonderfully is open to do anything, exploring every avenue of human experience, without the limits of nonfiction. And this is sometimes more illuminating.

    Ironically, by calling it fiction we’re often set free to tell the truth.

    Don’t believe me? Read Akutagawa’s “Rashomon” and “In the Grove” or see Kurosawa’s 1950 film based on them. Storytelling, even when every character is lying, even set in another time in a distant land, can tell us many truths about ourselves here and today.

  10. Stories matter. You think so too, or you wouldn’t be here, reading this. Stories entertain us, stories make us think about things, stories teach us.

    And it’s not just books we’re talking about. Stories are everywhere, from the conversations people have (“How was your day?” “Wait ’til you hear what I did on vacation!”) to the songs we listen to (the lyrics to every song actually are telling a story) to the news we read or watch.

    Think about it. Without stories, the world would be a dull, empty place. And there’s really no need to go into further detail, it’s so blatantly obvious. Which is why I’m going to veer off topic slightly here and redefine the topic of this discussion

    Why does the story matter?

    I’ve only changed one word, but now we’re talking about something very different: Why is the story aspect of a story important? In other words, does a story need to have a story?

    This might sound like confusing double-speak, but it’s not. The word story doesn’t just mean the tale that’s being told; it also refers to the plot, the concept, of the story as a whole. For example, Moby Dick is a story. But to go further, it is a story about a man’s fatal obsession to kill his arch-nemesis, the white whale.

    And this is where story is also important.

    You see, there are a lot of books out there with poorly-developed stories. The story might wander around aimlessly, or it might fall flat at the end (or not have a conclusion at all!), or it might just not be all that good to begin with. People – meaning readers, writers, and editors – will argue endlessly about what’s more important when it comes to creating a great book: good writing or a good story. I’m here to say that story will always win out. There are plenty of books out there that are written poorly (many of them best-sellers!), that have so many plot holes it’s like reading Swiss cheese, or they seem to have been written by a seventh-grader, but if the basic story is really good and interesting, readers will overlook the other issues. Conversely, no amount of exceptional writing will hide a bad story.

    Here is an example: We all know the old campfire tale of the The Hook. A couple parks somewhere to enjoy some late night groping, and they hear something tapping on the roof. The man gets out and doesn’t return. When the police finally show up, the man is pinned to the car by a metal hook. Now, depending on where you live and who told the story, there might have been a murderer on the loose, or it was a haunted site, or it was the girl’s ex-lover out for revenge. Yet, despite all the different detail possibilities, despite the fact that you might have heard the story from a 10-year-old child or a camp counselor or a relative or a friend, there is still something about the story that draws you in and sends a tiny chill up you back.

    That something is story. No matter how badly it’s told, the story of The Hook carries an emotional punch that never fails to land a body blow. Think about some of the books you hear panned constantly by writers and critics – The DaVinci Code, 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, etc. – but millions of readers love them. Why? The temptation is to think that the reading public doesn’t have a clue; why else would these be best sellers when great books like (insert your own overlooked gem here) never make it big? But that’s a cop-out on our part. The truth is, these writers managed to deliver a story that captured the interest of readers – be they adults or teens – captured it enough, in fact, that important details such as plotting, style, and even grammar no longer mattered.

    In other words, the story won.

    Now, this isn’t to say that a good story will always lead to a best seller. We know that isn’t true. There’s always some luck involved, the serendipity of being at the right place at the right time with the right book.

    But it sure does help.

  11. Wow, here it is still Monday morning and everyone has so much to say already. Guess I’d better grind another load of coffee beans.

    I’ll just add a quote from Kenneth Burke I’ve always liked: “Stories are equipment for living.”

  12. A story presents scenarios that ignite a series of questions in the reader. It will ask the reader to confront, to empathise, theorise and decipher. In doing so it will broaden a reader’s mind and intellect by asking the eternal question what if – and what would I do? Of course, and thank goodness, it doesn’t depend on the writer being clever at stories or even knowing what scenario they have concocted. It is all in the interpretation.

  13. Sure, bad stories matter. Bad, sad, mad, glad, and rad! (Sorry, I’m flu-delusional this week.)
    But seriously, bad stories matter for several reasons. We learn what we like and don’t like. One reader’s bad story is another’s favorite, after all. As writers, we learn from our mistakes and those of others when it comes to writing or telling a story. And a bad story still chronicles something that needed to be said, even if no one wanted to hear it!

  14. Derek raises a fair question: how do you define bad? One interesting thing I did one summer five years ago was re-read the books I loved in high school and the books I hated in high school. How do you think that turned out?

  15. Really, what right do we have to say something is “bad?” In truth, I’m sure that much of the stuff we write would be considered bad by certain people. I for one thing Twilight is really bad, but legions of fans would disagree. The story has an audience somewhere, and to that audience the story matters.

  16. As a child, I loved the Hardy Boys books. They enthralled me. I would stay up late at night and read them under the covers. I read each one (out of the first 55 or so) multiple times. At the same time, I also enjoyed science fiction (I read Heinlein’s Door Into Summer when I was 10) and I was very into dinosaurs so I read textbooks about them. And I got my action thrills reading the James Bond novels. A wide range of styles, subject matter, and reading levels. A couple of years ago, at the age of 50, I decided to re-read a couple of Hardy Boys books because I was thinking about doing a YA supernatural detective story. Low and behold, I ‘discovered’ how poorly those books were written. In that respect, they were ‘bad’ books. But the stories, deep down at their hearts, were still interesting enough that I finished all three books I’d picked out.
    My point is, you can have a bad book with a good story. 2 separate things.

  17. So for me, a “bad” story is one that doesn’t complete its own arc. It’s not a matter of taste or genre, etc–It’s a matter of losing its way and not telling anything coherent. As long as a story completes its span, it’s “good.”

  18. Carole,
    To your question about which books held up and which didnt:
    Still loved “A Separate Peace.”
    The Pig Man, which I refused to believe was a work of fiction and couldn’t get enough of in high school, I was far less taken with.
    Summer of ’42, loved much better in high school
    The Invisible Man, liked much better as an adult.
    Big winner in high school and now: “A Man for All Seasons.”

  19. There is no greater joy than settling in with your children to read them a bedtime story. My wife Sarah and I are blessed with two little boys under 3 years of age and we both take turns in reading to them. It’s an opportunity to really connect at the end of a long day and to see their eyes sparkle with excitement whenever we reach for their favourite story. Currently, the favourites are ‘Cat in the Hat’ and ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ by Dr. Seuss. While we do all of the crazy voices and carry on with own little stage productions to bring the stories to life, it is mesmerizing to see the boys, particularly our eldest, joining in now with his own interpretations. As a writer, observing the impact these classic books have upon my children has really given me an opportunity to see just how important stories are in helping to form and develop and encourage our imaginations in our very earliest years. In my humble view, developing a love of the written word at an early age is fundamental to our entire experience of life. Stories are just so important.

  20. Totally agree, Chris. Once upon a time (sorry), a reporter asked me to name the one book I wish I had written. I chose “Goodnight Moon.” I guess if you measure a story’s worth by the number of times the audience is willing the hear it over and over again, that one is at the top of the list.

  21. I agree, James. Some of those stories from childhood get read and reread hundreds of times. The structure and rhythm, the familiar outcome–they touch something fundamental in us. The basics of a simple story satisfy and soothe the imaginations and fears and needs of even the littlest of us.

  22. Thanks, James – what an interesting list, and how intriguing that you reread some of these classics. I have half a mind to do the same.

    Oh, Goodnight Moon – what a lovely, simple story. I had a similar one as a kid, Gone Is My Goose. Very similar, with lovely illustrations.

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