You can change the world any number of ways. Revolution works if you have a large, disgruntled populace. Revelation works only if you’re related to God. Art had its place a few hundred years back, until pigment fell out of vogue. Scientific discoveries, industrial inventions, and information technology are possibilities if your world is large and clumsy. If you’re void of talent but like to talk, you might try reality television or politics. Or, if you have a large, uninformed voting block at your command, you can try tyranny.
Yes, there are many ways to change the world. But my favorite is STORYTELLING. Yes, that’s right—capitalized and italicized. Telling stories does not require political credentials, large outlays of cash, or a standing army. It does, however, require imagination, perseverance, and a good editor. You can learn to tell stories—and tell them well—by spending just ten minutes a night tucking in your younger siblings, nieces, nephews, or charges you may be babysitting. Amazingly, you can conjure up earth-shattering revolts, epiphanies of revelation, splattering paint, quantum quarks, and otherworldly places where fish walk about on their tailfins and men and women levitate by flapping their earlobes. Think of the possibilities.
Granted, if you can’t think of the possibilities, storytelling is probably not for you. But if, when thinking of the possibilities, you feel a jolt of adrenaline, what comes next will interest you. I’m going to give you a preview on how to tell successful stories that can change the world.
But first, here are a few examples of storytellers and stories that actually did it—for good and for ill. (My thanks to Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human for providing these and other examples.)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), is credited with inflaming passions that brought on the most terrible war in our history.
In response to Stowe’s Cabin, Thomas F. Dixon Jr. wrote The Clansman (1905), which D. W. Griffith adapted for the motion picture epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Together the two spurred the revival of the KKK and the Jim Crow South.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843), is perhaps best known for reviving Western civilization’s celebration of Christmas. (Les Standiford has chronicled this influence in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.)
The Bible, by a host of men inspired by God and canonized in Carthage (AD 396), is the bestselling story book of all time, with its “history-bending” tales that continually challenge society to change, vanquish fear, and embrace hope.
And television sitcoms like Will & Grace are credited with advancing liberal views toward homosexuality and nontraditional families.
Such stories have the capacity to change attitudes and values because of a few storytelling secrets that you, too, can apply. The purpose of these is to entice your reader (or audience) to identify emotionally with, and engage intellectually, the story’s main characters. The result is a simulation of reality where the audience participates and learns with the characters about how to live happily and peaceably within the natural laws of the universe.
Here’s an abbreviated list of the natural laws of successful storytelling:
- Your hero (or protagonist) must be imperfect. Audiences like characters who are like them—with flaws.
- Your hero must have a goal that is noble, visible, and requires sacrifice to achieve. Perilous stakes heighten suspense and intrigue.
- Your hero must passionately and proactively pursue the goal. Audiences find passive, indolent heroes boring.
- The villain (or antagonist), who obstructs the hero in the goal’s pursuit, must appear to be more powerful and resourceful than your hero. The audience will root for the underdog.
- Undergirding the story must be a conflict of values that drives the hero and villain to make decisions that lead to actions, which create the drama. Moral values drive all decisions that, in turn, motivate action. When the values of characters conflict, the visible action is explosive.
- The consequences of the characters’ actions must always follow natural law. While values, decisions, and actions are under the control of your character, the consequences of the action are dictated by natural law. As soon as you discard natural law, the audience will discard your story.
- You are, however, allowed to disregard natural law one time—in formulating the story’s impossible hook. Aristotle tells playwrights to devise a story’s physical premise on an impossible probability rather than an improbable possibility. David beheading Goliath works better than Goliath inviting David to dinner.
- The hero’s dogged pursuit of the goal must be thwarted until story’s midpoint (the Moment of Grace), when the hero recognizes the need to fix his or her inner flaw. After the hero pays attention to redeeming his flaw, progress toward the goal accelerates—even as the antagonist throws more obstacles in his path. Thus the hero’s outer journey, which we see on screen, becomes a metaphor for the real story—the hero’s inner transformation.
We can tell children not to touch the hot stove, but they may not change their behavior until their fingers are singed. Storytelling, on the other hand, can emotionally and intellectually engage an audience through a simulation of reality. That’s how stories can change behavior and the world.
Stanley D. Williams, PhD, is the author of The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success. He has worked as a story and script consultant for Will Smith and on many other Hollywood projects. You can request a free bookmark listing "18 Secrets of Successful Storytelling" at Dr. Williams's website, www.moralpremise.com.