The Power of Story

I sometimes come across the opinion that non-fiction is "useful" while fiction is purely for entertainment. For someone who loves to read, it can be hard to hear (especially when it's followed by an implication that what I write is not useful).

Ah, but it's not true. Non-fiction is certainly useful, just like a history textbook is useful, but it doesn't have the power of story.

Let's start with geography. I'm pretty good at it, but even I have trouble finding most countries in Africa. I can find Egypt, Libya, Madagascar, South Africa, and maybe Ethiopia and Somalia, but the other 48 countries are harder to pin down. I think most Americans are the same. Why? Well think about the countries you know. I know Egypt from the Bible (among other things). I know Madagascar because its the only island nation and I've seen the movie. I know Libya and Somalia because we've fought wars there.

And I know Tunisia because of Star Wars.

I know where these countries are because I have stories--even dumb ones--associated with them in my mind. No matter how many times I've memorized African geography (and I have), the only nations that stick over time are the ones for which I've learned a story.

Another example: I've been to church my whole life, but I'd have a hard time telling you the content of most sermons. Not because I didn't listen, but because they didn't stick. I do, however, remember stories. Like when my pastor went fishing without a line "so the fish wouldn't bother him." Or the story of the bridge raiser who sacrificed his son to save the people on the bridge.

Stories stick, even fiction. I have trouble remembering the details of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, but I will always remember the moment in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace needed Aslan's help to shed the dragon skin he could not.

We DO write fiction to entertain, but I hope the stories I write also have meaning for those who read them. Because those stories--meaningful or not--will stick in their minds a lot longer than most non-fiction.

What stories mean something to you?


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Love this post! And it goes doubly true for children.

Surprisingly, I hear the opposite from the public schools - fiction is all that matters, non-fiction doesn't "count" as much. The power of story is so strong that even non-fiction novels are becoming more narrative. And in the last 5 years I've seen things like Voice and Story be taken more seriously in the schools, even in non-fiction writing. While I welcome this (heartily!), I think non-fiction still has value for kids, especially since it is often challenging reading, not just complex vocabulary, but concepts as well.

p.s. I love that moment in Dawn Treader - did you see the movie?

Tim said...

It's funny, because as I read the first few lines, I was thinking how a big part of the Gospels are "fiction." Not fiction in the sense that people think that it's fake, but fiction in the sense that Jesus taught through parables. There was never a good Samaratin, there was never a prodigal son, but Jesus told stories to people to illustrate his points and make analogies. If Jesus could use fiction effectively, why can't we?

crazymixedupgirl said...

Most of the best theology I've ever learned came from reading fiction.

Myrna Foster said...

I had the same thought as Tim, about the parables being every bit as powerful as the nonfiction. And I love that part in The Dawn Treader. I also love the part in The Silver Chair where Puddleglum tells the witch that he's going to go on believing in Aslan and the sky because their make-believe is better than her reality.

I think that stories can help us see truths.

Anonymous said...

Hey Adam,

Just stumbled across your blog and love your point of view on all things fiction (same as mine)! I'm now a follower and I'll be off to poke around some of your works :).

On topic though, I must say that I agree with what Tim said. Perhaps, it could be better said that fiction is, at its core, just 'narrative' or 'story'. I think its certainly more interesting than the typical true/false angle.

Oddly enough that I stumble unto such a topic as I my own series (fiction) focuses to use fiction to "illustrate the truth".

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Hear, hear! It's funny because I just attended a marketing conference and our keynote speaker was all about how to make your message stick in people's minds. Story was a big part of that.