The Power of a Good Story

What if the structure of the story is imprinted in our DNA, like babies are born with an imprint of the face hardwired in their brains? What if stories are the building blocks of life? I offer clues that tell me this is so…



·      Fairy tales are our cultural shorthand. They thrive for generations, and become our mental shortcuts – “It fits like Cinderella’s slipper!” or “It’s like spinning straw into gold,” or leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, like Hansel & Gretel. And there’s a reason: going from rags to riches/transforming junk into treasure/finding our way home from a dark place – are concepts we meet, and need, every day, with or without the help of a fairy godmother or the hindrance of an evil witch. Archetypes. We apply the structure of these stories to our lives.

·      I once got to take a Dale Carnegie course. I retain the lesson on the Power of the Incident. The anecdote. The story. We learned that nothing will endear you, the speaker, to an audience, like a story, because it is sticky. I might emerge from a lecture or a sermon or a class with the bulk of the content gone missing, but with the closing anecdote stuck in my head. God bless white boards and bullet points – I’m using some now – but they’re not as sticky as a story. We remember stories.

·      A good story – one that stands the test of time – can be reduced to one compelling sentence. For instance: “A gentle hobbit, with a company of friends, takes on a mission to save his world.”/ “A wise spider sacrifices herself to rescue a winsome pig.”/ “God sends his only Son to certain death, knowing He has a secret plan to revive him and save the world.” You get my drift.

My writers’ group, savvy folk who write everything from suspense to fantasy to children’s books, blanch when asked to give the elevator speech. How to distill a 50,000 word baby, full of plot twists and precious nuance, into one compelling sentence that will cause a publisher to beg for the manuscript by the end of an elevator ride? Few things are as difficult as brevity. The exercise reveals whether my story is a good one, or a bloated monster that won’t reduce because I haven’t respected story structure.
 Collier's tram

·      Jokes are funny stories. I tend to organize the events of my life around the funny moments. Sometimes I think I’m frivolous, but other times I think of rodeo clowns: superb cowboys who step into the ring to distract, in a funny way, a maddened bull from a cowboy in distress. I was told it takes an extra level of skill to do the distracting AND make it hilarious.

In the series, “The Chosen,” there’s a scene where Jesus draws a man with a broken leg to confess he broke the leg in the course of being a highway robber. Jesus forgives him, and almost all is well… Yet, as the Lord leaves the man’s house, He smiles and suggests He’d better leave early, “because there might be robbers.” The man blanches, and the series’ writers have Jesus quip, “Too soon?”

I love all this implies. You only joke about something you’ve overcome. And the Lord’s joke makes clear the man really is forgiven, and even if he’s not ready to laugh about it, God is, and surely the man will get there, too. The joke, here, is more powerful than a sermon. And it rounds out the story.

·      Tasked with the salvation of humanity, the Son of God spent His three-plus years on this planet telling stories. Parables are stories, carefully crafted to mystify some hearers, enlighten others, depending on the listener’s disposition to believe. He designed them to help facilitate change in the world. What, pray tell, does that say about the power of a story?


Our lives are made of little stories that will add up to a bigger story that fits in with the still-larger story being written for all time.


The illustrations in this post are Collier’s magazine covers from the 1930s. Collier’s printed hundreds of short stories, and sought out art that told a story.

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