Every. Word. Counts.
The facts behind fiction.
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Our ancestors first used pictures, chiseled meticulously into cave walls. They spoke their stories, whispering of gods and spirits and curses. They danced and sung them with festivities and food.
After a while, they developed paper. Scrolls. Journals. Books.
Then came photography. Radio. Television. All of a sudden, music wasn’t just performed live. It was recorded. Flung out into the airwaves to reach every household with a working radio. Movies and shows were suddenly the norm, steadily becoming more popular.
And now, the stories are endless. News talk shows, YouTubers, newsletters, e-books, podcasts, blogs…the list goes on.
I devour stories. And I, like many people, can get absorbed into other worlds. That’s how my journey into writing fiction started — a love for well-written stories.
From a psychological perspective, it’s fascinating how stories encompass so much in our lives. Yet, it’s also terrifying to know the dark side of fiction. The power it holds, and how easily that power can be misused. In this article, I’ll be exploring both.
But first, what does the perfect story look like?
The Ultimate Story Recipe
Ingredient #1: Show
In writing, most authors (try to, at least!) follow this widely-known rule called “show, don’t tell.” After all, mentioning a series of numbers that represent something intangible doesn’t connect with people. It bores them.
There’s a famous quote by Russian novelist Anton Chekhov that illustrates this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Don’t tell me that 4.6 million people die each year because of air pollution; show me the mother whose toddler died from an asthma attack.
Don’t tell me that 90,000 people die each year in natural disasters, with many more losing their homes; show me the man who lost his family and the girl who now lives on the streets.
Don’t tell me a statistic; show me a story. That’s what makes an impact.
Ingredient #2: People
Jonathan Safran Foer once mentioned in his book, “We Are The Weather,” that it’s difficult to unite people to fight climate change because it’s such an unreal thing to think about. A mysterious force that will one day choke us or drown us or burn us, and to stop it we need to drive less and stop eating meat and turn off the lights when we’re not using them. When you think about it that way, it sounds ludicrous.
We can’t — or won’t — tell stories about it in the same way.
And he’s right. The dehumanization of climate change means that we can’t fight it the same way that we do other things, like racism or transphobia (and even that’s difficult enough!). We can’t — or won’t — tell stories about it in the same way.
Because when you think about climate change, you think about wind and trees and water. Those aren’t characters. Those are forces of nature.
On the flip side, when I think about racism, I think about people. I think of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I think of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. I think of Tamir Rice. Tony McDade. Philando Castile. Stephon Clark. I think of injustice.
When those stories are told, we can spark empathy. We can unite and bring about change.
Ingredient #3: Truth
Even lies start with a hint of truth. Stories, whether true or false, must sound legitimate.
Any story, fiction or otherwise, has to sound like it could happen. People can be transported into the most outlandish settings (e.g., a dystopia fifty years in the future in which everything has turned into candy and the world is slowly dissolving into a pile of mush) if the story is written well.
If the story is likable, people identify with it — whether or not it sounds realistic.
But they must be believable enough for people to be transported into them. This means the values they tout must align with the average person’s moral compass, and if it doesn’t, there should be some credible-sounding reason as to why. If the story is likable, people identify with it — whether or not it sounds realistic.
Whether or not it’s real.
The Science of Storytelling
With how frequent storytelling has been throughout history, it only makes sense that it’s been studied in depth.
Some studies have shown that on fMRIs, different neural circuits activate when someone is listening to a narrative. Their brain waves synchronize with that of the storyteller’s, and their intention to do certain things (the persuasive factor) increases.
Some people believe that because stories harness emotion, and since emotion is a key part of human interaction, they are powerful in all situations. Others disagree, stating that it can detract from the overall message when you mix stories with facts. People also debate the factor that moves emotional connection — plot or characters?
It seems that although there is disagreement on the contexts in which storytelling works, everyone agrees storytelling can be influential in the right ones.
One study from Ohio State University caught my eye. It suggests that people can be figuratively “transported” into other worlds as they read. And through that transportation, ideas can be introduced and beliefs can be changed.
“…our findings suggested that once a reader is rolling along with a compelling narrative, the source has diminishing influence. In this fashion, the belief positions implied by the story might be adopted regardless of whether they corresponded with reality.”
Translation: This quote describes the impact — or lack of it — of source credibility in narratives. People may accept the ideas introduced by narratives whether or not they are based on facts.
Ergo, we are susceptible to misinformation through stories.
Ergo, that susceptibility can be used against us.
Yuval Noah Harari once explained that the foundation of the world we live in is primarily based on stories.
Money, he says, is a story. You can’t eat metal coins or drink dollar bills. But people believe that with money, they can acquire food to eat and water to drink. And because so many people believe in it, money is valued, and it can be used to acquire food to eat and water to drink. We see this reflected in cryptocurrencies today — when we believe in the cryptocurrency, its value goes up.
You could also use the example of bartering.
If I needed to sell a chocolate bar, I could offer to trade my chocolate bar for your ice cream. The deal is sealed, right?
But there’s a certain level of trust required. I have to trust that your ice cream is legit and that you’re giving me enough of it. Is one chocolate bar worth one tub of ice cream? Maybe two chocolate bars for every tub?
But with money, I can simply ask if you want to buy my chocolate bar for a certain amount. Now I don’t have to figure out how trustworthy your ice cream is because we both believe in money. You believe that your money will garner something (the chocolate bar), and I believe that the money I receive will garner something (whatever I decide to buy with it). The money itself doesn’t do anything. But it allows us to make quick transactions without the complication of trust.
Money is a story, and stories have power — as long as people believe in them.
If we all simultaneously stopped believing in money, all our systems would break down. You’d go to the store, trying to buy some ice cream, and they’d want chocolate bars in exchange. All of a sudden, your little metal coins would be worthless. Money is a story, and stories have power — as long as people believe in them. And if they can connect people to make business deals and work all hours of the day, they can connect people to work for a single cause.
Stories can breed empathy.
When the pandemic was first gaining traction in March 2020, I remember hearing that Jonesboro, Arkansas, was hit by a tornado. I remember the deep empathy I felt towards those whose homes were destroyed, or who struggled without proper aid. Or when at least forty deadly storms hit America from Texas to South Carolina. Many people were left stranded without aid, especially with the pandemic straining so many resources. And what about the essential workers worldwide, without the equipment they needed, who were sick and dying? Who are still sick and dying? At the time, it was estimated that a third of UK healthcare workers were infected. In places like Italy or New York, hospital beds lined hallways.
You know what those were?
Those were stories that were brought to me through the internet, television, and my email. They allowed me to empathize with people who I’d never even met before.
We don’t tend to notice our empathy, because it’s something very subtle. Sometimes your heart goes out to people around the world suffering, especially as you hear horrific stories about refrigerated trucks full of dead bodies outside of hospitals and families who never got to say goodbye to their loved ones. But then something distracts you — you have homework to finish, you’ve got dishes to do, you’ve got people to take care of — and that empathy is forgotten.
And if you don’t accept it, you can do something about it.
That split-second in which you felt immense grief, even for a stranger, is essential. It shows that the world hasn’t conditioned you to accept the terrible things that occur every day. And if you don’t accept it, you can do something about it.
So we’ve already established that stories carry power, and as one of the great minds of our time once said:
With great power comes great responsibility.
If that responsibility is neglected or abused, we end up in chaos. We end up in a world where no one can tell what’s right or wrong, left or right, up or down. It’s backward. Confusing.
In the first weeks of Adolf Hitler’s reign, the Nazis were deployed to media outlets in Germany. They stoked fears and quashed dissent. Other independent news sources quickly followed suit, censoring anything that could be damning.
When the media is compromised, knowledge can’t be distributed equitably. Perplexity colors every conversation. Distrust and division follow everyone everywhere.
Disinformation worms itself into front-page stories. Fallacies scream from headlines. Lies spew out of televisions.
So when everyone’s rallying with their factions, who’s rallying with the truth?
Everyone has the right to know what’s going on in the world. Not a distorted lens of the truth , but pure honesty. Sure, we may have biases — so let’s be honest about those too!
After all, stories — fiction or factual —greatly impact our beliefs and everyday decisions.
But in today’s world, it’s difficult to find that kind of candor. Everything seems to speak louder than sincerity. Money — the greatest story of them all — speaks much louder than sincerity. So when everyone’s rallying with their factions, who’s rallying with the truth?
As a writer on Medium, I have the power (and with it, the responsibility) to write things to the best of my ability. To fact-check using reliable sources, discuss with others and get various opinions on the subjects I write in, and communicate safely and respectfully. It’s my job to write stories for people. Not for companies. Not for money.
Anybody working with stories — whether it’s through movies or the news — should be working for people.
I don’t write this to strike fear in the hearts of readers.
Instead, I write this to shine inspiration into the hearts of writers.
This is a call to reflect and research, take pride in your work, and stick to what you value most.
Your words matter. Every one of them.
Even if you think it’s insignificant. Imperceptible. Infinitesimal.