"That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth." -- Tim O'Brien
What's in a story?
As Pixar film-director Andrew Stanton says in his 2012 TED Talk, "... it's knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you're saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings." Stories may be simple in plot but complex in meaning, and are generally both heavily detailed and constantly changing. The intricate nature of stories leads us to best understand them through example.
Though oral traditions stretch back for millennia, an excellent starting point for understanding the key elements of a good story is the tall-tales of American folklore. Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, Johnny Appleseed, and David "Davy" Crockett -- these are a just a handful of characters that speak to the zeitgeist of 18th and 19th century America. I am personally most fond of John Henry the "steel-driving man." John Henry represents the best characteristics of a knee-smacking, heart-throbbing, and soul-enriching story.
John Henry is a renowned African-American steel-driver whose strength and skill was pitted against a steam-powered hammer in a race of epic proportions. Though the underlying truth of the man versus machine narrative is questionable, the most recognizable aspect of a story is the freedom to embellish for the sake of invoking wonder! Though John Henry would come out on top in the race, most takes on the story have him dying afterwards due to stress placed on the heart. Effective stories stage events in such a way that the audience is moved to some emotion and understanding. While John Henry is believed to be a real person, the details regarding the larger story often change. This fluidity demonstrates that no two stories are the same; the inability to mass produce stories gives them a sort of rare genuineness. Ultimately, stories are unique, sense-making mechanisms that weave information into larger tapestries freed by poetic license.
A story is a valuable tool for both self-expression and organizational enrichment. If we are defined by our actions and experiences, then stories are a medium for organizing and sharing that narrative. A powerful story can drive progress and set the stage for risk-taking. As Andrew Stanton states, "We all love stories. We're born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories."
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.