Every so often, I will hear someone say, “It’s just a story.”
Most often, I hear this said in situations in which a story is being critiqued. In response to comments that a story failed to reach its potential because it lacked theme or plot structure or strong characterization, a person might insist, “Well, it’s just a story.”
Usually, the sense I get in these situations is that the person enjoyed the story well enough and doesn’t really appreciate hearing how it might have been better. But in other instances, a person might respond to someone else’s elation over a wonderful story experience with the same words: “It’s just a story.” Or maybe, “It’s just entertainment.”
Readers of this site will find it no surprise that I adamantly disagree with this notion.
First of all, I will state my recognition that what is really being said in these instances usually has more to do with personal subtext for the speaker (e.g., maybe they enjoyed this story even if it “could have better,” don’t appreciate a critique that might diminish their own enjoyment, and don’t want to feel they have to measure their own opinions and experiences against the parameters of “good fiction”—which is all fair enough). However, I feel this statement or any equivalent is not only erroneous, but perhaps one of most the dangerous lies humanity can tell itself.
Why? Because this statement attempts to diminish story to irrelevance. To me, it is saying stories are empty calories. They exist merely for fun and should therefore not be expected to offer any value—or bear any responsibility—beyond that. Although writers may sometimes be guilty of saying this phrase, it is more likely to emerge from an audience member. But to my mind, whatever its source, it is an attempt to shrug away the weighty burden that is inherent to story by dint of the form’s sheer power.
4 Reasons a Story Is Never “Just a Story”
Whether as creators of story or merely participants, when we interact with story, we interact with a mighty, even primal, force. Even in its smallest increment (such as a 10-second YouTube commercial), story has the power to change us. Even at its most seemingly fluffy and farcical (such as a popcorn comedy), it is communicating with us. As stated in a Hopi proverb (and also by Plato, but I like this version best):
Those who tell the stories rule the world.
This is not merely a challenge for us to be the ones who tell the stories. It is perhaps even more tellingly a warning for us to recognize that whenever we interact with story, we are facing a catalytic force. We might rephrase the famous Carlos Casteneda quote about knowledge to speak instead of story:
A man goes to [story] as he goes to war: wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to [story] or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it might never live to regret it.
Today, I want to take a quick look at why story is so important and powerful—and, as such, demanding of our utmost respect.
1. Stories Are Life, Life Is a Story
What are stories? Nowadays, we tend to think of stories as parts of that highly specialized commercial enterprise known as the entertainment industry. But before there were movies or novels or even poets, there were simply people trying to bring sense to existence. Life is the story. Every one of the entertaining or enlightening little episodes that humankind has ever thought up is only ever a small reflection of the infinite whole.
Therefore, to my mind, when someone says “it’s just a story,” what they are also implicitly saying is, “it’s just life.” Discounting story discounts life.
I don’t say that lightly. And please note I am not saying that disliking certain stories or types of stories or critiquing them is the same as discounting story itself. Indeed, having strong opinions about the commentary stories offer to life—both in their content and their execution—indicates just the opposite. To care that a story is not an authentic mirror of life, that it is does not resonate, or even that it misses the mark here and there, is to simply to reaffirm its power to shape us, as well as our great passion for interacting with that power.
I mused recently on Instagram about why it is that people take stories so personally. As I write this, I now realize that, of course, this is why. We care because a story is never “just a story”: it is an affirmation or rejection of life as we know it. Indeed, the art and practice of bringing consciousness to our own reactions to stories and of learning to judge stories with precision and clarity is itself a powerful life skill and even a tool of self-development.
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2. Story Form Is an Accurate (But Evolving) Map of Human Consciousness
You may note that I often speak of “story” (singular), rather than simply “stories” (plural). I use this phrasing deliberately to evoke the entity of not just stories in general but story form—the emergent archetype of arc and structure that we refer to when speak of stories (and which I have explored in depth in all of my books on writing and particularly the brand new one Writing Archetypal Character Arcs: The Hero’s Journey and Beyond).
Writers often tend to go meta on story form and think of it merely as a tool that helps us write consistently competent stories. If only we can learn and memorize the principles of plot structure, character arc, and theme (amongst a plethora of other techniques), then we will have mastered story. But all of these “forms” preexist the writing guides. To paraphrase what Stephen King has said of his own writing process, these writing guides were not invented as arbitrary rules for writers, but rather “discovered,” like dinosaur bones waiting to be excavated.
The only reason writing “rules” (aka, patterns of story theory) exist is because they are, in fact, an attempt to understand and map the experience of our human consciousness. Not only does this make story our ultimate testing ground for experimenting with our own understanding of ourselves, it also reveals the specific essence of story’s great power.
Stories “rule the world” precisely because they both reveal and influence how we experience the world and indeed life itself. This is true of every story—from the crudely farcical (if no less finely wrought) commercial to the wobbly B movie to the beat-perfect romance novel to the eye-candy popcorn movie to the Pulitzer-winning literary novel to the avant-garde indie film.
3. Stories Are Humanity’s Mirror
Most obviously, stories wield power because they mirror back to us our own experiences and shadows. Story is a magic mirror. Whether we realize it or not, what story shows us has the potential to profoundly affect our perception of ourselves and the world.
This is, arguably, where it becomes most important to reject the idea of “just a story.” What, after all, is story showing you? When a story is not finely wrought—when it is sloppy or inaccurate in its portrayal of the form and therefore of life—it fails as a faithful mirror. To the degree audiences are willing to accept an unfaithful mirror, it creates the potential for imbalance both within individual lives and society as a whole.
Even the subtlest story, or the subtlest scene, is sharing something with its audience. I think of the scenes of silence in Hayao Miyazaki’s films, in which characters simply gaze—for what may seem like long minutes to our modern minds—as the clouds pass by. One moment, no dialogue—and yet it is still powerful.
4. Stories Are Subliminal
Although this list could go on indefinitely, I will close with one final point about why stories are so powerful—and that is their ability to communicate directly to the subconscious. As such, they are subliminal, whether authors intend them to be or not.
Because most of what is communicated to us in a story happens at this subliminal level, this is where the vast majority of a story’s power sits. Stories affect not just conscious thought and emotion, but mood and energy. Humanity’s hardwired understanding of story form (plot structure, character arc, etc.) is so innate that we interact with it even when neither the author nor the reader/viewer possess any conscious understanding of the “rules.”
Of course, this power is recognized by many writers. The subliminal power of story is purposefully used by storytellers of all stripes—including advertisers and propagandists. In fact, the recognition of this subliminal power often inspires authors to try their hand at wielding it themselves. We can right all wrongs if only we can powerfully communicate to audiences our perspective! But I’m not suggesting this as a pounding pulpit for one’s own view of morality—because, again, the power here is subliminal, arising most powerfully not from the messages spoken in a story but from the form itself. (Indeed, what authors sometimes think they are saying in a story might be completely undermined or altered by the story’s own subtext—and the subtextual message is always the more powerful.)
What About Stories as Entertainment or Escape?
So what about stories as entertainment or escape? If people whose insist “a story is just a story” are wanting to avoid the heavier ramifications of interacting with or creating stories, does that mean any interaction with or understanding of story must be heavy?
Of course not. Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of story is its ability to entertain. That, in itself, is proof of story’s subliminal power to affect emotion, mood, and energy. The subtlety and the subtext of the form are lost when the conscious brain is not distracted by something that piques its interest and entertains it.
More than that, the reason we are entertained by these often exaggerated facsimiles of life is for the very reason that the human brain is entranced by life. Many studies, such as those mentioned by Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal, have shown how stories help us learn and grow and, indeed, survive. Although escape from the present can often be part of the heady cocktail that is story immersion, stories are, in fact, all about helping us better equip ourselves for our survival of reality.
All of this is to say: no one will ever ever convince me there is such a thing as “just a story.” I have witnessed its power. I have lived it. I have breathed it. I have been utterly transformed by it time and time again as both author and audience member. It is a sacred force. And like all that it is sacred, it is no “tame lion.” Particularly as writers and creators ourselves, we best wield that power for our own good and the good of others when we go to it with our eyes wide open and our hearts ready to grapple with its truths.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most powerful thing about story? Tell me in the comments!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland