Why Story Matters in Non-Fiction

Guest post by Rose Gilbert Anderson

“The story – from Rapunzel to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” author Ursula K. Le Guin, 1979

Many years ago, a cave man carved a picture of a hunter named Bob onto a cave wall. No one cared.

Then he carved a raging buffalo charging directly towards Bob.

Now, the other cave dwellers wanted to know what came next. Did Bob manage to out run the buffalo? Did someone come to help Bob? Was Bob a gored, bloody mess in the end? What happened?

It had turned into a story and readers want to know how stories end.

Once upon a time…

“Once upon a time…what?” Who is involved? Did someone fall in love? Did someone get murdered? Was the world attacked by zombies? Will the story end happy or in tragedy?

Stories will pull people into your writing and make them want to read to the end to see what happens.

This is obvious in fiction but it can also be a useful technique in non-fiction.

When I worked as a children’s magician I learned a few lessons quickly. Entertaining children who are pumped full of birthday cake is not an easy task. You have to grab their attention quickly and hold on tight.

I started by making a bright silk handkerchief appear from thin air in my bare hands. Then I got them personally involved by using an audience member as a volunteer. I gave them something silly to laugh about through-out the show to keep them engaged. Then I had a big finish such as helping the birthday child magically produce a real live bunny.

If I stopped amusing them at any point they would quickly start making their own entertainment. Getting their attention back was nearly impossible.

You see what I did there?

I told you a story about my magician days. Not a thrilling story, I’ll admit, but you see how the story applies to writing an article.

You can do the same thing with your projects when appropriate.

If you’re writing a short article about building chicken coops it often helps to share a quick story about the chicken coop you built in your backyard – or the story of someone you interviewed. Why did they pick a certain chicken coop design? Why did they choose to put it on wheels? Why did they pick a certain spot in their yard over another? Did their decisions work out in the end? Did they wish they had done something differently?

Another reason to embrace storytelling is because people remember stories better than mere facts or a list of statistics. Readers remember what people do – the actions they take – and the end results.

People feel a connection to other people but not to a large, unnamed group of people.

For instance, let’s say you write an article trying to raise money for a non-profit organization. You tell your readers that two hundred children go hungry in your county each night. Or, you tell the story of a blond haired, three-year-old named Lily scraping the bottom of a peanut butter jar with a plastic spoon. One brings the image of a particular child to mind and the other is a list of statistics. Stories make the facts seem real.

How many documentaries about the Titanic are remembered? But James Cameron told the love story of Jack and Rose and his version is remembered.

Stories make the world go around. Okay, actually that’s money. But stories are what make the world interesting. Add one into your next project and test the results for yourself.

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