It’s about the story, stupid!

What is a story? You arrange some words on a page, speak some sentences aloud, place some images in a sequence, or even string them together at 24 frames per second to make moving pictures. Words and images, that through some near miracle…

…make us believe they are real. As real, when done well, as the reality we are actually in. You’ve had that moment when you look up from a great book and feel actual SHOCK that you’re in your bedroom, not some far flung fantasy world.

Stories were “virtual reality” before computers were even imagined. How they work is something we’re only just starting to understand as we learn more about the human mind and brain. Put simply, stories are the operating system of human consciousness. When a story is well told, it hacks into the workings of our mind and, for a time, replaces our entire sense of reality. Woah! No wonder stories are so popular.

In the Rhetoric of Story I guide writers through the 7 foundational techniques that allow stories to create the amazing feeling of being in a different reality. But that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. Instead I want to think about all these crazy industries, like book publishing, TV stations, Netflix, Hollywood, and even video game studios, that hold so much of our attention.

All of these industries are in the business of telling stories. Every single New York editor, or Los Angeles movie maker, or London TV executive, stakes their entire existence on finding and telling great stories. That’s as true of reality TV as it is of theatre, and of a 30 second advertisement as an Oscar winning documentary. And as a writer, if it’s your intention to work as a professional in any of these industries, that’s your job as well.

And it’s a tough job. Because great stories are rare. That’s why editors get into bidding wars to buy them. That’s why journalists travel into war zones and the ends of the earth to document them. That’s why novelists work years or decades, and fail over and over again, to eventually reach the great story that is inside them. As writers we want to believe we can tell great stories on demand. But as lovers of story we know how demanding we are. Do you waste your time on stories that aren’t great? Be honest now.

But it’s also a wonderful job, which is why we risk all to do it. The great stories will still be here long after we’re all dust. Told again and again, performed by generations of actors, rebooted for the umpteenth time. And anyone can make storytelling their job. It honestly doesn’t matter who you are, if you tell stories that light up the human imagination like Times Square on new year’s eve, audiences and entire industries will sit up and pay attention. So the only question is…is that the job you are doing?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.