Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Power of Story

No matter the format, stories have the power to affect the way people behave. From early religious texts to modern video games, television shows, books, and movies, narratives have the power to influence our collective conscience. There is no rhyme or reason to the ones that catch fire, but there is an obvious trail of the burn marks they leave in their wake. Let's explore three examples.

1. The Sorrows of Young Werther

In the late 1700’s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a story that detailed the woes of the disaffected youth, Silas, who moves to the countryside and falls in love with the simplicity of the peasant lifestyle and a young woman named Lotte. Lotte has been charged with the care of her siblings following the death of her mother and is engaged to an older gentleman. In spite of her circumstances, Silas falls in love with her. He revisits his aristocratic world but finds it lacking. So, he returns to fight for Lotte but finds her already wed. Since he cannot bear to return to his old life and cannot have Lotte, he opts for suicide as the solution.

Goethe became quite the celebrity. His story inspired “Werther-Fieber" and spurred the Romantic movement. Much like Bieber fever, young men across Europe adopted the clothing and hairstyle of the character. They eschewed duty, reason, authority, and material excess. They wrote maudlin poetry expressing unbridled passion and the exquisite pain of unrequited love. The story inspired fan fiction and even caught the fancy of Napoleon Bonaparte. The tome was equally loved by the young and loathed by society. The tale also inspired a rash of copycat suicides that had parents and authorities on the warpath. Goethe lived to regret writing it.

2. On Walden Pond 

The myth goes that Henry David Thoreau retired to a cabin near Walden Pond (on land owned by his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson) to explore the “simple life.” The resulting lectures published in 1854 praised a bucolic life free from societal obligations and restrictions.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. (Walden, 323- 324)”

In truth, Thoreau received many visitors and made regular trips to nearby Concord. He was hardly living off the land or the grid and money was a necessary evil. However, the notion of rusticating in the woods and living in harmony with nature captured the imagination of multiple generations. Many a young man left the family home and business in search of the quiet life, one which usually ended in poverty and failure.

To this day, the concept of getting back to nature persists as the key to true happiness. Many a writer idealizes the solitude of a retreat in the woods, free of distractions, until they have to sacrifice modern plumbing and wi-fi.

3. On The Road

In the 1950’s, Jack Kerouac recounted the epic adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity as they hitchhiked across the country, enjoying the freedom of the road and searching for the meaning of life.

"Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me."

The book follows the ups and downs of the two men’s untethered lives, punctuated with broken relationships, that never really led to the “big secret.” Many praised it as brave, sometimes breathtaking writing. Others panned it “as a portrait of a disjointed segment of society acting out of its own neurotic necessity.”

It reflected Beat generation credos of dropping out of society, eschewing materialism, drug use, sexual freedom and experimentation, and questioning accepted religious-based morals. Many credit this trend for the Boomer generation’s narcissism. The book is still forced on students in high school English classes all over the country.

What these novels have in common is a lasting impact on generations of impressionable young people. Stories can expose ugly truths, question acceptable behavior, and rouse people to action in a way nothing else can. They can educate and elucidate. They can uplift or tear down.

Your pen has power. Wield it wisely.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Well, I've discovered one thing, Diana ... my unsold books have the power to shore up the uneven corner of my couch ... which makes for more comfortable naps.

  2. Humans have always been storytellers. It was how we passed down our history, what was good to eat and (more importantly) what was not, what we saw when we looked up and what was over that next hill. And around the fire, stories were what passed the hours before sleep. We are dream makers.

    1. And trendsetters, fashion makers, and fantasy fabricators.

  3. Because of the power words can exert over our readers and, indeed, over generations as you note, I try to be careful what I write -- and I exhort those whose books I edit to do the same. Every once in a while, an idea for a storyline based on some unusual criminal activity pops into my mind, and I concoct a growing scenario in my imagination, complete with believable characters and all the elements that make up a great page-turner. Then I wonder whether my little idea (hopefully, I don't really have a criminal mind...only that of a writer of cozy thrillers) might inspire someone who does have less than honest tendencies to enlarge upon it and try it out. Hmmm. Not a pleasant thought. So I stick to human frailties and social ills as foundations of my stories -- maybe not as "thrilling," but safer for society, I'd like to think. Also, I'd like to think my stories touch the hearts and lives of those living in bad situations and give them a glimmer of hope.

    1. I prefer up endings. I like to leave a story hopeful for the future of mankind, justice served, balance restored or changed for the better.

    2. I agree. However, "up" endings don't have to be perfect endings. Not everybody has to get everything they want. Yet the issues of the story need to be addressed and resolved -- actually or by implication -- and the characters need to move on in their lives. Balance, justice, change -- absolutely!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.