I finally figured it out…
It’s that easy. And that hard.
Today, Christopher Rosche is talking about the amazing power of storytelling.
Chris has lived the kind of life us writers write about: journalism, terrorism consultant, congressional staffer. He’s had some amazing experiences, so I feel very lucky to not only know him, but to glean some knowledge from him in our new writing group.
He and his wife are the nicest people you can imagine — his kids, too. I’m so excited he’s writing a novel. It’s going to be amazing.
I’ll let him take over and educate you on the human brain. Very cool.
Back in 2003, an opportunity opened up in my life that allowed me to finally launch the book-writing career I had dreamed about since I was nine years old.
One Monday morning I drove to our local library with my laptop and a stack of new Levenger notepads. I found a somewhat isolated corner desk with a sunny picture window facing a neighboring park, turned on the computer, and typed “Draft I.”
Five hours later I returned home for dinner, opening the front door to see my wonderful wife with her beautiful smile. “How did it go?”
“Well,” I sighed, pausing for a moment as I stared down at the hallway’s hardwood flooring. “The writing thing isn’t working,” I declared. “I’ll start looking for a new job first thing tomorrow.”
Thoroughly disappointed with myself, I had spent endless hours in the library staring at my laptop screen. The total output: two sentences. This really hit me—I had no idea how to write a novel, let alone where to begin.
My wife and I still crack up when we recall that day. Incredibly naïve about the intricacies of writing a novel, I assumed my entire book outline would be done in an afternoon.
Since that day, my goal to publish fiction always lingered in the background. At the time, I was a consultant to the Defense Department and various intelligence agencies during the decade after 9/11. Every day at work gave me another two or three plot ideas that I filed away and sat on for years.
Recently, our family took a major step to escape the Beltway and move back to the Midwest so that I could make a serious stab at a fiction-writing career while continuing to consult part-time.
Armed with a new IMac, Scrivener writing software, numerous plot ideas, character sketches, and about 10 books on how to write books, I launched into my first real novel.
Along the way, I’ve stumbled over a plethora of challenges, fears, road blocks, and self-doubt. I’ve seriously thought about quitting this crazy train ride at least once. Well, I need to be honest here, a more accurate number is around five.
The truth is, I can’t quit. And if you’re a writer with a story to tell, struggling away late into the early morning hours on a regular basis, you can’t either.
I’ll never be a Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, or H.G. Wells—all personal favorites of mine. But writers like you and I have something important to say. We clack away on our keyboards in dark winter rooms late at night, gathering courage to type out a story that might bring a smile, a tear, or, perhaps, trigger empathy in a reader.
Stories, you see, are very powerful. What we are trying to accomplish has implications far beyond our home office.
A significant aspect of my consulting over the years focused on the questions of what motivates people to action. Whether they are employees in a company or federal agency, members of a private organization, or even terrorists planning attacks, people are mentally impacted the most when they read or hear a great story.
Not just any story, but a particular kind.
Many of us, when we attempt to influence people or change their way of thinking, arm themselves with facts, figures, charts, and scientific studies. Logic, Mr. Spock (I know that dates me a bit) and the latest technological advancements, always win in the end. Right?
I’ve seen this effect up close and personal dozens of times, especially in my early years as a consultant. Companies hired us to find creative solutions to challenging problems. After months of study, we would build massive PowerPoint presentations filled with bullets, facts, and numbers to present a way out. But for more times than I care to remember, the cold hard facts did not always motivate our clients to change.
Beginning around 2004, we found a much more effective approach. We still conducted interviews, research, and formulated solutions that made sense. The method of analysis remained largely the same.
What did change was the way we presented the solutions. When we told our clients a well-designed story that illustrated the correct set of solutions, there was an incredibly marked difference in the reception. As we developed this narrative or story-based approach, we saw employees, corporate executives, and military leaders far more receptive and motivated to take on tough changes to their old behaviors.
Other consultants also were catching on to this style of storytelling to solve problems, including Nancy Duarte, a highly regarded communications expert that has advised Apple, Cisco, Facebook, GE, Google, HP, TED, Twitter, and the World Bank. Her firm, Duarte, Inc. is one of the largest consulting firms in Silicon Valley, as well as the 5th largest woman-owned employer. Her TedX East Talk from 2011 on the secret structure of great talks has received more than 650,000 views.
Ironically, these same storytelling techniques designed to motivate our clients also hold interesting implications for understanding the deep power that telling a story holds for readers and societies at large. A body of scientific evidence developed over the past 15 years reveals that making deep shifts in our thinking requires the same techniques that authors, screenwriters, and movie directors use in their forms of storytelling.
Last year, Lisa Cron, a story consultant, literary agent, and writing instructor at the University of California-Los Angeles, published a book, Wired for Story, where she noted:
Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it. In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world. 
Some very recent studies confirm this.
MRI images reveal that our brains act very differently when you show a fact-filled slide presentation than when you tell or read a story. Flash a boring slide of facts to an audience and only one area of the brain—the part that processes words—is affected. When narratives utilize literary tools like metaphors, allegory, and parables, the test subject’s brains light up.
The effect is quite profound. Utilizing certain literary techniques that have been around for thousands of years, telling or reading a story has an enduring impact on our brain and influences the way we act.
Last year, Annie Murphy Paul wrote in The New York Times:
Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
Even more profound, and critically important to fiction writers, is the notion that the most powerful, long-lasting effects of storytelling follows a particular pattern.
In the early stages of outlining my first novel, I ran into a road block. Ever the strategic thinker, I prefer to create a rough outline of my book to give me a general roadmap on where I am going. As I started drafting early chapters, I realized that something was seriously wrong with the plot but couldn’t put my finger on it.
A friend recommended a book, The Hero has a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Campbell spent decades gathering and categorizing ancient fables from civilizations throughout history and discovered a similar pattern and structure. Campbell argues this basic story structure is a component of human nature, a set of principles that guides our lives.
When I read through the basics of Campbell’s paradigm of a particular myth he called the Hero’s Journey, I quickly noticed what was missing from my novel. In addition, I was surprised to see most of the essential elements of the hero’s journey embedded in my book although in a different manner. (To learn more details about the Campbell’s hero’s journey see here.)
I’m convinced there is more to this pattern. Why, for instance, have the parables and stories of the Bible or the Koran, both utilizing the various literary tools mentioned in this article, had such a powerful impact a millennia after they were written?
Willa Cather once wrote:
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.
In that same manner, all the great stories—the myths, legends, and epics that have survived through the ages and continue to be repeated today—do have a form.
Applying aspects of the hero’s journey helped me uncover a significant weakness in the overall structure of my novel. But the hero’s journey taught me something even more important..
Telling and writing stories is powerful. The myths, legends, and scriptures handed down to us over the ages contain essential elements of truth about who we are and where we came from. It helps us identify who we are and where we are going.
Stories help us see that the problems we face today are similar to the ones our ancestors faced. They also provide solutions. Maybe not the exact answer we are looking for, but the key principles that can guide us to the next step.
Writers like us have something important to say. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be staring bleary-eyed at the monitor at 2:30 am trying to figure out how our hero will face her challenge and save the human race from the great catastrophe about to take place.
So you see, you can’t give up. No matter how hard it might be. Perhaps what you have to say today will change the direction of our future, or our children’s future. Some day the epic novel you are writing may be the source of legend tomorrow.
Christopher Rosche spent 25 years in the fast-paced environment of Washington, DC building a career that led from journalism to a congressional post and then to corporate and government consulting. Christopher and his family decided to escape from the nation’s capital last year, returning to his family roots in the Midwest. While Chris is a creative planning counselor who helps clients develop strategic public affairs and communications programs, he is also pursuing a life-long dream of writing his first novel. Since he was nine, he has wanted to write mysteries, and now is deep in the details of his first espionage thriller. Chris is married to his amazing wife, Christy, has two children, and a vivacious Shetland sheepdog—the ever spirited Kai.
That was so fascinating, Chris. As I think back to the many lectures and lessons I’ve sat through, I definitely like the ones that include stories the best. I just never realized why.
Wow. I’m feeling empowered as an author.
*picture me sitting at my laptop in deep thought*
For a long time, I’ve believed that all of us have a story to share that only we can share. I’m not talking plot, because there are a thousand ways to write a vampire story. Don’t believe me? Go to your nearest bookstore.
I’m talking more about the stuff that happens below the surface. The emotions. The inward struggles. The life lessons. You know, the good stuff.
We all come from different sets of circumstances that allow us to tell the hero’s journey in a very unique way. Like Chris writing an espionage thriller. He can do it in a way I never could. If we can just recognize it and get out of our own way, who knows; we might just change our world — or at least, one reader who will then change the world. I can think of several books that have affected the way I view things and people around me.
Yep. I’m motivated.
Cereal for dinner, kids. :)
Next up on MARCH BOOK MADNESS…
If you’re new to March Book Madness, it’s an excuse for me to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors and readers. Fun, fun, fun!
The collective talent listed above . . . Wow! If you’ve missed any days, make sure to catch up. It’s been awesome.
Check out last year’s MARCH BOOK MADNESS here.