Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Power Of Story

     I’ve just received yet another inquiry – yes, I get a lot of them – from a reader of the op-eds that have appeared here and elsewhere, the thrust of which is: “Why do you bother writing fiction when you can say your piece in op-eds more plainly, more concisely, and with less effort?” It’s a reasonable question. Indeed, I’ve occasionally asked it of myself. There’s no answer that will satisfy everyone. For me, the answer is simple: I’ve come to appreciate the power of story, which is far greater than the power of exposition or argument. Story – narrative that embeds real or plausible characters doing things that make sense according to their premises, convictions, and influences – has changed more lives than dispassionate argument ever will.

     The most influential books of all time don’t merely argue for their theses; they demonstrate them in action, whether positively – by example – or negatively – by counterexample. The first and foremost of all such life-changing books is, of course, the Bible. Its most powerful segments speak of persons in action. The central figure of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, is depicted in third person: an itinerant preacher who travels the length and breadth of Judea teaching, healing, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God to be at hand. Moreover, the bulk of His preachments is in parables: fictional vignettes that express His theme for the day. The story of Jesus and the stories He told have had more power to open minds and move souls than any argument ever written. Other greatly influential books do much the same, though to other effects.

     If I may be allowed to remain with Christianity for a while, consider the far smaller impact expositions upon the Christian faith have had. Even its greatest apologists, its C. S. Lewises and John Henry Newmans, have been less persuasive than the Gospel stories. That’s not because the Bible is older or “more authoritative;” it’s because the story of Jesus’s ministry, Passion, and Resurrection is more compelling.

     Whenever you’ve heard or read about someone’s triumphs or travails – whenever you’ve reacted to such a tale by thinking “Yes, that’s how it works,” or “Boy, I’ll bet he won’t do that again,” you’ve sensed the power of story.

     In all the Sturm und Drang going around about “the narrative” ® and the insistence of the Media That Once Were upon formulating and controlling it, little reflection goes to why Narrative should be superior to Facts. Haven’t we all heard how “Facts are stubborn things?” Don’t we all know that a single adverse fact can kill any theory, however beautiful? Isn’t it incontrovertibly the case that narratives are nearly always built around inventions – less politely, lies?

     Well, yes, we have heard all that. Yet the power of story, which is embedded in any coherent narrative, is so great that it can carry the reader willing to suspend his disbelief past implausibilities and adverse facts almost without his knowledge. Remember “truthiness,” the canard the Left wanted to establish as prior and superior to actual Truth? It’s just another, less worthy expression of appreciation of the power of story.

     He who is determined to persuade you of a proposition for which the evidence is (at best) inconclusive will nearly always embed it in a narrative: a plot line whose causal connections he’ll refrain from explicitly stating but will invite you to infer. In other words, he’ll tell you a story. The political Left has known the efficacy of this technique since Dickens at the latest.

     I have very few themes: Freedom, Christ’s New Covenant, and the limitless power of love pretty much cover them. Yet they’re almost inexhaustible. The power of those themes comes through in fiction no matter how frequently they’re used. I’ve already gotten eleven novels and a host of shorter stories out of them, and I have several more planned. (Never fear; I don’t plan to discontinue the op-eds.)

     Non-fiction can edify, but unless you’re Mark Steyn, it’s unlikely to entertain. Fiction can both entertain and edify. Both are goals of mine. (Making great gushing torrents of money? Well, it would be nice, but...well, anyway.) In every tale I write, I strain to give the reader that sense that he’s glimpsed the acting-out of an eternal verity by plausible figures whose motivations and decisions he can comprehend. It’s occasioned a lot of email: some complimentary, some critical; some from folks so close they could well be my neighbors; some from halfway around the world. I regard all of it as positive feedback: the indication that someone somewhere was moved by what I wrote.

     And then, there’s always the chance that some random Amazon customer will be seized by an unaccountable impulse to buy one of my novels, will read it, and will say, “Not bad, not bad at all. I wonder if the other stuff he writes is worthwhile. Let’s have a look at that website of his...”


JWM said...

I'll probably finish John C Wright's "Vindication of Man" later this week. You are the next author going on the Kindle. I love a good sci-fi epic. Is "Which art in Hope" the first in the series?
BTW- Your blog has become a daily stop. Thanks for what you do.


Francis W. Porretto said...

Yes, JWM, Which Art In Hope is the first volume. And thanks for your kind words.