There are many powerful life lessons stories teach. Not just moral lessons, but psychological lessons, spiritual lessons, and life lessons.When you grasp the core concepts of storytelling, you’ll understand why stories are so powerful.
You know where you want to go in your life. You feel the burning motivation inside of you to take on the world and to succeed. You want to know what success tastes like. You want your family and friends to say, “Damn. You are one awesome person.” Day in, day out, you want to achieve your ambitions.
But then you feel that weight in your legs after a tiring day. So you put your feet up, switch on Netflix or grab a book, and mellow out.
And another day passes while you’re there watching movies, reading, playing games…
“You’re being lazy,” people say. “Switch the TV off and get to work.”
But at the back of your mind you know that they’re wrong. You know that when you’re sitting there watching or reading your favorite movies or book, it’s not “Lazy”. Some power actually demands that you watch the TV and movies, that you read, and that you play games.
You know there’s some power making you engage with those fictional stories you love so much. But you can’t quite put your finger on what that power is.
When you’re sitting there watching Netflix or reading, your brain is being led through a psychological process. It’s a psychological process that has evolved over the years. It’s the power of storytelling. And storytelling is full of life lessons, life lessons that can teach us all how to change our lives.
Storytelling is man’s oldest and most important skill. Without storytelling, mankind would have died millions of years ago. Because had it not been for a father telling a son, “I was out in the forest today when a big green T-Rex ran after me and tried to bite my head off”… had it not been for that, young boys and girls would not have known to run away from predators, and mankind would not have endured the ferocious wilds for millions of years. Storytelling changed the lives of cavemen and it changes our lives today.
Even when we don’t understand the life lessons stories teach us it still changes our lives, but when we do understand those life lessons, storytelling becomes even more powerful.
Storytelling is deeply ingrained in our evolution. Look throughout history and you will find powerful life lessons stories have taught.
It’s ironic, really, that we call stories “entertainment”. Movies, games, books… they’re just pointless entertainment, aren’t they?
Stories—whether movies, games, or books—are psychological tools (or weapons, in the hands of politicians) that have a serious affect on people.
It has been scientifically proven that when you watch, read, or play through a story, your brain actually steps into the shoes of the lead character in the story and lives vicariously through them. Well, that’s the case with a good story. In fact, the very difference between a good story and a bad story is whether or not it accesses your brain to such a degree that you can step into the character’s shoes.
The classic movies, books, and games that we consider to be masterpieces, all put you into the lead character’s (protagonist’s) shoes. So when you are fully engrossed in a story, as far as your brain is concerned, you are the protagonist of that story. In fact, because great stories are written so masterfully, you may even feel more alive when engrossed in a story than when you’re going about your day to day life. For proof, just think about the times you’ve laughed, cried, cheered, been angry, or felt love when you watching a story. Those real emotions arose because as far as your brain is concerned the story was real.
It’s also been psychologically proven that when you finish watching / reading / playing a truly engrossing story, you will not be the same person you were before you watched it. Stories actually change you, just as they change the protagonist of the story. And they do that because, as we mentioned earlier, when engrossed in a story you become the lead character.
That’s why the life lessons stories teach you hit you do deep: because when you’re watching a story you’re really living it.
Now imagine if you were able to get hold of this magical power of storytelling through which the masters grip your mind and brain. Imagine if you could harness that power. That would be a key to the ignition of your own mind.
Naturally, having evolved over millions of years, storytelling is a very deep subject. There are, however, some key points that are universal to all great stories, and you can use those points to change your own life, just as the protagonist of a story changes their lives.
The Life Lessons Stories Teach About Changing Lives (Or Character Or Real People)
Don’t worry. You do not need to have a degree in literature to understand the points we’re going to be discussing here. They’re easily accessible to all.
- Life Lessons From Stories #1: Show don’t Tell (which, translated into real life, means see don’t tell)
The absolute oldest rule in the whole of storytelling is show don’t tell. As an author I have heard this saying so many times that every time I see it it makes me feel so bored I want to slam my head into a wall.
But it is bloody important in storytelling.
Let me prove the point very quickly
Michelle won the lottery and was happy.
How’s that line make you feel? Probably bored, right? That’s because it’s a tell.
Michelle watched the lottery numbers one at a time. With each number her heart beat faster and harder until she felt she might collapse. By the time the sixth ball had matched her ticket, the world seemed to spin before her eyes and she had to hold on tight to her best friend’s arm to keep her balance.
How’s that? A lot better. Why? Because it’s showing not telling.
Now, the point here is not about writing a novel. The point is about living life. And this basic law of storytelling tells a vital truth about you and your life.
That truth is this: the brain does not respond to facts. It responds to senses. The more you focus on your senses, the more alive you will be.
The first life lessons stories teach, then, is this: be mindful of your senses.
This, in other words, is about mindfulness, the quality of focusing on the present moment.
Let’s try to actually use this life lessons stories teach. Let’s use the show don’t tell rule on a real life example.
You wake in the morning and you know you have to shower and shave so you just do it, obliviously, while thinking about what you want for lunch. How would you feel at this time? Bored. Like you’re nearly dead inside. Because you’re not focusing on life, on the present moment.
You wake up and leap into the shower, and while there you focus on the hot water splashing on your body, and on the smell of the soap. You take your razor and focus on your body, on the sensations as you shave.
How would that feel? A lot more alive. Because your brain is responding to the sensations of actual reality, making you more connected to reality, feeding your brain new sensory information, making you more alive.
Show don’t tell is the oldest rule in the storytelling book. See don’t tell is one of the most important aspects of brain health.
- Life Lessons From Stories #2: The best way to change is to make an irreversible choice
One of the events that must occur in a story is an inciting incident that cannot be reversed. Something happens that rocks the lead character, the character then acts upon that situation, and her action carries her to a place she cannot go back from.
One of the best examples of this is in The Hunger Games.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s sister is chosen to represent her district in what is basically a fight to the death. Here, Katniss is given a choice: she can take her sister’s place if she wants to. She does (making her a hero). And by making that one decision, she can never undo it. She’s made a decision that will change her life forever.
Why does that matter to you? You’re never going to be asked to enter a fight to the death. How can this possibly be relevant?
Because your brain hates change. All brains do. If you actively try to change part of your life your brain will do everything in its power to pull you back to where you were, to that place that is familiar.
You’re in a bad relationship. You dream about leaving it because you know it sucks. But every time you try to leave your brain stops you. Because your brain is hardwired to favor familiarity, because at the end of the day “This shi* might be awful, but I’m still alive, so I’ll stick with it in the interest of self preservation”.
So the second life lesson stories teach is this: If you truly want to change your life, you have to make one irreversible decision. That will be scary, obviously, but it is the only way to guarantee that you will change your life. All other ways make it far too easy for your brain to just claw its way back into familiar territories.
Characters must go through one scene that changes them irreversibly, and if you want your life to change forever you must too.
- Life Lessons From Stories #3: The adventure is in the fear
This is my favorite one.
In a story your character needs to be put through hell. Why? Because stories are about how a character changes inside, and to change inside they have to pass through their fears.
There’s a very famous quite that says “Everything you desire is on the other side of your fear”. Think it was Jack Cornfield who said that.
Regardless of who said it, it’s true. And great storytellers instinctively understand this truth. That’s why this is the third life lesson stories teach.
Let me give another very popular story example. Rey in The Force Awakens.
Rey is terrified of the idea of being forced away from her home planet of Jakku. She’s waiting the return of her family. But (as is made clear) her family has been gone many years and will never return.
There is nothing on Jakku for Rey, but her fear keeps her there. The only way in which Rey’s life can change is for her to overcome her fear. That’s why, over the next two hours, Rey is led further and further away from Jakku, which essentially is making her overcome her fears. And we all know what happens when Rey overcomes her fear: she becomes her true self, a Jedi.
Of course this is fiction. But fiction works because it abides by the psychological laws that govern your own brain. And one of the most important of those laws is that you must overcome your fear in order to change.
Everything you desire is on the other side of your fear.
Find your fear. Face it. Overcome it. And you will change your life (and your brain) forever.
These are three of the most universal rules of storytelling. And storytelling is the oldest tool in the world.
Stories work because they abide by the laws that govern your brain. Next time you find yourself engrossed in a story, ask yourself: How has this story captivated my brain? You’ll find powerful life lessons there.
This article is based on research by Lisa Cron in her groundbreaking book