A plane went down. The only survivors were some British schoolboys, who couldn’t believe their good fortune. Nothing but beach, shells and water for miles. And better yet: no grownups.
On the very first day, the boys instituted a democracy of sorts. One boy, Ralph, was elected the group’s leader. Athletic, charismatic and handsome, his game plan is simple: 1) Have fun. 2) Survive. 3) Make smoke signals for passing ships. Number one was a success. The other two? Not so much. The boys were more interested in feasting and frolicking than in tending the fire. Before long, they began painting their faces, casting off their clothes and developing overpowering urges – to pinch, to kick, to bite.
By the time a British naval officer comes ashore, the island was a smouldering wasteland. Three of the children were dead. “I should have thought,” the officer said, “that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that.” At this, Ralph burst into tears. “Ralph wept for the end of innocence,” we read, and for “the darkness of man’s heart”.
This story never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951. His novel Lord of the Flies sold tens of millions of copies, got translated into more than 30 languages, and was hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century.
In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. And he used lies to communicate that.
Stories are a vehicle to communicate truth.
Imagine for a moment that instead of writing a fictional story William Golding had written an essay on the darkness of the human heart. How many people would have read it? Would it be as memorable as the novel? Would it communicate the truth about human nature that effectively?
Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient wisdom, legends, archetypes, myths and symbols. They connect us to universal truths.
All religions communicate with their disciples in the form of stories. Ramayana and Mahabharata are prime examples. Although their authenticity still hasn’t been validated, the message is clear.
Storytelling is an art, and like any other art, it is a vehicle to communicate. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Stories make the message personal.
When I was in primary school, once in a while, our headmistress used to read us a story during the morning prayer. One particular one stayed with me forever. It was the story of a mighty tree and humble grass. On one stormy night, the tree was uprooted by the ferocious wind but the grass remained as it was, in fact it was more lush green due to all the rain. The wind could bend its blades but couldn’t uproot it, while the tree with all its might, couldn’t stand the storm.
That lesson with humility stayed with me because I could relate to grass. We all can relate to something in the stories. Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories help us understand how things work, how we make decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, how we create our identities and define and teach social values.
It is easy to remember stories than the facts.
Do you know how many people have died this month with the Coronavirus pandemic? If you are anything like me, you will be making a guess to come up with a number. Even though seventy percent of the news these days is about the pandemic and havoc it is causing in the world we can’t keep the facts in our heads.
Yet all of us know what happened to George Floyd. We will never forget his story or what followed after he was pinned under the knee of the very force which should be protecting the citizen of its country. Just like the story of Rosa Parks of Alabama, who was jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, started the Civil Rights Movement, the story of George Floyd started the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Fictional stories have the same kind of power. They are one of the most interesting tools that human beings have. Since our brain cannot tell the difference between the real and imagined, we can create imagined characters and imagined events to bring home the message. All parables and fairy tales are invented. For thousands of years, through all civilizations, humans have been using stories to teach children.
As a fiction writer, you are licensed to create lies, you are licensed to create people who do not exist and licensed to make things up that didn’t happen to communicate truth.
Because you are not just creating lies you are creating memorable lies.
Happy fiction writing!