WRITE YOUR STORIES FOR REAL, BEFORE ROBOTS GET TO YOU
NOTE: This draft is from a new book I’m working on. It’s inspired by my 100 WRITERS project, which is an indie support group for fiction writers. — D
UPDATE: Read another draft chapter.
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But why write stories? Let’s think.
When you were younger, you liked stories.
We all did.
And you can still remember them. Some of the stories, at least.
Definitely the ones that convinced you there were different worlds out there. Or places with magical creatures.
The ones that told you about earlier times when adventure was a way of life and people believed in miracles.
Long, long ago and far, far away.
You liked stories with heroes. Maybe dragons.
Wicked stepmothers. Pirates. Talking animals.
Castles. Dungeons. Caves. Tree houses. A chocolate factory.
As a child, you’d especially like the stories that introduced you to interesting new people. Characters. You wished that you could meet them, or that they were somehow, against all common sense, related to you.
It was make believe, but it felt so real. So good.
Can you imagine?
You remember those stories. Maybe not the actual words in the books. But the pictures are still there in your head. The feelings are in you.
Stories enter us through words, but they leave us with pictures and feelings.
A good story, once we know it, becomes a part of us. It sits in our memory, right alongside our birthday parties and moments of regret and the stuff we secretly long for.
Spiders spin webs, birds build nests. Human beings make up stories to pass around.
Webs, nests, stories.
They’re alike. They create connections. They hold us together.
A story is an arrangement of related visions and feelings, carefully organised, and passed on from one human to another. If you changed the order, if you messed up the arrangement, you changed the story.
The dog bit the boy.
The boy bit the dog.
The boy saved the princess.
The princess saved the boy.
They saw the rainbow and then the world ended.
The world ended and then they saw the rainbow.
The proper order of story elements is like a secret code. It gives us a way to see, to think and to feel.
But where did this story code come from?
Stories were there at the beginning of our race.
People back then noticed the seasons changing, and came up with stories to explain why.
They observed differences in behaviour, how some people were outstandingly brave, while others were notoriously cowardly, and came up with stories to explain why.
They saw someone filled with so much love that he or she risked everything to do something difficult, even dangerous. And they came up with stories to explain why.
When they travelled, they saw unfamiliar animals, and they came up with stories about how these creatures were once human beings but were transformed into beasts, cursed, after making the gods angry.
When a child saw a rainbow and asked why, they made up a story.
Our ancestors would sit around after hunting, after digging, after fixing their stuff, after mating, after wandering around, after fighting, after beating the life out of their enemies, after trading, after looking out for danger, after crying because someone had died, after making a weapon, after fighting off invaders, after staring at the sky and the sea and then the stars or maybe the darkness that came when the moon refused to show itself, after they were done with all that, and they realised that there was still an emptiness inside them which needed to be filled, they would sit around, maybe out in the open, maybe in a cave, likely around a fire, and settle down to end their day with a sweet story.
They sat around a fire and this fire gave them light. With which to see, especially in the darkness of the cave.
This fire also gave them heat. Which they could feel. The heat on their skin, on their faces, on their arms and legs.
Also, if they were in a cave, this fire threw shadows on the walls around them. Made the shapes move and dance and flicker.
If they were out in the open, the fire would throw shadows on the ground, make them dart around, as if these shadowy forms were visitors from another world, here to join the listeners and share the story.
The fire created a sense of magic. Always it seemed alive, felt alive, made the world around them come alive.
Stories are supposed to be like that too.
Sharing stories felt so good that our ancestors couldn’t stop doing it. Generation after generation they would sit around and make up more stories and share them.
Stories to remember the good times.
Stories to remember the bad times.
It still feels good today. Which is why we continue to do it.
A clever storyteller was a prized member of the tribe. A good story, even told for the hundredth time, but told with cleverness and emotion, with freshness and enthusiasm, could help you forget your pain, survive the cold, ignore the rumblings of an empty tummy, find the courage to go to war, or just calm you down enough so you could go to sleep after a rough day.
A clever storyteller could awaken hope, love, ambition, zeal beyond reason.
Or sadness, rage, fear.
That’s why, for a long time, people thought stories were a form of magic.
In those primitive days, magic was anything that could affect your feelings in a strong way, or change your perception of the world around you.
After all, how did the storyteller plant those images in your head? Make you see those foreign lands, as if you had been there yourself? Bring to life those mesmerising characters, as if you had encountered them in the flesh? Stir in you those feelings of love, hate, wonder, surprise, curiosity, hope, anger, sorrow, regret, forgiveness, and more?
In those very early days, stories were told using pictures, objects, gestures, songs, symbols, dances, music. Until, over five thousand years ago, humans invented the art of writing.
From handwritten stories, we later developed more efficient ways to print the words, so that they could be shared with even more people.
So that the fire could be felt by others, across space and time.
Stories are a sign of civilisation.
Before this, people treated one another badly. They lived in chaos. They often spent their evenings alone, or in small groups. It was natural to be selfish and mean. Antagonistic.
But in order to share a story, you can’t be alone. You need listeners. You need to organise them. You need people to stop fighting or quarrelling long enough to listen to you.
You need people to behave respectfully. To participate. You need them to acknowledge that there are others there with them, listening to the same story.
Sharing the same fire.
Imagining and feeling the same things.
Why write stories? Companionship.
Stories follow life. More than that, they follow our emotional needs.
The earliest African stories, from eight thousand years ago, were mostly about hunting, fighting and magical events. As the people travelled around the continent, they exchanged stories, and over time, many generations, they mixed them all up. One popular type of story was the trickster tale, in which a small animal outsmarts much larger opponents.
When humans moved out of the open plains and caves, and into cities, as they found new ways to organise themselves, they found new ways to tell stories.
They also found new stories to tell.
Ancient Sumer, five thousand or so years ago, was the first great city in the world. Imagine all those people living together for the first time. Human life was so complex that they invented writing to help keep track of the world around them.
Or worlds. They loved stories of gods and goddesses, and sometimes of outstanding kings and warriors, who had the power to defy reality and transform the landscape. They admired one god in particular, who was very clever, and especially creative, who had a special way with words.
Around this same time, four thousand years ago, the Egyptians told similar stories, and also stories of the afterlife, all sorts of strange adventures in the land of the dead.
In India, they told epic stories about the struggles of both mortals and deities, and encoded these tales with ideas about the secrets of the universe.
The early Chinese told stories about their first emperors, how they tamed the land and developed the sciences, how they were always generous and just.
The Greeks told stories about a great war between them and their enemy, which lasted ten years, until the Greeks built a gigantic wooden horse and hid inside it, and tricked their enemy into dragging this inside their own city walls, after which the Greeks emerged at night and killed their unsuspecting enemies.
The original people of Australia created a collection of stories about travelling across the land. Each story would focus on one path or journey. It would describe landmarks, dangers, places to rest, the vegetation, and so on. If you could string the right stories together, you could find a path across the land, you could keep yourself alive. You could walk on and on and never get lost.
Some storytelling traditions leave room for others to interact with the stories and create their own versions.
Folk tales are like that. Fan fiction too.
New stories are now created and shared at a faster and faster rate than ever before. Yet they still somehow seem just as familiar.
Over thousands of years, storytelling has evolved into a rich and powerful art. It can still feel like magic, but in truth it’s really more science. Its inner logic has become increasingly accessible. If you understand its basic rules, the story code, you could do wonderful things with it.
Some people think this story code is like a virus, jumping from one human brain to another, shaping our thoughts in its image.
Stories are addictive, did you know that? The right combination of words and phrases and sentences, creating the right mental images, could set off a powerful trickle of neurochemicals in our brains, as potent as anything we can imagine, and change how we feel in an instant.
This process happens so quickly that we don’t always realise it. It’s science but it feels like magic.
These days, you can sign up for story writing classes everywhere. There are also all sorts of online videos that teach you how to create your own fiction.
It seems like anyone can write stories. Even robots. Did you know that there’s already software that can generate passable stories? Everything from news snippets to short fiction. And likely soon, full novels too.
But the more we read stuff written by robots, the more we will end up writing like robots. Many stories these days already seem so robotic. All words and no wonder.
That’s the challenge for you. For us. How to make better stories in the age of artificial intelligence. How to write fiction that’s not just a string of story information, but a feast for the imagination. A riot for the heart.
Something really human. That connects us.
So write your stories. Take up the tradition that our ancestors started thousands of years ago, sitting around the fire, making up tales that were too fantastic to believe in, yet too enjoyable to ignore.
Take us where the robots can’t follow. Imagine something new. Really feel it.
That’s your story.
DON BOSCO writes thrilling fiction for teens and children. His stories are inspired by Asian legends and pop culture. He started the publishing studio Super Cool Books in 2011. In 2015, his Sherlock Hong Adventures series was acquired by Marshall Cavendish for international release. He is a local co-organiser for StoryCode Singapore, which promotes transmedia storytelling across different platforms and formats. His website.