All stories are true stories. All stories tell lies. Whether you’re not you take this literally, these axioms hold true for those stories that are deeply compelling. Not all stories are completely factual, and that is an important distinction. Truth can take many different forms, and that truth in a story is what speaks to us all. It can reveal something about ourselves that we didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t want to know. It can tell us something about the world around us, whether it’s the people that we interact with on a daily basis, or quite simply the universe writ large.
From the Iliad to Starship Troopers, stories that are able to get at a fundamental truth resonate across audiences from all walks of life. The question is why? How can a story have a single kernel of truth shrouded by complete fabrication drive us to change, drive us to act, or drive us to see the universe in a different way?
There are so many examples of this, stories handed down across generations that preserve or honor a truth and make us think, rethink, or act. All great literature uses them to some scale or another. The more we come to understand these truths, the better we can tell our stories.
To be sure, each story is not imbued with a unique truth; far from it. It may be a trope that there are no new ideas, but that doesn’t mean that there are no new stories. A new story can take an old truth and connect it with a new audience through that phenomenon of trust.
Like most important things between people, how much a story resonates with an audience comes down to trust. A story, and by way of that an author, has to create trust with an audience. The story has to tell the audience exactly what it is and what it isn’t, what it will do and what it will not do, and it has to live up to this contract. This contract of trust between story and audience is what allows the relationship to form. The relationship between audience and author isn’t the same as that formed between people who know each other on a personal level. After all, storytellers can’t possibly tell their story to every person in the world. They certainly can’t tell their story to those generations that are yet to come. But if they can craft a story that has a truth to it, and it creates a sense of trust with the audience, then that story can resound down through the ages. After finishing a good book, watching a compelling movie,
So what does all this mean to a storyteller? It means that even if you are writing the wildest fantasy, or the most outlandish science fiction, you have to know where the truth in your story is. You have to honor that truth, and keep it inviolate throughout your story. If you do not your audience, having given you their trust, will feel betrayed. You don’t have to reveal that truth at the beginning of your story-in fact some of the best save their truth for the final chapter. But a story that does not honor its truth runs the risk of descending into chaos at the worst, and at best the reader no longer trusts the story or the author and the message is lost.
When you tell your story, know what the truth is in it, make up the rest, and you will build that trust with your audience. They’ll hear your message, they’ll follow you, and they will grow and change. All you have to to do is tell the truth!