As a professional storyteller with a family oral tradition background, stories come to me naturally. I use stories to beef up both my nonfiction and my fiction writing. They are used differently in each type of writing, so I will explain.
Back in the 1990s when I was cranking out self-defense and personal security books, I used the power of story a lot. I always introduced and explained my various concepts. Then, I would use a short story of a paragraph or so long as a way to illustrate the concept with an everyday, true-life example. My book Surviving Hostage Situations is filled with true stories of people who survived hostage situations. Each mini-story shows how the concept I was teaching worked in each respective case.
This can work for all kinds of nonfiction. For instance, a business how-to book can include case studies that illustrate the author’s intent. Biographies are built on stories and vignettes. Stories make a book more human, more believable.
Now I know some of you are saying that fiction is nothing but a story. That’s true; however, it can be illustrated with true or imaginary tales that help shape the book. Let me explain by using a true story. My 6th mystery needs to start with a bang of a hook to drag readers into wanting to read the rest of the book. My hook will based on a true story that happened to me back in the spring of 1986.
I was hired by Kansas City Kansas Community College to teach a class in Business Law to prisoners incarcerated in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. It was an evening class. One night, a bunch of correction officers came running into the classroom and shouted out instructions, “Prisoners on your feet! Line up in the hallway. Are you OK, Mr. Spear?”
“Yeah, but what do you guys know that I don’t?”
“We found a blood trail out in the hallway and thought it might be your’s.”
Some of the officers escorted the prisoners back to their cells while others tracked down the blood trail. They found a prisoner with a badly gashed hand hiding in a stairwell. He claimed he’d stumbled and cut it on the steps. In actuality, he’d survived an attack from another prisoner with a shank, a homemade knife.
Needless to say, class was over for that evening. While I waited on an officer to escort me out to the front entrance, the Lieutenant of the guard shift told me shanking war stories.
OK, so that’s the story. Now, let me explain how I will use it. The hook will begin with a concerned prisoner who has just learned through the prison rumor mill that the head of the Mexican drug gang in the prison has put out a contract on him for having sold some dope without the drug lord’s permission. He suddenly see’s the drug lord’s enforcer working his way toward him through a crowd of prisoners. The victim turns away and runs toward the education center with his executioner close behind and…well you can see where all that’s going, except this prisoner won’t survive the fifty odd stab wounds he receives. I will combine my incident with some of the stories the guard Lieutenant told me to give realistic descriptions of the hook incident.
This is why I’m always on the lookout for interesting stories in the media, on the internet, and wherever else I hear them. Combining real-life stories with your fiction gives it extra oomph. This is why some writers spend time around folks who do in real life what the writers’ characters do in their books. It really adds a sense of authenticity. Never forget the power of story. This doesn’t mean one should overwhelm the reader with backstory, but it helps shape the presentation of plot and action.