Finding Truth in Fiction: The Power of Creative Storytelling

From Jeff: This is a guest post from Max Andrew Dubinsky. Max is an author and storyteller from California who recently returned from traveling across the United States. He blogged about the whole experience on his blog, Make It Mad. You can follow him on Twitter: @maxdubinsky.
I glanced up, caught sight of my brother’s body floating facedown in the deep end. I threw open my window, and slammed into the screen. I punched and tore and kicked my way through, rolling out onto the roof and stumbling towards the edge, the shingles slicing holes in my knees and elbows. My boots caught the gutter and ripped it from the house, and I jumped.

The above story belongs to a young man desperately seeking truth and redemption. It takes place after his return home to face his family and a tragedy they held him responsible for.

His name is Nathan, and like the rest of us, he’s made plenty of mistakes. His story is a powerful one of forgiveness and second chances. Much like your story. Much like mine.

The only difference between our stories and Nathan’s is his story is entirely fictional. However, it’s true, nonetheless.

Truth in Fiction (Storyboard)
Photo credit: (Creative Commons)

How can this be? How can we find meaning in made-up stories?

The fact is fiction is often closer to the truth than what surrounds us on a daily basis.

Every day, we lie to ourselves to avoid facing the discomfort of our anxiety, hurt, and betrayal (just to name a few feelings).

But the art of storytelling can bring those feelings front and center, forcing us to face them and deal with the truth. In other words, stories help us live again.

Fiction teaches us about our own stories

Nathan is the hero of his story. Just as I am the hero of mine. And you are the hero of yours.

But I am also the villain of another story. Perhaps many stories. For I’ve broken hearts, lied, cheated, intentionally harmed, and said “no” to commitments when the cost was high.

And if you’re guilty of those acts, you’ve been the villain, too.

Everyone in Nathan’s life — in their stories — views him as the villain. But his villain, the opposition in his story, is lust.

For some of us, our villains are our fathers, mothers, bullies, alcohol, or even our friends.

Anything that keeps you from being who you were made to be is a villain. It’s opposition. Resistance.

And you must fight it with everything have.

The importance of using broken people

“You write a lot on damaged and dysfunctional people,” one critic pointed out after reading the short story featuring Nathan. He wanted to know what appeals to me in that sort of storytelling.

“I write what I know,” I told him.

Life is ugly. Life is broken. And therein lies its beauty. We live in a fallen world where redemption lies in being broken. That’s why I write about it.

The best stories are full of darkness. Take a look at the Bible, for example. The most religious book in our culture is full of rape, murder, incest, betrayal, sex, adultery, violence, and war. And in the end, through all of that, someone trades his life to save the lives of many. No wonder it still leaves such an impact.

Great stories need darkness. Because it obscures beauty. Sometimes, we need to dive into the darkness to find the beauty life has to offer. That’s where the adventure awaits.

If all art was safe and clean, we’d never see the light. We’d never be saved, never be redeemed.

I tell stories in an attempt to reach the broken, the defeated, and the hopeless. I want to connect with the lost. Because at one point or another, we’ve all been lost.

The power of stories

Storytelling is the most powerful way I know to convey a cause, spread an idea, or inspire hope.

We all know this. You mention Homer and The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, or — God help us — Twilight, and people immediately know what you are talking about. You’re talking about story. Stories that have and will live on forever.

Those stories made us feel. We relate to the journey of The Odyssey, the helpless infatuation of teenage love in Romeo and Juliet, or the reminder Edward gives us that being seventeen forever has its drawbacks.

Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Our lives are the greatest stories ever told.

We make those around us feel every single day. We excite them and bore them. We make them angry or make their day. We have the power to change, to inspire, and to destroy.

The power of story lies within us

We live in a culture saturated with social media where everyone has the ability to pick up a megaphone and shout.

Bloggers are the modern-day storytellers in the likes of Hemingway, Poe, and Kerouac. But far too often, we storytellers play it safe.

Very few of us are telling stories, let alone personal accounts. Instead our readers are drowning in statistics and self-help.

We need more stories.

And if you don’t think you have one, make no mistake: If you’re living, breathing, and reading this right now, you have a story to tell.

I found success when I started sharing mine.

I told my story. And Nathan’s. And so many others.

It’s time for you to tell yours.

* * *

Read more of Max’s stories in his short fiction collection, We Can’t Go Home Again, available now on Amazon for only 99 cents. (Affiliate link)

What do you think fiction and creative storytelling can teach us about life and truth? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: (Creative Commons)

59 thoughts on “Finding Truth in Fiction: The Power of Creative Storytelling

  1. “If you’re living, breathing, and reading this right now, you have a story to tell.”
    I love this line. Thanks for the advice.Another one is this: “Sometimes, we need to dive into the darkness to find the beauty life has to offer.”
    You’re right. If everything’s all nice and good then sometimes it’s hard to appreciate them. It takes something that will truly shake us and, maybe, even hurt us to help us really appreciate the good that we have.

  2. Great post. I have been a writer for years now and have been speaking in seminars and universities time to time. With my experience I am confident in saying how people loved to hear stories. It seems that individuals are so attached by stories that they get the whole point just by listening to a 5 minutes story than hearing a 30 minute lecture. Same goes with writing but in this area, I guess making it short is the key and presenting the facts using bullets would make it readable. 

    1. Thanks Spatch. I think this is why people can recall entire plots and dialogue from a movie or play they have only seen once. History proves the power of a good story sticks with you and has influence. Even Jesus had the same idea. He didn’t lecture either. He just told stories and people listened whether they followed him or not.

  3. Love this post, Max!
    I’ve shared my story by writing and publishing a memoir… and I share my story in person to people of all ages and I enjoy that.But sometimes I get confused what to do with blogging… everyone else seems to be offering self-help stuff, how-to info, etc… so I’ve wondered if I should do the same.But I agree with you that the web is drowning with those.  This post is helping me realize I want to tell stories in books, in person and on my blog… thanks for the motivation!

    1. Hey Janet. Thanks for sharing. Definitely be encouraged to tell a story. When I started blogging, I didn’t really have anything that I wanted to write about. So I decided to do something that would propel forward a story I could share with everyone and write about it live every week. I quit my job and tried to make it in LA as a camera operator, which lead me to driving across the county in search of faith in America.

  4. My first career was as a college professor.  I found students learned more if there was a story to go with the concept.  The story put flesh and bones on the abstract and made it tangible.  I believe fiction does the same thing.

  5. Wonderful repost. As mentioned here, fiction is very much a mirror for self identification. The Greeks, who were against feeling and emotional responses in daily life, even believed in it as a means for venting emotions. Reading very much helps us recognize and address our own problems, just as you said. I know I can’t see myself clearly most times until I find myself relating to a character that is experiencing emotions I didn’t even know I had been feeling as well. It’s an odd and revelatory experience. Thank you for sharing. 

  6. I used to not be a fan of fiction. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it – it was just that I was so fascinated in learning, that I couldn’t get enough of nonfiction. Until I read “Lit!” by Tony Reinke. That book changed my perception.
    He argues much the same as you. There’s something about fiction which lets us take a peak inside someone else. It reveals to us the human condition. It reveals to us brokenness in its most humble and sometimes most horrific senses. Opened my eyes!

  7. Thank you for writing this! Too often I hear people say that life is messy so fiction doesn’t need to be. In reality, fiction is a reflection of life. I want mine to be raw, relatable, real, all the while highlighting the hope that we often overlook. I love to write about broken characters who journey into a beautiful story as a result of the mess. Thank you again for your encouraging words.

  8. “Very few of us are telling stories, let alone personal accounts. Instead our readers are drowning in statistics and self-help.”  amen!I’ve found many of the blogs I subscribed to when I started blogging are now just spouting self-help ad nauseum.  OR hawking their self-help bible.  I am unsubscribing daily because they’ve lost their soul.
    Story telling is at the core of my blog, which is about my life.  It’s not pretty but it is very real.  I break it up with lighter fare quite often but it really is the raw truth of my childhood people want to read.  It’s the prelude to the memoir.  And I won’t be giving any ‘how-to’s’ anytime soon.
    Great post!

  9. Also, for me anyway, is the power of song to offer transformative opportunities – that reminds me, I have a post about a Red Hot Chili Peppers song I’ve been meaning to write 🙂

  10. Life is a story.  But, I think writing, even though it is describing the deep and desperate things we’ve gone through, has a fictional component.  Even a fictional novel couldn’t be written if we, as we go through our difficult lives, couldn’t be written without life experiences, and the dark side of life.  If we lived our entire lives in a bubble, all we could write about is what has happened to us in a bubble. Living in a bubble has its down side.  That’s certainly not where I would want to spend my life, so in my 61 years, I’ve lived through some horrible, dark and disturbing things, but to write only about those things would be denying myself and others of the good things I’ve experienced.  So, writing is about both the horrible and the good times we have lived.  And fiction, I think doesn’t really exist without throwing in our good and bad times.  We have to have experiences to write anything, reality and fiction.  But I’m opponistic enough to know that there usually is salvation in the end. 

    1. I agree we have to live to write. And the salvation in the end is my favorite part of writing. I like to drag some of my characters through the mud until they are barely recognizable before they experience the transformations of grace, forgiveness, and salvation.

  11. This is brilliant. So glad the art of fictional storytelling is getting more attention as a formative platform for learning and teaching. Ironically I wrote a book (that released last year with Zondervan) on this EXACT concept based on the Rabbinical storytelling of Jesus.  Titled:  Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling: Creating Fictional Stories that Illuminate the Message of Jesus –

  12. Wow, this blew me away.  I don’t leave as many comments as I should on blogs, but I had to tell you this is about the best writing advice I’ve gotten in a long, long time.  I’m writing a family memoir, and your post has given me a lot of help.  

  13. Stories can reach deeper into our psyches than self-help or telling.  When the imagination is engaged, understanding emerges.  To say I was abused tells the truth – to show what abuse feels like helps a reader to understand and maybe respond in a different way when they discover someone who has been abused in their life.  Thanks for this wonderful post.

  14. Hi Max, thanks for this. One of my passions for my blog is to get people that I know who are broken etc to write guest blogs for me around their own journeys. I tweak, edit etc and out it comes. 

    I posted one this morning about sexual abuse. Its interesting for me to observe that many of guest blog posts get more visits than my own. Cool!Barry

  15. Max…you are simply a rock star…so glad you opened up this peek into how you think…I just know your stories CONNECT…

  16. “Great stories need darkness. Because it obscures beauty. Sometimes, we need to dive into the darkness to find the beauty life has to offer. That’s where the adventure awaits.” —-> “If you’re living, breathing, and reading this right now, you have a story to tell.”The dark times in our lives create beautiful stories. They show us beautiful stories and beauty as an entity in general. The trouble with the darkness is, it’s dark, and we’re not able to see that beauty til we’ve emerged in the light. Here’s to the story of our lives. 
    Thanks for this post. I truly appreciated it and see myself (especially as a writer) in it thoroughly. I’ve just discovered your site, and am eager to learn more.
    Also, you look like Ron Weasley. (Don’t worry. That’s a good thing.)

  17. This post is actually quite interesting and somehow, I can absolutely relate.

    I find it easier to write about personal feelings, likes, wants, and things like that. It’s also easier to convey your own personality into one main character in a story.

    It’s like creating a totally new world for yourself, only most of it is still real – the feelings, the personalities, the likes, the loves, the hates. Just the telling is somehow different from what other people would expect.

    Life is a story, we just have to know how to tell it.

  18. Crazy.

    I’m using storytelling to write my first eBook, and focusing it on helping those to use the power of words to change the world around them. This is something I learned to do in a time where motivation and passion were completely drained out of me — or at least I thought that.

    Your story is compelling, your blog is awesome, and your writing is powerful.

    Awesome work man. You gave me the goosebumps. I’am inspired.

  19. Great post! I love the line “Sometimes we need to dive into the darkness to find the beauty life has to offer.” It’s so true — real life can be messy but fiction is one of the best ways to filter the extra stuff out and find the true beauty in the situation.

  20. hey my name is khristal James and i blog my book i would love for people to view it i just start heres the link

  21. What I can say about fiction according to the way it really affect me is that it make me see my own life in form of a story and then it gives it meaning (may be good or bad)

  22. I enjoyed Max’s book.  Read it when I couldn’t sleep over Christmas break, but I think I started not sleeping so I could read the book.  Great stories are a basic ingredient to humanity, and I think story is the best vehicle for the gospel.  When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he always used stories.  I used to say I would only write non-fiction until I read Max’s work and the work of a few others who helped me believe that truth can still be told in a way that is beautiful.  Thanks, Max!

  23. Great post Max. I read your book over Christmas and Nathan’s story left a genuine impact on me…definitely the most affecting and memorable story. It made me feel sick in the best way. That’s how you know your writing is affecting people I guess. (I’ve been watching the show Breaking Bad and it has some of those same gut-wrenching moments like Nathan’s story. I’m learning that they are often the ones that stick with you the most.)

    As a fellow fiction writer I appreciate your perspective and agree that we need more stories that make people feel deeply. Thanks for the hard work and keep it up!

    1. Thanks Brandon. I appreciate your kind words. 31 Days of May is definitely my most personal piece of fiction I’ve written. It’s always encouraging to hear that it’s affecting others.

  24. Great points. We definitely use stories for self reflection and therefore bring out something of a confirmation or deeper understanding about our innate nature or circumstances.

  25. The reason why we are drawn to the darkness in a good story is that it helps us relate to that deepest part of ourselves that we cannot face alone. Through the power of words we understand – even if it is subconsciously – ourselves just a little bit better. But a story cannot be completely made of darkness and terrible things, there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it is just a flicker, that light gives us hope for something better. It gives us hope in ourselves.

  26. With a rather simplistic definition, “story” is an account of an incident or a series of incidents, either true or invented, and I find it strange or maybe amusing that the informal definition of story is “a lie”.  I can hear my mom saying to me, “Don’t tell me a story.  I want the truth.”  How did story ever come to mean a lie?  Well, we all lie at times that we think the truth would put someone off or make them upset or not like us.  We want to be clean; if we’re not, then we’re dirty.  In the greater sense of stories, I don’t know if everyone’s story of their own lifes can ever make them clean.  I suppose we would have to be God to know the truth of any person’s whole life, from beginning to end.  Take Osama Bin Laden…I’m sure the stories he told his followers he believed in  were true to him and to his followers.  But look at what happened because this man was born and grew up learning things that were truth to him; thousands of people lost their lives.  Gihad!  A look at his demise.  He, after being hunted all over the the mid-east,  was finally discovered and killed before he ever told his story.  So he went to another place before ever telling his story.  What that place might be is not important.  It almost makes me believe in hell.  But the point is that he didn’t have a chance to tell his complete story.  He left us to pick up the pieces, the little stories about his life, and make up a full story about him.  But no one will ever get his story right.  No one will ever be able to know what went on in his everyday life.  The stories of every day he lived.  Had he not been killed, not even he could remember all of his daily stories that made up the whole story.  Everything is an approximation.  Is there really a truth?  I don’t think so.  So what about biographies and factual writings about different happenings?  They are never the truth.  S0…why try to fool ourselves into believing that there is anytthing other than fiction?  Fiction may hold some truths, and non-fiction has some truths, but not all the truth.  So, why shoud we bother with saying something is non fiction?  It’s like  fiction, holding truths and made up stories.  But nothing is non fiction.  What happened the night that  Marilyn Monroe died?  There have been plenty of books that people believe to be true, but no one will ever know for sure.  Those things we take to be true, are not ever really fully the turth, we writers have to conjure up events as fillers to go between the truths.  Is the Bible completely true?  Of course not.  Men wrote it, not God, the only one who might be capable of telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Men and woment wrote it, and we are incapable of remembering and the whole truth.  Fiction is the only viable source of writing.  Stories hold both truth and fiction (lies as my mother warned me of not telling.)  Sorry, mom.  I never told you the truth, even if I had wanted to.  It was impossible.  So I told you a “story” instead.   

  27. Hey gang,

    Just wanted to say thanks for this and also leave a passage from Tolkien’s Mythopoeia:

    The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
    but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
    and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
    Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
    Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
    and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
    his world-dominion by creative act:
    not his to worship the great Artefact,
    Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
    Though all the crannies of the world we filled
    with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
    Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
    and sowed the seed of dragons, ‘twas our right
    (used or misused). The right has not decayed.
    We make still by the law in which we’re made.

    I wrote up a similar post pulling from Tolkien here:

  28. It largely depends on what the story is about. It can be a fantasy-like story but if it’s something that holds real life struggles people go through on a day to day basis then I feel like it has the potential to teach someone a lesson or become something people can relate to.

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