The power of stories and how to create creators

Rapunzel cake

Mabel's fairytale cake - with Rapunzel

I’ve become fascinated by the concept of the change from story consumer to story creator (just as I have previously written about the change from music listener to music composer).

Most people would consider themselves a reader, but how many consider themselves a writer? Everyone should, because everyone is (or was, as we’ll see).

Storytelling is not just the most important activity in our lives, storytelling IS our lives.

This is no more noticeable than with my eldest daughter who has just turned 4. Stories are her certainly her life. She wants to be read stories all the time, always wanting to squeeze one more before school or before bedtime. (I found it interesting that she doesn’t use the noun ‘book’, hence her brother, when he did something wrong was “in the bad stories”.)

But now something has changed. She is creating her own stories:

“One day there was a princess in a high castle and she had short hair. And one day a prince rode by and she let down her hair and she fell down because her hair was short and the prince kissed her and she woke up, the end.”

This is obviously a variation on Rapunzel, but what is interesting in that Mabel was aware of what the hair meant and chose to modify the length, negating the original premise and causing a new drama of its own.

This was followed by another variation:

“There was another story with a princess with short hair in a castle which was lower so she could reach the prince. The end.”

This version is a further modification, removing the obstacle to the princess’s desires.

Princesses are the main feature of Mabel’s story worlds but unlike in the real world they are not the female offspring of reigning monarchs but creatures of the same genus as fairies, angels, pixies, witches and girls. They inhabit worlds of magic, are beautiful, wear beautiful dresses, sometimes have wings and sometimes are on the look out for a prince. Sometimes cats have been added to the pantheon giving us the curious creature of a cat fairy princess which Mabel wanted to be dressed up as for a fancy dress party.

But what is a story? Is it an account of past events of a related plot, that link together to create meaning to inform, to entertain or educate? Like any whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, as story is more than the facts, events and characters that inhabit it. This ‘extra’ something is the emotion that the story invokes, the questions it raises (or answers), the connection it makes to our lives by which – and this is the most important bit – we measure and create our own lives.

We must never, ever underestimate the power or stories in our lives, especially with children. Stories provide snatches of narrative and context by which we build our own life biography.

Our constant task in life is to make sense of the seemingly random events that happen to us. Deep down we know there can never really be any coincidences or purposeless randomness. Everything that happens to us MUST happen for a reason. That ability to put facts into context (which is what a story is) is hard wired into our very being.

If, when we can’t weave the story, when we can’t find the meaning, we enter that condition we call depression. In that rehabilitating, powerless state we are not depressed at all, we have lost the thread of the story, we have lost significance of ourselves within our life story and we have lost our meaning.

A life with its meaning and significance is never a depressed one, no matter what seemingly sad and shocking events happen in it.

The loss of a loved one, death, illness, failure – these are the things that can make us depressed if we loose the thread of the story. This is why, when times are at their toughest, that humanity conjures up the next chapter of the story, the reason for the sudden unexpected event, the meaning behind the seemingly unfair or random change. We invent serendipity, we invent superstition, magic, divine and demonic forces. We breath life into the gods.

As adults we consume stories in the forms of news, gossip, cinema, television and radio as well as in novels. Few of us perhaps create those type of stories but we are all still storytellers everyday in our work; communicating our ideas to others, recounting recent events to friends and family. Perhaps we’re not aware that we are not just readers and consumers of these stories. We weave their meaning with the transcript of our own lives and position ourselves in relation to them.

This could be from aligning ourselves with the views of a newspaper columnist, politician, rock star or even a standup comedian, buying into their beliefs and stories and allowing them to run along side our own, giving us a particular framework, political, moral or spiritual with which to run the events of our lives.

Sometimes a particular story, or version of a story, is so potent that it becomes so interwoven with our lives that it defines the direction our life story takes and modifies behavior.

One of the worlds most influential stories in history that has inspired lives for over two thousand years has to be that of the carpenters son who turned out to be God’s son who was rejected by his people, put to death but came back to life. Within that particular tale there are stories that are re-told and relived over and over again: the Last Supper is retold every Sunday in every Church as the service of Communion. The Passion of Christ, his trial, suffering and death is relived every Easter as is his birth in the nativity every Christmas.

But more recent, or more humble stories can and do have transformational effects too.

I’ve known teenagers who changed the direction of their lives to become teachers after seeing the film, The Dead Poets Society. That same story inspired Steve Jobs of Apple in his promotion of the Apple Mac computer as a creative tool in the Think Different campaign.

Star Wars figures C£Po, R2D2, Darth Vader, Princess LeiaTo my generation of children, the story of Star Wars, which was in effect a re-telling of ancient fairy stories, was so potent in its splendor as an exciting alien tale, that it entered our consciousness. It provided what all fairy stories provide; a moral template for good and evil, the concept of the hero’s journey, the quest, where obstacles must be overcome and sacrifices made. The characters are archetypal, but still colourful. Some adults at the time found it hard to see the depth in it and even with the mania that surrounded it’s original release where people queued around the block to get into cinemas, would not have predicted its longevity. Even its creator George Lucas didn’t know the secret of the success of the original film (and the two subsequent films that formed the original trilogy). The prequels that followed twenty years later lacked something. Even though they were more spectacular and exotic that the originals there was perhaps a lack of depth or mystery and less room for the imagination to weave within the story. This isn’t surprising or unusual. It’s not the artists job to understand their art. It is the job of the audience.

In 1977, a colleague of my Dad’s was round at our house. He’d been to see the original ilm, as had nearly everyone, to ‘see what al the fuss was about’. The opening scene, as you may remember features no human characters. For the first ten minutes we are expected to engage with a gold metal man and a walking, twerping dustbin on wheels in the white corridors of a spaceship that has been swallowed by a giant spaceship. Baddies appear in the form of white plastic-clad soldiers, their faces hidden by helmets, led by a black cloaked pantomime villain compete with black skull-like mask. No wonder Frank walked out after 10 minutes after seeing this rubbish.

But that’s not what we children saw. As a six and a half year old I saw the fear and trepidation of the gold robot. I saw the determination of the small domed headed clever robot. I saw that they were the characters we were engaging with and that they were carrying the story and that the humans and stormtroopers fighting in the background were incidental their story, the goodies, our friends. After 10 minutes we knew that C3PO had reluctantly agreed to take part in an important mission he didn’t understand. We knew that R2D2 carried secrets that must be kept from the baddies. Children have the ability to see a story, to see the elements of characterisation, emotion and motivation in what to the adults were inanimate objects. In short, children’s imaginations are less literal, more hungry for meaning, more powerful. Adults want it all on plate, often too bored and in need of instant gratification and explanation to actually fire up their long unused imagination.

So many modern stories, designed for children, fail to engage in the way a fairy tale can because they lack the depth of meaning that the child can find for themselves and use the story, as it was intended, as a tool to find answers to their own problems.

Boring, literal, obvious stories are at risk of quenching the fire of a child’s imagination. If they haven’t found the tools to engage with objects and people to begin creating their own stories early enough, they may switch off their creativity and become uninterested vessels for easy stories, flashes, bangs and the oh-so-quick quick editing of fast-food dull television, just like so many tedious adults.

This is why stories for children should not be too safe, too sanitised or too obvious. We, as parents and teachers must try not to explain the meaning of such tales but encourage the child to search for and find their own meaning, which may change with subsequent readings and at different points in their lives. This is the creative process of the transition from reader to writer, from consumer to creator.

Our job is to help facilitate these new creators. By reading a good story, a child’s mind becomes co-creator with the original author. This is the first stage to a fulfilling, meaningful, self-directed life of significance.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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5 comments on “The power of stories and how to create creators

  1. Hi Ayd –

    The power of stories and how we develop our abilities to retell and reimagine them is a powerful aspect of child development

    I share your fascination for it – and could recommend so much that is worth reading – but definitely worth DOING – is getting some of these:

    Also there are some great apps for encouraging that aspect of kids brains to work – without writing or telling an adult… such as Puppet Pals and Toontastic….

    Thanks for a great post!


  2. I used to tell stories to my younger brother in bed. When he was two years old, I was nine. He had a powerful imagination to match my own. Here is a story, within a story, from one of my ‘memory pictures’:

    MARCH, 1960

    “. . . go to Granny . . . cake with cherry . . .”

    “Christopher?” whispered Robert, across to the middle bed.
    “Yes?” answered Christopher.

    “Why are you talking?”

    “I tell Scruffy ’bout Granny’s house ‘morrow.”

    “Well, stop talking and go to sleep.”

    Robert moved his left wrist to his face and stared at his Timex watch. The luminous dial told him that it was one o’clock in the morning. This was the third time in a week that he had woken up to hear Christopher having a conversation with his teddy. He wasn’t just talking in his sleep, he was wide awake.

    Yesterday morning, Robert had suggested to Christopher that it would be better if Scruffy stayed downstairs at night maybe.

    “Then Scruffy be more lonely!” whined Christopher.

    “Oh, it’s Scruffy that’s lonely? If he had someone else to talk to, then you wouldn’t need to talk to him at night?”

    Christopher nodded. Robert couldn’t see what could be done. How could they make an old bear less lonely and still get some sleep? He had something to think about.

    He was thinking about something one evening, a couple of days later, when Dad handed him a cigar box.

    “Here, Robert, count those,” said Dad.

    Curious, Robert opened the box. It contained, not cigars, but –

    “They’re cigarette coupons,” Dad explained. “I want to know how many there are. Put them in hundreds, they’ll be easier to check.”

    Robert sat in the dining room and counted out the coupons. A lot of them were folded or crumpled in different ways but he took his time, straightened them out and piled them together neatly. Then he came back with the answer.

    “Nine hundred and seventy-six. I’ve got nine separate hundreds and another seventy-six.”

    “Right, now choose something from this catalogue.” Dad handed over a little book, with gifts that could be chosen for different numbers of coupons.

    There were a lot of gifts, for anyone and everyone. There were lawn mowers, record players, saucepans, ovens, bicycles, encyclopaedias, handbags, footballs, washing machines, train sets, dolls, roller skates. There was even a real car!

    The number of coupons needed for the car was 250,000, for the encyclopaedias – 25,000 coupons, for a train set – 5,000 coupons, for roller skates – 2,000 coupons, and so on. Robert kept turning the pages until the number needed grew less and less. Then he saw it – a teddy bear, for 900 coupons.

    “You want the teddy bear?” queried Dad.

    “Yes – no, for Christopher. It’s what he really needs. Then he’ll have two bears. They can talk to each other and he can go to sleep.”
    Dad sighed and shook his head. “Actually, Robert, I don’t think I need an explanation. I’ll send for it tomorrow.”

    Only a week later, the parcel arrived. Christopher had been told it was coming and he was given it to open straight away.

    “Rupert!” shrieked Christopher, as he took the golden brown bear from its box. Its head, arms and legs had joints, so that it could turn, sit or stand. To Robert, it appeared to have a haughty expression, which seemed to say, “Is this the official reception?”

    “How does he know the teddy’s name is Rupert?” asked Sandra.

    “Rupert is the only bear he was expecting maybe,” suggested Robert. He had made a memory picture of Christopher opening the box.

    Christopher introduced Rupert to Scruffy. He told everyone that he thought the bears liked each other. Then he said they had to be left alone so that they could talk and get to know each other better.

    When Robert went up to bed later, Christopher was still awake. Both bears were in bed next to him, facing each other.

    “You come bed now?” he asked Robert.

    “Yes. Why aren’t you asleep? Mum will blame me for waking you up!”

    “Rupert and Scruffy talk but not talk to me.”


    Robert’s heart sank. Most nights, if he was once woken up, it was not likely that he would get to sleep again. He had hoped that his own sleep problem had been solved with the arrival of Rupert. It seemed that Scruffy was now no longer lonely because he could talk to Rupert. It seemed Christopher was now lonely because he couldn’t talk to Rupert and Scruffy!

    As he climbed into bed, Robert was thinking fast.

    “Christopher,” he said, calmly. It’s quite simple. You don’t know Rupert very well yet and he doesn’t know you very well yet. So, I’ll tell you what he’s saying to Scruffy, and then you’ll soon be able to hear him, too. Is that good?”


    Robert began immediately.

    “I know I may seem rather haughty, old chap, but I really am glad to be here,” said Rupert, in his haughty voice.

    “I’m glad you’re here, too,” answered Scruffy. (His voice came out rather like that of a Peter Sellers character on the wireless, from ‘The Goon Show’.) “I never thought that I would ever have another friend like me.”

    “Not quite like you, of course,” corrected Rupert. “I have the hardship of keeping up my appearance and standards, which you do not. However, I consider myself fortunate to be here, old chap. I had a very eventful journey.”

    “What happened to you, Rupert?” Scruffy asked, keenly.

    “Well, I come from London, you know. I was booked to travel on a gentle clickety-clack train to the port of Liverpool. Thence, I would proceed by cruise ship to the port of Belfast, and onward by coach to you, old chap. My luxury voyage was to last three weeks. It went wrong from the beginning.”

    “Did you get squashed? Did a dog get you? Did you get covered in oil? Did you get lost?” asked Scruffy.

    “Good heavens, no, old chap! Nothing like that!”

    “Oh, no, no, of course not. That’s my own story,” remembered Scruffy.

    “No, there was a strike on the railways!”

    “You got struck!” exclaimed a horrified Scruffy.

    “No, of course not, old chap. The railway workers refused to transport me!”

    “That’s disgraceful! Disgraceful!” Scruffy sounded very annoyed. How could anyone dare to treat a friend of his like that?

    “Well, at the time, I admit it was perturbing, old chap.” Rupert was touched by the concerned reaction of his friend. “Then, however, things became worse. I was taken in my box on a very bumpy road journey which was, fortunately, short. I was then hurled into the holding compartment of an aeroplane!”

    “An aeroplane?”

    “Indeed. I had no sooner recovered from this brutal handling than I found myself rising through the air to a height of 30,000 feet, going at a speed of six hundred and fifty miles per hour!”

    “Amazing!” voiced Scruffy, in awe. “I’ve never heard anything like this since Jumbo – an old elephant friend o’ mine – was taken to an infant school and used as a sofa!”

    “Really? How awful for him, old chap. Well, I was bearing up – if you’ll pardon the expression – when I heard a thin voice next to me. It was a doll, from my home address!”

    “Well, that was a turn up!” exclaimed Scruffy.

    “Her nose was turned up, certainly. She said, ‘Oh, it’s a 493764A BEAR/GOLDEN/ADJUSTABLE – 900 coupons! There must be some mistake! I shouldn’t be here with him! I’m a 915872C DOLL/VICTORIAN/COLLECTABLE – 2000 coupons!’ I was compelled to listen to her complaints for two long hours! Then, when we arrived at Belfast, things moved fast. I became aware –”

    Robert became aware that the bedroom door was open. Bernard was standing there.

    “What is wrong with you?” he asked, slowly. Robert said nothing. “Whatever it is, you’ll have to wait until the doctor’s surgery opens in the morning.”

    As Bernard made his way to his bed, Robert pulled himself forwards and looked over at Christopher. He was fast asleep.

    Robert turned over on his side. Whatever had happened at Belfast, he’d have to wait until tomorrow night to find out.


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