What Are Life-Expanding Stories?

5 Points of Life-Expanding Stories

Grandfather telling a story to Grandchildren

Stories teach, not just raw data, but wisdom. Ever since man gained the ability of thought 35 millennia ago, he has told stories. And modern research continues to reveal the constructive power of storytelling.

However, not all stories edify. Like psychotherapy, stories can comfort us or distress us. They can make us better people and better thinkers, or they can cause us to close off our minds and our thoughts. Stories can either educate or indoctrinate.

The stories I write are designed to do more than just entertain. They’re designed to help us grow, to expand our minds, to enhance the way we look at and lead our lives, and thereby to make our lives better. To accomplish this, I use a five-factor process for all my stories, based on the latest psychological insights.

  1. Driven by Deep Characters: I start with the story’s characters—even if the story was initially inspired by a story idea or plot device—because life-expanding stories are about people, not just about concepts and ideas. Each character has basic human needs, which may be physical, such as the need to survive, or mental, such as the need to give and receive attention and love. It’s through these needs that you get to know the character and to sympathize with him. I also consider what he experiences in the story and what he’s experienced in his past that shapes his perceptions, so that you can understand what motivates him, and why, so that he can become your friend, after a sort, more than merely a fictional character.

  2. Traveling along Interwoven Plots: Next, I observe what the characters say and do, which comes from what they feel and think. You’ll be brought along through the story by these choices and actions, because what the characters do shapes the plot of the story. And not only what they say and do, but also what they don’t say, and what they don’t do. A life-expanding story grabs you and drags you in, makes it easy for you to lose yourself in the fictional reality. All of these come out of the characters’ individual stories. Each character has a story, composed of multiple overlapping and interwoven plots, and these stories interact with each other as the characters touch each others’ lives. From this net of interwoven threads, I lead you along in their quest, writing not for the sake of literary merit, but in order that you might discover the truths of human experience embedded within.

  3. Actually Saying Something: A life-expanding story does not merely entertain, does not merely let you escape, but rather allows you to explore new ideas, discover new truths, meet new challenges. I want you to be able to meet this newness in the safety of your own imagination, through the lives of my characters. To this end, I try to weave challenging themes into the fabric of my stories: grace versus justice, unconditional love, the corruption of power, hope and perseverance, stretching your faith, God and spirituality. In each story, you’ll experience the personification of the themes of human nature, which are issues we all face.

  4. Talking to the Reader: Then I ask, “What questions does this story pose?” All stories pose questions, but not all stories suggest answers. A life-expanding story leads you through life’s issues, discusses them with you, posing questions and suggesting answers, conversing with you within your own mind, so that you can discover things about your life that you never realized before. And you will be more likely able to apply those truths, because stories naturally help your mind fit them into a meaningful context, thereby producing wisdom.

  5. Providing Hope: In this day of stress, pressure, factual bombardment, wars, disasters, fear, depressing news, and isolation from human encouragement, it’s more important than ever to realize hope. Above all, a life-expanding story helps you realize hope, because a hope-filled story helps you, as teacher Idries Shah put it, “to reclaim optimism and to fuel the imagination with energy for the attainment of goals: whether moral or material.” That’s why I’m such an ardent fan of the happy ending, because I see the happy ending, not as a cliché, but as a sign of hope for the future, for our own happy endings.

This process does not depend on genre. I use the same process if I’m writing science-fiction, romance, or flash fiction. I used it with The Conscience of Abe’s Turn as well as with the autobiographical story Love through the Eyes of an Idiot. I also use the same process with my in-progress novel, as well as with stories I’m considering for collections like People Stories and Stories of Hope.

Some of my favorite stories are also life-expanding stories, although their authors and publishers don’t market them as such. For example: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the classic revolutionary-war story by Robert Heinlein, which touches my freedom-loving self like no other story ever has. Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, by Sheila Williams, a story of an inner-city grandmother who decides to uproot herself and start a new life in a new place she’s never been before.