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The 9 Very Best Storytelling Quotes Based on Their Deeper Meaning

A while back I had the pleasure and honor of attending Story masterclasses by the incredible Robert McKee. For those of you who don't know him: he is the master behind Hollywood. All, and I do mean all the greatest directors, actors, scriptwriters... hell even your average gopher owe him a debt of gratitude for his lessons on how to make compelling stories in film. So for this one-off blog post, focused on only the very best and most useful explainers to the best quotes on storytelling, I'm borrowing from McKee his most quote:“Storytelling reveals meaning.” Let's have a look at the meaning of narrative. Here we go!

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1 - “Storytelling reveals meaning.” ― Robert McKee

McKee explains that as humankind we are looking for answers to life's greatest questions. Who am I? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What's this universe all about? What is love? How do I do that? And so on and so forth. Finding answers to those questions is not easy, and some may forever remain a mystery. Our means of trying to find those answers however, is passing on knowledge through telling each other stories. In that sense, and however emotional it may come across, storytelling can actually be seen as a mostly functional tool, an instrument, or a piece of 'equipment' that serves the greater purpose of sharing useful, important and meaningful information. Just the act of constructing the story is already engaging in the search for meaning on a particular subject. And 'receiving' a story means receiving lessons that others have learned in the past, and are now trying to convey.

In other words, in our search for meaning, our quest to find the big answers to the big questions, the only real tool we have is storytelling.

2 - “To survive, you must tell stories.” ― Umberto Eco

So, storytelling is a tool, an instrument, a piece of equipment with the function of conveying information. You must understand that on the deepest, most fundamental level, storytelling is a tool for literal survival. Through making a vital piece of information clear with a compelling story - such as how to start a fire, how to fight a bear, how to catch a fish, how to bake a bread - we have become very good survivors.

This is the reason why we hold stories in such high regard, and many of us read novels or have subscriptions to streaming services: those stories appeal to our most basic and fundamental survival instincts. In other words, if it weren't for stories, we would not have survived, as Umberto Eco so clearly points out.

3 - “Storytelling is our obligation to the next generation.” ― Isabel Allende

In that sense, all art, and all communication forms, from dance to music to commercials to video's and film, photography, novels, spoken stories and language, poetry... hell even that annoying banner flickering on your screen right at this very moment, have the same origin: cave paintings.

Cave paintings, and the 'Ough' and 'Agh' and 'Ohg' and Ehg' and 'Iegh' sounds and gestures we started to use to convey their painted-depiction-counterparts, is were all communication started. Those first stories were very simple compared to what we have today,. Yet in those stories there were already lessons 'hidden': a deeper meaning revealed about how best to hunt, or harvest or gather resources. Later on, these types of communication became more elaborate and branched out into the many media - or 'message carriers' - that we have today. And the content of the stories became more complex as well. Just think of the deeper psychological things we explore in your average romantic comedy about fears of commitment and rejection, for instance.

Yet in the end, it all comes down to this: every form of every story ever told, without exception, was there to teach ourselves and the generations that follow us. Just as Isabel Allende points out.

4 - Stories are equipment for living. ― Kenneth Burke

So, to summarize these first few quotes and their meaning, the famous quote we should is the one from scholar and writer Kenneth Burke: "Stories are equipment for living." Stories teach us about life and how to live it, and overcome its many challenges. We use them to better ourselves, better our circumstances and to learn and pass information on to others. In that sense, however emotional the journeys we portray in narratives, in essence, they are pieces of equipment we use to live life.

5 - “Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.” ― Ayn Rand

Yet, stories are not just equipment we can use to better survive, they can also be used to make us thrive and prosper. What Ayn Rand means in this quote on focus, as that the exact use of words (or other depictions) in your story, are what focuses them on a particular context. In some ways it is a variant on the proverb 'The wolf you feed is the wolf that grows': the thing you focus on, is the thing that grows.

You may have all sorts of jumbled feelings and ideas going around your head. Yet when you start writing (or painting, or dancing, or any other form of creative expression) you start to pick and choose, or use a 'sif' that focuses on those parts of the story that are most important to you and your creations. The activity of crafting the story becomes the lens that focuses your ideas.

Ayn Rand had very strong, sometimes considered controversial, ideas. Yet the main goal of her writings was to show what we as individuals should do to achieve our ultimate best selves, rejecting the opinions of others that drag us down. The story we tell ourselves on the inside is makes us thrive.

6 - "The pen is mightier than the sword." ― Proverb

And that brings us to the above cliché. Yet, I do not apologize for using it, since I cannot make a list of the very best storytelling quotes without adding this notion that the pen truly is far mightier than the sword. It is simply, the truth.

We say this because stories bring ideas in our heads. You, as the receiver of a story, get new ideas from narratives that can sometimes be so powerful that not even (the threat of) violence would change your mind. Think of ideas such as women's voting rights, the ending of Apartheid, the presumed-innocent-clause in our law books, the Ten Commandments, Buddhism, the Trias Politica, The Renaissance, democracy, The Magna Carta... need I go on?

Crucially, all of those things are based on stories we told one another. And all of them had to undergo large amounts of bloodshed; hence the 'sword'. Yet they all prevailed. Such is the power of storytelling, it is synonymous to progress itself.

7 - "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Inspire me and I will get involved." ― Benjamin Franklin paraphrasing Buddha

In order to be inspiring, and inspire action, stories need to be told in an emotionally compelling manner. Since we are social animals that are emotionally driven, our minds remember feelings really well. Sometimes better than rational specifics even.

In essence, we reconstruct the meaning of a story in our minds, based on both what the sender of that story tries to tell us, and what we as receivers value most about it, based on both our nature and nurture. But because the afore-mentioned 'ughs' and of course, the many 'aghs' as our first tools of communication were all basically feelings and emotions that we were showing, every story needs to be emotionally intelligent.

What Franklin and Buddha are telling us here, is that the art of storytelling is as the same as reaching the heart.

8 - "Show, don't tell" ― Proverb

In the end, stories are all about action. When you have to explain stories, commonly known as 'exposition', you're not telling them particularly well. Yet when you show your meaning through actions - the kinds we use to describe with verbs - you often don't have to explain anything anymore.

This goes for all forms of storytelling. Whether the actions come from a central character in your fictional story, the actions of your organization or your brand or business or a piece of journalism... anything really. The actions speak louder than the words. In other words, if you want to share important information through stories, you gotta show us, not tell us.

9 - "Storytelling is mankind's most important tool"... And you can quote me on that!

This last quote is mine. I'm including it for obvious ego purposes. That goes without saying, right? Yet, you know what? I actually did write the book on it, the entire tale no less! The Whole Story - The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling. And I also really, deeply believe the quote itself. All information that has ever been passed on that we use today to survive and thrive, and will use tomorrow to do the same, has reached us through the art of storytelling.

Everyone has a story to tell. So, go tell yours!

Love, as always.



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