Why a Good Story Makes You Squirm

Nancy Massand

What’s the story that really gets you? Strip away the subplots and heady symbolism. Chuck the adverbs, too. What’s the story that spreads the balm over your fresh wound, or your old scars? Or punches you where it hurts most?

Sometimes it’s the one you used to ask for over and over. Sometimes it’s family lore, embedded in the warmth of comforting arms. Or the smell of fresh-baked ginger-snaps. Or the sound of your mother’s skirt rustling as she left your room.

And sometimes, it’s the one that gave you nightmares.

Teachers understand the power of story. Nobody likes to sit through a lecture, but tell a story and you draw kids to your corner like metal to magnet. Former students still remind me of the stories I told them. Stories “stick” when the lecture notes are faded. Or shredded.

Parents get it, too. In my family, washing hair was a battle until I came up with a story about a girl named Alice who never let her mother wash her hair. It became a bath-time litany. She got bugs. She got birds. The whole Bronx zoo migrated onto her scalp. Alice became a legend, and the kids’ hair remained clean until they were old enough to care about it on their own. Now they tell it to their own kids, and it still works. Timeless.

Grandparents are natural story-tellers. You can’t put a muzzle on us, so just go with it. When no one can get my grandson to eat, I sit down next to him. “Once upon a time,” I say, and his eyes glaze over as he opens his mouth. His food is done before the story is. It even works on Skype.

The story that gets you is the one that really, deep in its core, is about you, whether you realize it or not. From ancient times, we have taught with stories reflecting familiar cultural images. “The Good Samaritan” (an oxymoron to the audience, who didn’t like them) helps an injured man, while the priests pass him by. “The Lion and the Mouse” presents an unlikely pairing in which the weak rescues the strong. “The Three Little Pigs” outsmart a cunning carnivore and eat him for dinner. Odysseus triumphs over vindictive immortals, bloodthirsty cannibals, terrifying monsters and his own pride to come home to his true love.  

Stories arouse emotion. Joy. Fear. Hope. Anger. They make our hearts beat faster. They make us question our morals, our motives, our leaders, our convictions. A well-told story lodges deep in our core. Sometimes it irritates, like the grain of sand in an oyster. But you know how that one ends.

The story that makes us squirm is the one that becomes a pearl.

Tell your story. Rock your listeners to the core, and change their hearts. As story-tellers, that’s our mandate. As readers, our mandate is to pass it on. Through the ages, across the oceans, to everyone who will hear.

In that light, I’ll end this post as it began: What’s the story that really gets you?

About Nancy Massand

My debut novel, The Circle Unbroken, was released in September 2019. I live and teach in NYC. As empty nesters my husband and I enjoy the city and the beach in equal measure, but nothing beats spending time with our nine grandkids.
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3 Responses to Why a Good Story Makes You Squirm

  1. viola62 says:

    i know just what you mean about teaching and telling a story. My students, high school kids, still love to listen to a story I tell about myself or someone else. Also, family more has formed the core of my historical writing. I can still hear my relatives talk about WWII.

    • Greig Roselli says:

      I had a principal who suggested that teachers tell a story for each unit to hook them into the lesson.

  2. sueberger3 says:

    I want you to come to my son’s house and talk to my granddaughter. My stories? Magic and changing the past. Both heart wishes.

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