The World is Built on Stories

We have told stories probably since we first developed language. Maybe language came about because we wanted to tell stories. There’s something in-built about the need to relate events that have happened, to us or to others. There is a need for companionship, and for camaraderie, and stories are instrumental in initiating and strengthening bonds with others.

Of course, good stories entertain. They might make us laugh, or make us cry. They might scare us, or take us on a wonderful journey. But they are often fun. We don’t have to be forced to endure stories‌—‌we choose to listen, or watch them played out, or read them.

But stories do more than entertain. They instruct. It is easy to imagine our ancestors after a day’s hunt, relaxing around a fire and swapping tales of their day’s adventures. They told stories of what worked, and what didn’t. And through these stories, they learnt.

people-2557508_640The same thing happens today. Parents tell stories to their children as ways of explaining the world, and as guide to behaviour‌—‌Santa, the tooth fairy, all the lessons of good and evil in bedtime-stories. Religions use stories, too‌—‌tale of miracles, morality stories, parables and so on. And even science uses stories. Evolution is explained as a ‘survival of the fittest’ tale, where those who are better suited are the ones who live on. The water cycle is presented as a journey.

That doesn’t mean these stories are fabrications, just that they are ways of explaining concepts.

Over time, these stories change. Once, the sun rose because some god-like being willed it so, or because some larger-than-life being dragged the sun across the sky. Then we discovered more about the universe, and our place in it. And now, we know that our fairly small planet spins around a star. We know about the orbits of the other planets, and we know about other universes. We have gone back in time to discover how (probably) things came into being. And we have searched forward, seeking an answer to what will one day happen.

Yet this is still a story. The journey of the universe, from big bang to whatever happens at the end (heat death?) A journey is always a story, and we can learn from any journey.

But stories do more than entertain and inform. I would argue that stories are one of the major things that separates us from other creatures. Stories make us human.

The word story comes to us from the Latin historia, and was originally used to describe a narrative of an important event. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that it came to mean a fictional tale, but we still use the word in that original meaning. We are presented with stories every time we read or watch or listen to the news. Think about the number of times news-readers say ‘‌…‌and more on that story later’.

news-1074604_1280Maybe some people still refer to news ‘reports’, but there is a world of difference between a report and a story. A report sets out to give the facts and figures, whereas a story strives to explain what happened. A report lays an event before us like an autopsy, whereas a story takes us on a journey through the event. A report engages our intellect, but a story engages our emotions too.

It’s worth repeating that‌—‌a story engages our emotions.

Those who create news stories know this. That is why they look for the human angle. That is why, rather than simply showing collapsed buildings after an earthquake, they linger on devastated faces and frantic searches for survivors. That is why, after a tragic death, we see (and hear from) those left behind, those who are struggling to understand how their worlds have been turned upside-down.

This could be seen as cynical‌—‌using misery to evoke a reaction. But I like to think this drive to display pain serves another purpose.

Most of us will not encounter the kind of tragedy we see on the news. In the UK, hardly any of us will have a friend shot dead. The majority of us won’t be caught up in humanitarian or natural disasters. And so, it is hard for us to understand, on an emotional level, what is happening to those who are involved. It is easier to shut ourselves off, even though we know this is cold, even though we know that we should feel something.

Reports state the facts. Stories engage us on an emotional level.

For a story to ‘work’, we need to empathise with the characters. We need to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and in some small way feel what they are feeling. Facts and figures (a report) of a shooting can leave us cold, because it’s names and dates, nothing more. But a story strives to put us there, with those caught up in the horror. It forces us to join with the victims in their suffering, or (and) feel the elation when the antagonist is brought to justice. If it is a natural disaster like an earthquake, details of the magnitude and the epicentre are numbers, the amount of damage a stream of figures. But the stories of those caught up in it‌—‌those who have lost loved ones, those who have been rescued, those who have put aside their own safety to help their neighbours‌—‌these are the things that make it real. These stories are what make us care.

And when we care, we are more likely to act. When we not only see people suffering, but also sense their pain, we are driven to help.

Then there are those stories where something negative is given a positive spin. There are stories of people defying disease and recovering, but there are also stories of those who succumb, but in a manner that humbles us. There are those who know they don’t have long left, but who strive to make every day count.

A news report could give details of the disease, or how fast the cancer spread. It could give facts and figures about white blood cells. Or the story could tell us of the person themselves, showing us their determination to life the remainder of their life to the full. It could focus on the way they are trying to help others with similar conditions.

Stories are powerful. They put meaning behind the data. They turn facts into action. They might enable us to live vicariously through others, but they also enable us to empathise with people we have never met, from different cultures in far-off places. They spur us on to do more, or to face barriers within ourselves. They enable us to see those around us not as mere human beings, but as people. They turn existence into life.

Without stories, we are nothing.

New short story

This latest short has a thriller/espionage flavour, influenced by recently reading Mark Dawson’s Isabella Rose books. It’s about a simple operation, a meeting in a cafe — what could possibly go wrong?

It’s called The Rendezvous, and you can read it here.

I have more short stories, all under a thousand words long — you can read them all here. For those of you who prefer e-books to web pages, I have a couple of free anthologies available (Millenary and Millenary 2). And as always, I’d love to know what you think of them.

Reading Fast and Slow

Some books, I shoot through. Others seem to last ages. And it’s not simply because I’m not interested in reading them. It feels like the length of the book is not the only factor in how fast it takes me to read it.


A couple of books highlighted this to me recently. I read Mark Dawson’s first Isabella Rose thriller, The Angel over a couple of days (which is about what time I’d expect to take for one of his books), but before that I read Stephen Baxter’s Time, and this took ten days.

Time clocks in at about 550 pages, and The Angel at 350, so I’d expect to read the latter quicker. But the maths doesn’t add up‌—‌350 pages in two days works out at 175 pages a day, so Time should have only taken about four days. Not over twice that time. And there was no difference in the amount of reading time I had available for each book, either.

But The Angel flew by, and Time took its time.

Why? Why do some books take ages while others feel like they’re over almost as soon as I’ve started?

Length of chapter/paragraph/sentence

It’s common writing advice that short, sharp sentences make for a fast pace. This works really well in thrillers. The ones with punchy sentences. A couple of words. It keeps the tension high. It keeps you reading.

Single-sentence paragraphs work well, too.

Then there’s the opposite‌—‌the languid, drawn out prose that linger on the scenery, like a slow-panning camera, allowing you to savour the setting. Then there are the sentences that dive deep into a character’s thoughts, often leaping about from idea to idea (because that is how thoughts work), so by the end of the sentence you can hardly recall the beginning, and you feel like you have been on a journey between those full stops, and you need a moment to recover before you drift into the next sentence. These sentences are written to draw the reader in, or to offer the reader the opportunity to dwell on the poetry of the language.

It doesn’t always work that way, but generally something written with a short, snappy style tends to flow faster.

It also results in more white space on the page, and this is another factor in reading speed, for a couple of reasons. First, a page of solid text can appear daunting, and we almost need to build up the will to start attacking it, whereas a page with lots of white space is more appealing and we dive straight in. And secondly, it is easier for readers to lose their place in dense passages, so they proceed with more care, taking more time to ensure they don’t miss out lines.

With the books I mentioned above, The Angel has lots of short sentences and paragraphs, with loads of white space on the page. Time has its short, sharp moments, but overall the sentences are longer, and there are long passages with a couple of paragraphs taking up single pages.


Stories are there to provide entertainment, but in many stories there is a need to impart some information as well. Baxter’s Time has a strong hard sci-fi element, with lengthy scenes where the characters discuss in-depth science. At times it veers close to becoming a lecture, and it requires effort for someone unacquainted with that type of science (like myself) to follow the arguments. This concentration naturally slows down the reading speed. As much as I enjoyed these passages in Time, they took longer to get through than more action-based scenes.

Compare that to Dawson’s book. Yes, there is technical information in this book‌—‌such as details of weapons and other pieces of kit. It’s what you would expect in this type of well-researched thriller, and it makes the book more believable, more grounded in reality. But Dawson keeps these passages short, a paragraph or two at the most, often only a brief sentence. He doesn’t allow the information to detract from the story.

And this highlights a difference between the books. In Time, Baxter is exploring scientific possibilities, and so the information is an integral part of the story itself. Hi work is as much about the ideas as it is about the story. But in The Angel, the story is the most important aspect, and technical information is there as colour.


This is similar to information, but is also connected with giving the reader different depths to each image. There are some wonderful passages in Time where the characters are watching space, and naturally Baxter uses many words to do this in order to give us the huge scope of what they are seeing (and feeling). He builds up a dense picture for us, taking his time (and many words) to get things just right.


But this doesn’t work for a fast-paced action sequence (of which there are many in The Angel). Here, we want action, not description. A car might be red, or a particular make, but we don’t need to know about the rust on the wheel-arches, or the dent in the rear. Likewise, when a thug attacks the hero, we’re not interested in his shirt, or exactly how tall he is, or if he’s shaved that morning. We want to know what he’s going to do, and how the hero’s going to respond.

Obviously, some colour is good. A fight scene that is nothing more than a blow-by-blow account of the action gets boring. We need some emotion, and we need some details so that we can ground the fight in reality. But we don’t need too much that is overly descriptive. We don’t want to slow down for unnecessary detail.

So a terse style, more suited to thrillers like those written by Dawson, pulls us through the book, increasing the speed at which we read.


Most people, even if they know a great many words, use a limited vocabulary in their day-to-day lives. Maybe this is down to the need (or desire) to be readily understood‌—‌using possibly obscure words will make others pause, and could lead to misunderstandings. And this is as true with text as it is with the spoken word.

Some books (or passages within books) benefit from using a wider vocabulary, but they are usually more literary works, where the particular choice and usage of words are a main part of the pleasure of the book. These are books that are designed to be savoured, designed to be devoured slowly. They are books where we are invited to acknowledge the poetic and aesthetic word-crafting of the author.

But stories are different. Stories need to be told using language that doesn’t get in the way. We want to know what happens next, and we don’t want to be distracted by flowery prose. Maybe a sharp one-liner or two in dialogue, and possibly the odd enriching description, but for the most part we are interested in the story. We want to know how the characters are going to get out of a particular situation.

Thinking of those two books I read, The Angel is definitely plot-driven. Although Dawson does use a wider vocabulary than other authors in his genre (and that is one of the things I like about his writing), he doesn’t let it get in the way of the story. Baxter is different‌—‌there are times when he wants us to take our time, to savour the images he is presenting, and so a more expansive vocabulary is required.

Story Time and Jump Cuts

The scope of Time is large. There are passages that describe short periods of time, but the story takes place over years. Months can pass in a couple of paragraphs. In contrast, the events in The Angel take place over very short time periods, and an action sequence of only a minute or so might take two or more pages to describe.

At first, it might appear that this would make Time read quicker than The Angel‌—‌slowing down to describe in detail what is happening, for instance, in a fight scene should make those intense few minutes last far longer, right? And maybe, sometimes, it does work this way. But I think the reverse can happen, too. If we know that things are moving fast in the story, we naturally read faster. Similarly, if events in the story are unfolding over many weeks or months, we feel that we can take our time.

It depends on how that passage of time is described.


One technique Dawson uses to keep the tension high and to keep us reading is that of cutting between points of view. We might start off a sequence with one character, but then (usually at the moment when they are in greatest danger), we cut to another character, and learn what they have been doing. We chop and change quickly, which is like the fast cutting of a movie action sequence. It keeps us wanting to return to each character, eager to find out what happens to them.

In Time, although there are a number of point-of-view characters, we are generally with each one for more pages, and for more time. This is like the kind of movie shots that follow the character or action with one camera, giving us a long, unbroken sequence that allows us to dive deep into the scene. There is no urge to rush, so we read at a more leisurely pace.

Of course, there are many more things that can affect reading speed. There are all those external factors, like interruptions (a sudden storm hammering rain against the window, the kids playing, noises on the street outside) and our current state of mind (feeling tired, having other things on our minds). Sometimes we have our own time constraints (something else to do, a new book we want to read), and we naturally speed up, maybe skim-reading some passages. A thick book might feel daunting, so we start with more trepidation. Or maybe we don’t want a thin book to finish, and we actively slow down (which is something that happened to me when I first read Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy).

But that is one of the pleasures of books. Unlike films and TV programmes, or music, books are not constrained by time. We can fly through a hundred pages, or we can linger over a single sentence. We can enjoy a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a story, or we can savour the richness of the language. We can set aside an evening for the adrenaline rush of racing through a whole book, or we can read a little each night, drawing out the immersive pleasure of the book.

But however we do it, reading is always time well spent.


New short story – ‘Pushing The Limits’

Pushing The Limits is based on one of the characters from the Shadows series (but this story doesn’t rely on knowing what happens in those books). It’s a bit of light sci-fi action (a change from my normal darker tales). You can read it here.

I’d love to know what people think of this, and any of my other stories (the full list can be found here). And later this month I’ll be bringing out the second e-book collection, for those of you (like me) who aren’t too keen on reading fiction on web-pages.