Once Upon a Time: the power of a story


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Imagine this, once upon a time.

You are sitting around a campfire, eating a charred brontosaurus steak. Your husband has been dragging you round by the hair all day and you have a headache.  

You’re looking forward to some down time.

caveman, cavewoman

‘Pass me 50 Shades of Grey and go catch us a stegosaurus for dinner.’

Bring on the story teller!

He starts on a new tale he calls Fifty Shades of Wooly Mammoth, about a Miss Link who ties up some Neanderthal she’s picked up and gives him a good paddling with a brontosaurus bone.

At last! You feel like you can relax.

Fast forward ten thousand years. You sit down with a good book or in front of the modern campfire storyteller – the TV or DVD – and tell yourself you are ‘switching off.’

In fact, modern science now says you are actually switching on.

It seems that from the Stone Age we have all been working on developing what psychologists call “Theory ofMind” – we are all unconsciously trying to guess what other people are thinking and feeling, all of the time. Because without that ability we don’t interact very well.

How do we learn to do this?

Through the power of the story.
the power of story

‘The Storyteller’ Giovanni Tiepolo

The tribe’s story teller once not only explained the world to us – they helped us understand who we could trust and who we couldn’t.

Nothing has changed in ten thousand years except the medium. Whether it’s through film, books or magazines we are all still working on our theory of mind. Anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar conducted a study at the University of Liverpool in 1997 and found that social topics accounted for two thirds of conversation among people in public places, regardless of age or gender.

Which is why gossip magazines and celebrity cults maintain their popularity.

The key value we are talking about here is empathy. In 2004, psychologist Melanie C. Green, from the University of North Carolina, showed that people with high empathic function were more easily engaged in stories. Not everyone has it; it varies greatly from person to person.

For instance, some people yawn even when Bambi’s mother dies.

At the other end of the scale, there are those who dissolve into tears if you just whisper the name Nicholas Sparks in their ear.

Nicholas Sparks

So what is empathy anyway?

Empathy is perhaps best described in that old Joe South song: “Walk a mile in my Shoes.” If you can see the world through someone else’s eyes, you are better equipped to form good relationships at work and at home.

These studies turn the idea of the socially crippled bookworm on its head. It seems the so-called nerds have a better chance of finding lasting love than the archetypal jock or cheerleader – well, at least, once they put their book down. That’s the power of story.

bookworm, the power of story

chance of forming excellent relationships: 83.4%

flight simulator: the power of story

chance of forming excellent relationships 14.3%

Still, this begs the question: does reading fiction hone social skills – or is it just that socially inclined individuals are more likely to seek out narrative fiction?

Can we learn it – or are we born with it?

Research suggests that the instinct to look for relationships is deeply ingrained in most people. 

Psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel demonstrated this in their classic 1944 study at Smith College; they showed participants an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked them what was going on.

Most responses were along the lines of: “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Almost all respondents attributed personalities and attitudes to the inanimate objects.

the power of the story

the circle is clearly too needy, while the triangle has unresolved issues with the triquetra

Another study by Daniela o’Neill and Rebecca Shultis, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario in 2007, found that a 5 year old can follow the thoughts of an imaginary character – but a 3 year old can’t. Therefore empathic ability develops somewhere between three and five.

In other words – about the age a kid learns to tie their own shoes they learn to walk a mile in someone else’s.

Can we do something to improve a kid’s abilities for empathy?

The answer is a resounding yes.

So anything you read, or watch – it’s not “just” a story. 

It’s at the very core of what it means to be a human being.


When fiery and idealistic Kitty O’Kane escapes the crushing poverty of Dublin’s tenements, she’s determined that no one should ever suffer like she did. As she sets out to save the world, she finds herself at the forefront of events that shaped the early twentieth century. While working as a maid, she survives the sinking of the Titanic. As a suffragette in New York’s Greenwich Village, she’s jailed for breaking storefront windows. And traveling war-torn Europe as a journalist, she’s at the Winter Palace when it’s stormed by the Bolsheviks. Ultimately she returns to her homeland to serve as a nurse in the Irish Civil War.

During Kitty’s remarkable journey, she reunites with her childhood sweetheart, Tom Doyle, but Tom doesn’t know everything about her past—a past that continues to haunt her. Will Kitty accept that before she can save everyone else, she needs to find a way to save herself? Or will the sins of her past stop her from pursuing her own happiness?

colin falconer, sleeping with the enemy, fury, jerusalem, freedom



Colin Falconer, romance, adventure, bestseller, historical fiction

Come meet me at the Falconer Club, for exclusive excerpts and to get Advanced Review copies. JUST CLICK THE PICTURE ABOVE!



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  1. Once in a college English class I tried to argue that movies were the modern version of folktales. The prof didn’t buy it, but I still think I was right.

    • The prof has air in his head. I did a screenwriting course a little while ago with one of the writers from The Piano. She invited the audience to name any movie ‘and I’ll name the fairy tale it’s based on.’ It was fascinating – and enlightening. Look at how movies are ingrained into our common language: we all know what a bunny boiler is, for example, and we all quote from the Godfather. If he didn’t agree with you frankly, my dear, you shouldn’t give a damn. May the force be with you, Liv.

  2. Colin this is very interesting.I read a lot, so from my point of view I am learning all the time and always looking for some new project to work on. Can’t wait for the 2nd part of this post.

  3. Wow Colin, love this. Stories teach empathy, life lessons and more—Brothers Grimm and beyond!

    • Thanks Amy! And talking of the Brothers Grimm … one day it would be interesting to look how our folk stories and fairy tales have evolved, in line with how our common values change. Maybe another time.

  4. Insightful post. I’ve been exploring the importance of stories as well on my blog. Now I can add empathy to the mix.

    Loved, “the age a kid learns to tie their own shoes they learn to walk a mile in someone else’s.”

    • Yes and I didn’t even steal it from someone else! The empathy looks easy and is very hard. There’s a TV documentary stories over here that has the lead line: ‘Seven billion stories and counting’ because that’s how many POV’s there are.

  5. Great post. Rumour has it I have a reasonable amount of empathy though doesn’t seem to have helped me with relationships! There’s always an exception I guess.. and an odd one out! Will keep on reading and writing. Wonder which fairy tale I’m writing at the moment or do only those stories make it to the movies. Hmm.. more food for thought.

    • I’m with you on that one; I was presenting what the researchers say but I’m not sure empathy always translates either. But that’s for another post! According to this screenwriter, and she presented a very persuasive case, it applies to all stories on some level. More of that on Monday with part 3 of my 2 part series!

  6. Karen McFarland

    August 31, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    You are a good teacher Colin. A very insightful post.

    Empathy. That’s huge. But I wonder, if an author is unable feel empathy, will he/she be able to write a character that the reader can empathize with? Oops, I may be jumping ahead of the teacher! I’m off to read part two. 🙂

  7. Enjoyed this post, particularly the cave people beginning. Now that was an attention getter! One trend I’ve noticed in literature is re-telling fairy tales in modern genre language and sensibilities. Though I agree every story has a myth or fairy tale underlying it.

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