How Understanding History Will Help You Write Phenomenal Stories

Have you ever stared at a blank page, wondering where your next story idea was going to come from?

You long to be an amazing storyteller but there just don’t seem to be any good stories left for you to tell.

Any great idea you get seems to have already been done — by writers more established, more famous, more prolific than you.

Yet you refuse to give up.

You know that there must be a good story idea out there, one with your name on it, but where is it?

Well…have you tried looking at history?

History is one of our most powerful allies in the quest to write compelling stories.

It is full of fascinating ideas, characters, problems, solutions, and story arcs that are just waiting for the right person to come along and run with them.

Because history is what stories are made of.

(I mean, that’s why we call it hiSTORY, after all, right? 😉)

The Power of Story

Why do people like to read stories?

Why do stories remain with us long after we forget everything else?

Stories keep us alive. Literally. (And also metaphorically)

Stories are memorable, therefore it’s easier to teach important lessons (like how to stay alive) via story than through basic instructions.

Stories help us to make sense of the past and predict the future.

Stories organize seemingly random events in a structure that helps us to understand WHY things happened the way they did. Using that information, we can plan to maintain or change our behaviors to create a future we want.

Stories help us understand something we are all curious about but rarely privy to: other people’s motivations.

In short, stories are important for our mental-emotional and physical well-being. Good stories, featuring powerful ideas executed skillfully are as valuable as gold.

But what does that have to do with history? How does a thorough understanding of history help you as a writer?

Everything.

What Incredible Stories are Made of

Every powerful, addictive story has the following characteristics:

  1. Compelling characters
  2. Complex conflict
  3. Believable settings

Whether you are reading Dr. Seuss or Doctor Zhivago, every story needs these three elements.

But where do great writers find the material to create amazing characters, conflict, and setting?

They don’t just pull these elements from their head like magic. The ideas come from their experiences and their learning.

In other words, from history.

1. History is Full of Intriguing Story Premises

Alexandre Dumas first came up with the idea of The Count of Monte Cristo, an epic revenge-drama, from a police archivist’s book.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a story about a falsely-accused man who spends two decades in prison, and loses his fiancee. He comes out filthy rich, and sets out to take revenge revenge on the men who stole his fiancee and his life.

It was inspired by the archivist’s true story of a shoemaker whose false friends accused him of being a spy and stole his fiance. The shoemaker became an indentured servant for years, and when freed, took revenge on his accusers.

The two premises are literally the same. The only difference is in the details and execution of the story (pardon the pun).

What other story ideas are hidden in the annals of time? That’s up to you to find out!

And the best part is, no one can accuse you of plagiarism when you model your story on something that actually happened 😉

2. History is a Gold Mine of Compelling Character Types

One of the most complex and mesmerizing characters in Potterworld is Severus Snape — a professor who bullies Harry but later gives his life for Harry because of his loyalty and love for his childhood friend, Harry’s mother.

But this is not a new idea.

In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, written over a hundred years before the first “Potter” book, we find one Sydney Carton, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well who, like Snape, gives his life to save the life of someone that his beloved loves.

In this case, the one saved is a husband, not a son. But the point is that literary history is full of complex characters with powerful story arcs which a clever writer can easily use to create more powerful writing.

In history, we have all kinds of heroic villains, from John Rabe, the Nazi who admired Hitler, yet saved thousands of lives during the Nanking Massacre, to Oskar Schindler, the self-centered womanizer who ended up saving over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust.

These complex figures did great good, while appearing to be something other than what they were.

And there are even more complicated, quirky, deep and fascinating people just like them throughout the pages of history, waiting for observant writers to bring their stories to life.

3. History Provides Details to Create Rich, Riveting Story Worlds

The Hunger Games, another massively popular fiction series came about when author Suzanne Collins found herself sleepily channel-surfing one night, alternately watching a reality TV contest and footage of the Iraq war.

The combination of these two seemingly disparate programs provided the story idea about children who kill each other as sport in a dystopian society.

But there was one other factor that made the Hunger Games idea really pop: Roman history.

Many elements in the Hunger Games series are borrowed from ancient Roman culture:

  • Names like “Cinna” (an ancient Roman family)
  • The cornucopia (a mythical Roman horn able to provide whatever is desired)
  • And the very concept of fighting to death in an arena for entertainment (Roman gladiator games)

Obviously, Collins’ knowledge of ancient Roman history helped to enrich her tale, bringing details and depth that would not otherwise have been there.

Other writers have done the same, using cultural details, myths and legends, and other elements from world history to enrich and three-dimensionalize their own stories. (Think Rick Riordan, Philippa Gregory, Barbara Kingsolver, and more)

Bonus Benefit: Understanding History Will Hone Your Plotting Skills

History is all about cause-and-effect. When you study history and see how different acts led to others, you can apply the same techniques to your own story writing.

History makes us who we are, as individuals, and as communities and nations. And it is what makes us who we are as readers and writers.

History tells us how we got to where we are, and how we ought to proceed from here. That’s what stories are for, as well.

The History/Story Chicken-or-Egg Conundrum

Have you ever watched the end of a romance or detective movie, seen the characters get together or the villain come to justice, and ended up feeling bored or confused?

That’s because you don’t know the context.

Stories only touch people when they are grounded in a context that people can understand.

The reason why stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird were so powerful was because they were grounded in actual events that had happened, and were still happening. Those stories MATTERED.

People connected with the stories because they could see where the stories were coming from.

Stories emerge from history, and stories in turn affect history.

Every story needs an organizing context, a worldview or culture through which readers understand everything that happens. History provides that.

So when you understand history, you can create a relatable reference point for your story, and make it matter to your reader.

The #1 Reason Why Every Story Writer Needs to Understand History

Why do we tell stories of great events and people (fictional OR real)?

Why do we have so many movies and books based on the Holocaust, the American Revolutionary War, the Roman Empire?

Because stories matter. They help us make sense of the world and our place in it. All stories do this, and if you want to.

Stories aren’t just for entertainment. They are vehicles that deliver ideas about the world, and life. They can change perspectives, and therefore, lives.

When you forget that, writing stories becomes a meaningless waste of time, a selfish pursuit. History shows that stories can change the world for good or ill.

Knowing how history has impacted stories, and vice versa, will give you an understanding of your place, your responsibilities, and your privilege as a storyteller.

If You’re Serious About Storytelling…

So if you are really interested in writing meaningful, compelling stories, do yourself a favor.

Study history.

Examine it. Borrow from it. Let it inspire you.

If you do, you will find yourself never at a loss for story ideas, and your own writing growing richer and deeper as you learn how things came about, and why.

As you absorb this understanding, it will become second nature to you, spilling out into everything you write.

Your writing will shine with deeper understanding and richer conclusions. Your stories will be filled with compelling characters and intriguing story arcs.

Readers will be mesmerized by your knowledge and understanding of how things work.

All thanks to your study of history.

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