The following was originally posted on http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/05/top-ten-story-tips-childrens-books-charlie-fletcher
"The author of the Stoneheart series and Far Rockaway reveals his top 10 reasons why we need Vitamin S: the power of Stories."
Smart people try and tell you that what makes us so successful as a species is thumbs, those nifty opposable digits that let us grip tools and make stuff.
They're wrong: what makes us the most successful – and dangerous – species on the planet is the fact we tell stories. It's how we communicate, it's how we make sense of the world, it's how we learn, how we teach and it's even (and here's the kicker) how we cheat mortality: storytelling is how we project what we know and feel forward in time, way beyond our life-span. The hardware that was Will Shakespeare is long gone, but we've been downloading the software he created, all his stories, ever since.
We are not just the tool-users: we are Story Machines. We run on what I call Vitamin S: the power of stories. Here's my unscientific and entirely personal list of ten benefits you can get from liberal and regular doses of Vitamin S.
1. Empathy enhancement
Dragon Shield by Charlie Fletcher
When you read a book or hear a story, you do this interesting thing of rubbing alongside the minds of both the narrator and the characters. You walk a mile or more in their shoes and you come to experience things through their eyes and feelings. This develops empathy, that sense of feeling with someone (unlike sympathy, which is feeling for someone). It enables the development of "Theory of mind", the capacity not only to ascribe mental states (like beliefs, intents and wants and so on) to oneself but also to go on from that to realise that other people have beliefs, wants, and intentions that are often different to ours. This is a Good Thing.
2. Creative muscle building
Reading or listening to a story is not a passive thing; it's active and creative. You participate, you don't just sit there and consume something pre-packaged. The words are cues that stimulate your brain into making images in your head. Input Vitamin S and your brain becomes a mini movie studio with unlimited resources. The more you exercise that capacity, the more creative you become.
Seeing someone else's filmed version of a story just isn't the same thing: people whose day jobs involve them wiring other people's brains up to monitors (they do exist) have noticed that watching a movie or a TV show kind of flatlines brain activity. There's a reason we say we are "vegging out" in front of the telly. In technical terms it actually impedes cognitive development and decreases brain connectivity, whereas reading fiction increases it.
3. World ownership
Following on from point two: do the creative work in your own head and you are taking ownership of the stories. They become part of the fabric of who you are. I – like you – am Spartacus. But I'm also Scout Finch and Davie Balfour and Phillip Marlowe and Jane Eyre and David Copperfield and Bilbo Baggins and – on my best days, Granny Weatherwax or Sam Vimes.
4. Time travel
Vitamin S can take you anywhere in time, from the earliest days of pre-history to the moment before the heat death of the universe. Historical fiction helps us understand where we came from, while Speculative Fiction allows us to imagine where we might be headed – or even where we might like to get to.
Speculative fiction is not necessarily great at producing precise roadmaps to the future, but it is good at waymarking potential directions. Imagining futures is important, because if we don't have that sense of direction and intent, the only thing we can be sure of is that we'll end up somewhere we didn't plan to be.
5. Magic making
Read a book and you're a willing participant in a magic trick. I'm badly paraphrasing Alan Moore here, but a magic spell is the right words in the right order leading to a change in consciousness: exactly what good writing achieves.
6. Strong language
Charlie Fletcher, Far Rockaway
Speaking of the power of the right words in the right order... I'm not sure about doomsayers who warn language and verbal skills are threatened as we inexorably turn into a bunch of screen-poking digital grunters, virtually social but mumblingly inarticulate back in meat-space, but stories expose us to other people's ways of expressing things, and in doing so builds our own store of language and keeps it fresh.
It's just not fair to leave that poor Will Self to do all the heavy lifting in this area: there are great underused words out there that we should be keeping alive, like jobberknowl, or bumbershoot, or even fletcherizing. Which is something to chew on...
7. Joining the escape club
There's something refreshing about escaping the tyranny of daily life and getting lost in a story, but it's not only that it takes you out of yourself. Well-crafted Vitamin S has a beginning, a middle and an end. That coherent shape is not always apparent in the real world, where we're always in media res, too committed to the wood to step back and see the trees.
This kind of escape isn't about irresponsibly running away: it's about trying on a different set of perspective goggles.
Story is a form of play. I think play is something we forget to do enough of as adults. Play keeps the mind loose and limber, and young in all the good ways.
9. Thinking dangerously
Reading outside the box and pushing yourself outside your normal comfort zone can have tremendously good effects. For example, a while back I read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow because I wanted to see if it would be good for my kids. Turned out it was good for me too, and raised my consciousness about all sorts of things like the surveillance state and fanned out from there.
10. Silo breakout
This last one's a personal bugbear: forget wild swimming, wild reading is where it's at. Wild reading is picking a book you might not like and giving it a go, because Story not only takes you out of yourself, it pushes you beyond your comfort zone. Nowadays that's more important than it used to be, because the digital world really likes to pigeonhole you so it can fix you in a specific set of marketing crosshairs.
Once upon a time the internet was a free-ish place. Now, not so much. Nowadays it reads you and plays you back to yourself. Check into the same websites with and then without Private Browsing turned on and see what a difference that makes: Amazon will suddenly not offer you options exactly like the ones you last browsed, other websites will stop showing adverts for things you recently looked at and become much more random.
Speaking of random, I joined The Random Book Club while I was at the Wigton Book Festival. Try it or something like it: wild reading will bust you out of the comfortable and unchallenging silos the digital masters have prepared for you, and let you tour the wider horizon beyond their increasingly controlled domain.