Stories are Trojan Horses for ideas, a metaphor that proves its own point. Composed thousands of years ago—initially in Homer’s Odyssey and later in Virgil’s Aeneid—Odysseus’s gambit still reverberates through our culture, evolving as it leaps from mind to mind, seeding generation after generation with images, archetypes, and ways of making sense of the world.
You can craft a story that conveys a single big idea like The Tipping Point or that teems with ideas like The Big Short. Stories can map new conceptual territory: 1984 became the definitive allegory of state surveillance. They can spark social change like The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of the Chicago meatpacking industry at the turn of the Twentieth Century and led to numerous reforms that ultimately resulted in the founding of the Food and Drug Administration. Science fiction is often called the “literature of ideas” because of its density of thought experiment, and novels like Snow Crash are deeply integrated into the feedback loop between imagination and technological innovation. This dynamic isn’t limited to books, films, podcasts, speeches, plays, essays, epic poems, and other formal storytelling formats. You can become a more interesting conversationalist by responding to questions with stories that embody the answer rather than stating it directly.
On their own, ideas are inspiring but ephemeral—aurorae in our mental skies. Stories ground them, humanize them, give them the narrative weight they need to make a lasting impact. And because the best stories are worth telling for their own sake, ideas can hitch a ride across millennia.
Complement with how Richard Feynman made sense of complex ideas, what I learned about the power of stories from my secret-agent grandmother, and the Science of Fiction on the ideas embedded in Veil.
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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.