Happily sitting in my early morning window, I find myself extremely grateful for being able to spend time on things that feed my soul. I am thankful for a clear mind and the ability to bring my thoughts into words and stories.
I think of my French Canadian grandmother when I say the word stories. She lived with us when I was a kid. On Saturdays, she would cook up a delicious breakfast that always ended with some kind of Little Debbie dessert.
She would use the word stories in the following context:
Time to finish up. Gotta watch my stories.
Translation: The Price is Right or Murder, She Wrote was getting ready to start.
Jeremy, are you telling stories?
Translation: Jeremy, that was a hell of a tale. Is that shit for real?
Storytelling is the root of all human communication. It is how we understand ourselves and others. A thoughtful story brings us into an experience, opens the pathway to empathy, creates a connection and often inspires the listener. I remember as a kid, after watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, I immediately turned into Indiana Jones and recreated the adventure. The more memorable the story, the more likely we are to retain the knowledge and experience.
How did storytelling evolve over time?
What are the elements of a great story?
What happens biologically when you experience a beautiful narrative?
Are there certain stops that a story needs to make along the way?
I thought it would be fun to go on a bit of a journey to find the answers …
On the vehicles of storytelling:
Early storytelling showed up in cave paintings over 400 centuries ago … No Instagram snapshots with your foot proudly posed on a recently downed wooly mammoth.
Credit: DRAC Rhone-Alpes, Ministere de la Culture / AP Images
Whether you believe he was a man or group of men, Homer took us out of dark caves and sketches with oral delivery of The Illiad and The Odyssey. Homer’s audience was limited to those in close proximity, and those who could accurately reproduce the experience to new audiences.
What do you do if you write beautiful stories, but the majority of your target market cannot read? You hire actors to perform your stories for large audiences.
What if you wanted to reach beyond the audience in a playhouse?
Enter the Golden Age Of Radio …
Blogs, podcasts and Netflix provide today’s landscape of storytelling vehicles.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are presenting an entirely new experience.
Over time, the delivery method has changed, but the content of a great story has not.
On story arcs:
Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author (and songwriter) most recognized for his work, The Alchemist, which has been translated into more than 80 languages and sold over 83 million copies. It’s one of my favorite books and a great reminder to appreciate all of the stops on the journey. Often, the end game isn’t so clear, which makes it more important to be present and aware for every experience along the way.
“There are only four types of stories: love story between 2 people, love story between 3 people, a struggle for power, and a journey.” – Paulo Coelho
I love the way Coelho simplifies something very complex in this quote.
On pitching an idea:
Even the most groundbreaking ideas fall flat without a great story.
Ken Anderson worked at Disney Animation Studios for over 40 years, and in the story below, he recounts how Walt Disney presented the idea of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs to his team.
“Walt gave us fifty cents each in the afternoon and he said, “Why don’t you go get yourself a dinner and come back and be back here at eight o’clock. Be back on the soundstage.” So we went and had this wonderful dinner—you could have a wonderful dinner for thirty-five cents. And came back to the confines of the studio and he walked in, still not knowing what the hell it was all about. Walked into this soundstage that was all dark so we could save money. Just the light on the floor right in front of the seats.
So we, about forty of us sat there, and we got all settled and Walt was talking to the guys in the front. And he came down the front of the thing and said, ‘I’m gonna tell you a story.’ He says, ‘Been with me all my life.’ He said, ‘I’ve lived it.’ He started in and told the story of Snow White better than we put it on the screen.
He spent from 8:00 to 11:30, and he portrayed all the parts. He had to go forward and back and forward and back and the cutting didn’t matter, in order to tell it all and get it all in. But he became even the Queen, he became the Huntsman, he became the dwarves, he became Snow White.
And the guy changed. He sat right in front of our eyes and here comes Walt Disney changing. Now there’s an enormous talent as an actor; he could really sell things. And he sold the story to us in such a way that we couldn’t believe our ears.” – Ken Anderson
On the science of storytelling:
Another reminder of the proximity of science to art …
In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Paul Zak (Director of Neuroeconomics, Claremont Graduate School) tested a hypothesis that storytelling generates the synthesis of a neurochemical called oxytocin. Interestingly enough, oxytocin also is produced naturally in women during childbirth and breastfeeding.
“As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.” – Paul J. Zak
Manipulating neurochemicals to enhance storytelling scares me a bit, but its always enlightening to understand the science behind the humanity.
On the hero’s journey:
Joseph Campbell was a writer and lecturer most known for his work in mythology and religion. In his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he introduced the concept known as the hero’s journey. The stages defined in this journey have been applied to books, films and other creative endeavors. I first ran across the concept on a podcast that I listen to called The James Altucher Show. James interviewed Steven Pressfield (Author of The Legend of Bagger Vance) and discussed writing and the hero’s journey.
“What is the hero’s journey in story terms? Novelists and screenwriters use bits and pieces all the time, often unconsciously. The hero’s journey in one form or another is the template for almost every screen story from Conan the Barbarian to The Hangover. Concepts like the inciting incident and the All Is Lost moment come straight from Joseph Campbell’s studies of myth and legend.” –Steven Pressfield
Many heroes have followed this exact journey.
The details are unique, but the framework is the same.
Let’s take the Italian Stallion through Joseph Campbell’s framework.
ThE oRdInArY wOrLd – Rocky is a subpar boxer making his money as the muscle for a loanshark. While he is barely making ends meet, he is a likable character.
Call to adventure – After crushing previous contenders, reigning champion Apollo Creed selects Rocky for a promotional stunt and spectacle.
Refusal of the call – Rocky isn’t in prime boxing shape and doesn’t have a professional trainer. With slim chance of him beating Apollo, he initially refuses the fight.
Meeting with mentor – The gym manager Mickey gives Rocky’s locker to a more promising fighter. Deep down, Mickey believes in Rocky and offers to train him to beat Apollo. Rocky initially refuses his help.
Crossing the threshold – Rocky agrees to work with Mickey. With the help of a classic 1980’s montage and dead cows, he begins his training.
Tests, allies and enemies – Tough training and non-believers threaten his confidence. Rocky meets Adrian and Paulie building his inspiration and support structure.
Approach to the inner most cave – This is the, “what the hell am I doing moment”, where the hero questions his readiness for the challenge.
The ordeal – A 15 round battle where Rocky and Apollo beat the shit out of each other.
Rewards – Even though Apollo wins by split decision, Rocky finally enjoys some respect.
The road back – Rocky and Apollo recover in the hospital. Apollo’s abilities come into question from the public, and he tries to bring Rocky back in for a rematch. Initially, he doesn’t want any part of it (another nod to the refusal of the call).
Resurrection – The rematch is scheduled and the training begins (more 1980’s montages).
Return with the elixir – Yo Adrian … I did it!
You’ll find other examples of Campbell’s framework illustrated throughout literature, film and television. A journey is a unique experience between points in time. Think of it as driving from Atlanta to Denver. Many people will travel down the same piece of asphalt, and each person will see the landscape with their own eyes, hear sounds with their own ears, feel things with their own hearts, and relate it all to their past experiences.
- Vehicles for storytelling have changed, but what makes a story great has not.
- Following a path doesn’t make the journey unoriginal.
So, Memere (grandma in French-Canadian), thank you for the cheese omelettes, chocolate milk and nutty bars. Yes, I’m telling stories, but I promise to be out of the way before Murder, She Wrote.
The Hero’s Journey – James Altucher & Steven Pressfield – Start listening at 32:27