The Art of Storytelling

The art of storytelling

All stories are about change. Geometry and structure are the tools of good storytelling. Every time you have a character reacting or adapting to a situation, going through trials, and returning changed, you have a story.

Stories are about transformation. They follow a rhythm: biological (life, death), psychological (conscious, unconscious), and societal (order, chaos). Joseph Campbell introduced his theory in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell said that myths from around the globe share a fundamental structure. He hatched the theory after five years of relentless study. Stories and tales from that of Odysseus, Prometheus, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and many others use this structure.

We've come to know it as the hero's journey.

Cultures around the world share this structure. It confers a certain geometry to a story. Maybe I've been listening to one too many lectures from historian Alessandro Barbero.

Think about your favorite movies and book plots and you will find some version of something that goes something like this:

1: A character is in a comfort zone: The son of a Roman aristocrat has returned after five years as a Tribunus in the Ninth Legion. His military obligation fulfilled, he can take his place in Roman society with full honors.

2. But they want something: When he returns to Rome, however, he sees the decadence of the elite and the corruption of the senators in power. He is driven by a sense of nobility but also naivety and imprudence. He commits to becoming a senator to fight this evil, but another patrician family challenges him.

3. They enter an unfamiliar situation: Accustomed to be straightforward from him army life, our hero is not familiar with the secret schemes of the Senate, and overlooks his rivals' dark moves. The battlefield seems a safer place than the streets of Rome.

4. They adapt to it: Setting his naiveté aside, he enlists the help of a former centurion from his legion, and the counsel of his uncle, a seating senator nearing retirement due to failing health. The first shields him from the schemers, while the second schools him on politics.

5. Get what they want: Through a series of confrontations, the hero exposes his rivals' corruption, including their assassination attempts against his life. He wins a seat in the Senate, and rehabilitates the family name.

6. Pay a heavy price for it: In the conflict with the corrupt patrician, his faithful centurion bodyguard suffers a lethal wound while blocking an attack directed to the young nobleman. Even if the centurion survives, he may not be able to continue shielding the new senator in the future.

7. Then return to their familiar situation: The hero returns to his family estates a newly elected member of the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (SPQR). As the heir of a noble house, he gets kudos from his family and begins to set the family estate back on the road to prosperity.

8. Having changed: However, his nobility is tempered with caution. Having left behind the reckless arrogance of his youth that put his family in danger and caused his friend to be hurt. 

Here's an animated version that synthesizes the eleven stages of Campbell's Monomyth Model or hero's journey:

The cycle begins in the ordinary world, but the quest goes through an unfamiliar or special world. After crossing the threshold, overcome the trials, with some help, the hero comes face to face with his deepest fears, even faces death. 

Then there's a turning point or major revelation. The hero realizes something important, to the point when it becomes more important than the self. Now the hero has full control over destiny and is able to return. But the world is not the same anymore.

The journey changed the hero. After having spent time learning new behaviors, the hero has discovered true power. New awareness leads to a new life.

If this is what makes a hero. What makes it worthwhile? In the first chapter his the book, Campbell writes:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.

Myths are stories with a specific purpose: to encourage us to step forward and embody our humanity. We're all called to understand what has meaning, and to decide what to do with it. Great storytelling is an art.

Lived experience animates the tempo of our stories and gives them substance or value. The ingenuity, skill, insights, and talent of the hero is what makes stories resonate. You can create anticipation and build aspiration, even engineer belief. Change is the point of the journey. 

Cultural context influences the stories we tell. But understanding how change works and harnessing it is a big part of human work. That means exploring the psychological, societal, and spiritual questions and issues they raise.

Religions have shaped our beliefs about how the world works. You cannot learn history or even how modern marketing works, without understanding the religious movements. The genius of Christianity was to steal ancient myths. That conferred it longevity. “For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche…”

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