In a world saturated with content, the best way to stand out is to spark an emotional connection. That’s why so many PRs and ad men are rebranding themselves as storytellers. But what makes a good story? The answer lies in a template that’s as old as man himself.
‘Formulaic’…‘cliche’…’unoriginal’. These are the go-to criticisms when Dan Brown vomits out his latest bestseller or Hollywood cashes in with a cynical exercise in sequelitis.
What people don’t realise though is that the very same criticisms can be applied to most of our cultural masterpieces. All of the narrative arts – from film to novel writing, stand up to hip-hop – use the same storytelling formula that’s been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Don’t believe me? Read on…
In 1949, American mythologist Joseph Campbell used the work of early anthropologists to identify a common thread running through stories told around the world. His book ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ taught that all narrative forms – from Renaissance poetry to the spoken word traditions of Amazonian tribesmen – shared the same underlying structure.
His exploration of the human monomyth inspired a generation of Hollywood storytellers (George Lucas famously based Star Wars around its teachings). In the late 80s a young Disney exec called Christopher Vogler wrote a memo explaining the book’s importance and transposing its lessons to the film medium.
Campbell’s legacy – filtered and simplified by Vogler – was the Hero’s Journey. It broke down Mankind’s universal story into a dozen bite-sized chunks. In another blog we’ll look at how businesses can apply this structure to their own content strategy. But for now, let’s focus on how it breaks down.
The Ordinary World
We begin, uh, with the beginning. This is where we meet our hero in his or her natural habitat. It’s a static world, often dull and repetitive. Straight away though, we realise there’s something unstable about it. Change is coming and it’s going to turn everything upside down.
Though the hero might not recognise it straight away, their world is threatened by disaster. A volcano begins to rumble…aliens mass on the dark side of the moon. It may be someone new arriving in their life. A new boss at work…a mouthy waitress at their favourite restaurant.
As writers, our job right here is to hook the audience. We need to set the tone; give an indication of where the story’s heading. There’s a lot of scene-setting to do but it can’t feel like exposition.
We need to give the audience a reason to put their feet up and relax into the story. If we’ve done our job, they’ll stick around for the next part of the journey.
The Call to Adventure
We need a reason for the story to take off (it’s often called an inciting incident or catalyst). It’s a once in a lifetime event that that irrevocably changes the hero and maybe the world around them.
The volcano erupts. The aliens attack. The boss fires her. The mouthy waitress calls him on out on his bad attitude in front of his friends.
The inciting incident is upsetting and disorienting if not downright dangerous. There are often internal factors (inside their head) that make it even more difficult to accept the Call. Tough luck. The story’s gathered a head of steam – there’s no stopping it now.
Refusal of the Call
Just because momentum is building doesn’t mean the Hero can’t at least try to get out of it. ‘Why me?’ they ask. Past experience is a big obstacle for many, fear of the unknown too. A key character flaw often gets in the way.
The volcano expert points to better qualified colleagues. The war hero just wants to save his family, not the world. The fired employee walks meekly away. The arrogant city boy gets revenge on the waitress by speaking to her boss.
This Refusal to engage shows the audience how much is at stake. That following the Call would be a major gamble for the Hero. Definitely dangerous, threatening their life or at least their carefully ordered existence.
Crossing the Threshold
Of course we all know they’ll answer the Call (wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise). But they’ll need a push. Maybe this comes from within – a deep seated recognition of the need for change. More often though it comes in the form of a Mentor – a character we’ll come back to in more detail in a future blog.
The volcano expert, frustrated that no one else sees the full extent of the danger, carries out field research. The war hero, witnessing an alien soldier killing a defenceless citizen, picks up a gun. The fired employee, fired up from a friend’s a pep talk, confronts her former boss. The city boy, reeling from his beloved sister’s dressing-down, sets off to apologise to the waitress.
This marks the point of no return. They’ve left the safety and comfort of their Ordinary World and won’t be accepted back until the adventure’s done. Crossing the Threshold is a leap of faith.
From a storytelling point of view this marks the turning point between Acts 1 and 2. The narrative is up and running, audience engaged. They recognise the effort the Hero has made in leaving his old life behind and appreciate how high the stakes are. Failure equals death – or something just as bad.
The screen fades out for a moment, marking the change in Hero’s circumstances. Now’s the time to slurp a drink, cram in some popcorn, squeeze your neighbour’s knee. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The audience, as well as the Hero, would do well to take a breath.
We’ll be back very soon with the next stage of the Hero’s Journey. Click here to get it delivered straight to your inbox.