The power of storytelling (the mythological structure)

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” 
 Doris Lessing

Those who have seen the film LIFE OF PI will have no problem relating the quote above to the movie’s main theme. At the end of the movie, we understand that the narrative may as well have been a metaphorical one, and we are asked to choose which version of the truth we would prefer: the one told through analogies and mythology or a raw sequence of facts. I have made my choice. You will have to make yours.

Like all great movies, Life of Pi lends itself to a number of interpretations, has layers and layers of meanings, and covers many different themes. The one that resonated the most with me, however, was its acclaim of the power of storytelling.

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Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst, pointed out that the characters (archetypes) and motifs we find in mythological stories are the same we generate in dreams. Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist and writer, in his seminal book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, took Jung’s ideas further and proposed that all stories involving the myth of a hero have the same deep structure and feature the same archetypes, although they appear in different shapes and forms: the myth of the hero wears a thousand faces after all. In his book, he analyzes a great number of mythological stories from different cultures at different times to prove his point. He is very persuasive, I must admit.

In the 1980s, Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood development executive, adapted and simplified the ideas of Joseph Campbell to be applied in scriptwriting and moviemaking. He compiled a seven-page memo for the big shots in Hollywood that revolutionized the industry. Later this memo was turned into a book (The Writer’s Journey) which, to this day, is considered a bible for scriptwriters in the business. After all, important directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola had all drunk from the fountain of Campbell’s ideas to produce some of their most brilliant works.

Without getting too technical, let’s just cover the main steps of a typical hero’s journey to give you an idea of the phases of stories that deeply resonate with us, basically because they find an echo in the depths of our psyche. Then, if you are interested, you can expand your knowledge by referring to the original and more complete sources. A typical mythological hero follows this path:

Ordinary World: at the beginning of the story, the hero is shown in his natural habitat, living his normal life, but we can already sense that he does not really fit in, there’s something missing, he may not be totally adapted to the context.

Call to Adventure: at some point afterward, the hero is called upon action. Something happens that affects or changes his life. The news that prompts the change is usually brought to him by an archetype we call the herald. Unless the hero does something about the novel situation, his life or the lives of his friends and loved ones will be in danger.

Refusal of the call: but the hero resists the call. He comes up with all kinds of excuses not to embark on this journey. He is afraid.

Meeting with the mentor: at this point an older man or woman, usually grumpy or funny, shows up and intervenes, lending the hero guidance and support, goading him to take the bait and start his adventure.

Crossing the first threshold: that’s when the story gets really started, the hero accepts the challenge and will confront his first problems. An enemy will try to prevent him from entering the world of the adventure. The hero will somehow manage to bypass this entity and move on.

Tests, allies and enemies: now, for a long stretch of the story, the hero will be going through a series of trials and obstacles on the journey towards his goal. He will meet supportive characters but also many foes, of all kinds, will cross his path.

Approach to the innermost cave: all the obstacles will lead him to the biggest of them all. The hero and his allies prepare for it.

Ordeal: arriving at this climactic point, the hero will face death or an almost insurmountable problem.  He deals with it as bravely as he can.

Reward (seizing the Sword): he survives the ordeal and gets a prize (a metaphorical “sword”), which will help him get  through the rest of his mission.

The Road Back: now, with the mission almost accomplished, the hero will try to get back home. He’s already transformed  somehow by the experience, but will still have to confront a lot of opposition (usually represented by a “chase scene” in modern movies) before he gets back home.

Resurrection: this is the hero’s final problem, occurring right before he’s able to cross the threshold back home. Another climactic moment. The hero struggles courageously and is rewarded with the “elixir” (something that he will take back to the community he came from to help the others get to a more elevated stage)

Return with the Elixir: the elixir is passed on to the community. End of the story.

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Joseph Campbell

If you pay close attention to the movies you like the most, you will be able to identify this structure. Of course, this framework should lend itself to all kinds of variations. It’s not supposed to be a formula. Some of the steps may be missed or shuffled around, the circumstances and situations the hero finds himself in can be very diverse. This is what makes movies and stories magical. But the firmer the skeleton of the narrative, the closer it gets to the steps of the myth of the hero, the more it will resonate with an audience.

Nevertheless, to really understand how stories are built, we would still need to discuss the archetypical nature of the characters in narratives in more detail (remember we mentioned the herald and the mentor in passing?),  but that is beyond the scope of this post. We will resume this topic in a future post.

Also, storytelling is a great tool for language learning and we will discuss how it can be used in the classroom on another occasion.

For now, that is all.

(you may way now to read my post MORE STORYTELLING TIPS FOR MARKETERS: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-UK )

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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