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.


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.


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: )

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

What it takes to be Michael Jackson

I’ve never been a huge fan of Michael Jackson’s music, although his gift as a performer and dancer has always impressed me. I grew up hearing his songs, like many of the readers, so he felt like a distance cousin, far away but still part of my life.

Despite the fact that THRILLER (1982), his second solo album after he left The Jackson 5, sold more than a 100 million copies, making it the best-selling album of all time, I was never really interested in mimicking the steps and choreography of the promo video clip, and was left sitting alone with my rum and coke at the parties of that era, while all my zombie friends took over the dance floor.

In the early 90s, before the advent of cable television in Brazil, when regular TV still had the power of unifying people, making most of us watch the same shows and discuss them at the water cooler the following day, I waited excitedly for the release of every new computerized video clip featuring a Michel Jackson hit, just like everyone else at the time. To say nothing of the fact that, in Brazil,  a lot of kids from the generation after mine were named by their parents MAICON, in honor of the King of Pop. They couldn’t get it right.

Obviously, I was shocked by his untimely death and saddened by all the allegations of child abuse he had to confront (hoping that the verdict of not guilty was fair and right after all). The Oscar-winning Danish movie THE HUNT presents us with a nightmarish scenario of what it must feel like to be accused of this sort of crime if you are innocent. Once the doubt is planted in people’s minds, it will not be uprooted.

This evening, however, I watched a documentary about Michael Jackson on Netflix, and it was fascinating to be reminded of how talented and mature he was at the age of 10, an old soul. Nevertheless, in a scene in the film, someone comments that whatever he missed in childhood due to his extreme professionalism, he made up in adulthood. Of course, he was referring to the toys he got as an adult, to Neverland, and to the obsession of physically transforming his body through plastic surgery, rather than only in his imagination, like most kids do.

But what really resonated with me was all the evidence that, besides being a naturally gifted person, he was a workaholic, and added much to his innate talent through a lot of studying and dedication. It was said that even after his voice changed in adolescence he could still carry on being a great singer, as he had learned what to do technically with his voice when rendering a song, from analyzing famous singers from the past. So, what does that teach us about how to become a Michael Jackson, or a John Lennon, or a Bill Gates? Or, in other words, an extremely successful person in our career.


Michael Jackson

Work and drive

I’m a great believer that hard word and dedication are the most important levers for success in life – whichever standards you choose to measure success by. Malcolm Gladwell, in a book called OUTLIERS (which I strongly recommend) speaks of the magical number 10,000, as the minimum amount of hours necessary for someone to dedicate to a specific task if they are to excel in it. Not all of us had or will ever have the opportunity and drive to do this, let’s face it.

Of course, being endowed by nature with a special talent, such as a higher than average IQ, amazing kinesthetic intelligence, or the looks of Scarlett Johansonn, will already place you ahead of the pack. But you cannot dismiss the effort that all real celebrities – as opposed to the Paris Hilton type – must have put into building their careers. There are odds working for them, that is undeniable, but in general, this is accompanied  by unusual amounts of time and effort invested in accomplishing their endeavors.

A Mentor and team work

Also, in all interviews I read and documentaries I watch about people who have done amazing things, there is a strong element of team work and mentoring involved. You just can’t make it on your own. Talent needs coaching, support and help with the hard decisions to be made along the way. Surround yourself with friendly and supportive people, who maybe complement your skills, and get yourself a mentor. Today.


I know a lot of talented people who do not advance further in their career for lack of resilience and toughness. They shy away and quit at the prospect of every obstacle (and there will be many) they face. If you ever have the chance to watch a couple of episodes of the popular series HOUSE OF CARDS, you will understand that it is impossible to get ahead without single-mindedness and a very thick skin.

Emotional intelligence

This is what hindered Michael Jackon’s success in terms of longevity and balance. His instability, due mainly to growing up under an overbearing and controlling father – whom he never called Dad, but Joseph, his Christian name. Besides, the pressures of living and working in an unbelievably competitive environment must have played a strong role in his unravelling. Also, he never developed sophisticated interpersonal skills, such as being able to read people beyond their words and superficial behavior – he is said to have been naively trusting of everyone.

Basically, I should say that, in a very simplified way, the characteristics listed above translate into success. In the sense that they get you where you want to be in the corporate world, in show business, academia or politics.

Let’s continue the discussion later. In the meantime, please let me know what your views are on this post.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

“You’re so vain” (Books I think are about me)

I got a funny reaction to my blog post on Wuthering Heights ( from an anonymous reader. He or she wrote to me saying: “You are so vain, you probably think Wuthering Heights is about you”. I suspect this is an adaptation of a line of an old Carly Simon song, who allegedly was referring to Mick Jagger. In a way, I found the comment rather amusing, and, to be quite honest, remarkably true. Even more worrying: I tend to think that every single book I love is about me! As a matter of fact, it only interests me if I can somehow relate to it. And I guess this is what happens to every reader, at least the more romantic ones, like me. So, yes, you got it right, dear anonymous e-mail writer.

Take for example some of the best books I have read (and often reread) : Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis), Nemesis (by Philip Roth) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe). They are really all about me.


Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis.

The first time I read Dom Casmurro I was still in high school, and totally fell in love with Capitu. The kiss she and Bentinho exchange while he is combing her hair and she drops her head back, making their faces align in opposite directions, is  one of the most romantic scenes I remember as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I saw a repeat of that scene decades later in the movie SPIDER MAN! This time he was hanging upside down from a wire fence while Mary Jane was looking up.  The same kind of kiss. Also, like Bentinho, the main character in Dom Casmurro, I can be quite jealous in a relationship and totally understand how paranoid it must feel to have your kid grow up to look like your best male friend. And the best thing is, every time I read the book again, I find new clues that indicate that Capitu must have been unfaithful, although we can never be one hundred per cent sure, as the story is very cleverly told from the point of view of the narrator only, who happens to be Bentinho, the husband.


Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Nemesis by Philip Roth is a very universal story, and if you can’t identify with it, I’m afraid you have a problem. Although I’m not Jewish and am fortunate enough not to be physically disabled (the story is about the terrible consequences of the outbreak of a polio epidemic in the mid-1940s New Jersey), I fully identify with the book’s themes. The main message, as I see it, is, if you are struck by tragedy, if you have a disability of any kind, or anything else people may look down upon or reject you for (and that probably applies to all of us), there is no point in blaming God or the Universe for it. Get on with your life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it and restore or construe your own meaning for happiness. Or fight back. This is something everyone needs to hear: take full ownership of your failures and problems, and deal with them. No one else will care as much. Tough, but real.


The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities: the main character finds himself in a kafkaesque situation: he gets lost in a dangerous part of  the city while driving back from the airport with his mistress, and accidently seems to strike a young black man he was sure was trying to mug them.  What a nightmare!  Was it a hit-and-run accident? Should they tell the police straightaway? But the wife will find out about the mistress then. Was the kid really hit, all they heard was a little noise (“thok”) after all. Surely the boy was OK. What decisions do they need to make? Mistakes are inevitably made along the way and there are terrible consequences. Moreover, there are many third parties (journalists, community leaders, attorneys, politicians, etc) trying to profit politically from the situation. Nothing is as morally simple as it first looks. Interesting questions. The reader gets deeply involved in the plot and its turns. “Unputdownable”. Besides, it’s very tempting to picture myself living the good life of a succesful Wall Street yuppie in a huge two-story apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan…without the tragedy! Another book that COULD be about me.

So I’m really sorry if the anonymous e-mail writer intended to hurt my feelings accusing me of believing that Wuthering Heights is about me. Catherine, one of the book’s main characters, says at one of the most important plot points in the story: “I am Heathcliff!”  Well, so am I!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Ignorance, prejudice and the fact that a chimpanzee’s skin is white!

In a scene of the Academy award-winning movie “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, the character played by Michael Fassbender says that one can easily see that his black slaves are nothing more than “baboons”. Actually, this association of black people with monkeys and apes are very commonly made by bigots and racists throughout the world. For some reason, they seem to think that black humans are closer to these cousins of ours than caucasians or asians.


I’m white, dude!

I have just come across a very interesting article in last week’s  issue of THE ECONOMIST  (“The skinny on skin colour”) where they explain the reason early humans in Africa developed dark skins was to protect it from cancer, since their bodily hair had somehow been shed – the reason why we substituted melanin for a hair coat is still not completely understood.  Some people’s skins only became fairer as they moved and lived in more northern regions of the globe. But what really struck me as ironic and very sobering  is that, as they state in the article, the color of a chimpanzee’s skin is white, once you shave all that hair!

This only proves that bigotry and ignorance go hand in hand, and brave are the ones who, despite their not understanding completely a new phenomena, try to see through the surface and get to the core and truth of it, rather than reject things and ostracize people they don’t know anything about. Difference is always a source of fear and prejudice. I admit it may even be natural to feel afraid or cautious when confronted with something new and unfamiliar. But this is where the human mind – and spirit – need to impose itself and guide our consciousness and behavior.  The senses and our own experience can lie, or at least, may not tell the whole story.

Empathy: I keep getting back to this word in every article I write. The reason is I think  it’s even more effective than “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from the movie Mary Poppins – whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this year, by the way – in the sense that it makes people not only feel better as they say it, but it can have a huge effect towards accommodating and living with diversity when applied to real life.

The ignorance about chimpanzees’ skins being white can be equated with the lack of knowledge that gays DON’T choose their sexual orientation (the choice is either to hide it from others and live a repressed or duplicitous life, or come out of the closet and deal with it) or the myth that Latin Americans are not as hardworking as their counterparts in North America, Europe or Asia. To say nothing of men’s fear that women are their equal in all intellectual respects.

Wake up: chimps’ skins are white!

NOTE: You might want to check out our eBooks available  from AMAZON.COM. Click here:

Teaching English with Art

Au revoir

Jorge Sette


Como (não) escrever como Oscar Wilde (PDF – presentation)

Como (não) escrever como Oscar Wilde (PDF - presentation)

Os passos para criação de textos baseados no processo da escrita. Esta apresentação resume um artigo completo de mesmo título que pode ser lido no blog LINGUAGEM:


Philomena – uma pequena gema

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Elliot

(Este artigo contém SPOILERS sobre o filme Philomena. Adie a leitura, se pretende se surpreender com o filme)

É assim, citando essa passagem de T.S. Elliot, que Martin (Steve Coogan), o jornalista que acompanha a ingênua Philomena (Judi Dench) na sua busca pelo filho ilegítimo, que lhe foi tomado por freiras católicas e vendido a uma família americana há 50 anos, responde ao comentário da companheira de que haviam voltado ao ponto de partida (“We’ve come full circle”) no final da longa jornada pela qual passaram.

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, em PHILOMENA

A busca a leva da Grã-Bretanha a Washington, em companhia do jornalista, que,  contratado por um tabloide,  escreverá um cínico artigo de  “interesse humano”, explorando o lado mais popularesco, açurado e sensacionalista da história,  comprometendo-se, em recompensa,  a bancar todos os custos da procura do filho “roubado”. Mas, com o desenvolvimento da relação entre ambos, ele começa a perceber que a história de Philomena é bem mais complexa e dolorosa, e talvez não mereça este tipo de exposição pública.

Na juventude, passada na Irlanda no início da década de 50, Philomena, depois de um breve flerte, cede aos impulsos e “desejos da carne”,  e engravida. Seu pai a envia à Abadia de Sean Ross em Roscrea para o parto. As freiras, na mais estrita rigidez moral e religiosa, como convém à época, consideram aquilo um pecado grave, pelo qual Philomena deve penar, tanto na dor do parto difícil, como na obrigação de trabalhar duro na lavanderia do convento pelos próximos 4 anos, como uma escrava,  até quitar sua dívida de 200 libras  pelas despesas assumidas pelas freiras.  Seu filho, Antony,  é finalmente “vendido” para uma família americana.

A própria Philomena, como boa católica, internaliza de tal forma os preceitos religiosos, que se sente inteiramente responsável e culpada pelo seu próprio destino, e está de acordo com as punições infligidas pelas freiras. Por 50 anos, no entanto, nunca esqueceu esse filho, e agora, com ajuda da filha que teve posteriormente, e de um jornalista desempregado, decide que precisa reencontrá-lo, simplesmente para saber o que foi feito dele. Já havia tentado antes, mas sempre se defrontou com um paredão de resistência das freiras, uma vez que, por espontânea vontade, assinara um documento abdicando da criança e prometendo jamais procurá-la depois da adoção.

Usando os contatos que tem nos EUA, onde já trabalhara anteriormente, Martin finalmente descobre que Antony, que passou a chamar-se Michael na nova família, morrera já há alguns anos. Era um bem-sucedido advogado trabalhando na administração Reagan e… gay, escondendo esse fato da sua vida pública, como era comum na época. Morrera de AIDS.

“Philomena”, com personagens complexos,  personificados por fulgurantes atuações de Dench e Coogan, é uma história  aparentemente simples e direta, emocionando pela honestidade e carisma dos personagens principais. Nada de sentimentalismos ou grandes arroubos emocionais: tudo muito contido, sutil, com momentos de humor, mas profundamente pungente. Além disso, a beleza física de JUDI DENCH enche os olhos do espectador. Beleza que resiste ao tempo, não APESAR das profundas rugas que se cruzam nas mais diversas direções no seu rosto de 80 anos, frequentemente em close-up na tela, mas justamente POR CAUSA delas!


Judi Dench, em PHILOMENA.

Mas o filme é mais profundo. Um dos temas é o claro paralelo entre mãe e filho, que são “pecadores” irredimíveis aos olhos da igreja católica, enfrentando os preconceitos mais violentos e típicos das diferentes épocas  e sociedades em que viveram, e recebendo por suas transgressões (o amor físico fora dos padrões estabelecidos) as punições mais cabíveis. Também ambos se sentiam culpados e se envergonhavam da sua conduta. Estigmatizados pela sociedade e por si próprios.

Outro tema interessante é o confronto entre a espiritualidade de Philomena – cujo nome em grego quer dizer AMIGA DA FORÇA, e também o nome de uma obscura santa mártir –  e o materialismo ateu e cínico de Martin. Fica evidente no filme que, apesar de todo o sofrimento e sentimento de culpa causados pela rigidez da religiosidade simplória de Philomena,  ela parece ser uma pessoa mais em paz consigo do que Martin, que não parece ser bem  sucedido na vida pessoal ou profissional. Os  fantasmas de Martin são bem seculares e mundanos, mas não deixam de ser fantasmas, assim como o filho de Philomena.

Me ocorreu também que o filme pode ser visto como uma metáfora da aceitação de uma mãe pela orientação sexual do filho. Ou seja, essa separação de 50 anos seria o tempo que Philomena levou para digerir o fato e aceitá-la como mais um aspecto da experiência  e diversidade humana (apesar de no contexto do filme, no nível mais superficial da história, a mãe não expressar a menor surpresa ou ressentimento quando lhe falam sobre as preferências de Antony/Michael, dizendo que sempre soube que o filho era um “gay homosexual”, na sua impagável simplicidade). Mas talvez essa interpretação possa estar um pouco longe das intenções do diretor Stephen Frears. Não convém explorá-la mais aqui.

Agora é nossa vez de voltar ao início deste artigo, e concluir o significado do poema de Elliot no contexto do filme.

Como no poema, sim, pelo menos fisicamente, Philomena e Martin voltam ao ponto de partida, à Abadia de Sean Ross. Mas, assim como estamos noutra estação do ano, com os campos cobertos de neve,  algo mudou: os protagonistas têm agora uma perspectiva totalmente diferente, a viagem e as descobertas os transformaram, embora suas convicções mais profundas se mantenham as mesmas.  Aprenderam a aceitar um no outro as diferenças. Philomena concorda que Martin publique a história (o que inevitavelmente trará críticas à igreja que sempre protegeu) e ele lhe presenteia uma estatueta de Cristo para  adornar a lápide do filho. Parece haver uma negociação em processo, um visível início de aceitação e respeito pelo ponto de vista alheio.

Au Revoir

Jorge Sette.