Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Sapiens, that the ability of our species to collectively imagine something that otherwise doesn’t exist — religion, countries, legal system, corporations, has led the homo sapiens to dominate the world. Good storytellers bind people together and gain power.
- Stories help us express who we are, put faith in our values and form our identities
- Stories help us understand our past
- Stories help us make sense of our present
- We imagine our future through stories
- And yet, stories are not always about identification. As Aristotle says that purpose of stories is to arouse ‘terror and piety’ and therefore enable the catharsis of these emotions. We look at the tragic fate of the protagonist and in turn, begin to care, our insights more enriched.
And that’s why stories are important!
Do good, moving stories follow a pattern? What is it about stories that even imagined characters as in Game of Thrones or Star Wars seem to make a lot of sense — no questions asked?
All great stories have the four elements:
1)Moral — We relate with the learning of the protagonist and find opportunities for our own personal transformation. It is as if we’re the co-creators of the story in our own way.
2) Characters who we relate with or want to be more ‘like’ them.
For instance, don’t we all want to do something for our folks? A beautiful ad by Vodafone, presents a young girl on a mission to complete her grandfather’s bucket list. :)
3) Conflict- the tension or the difficulty that propels the story forward. Maybe that’s why we need the bad elements, the villains to make a story. These villains can be both external- war time, pandemic or natural disasters as well as internal, our own vices. Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea is a beautiful story of how the hero fights his shadow, his own vices and comes of age. Conflicts help us understand that it is only the tough times that move us to action and make way for transformation. “For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” — Shakespeare
Characters in a story almost always have a fatal flaw or ‘hamartia’, a vulnerability that sets ground for transformation. It can be Achilles’ heel, a physical shortcoming or Iron Man’s pride, more of an internal vice or a choice; Ron’s decision to take the car to Hogwarts and the subsequent events.
It is because of this hamartia, that events in the story spiral out of control.
4) Plot- the cause and effect relationship of events in a story. In eastern philosophy, hinduism and buddhisim particulary, karma or the past actions of an individual are often associated with good and bad effects on the life of the individual. According to Aristotle, narratives develop from the beginning to the end, through temporal series of events.
While stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The order can change, such as this:
Aristotle’s Plot Structure:
- Hamartia: The error
- Peripeteia: The build up to the pivot when events are upturned and fortunes changed!
- Anagnorisis: When the main character finally understands the true nature of the circumstances and recognizes the Hamartia.
Developed by Gustav Freytag in the mid 19th century, the pyramid is an important and commonly used tool to construct compelling stories.
Stories follow commonly known archetypes, a timeless model of which all other things are only representations. We can predict the outcome of such stories however, the context of the stories is set in the contemporary world filled with various variations to an otherwise known plot.
Even characters have an archetype, a familiar personality, that of say a hero the one who saves the day, or a ruler who creates order out of chaos or a lover who pines for the one he lost.
Vladimir Propp’s Character types and Functions
A folklorist and scholar Propp, suggested the basic structural elements of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest structural units.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces explores the most common themes that weave together to define world’s myths.
- Trials and Tribulations
And through this cycle, the hero achieves unparalleled powers, and comes out transformed or transforms the world. These themes define the Monomyth — the hero’s journey, the template that mythologies world over follow, to tell stories that inspire.
Examples:Ramayan, The Wizard of Earthsea, Kvothe in Name of the Wind, Harry Potter, and?
Booker’s Seven Plots
Christopher Booker in his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, says that there are only 7 storylines that define any story:
- Overcoming the monster — the hero sets out to conquer evil that threatens her or her people, and establish peace. Eg, Star Wars
2. Rags to riches — The hero with minimal means rises up the economic class and in the process, also rediscovers him/herself. Eg. Cindrella
3. The quest — The hero sets out to a mission, to find a treasure or to get to a destination, the path however is set with hurdles. Google’s ad Reunion depicts this theme quite beautifully-
4. Voyage and Return — After reaching to the foreign land and overcoming the threats, hero’s return. Eg. Gulliver’s Travels
5. Comedy — A humorous character who meets a cheery conclusion. Stretches beyond just humour, comedy also represents the confounding events in a story that finally meet a happy end.
6. Tragedy — A hero with a major flaw, hamartia who suffers because of his mistakes. As audience, we relate with the folly and ultimate downfall. Eg. Romeo and Juliet.
7. Rebirth — When the protagnist changes his/her ways and personal transformation happens. Eg. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
By studying the structures of stories, the bricks that they’re made of, a few things are clear:
- Stories are supposed to ignite our passions,
- The mythical monsters in those are made to confront the monsters within our own selves
- Stories ease our sense of uncertainity
Sources and Credits:
- Prof Nandita’s in-class discussions at IIML for the elective Storytelling for Management