There’s nothing that has the power to captivate us like a well-told tale.
In this blog post, discover the seven secrets of great storytelling.
All of us like hearing good stories.
I still have vivid memories of my favourite primary school teacher and the stories she’d read to me and my classmates. Chances are you have these sorts of memories too.
And all of us can remember the great stories we’ve read, that we’ve heard, or that we’ve seen depicted in movies.
Why do we need to tell stories?
We share funny anecdotes and jokes with our friends, we sing our favourite songs, read poems, and enjoy quirky ads. All of these are types of storytelling.
They’re in the nursery rhymes and fairy stories we tell to our children. But have no doubt, stories are a very potent medium. They have the power to make us feel strong emotions – make us rage, make us weep. They can also spark deep changes in the way we think and act. Through the allegories of story, people have created entire religions. And thanks to stories, revolutions have raged, governments overthrown, and social movements have been born.
But what compels us to tell stories?
A group of neuroscientists at Princeton University recently studied this question.
They noticed that when we listen to facts, the data processing centres in our brains are activated. But when we hear stories, something more potent happens – the stories activate the sensory centres in our brains. The neuroscientists found that when people listen to a well-told story, the exact same areas of the brain light up on an MRI in both the storyteller and listener. Our brains, as listeners, mirror the brain of the storyteller.
Put simply, when you hear a great story, your brain lights up as if you are experiencing the story yourself. Your brain puts you inside the story. We humans are biologically and neurologically wired to connect with stories.
Remember that scene with Sam and Frodo in The Two Towers, the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Frodo wants to give up on his mission to save Middle-Earth, and Sam restores his faith with a moving speech.
“It’s like in the great stories,” Sam says, “the ones that really matter. Full of darkness and danger…” He goes on to explain why brave and selfless heroes in stories are so important.
It sounds a little corny as I describe it now. But this scene is one of the most inspirational moments in the entire trilogy. I’m pretty sure that it touched a deep corner in the hearts of most people in the audience. Why? Because it speaks to all of us as humans as we remember our own moments of personal difficulty.
Sam mentions during his rousing speech that people can be too young to fully understand the meaning of great moments of courage like this when they first encounter them. But as viewers age and see themselves in life moments just like this, they realise how right Sam is, and this moment of great storytelling becomes even more powerful.
The Seven Secrets of Great Storytelling
As J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, knew very well, there are seven basic plots in storytelling. The seven basic plots were identified by Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and more recently, by Christopher Booker. In fact, Tolkien used elements of at least six of the seven in his great trilogy. Here are the seven basic plots:
Each of the basic plots features five stages: there’s the opening anticipation stage or the hero’s call to adventure; then there’s the dream stage, when the hero’s adventure begins. At this stage, the hero has a taste of success and things look pretty easy; but this is followed by the frustration stage, when the hero encounters the adversary for the first time and things don’t look so good anymore. Things get worse for the hero in the nightmare stage, which is usually when the plot reaches its climax and everything looks lost. With the plot’s resolution, however, against all odds, the hero achieves victory.
Let’s look at each of the basic plots in a bit more detail.
1. Overcoming the Monster
The story of St. George and the dragon, is, of course, the archetypical version of this basic plot. However, in The Lord of the Rings, this basic plot is expressed at many levels. In the main narrative, Frodo, the hero, sets out to defeat Sauron, the main antagonist and the embodiment of evil. Sauron is the “monster” or evil that must be defeated or else the world is doomed. There are several other monsters in Tolkien’s epic: the Ring-wraiths or the nine terrible mortal kings who serve Sauron, the Balrogs, powerful demons of the underworld, and the orcs, the vile and deformed creatures who make up Sauron’s armies.
2. Rags to Riches
Although this basic plot does not really feature in the Tolkien trilogy, it is one that’s very common in legends, fairy tales, and Hollywood movies. In it, the hero or heroine starts out as very poor, and then somehow – often through their personal virtue and sometimes through sheer luck – acquires great wealth, power and status. In some versions of this plot, the hero loses everything but gets it all back and then some after going through personal growth. The classic tellings of this basic plot are Cinderella, Dickens’ Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
3. The Quest or Hero’s Journey
The Quest or Hero’s Journey is the basic plot which drives the epic narrative of The Lord of the Rings and some of the greatest works of literature. Frodo and his nine companions set out on their seemingly impossible quest into the heart of Mordor to destroy the ring and Sauron’s power. As the quest progresses, ever more deadly dangers arise, and the small band dwindles, making success seem increasingly less likely. At the nightmare stage, when all hope is apparently lost, Frodo, almost in spite of himself, overthrows Sauron. Other famous examples of the Quest are The Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
4. Voyage and Return
Much like the Quest, the story archetype of the Voyage and Return is one that has nourished some of the greatest works of literature. It involves the hero’s journey to a strange land, overcoming the many dangers encountered on that journey while learning many lessons, and then returning home altered by experience. Elements of this basic plot can also be found in Tolkien’s epic trilogy, with the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey to and return from Mordor. Their escape from Mordor, when their deaths seem a foregone conclusion, presents a crucial element in this basic plot: the thrilling escape and return. Other famous literary examples of the Voyage and Return archetype are The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gulliver’s Travels, The Rime of Ancient Mariner, and The Lion King.
On the surface this story archetype seems light-hearted and almost frivolous. But the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s comedic plays prove that there’s deeper meaning to this story pattern. Though it has a light and humorous character and has a happy or cheerful ending, this story archetype involves a pattern in which conflict and miscommunication create almost chaotic confusion that results in real suffering. The confusion worsens and tension – through wrong choices or deceit – builds. But all is at last made clear in a single illuminating moment. Order is restored, good triumphs, love unions are celebrated, and all are happy. The Comedy archetype can be found even in The Lord of Rings, with Frodo and Sam’s joyous return to the Shire and Sam’s marriage. Other famous examples in romantic Hollywood films like He’s Just Not That Into You, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and the Big Lebowski.
The basic plot of Tragedy is the archetype which has produced such unforgettable stories as Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and Citizen Kane. It involves a protagonist of heroic dimensions who has one major character flaw or who makes fatal mistake, which leads to this protagonist’s downfall. Rather than condemning or feeling superior to the Tragic Hero, we feel great pity for this hero’s character flaw or mistake. The fatal flaw or mistake makes the hero seem movingly human and noble.
7. Rebirth and/or Redemption
In the Rebirth and/or Redemption story archetype, the protagonist is forced by some external event or power to confront their flaws of character and to then change and become a better person. This plot pattern is exemplified in The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the character of Theoden, King of Rohan. Demoralised and weakened by the lies of Grima Wormtongue, Theoden is forced by Gandalf to rediscover his vigour and kingliness. Yet Gandalf himself also exemplifies the Rebirth story archetype. After he falls to a monstrous Balrog, Gandalf is reborn as Gandalf the White and continues his mission to guide Frodo and the other protagonists. Other examples of Rebirth and Redemption plot pattern are Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Rick in Casablanca.
How You Can Use the 7 Basic Plots in Your Business Storytelling
The seven basic story archetypes are powerful tools to use in your content marketing. They speak to universal human experience. All of us have at some point lived through some parts of these basic plot lines.
And chances are some of your customers are going through one of these plot lines at this very moment in their lives.
You can identify which one of these basic plot lines will speak most persuasively to your clients’ pain-points or your team’s needs.
And you’ll be able to tell your own story in the most empathetic and meaningful way. To make an impact and connect.
Are you looking to tell your story and connect with your audience?
Do you need help with the crafting of your story?
I can help. I am a skilled writer with expertise in crafting compelling narratives that engage and inspire.
Let me help you harness the power of storytelling to drive business success.
Get in contact today, and let’s work together to tell your story!