Along with sex, shopping and watching sport, storytelling is one of the world’s most popular recreational activities. Man has been hard at it for ten thousand years or so without much sign of letting up. All over the world everyone loves stories, especially advertising folk. Since telling stories is the heart of what we do, shouldn’t we understand what they are? And why they are so popular?
The latest neurological research shows that Man is essentially the Storytelling Ape. Evolution has hard-wired us to tell stories, and we use them to navigate the world. Put someone in an MRI scanner and watch what happens when you tell them a story: you will see sections of the brain light up with pleasure.
It’s a hotly debated topic why this is so, but one thing seems fairly certain: stories help us make sense of a complex reality. People tell stories to make sense of the world. If you consider the control centre inside your head, at any given moment it is a centre of chaos with thousands of different pieces of sensory data coming in. But telling a story, putting the various pieces of data into a narrative sequence gives shape and meaning to the chaos. We do it every moment of our waking lives, and of course while we are asleep too.
Storytelling is like whisky: it gets distilled over and over again until it is right. The distillery is the human heart and over the course of tens of thousands of years we have arrived at what you might call an accepted grammar of storytelling—a set of conventions. It’s the way storytelling is done, and it is this way because it works.
That’s why so many Hollywood movies feel the same. And although some movie buffs might complain, the studios know the people who sit in the movie theatres don’t mind at all. As long as they get something that is the same only different.
There have probably been as many stories told since Man first started telling them as there are stars in the night sky. But in one sense, remarkably few stories have been told. Or rather it always seems to be the same handful of stories told over and over again. Some people talk of the seven basic plots. One of the so-called basic plots, for example, is “Rags-to-Riches,” which is the paradigm for Cinderella, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and ten thousand more. Another is “the Quest” which includes the Odyssey, King Solomon’s Mines and Water Margin. Another is “Journey and Return” which includes, among a million others, The Lord of the Rings and Journey to the West. And what about James Bond? Well, James Bond is “Overcoming the Monster.”
It’s not just the pattern of the story that is the same. They also all feature the same characters. Have you ever noticed the similarity between Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars? They are both examples of what has come to be called the Mentor figure. An older, wiser, very experienced person – often wearing a robe – who gives counsel and help to the hero on his journey. The mentor is an archetype and movies are full of them. Others include the Shadow (=bad guy) Shapeshifter, Trickster, and Threshold Guardian. (These archetypes were initially catalogued by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)
Over the years, Storytellers have also evolved a specific set of tricks to keep readers or listeners hooked. The foremost of these is curiosity. This is the thread that draws the reader on through a tale and makes sure she doesn’t bail out early.
Promising interesting things to come is an age-old storytelling device. But it is especially effective if you promise something bad is going to happen to the hero. This is called suspense. First the writer gets us to like the protagonist and then gives him hell, and keep making things worse by upping the ante. Setbacks, reversals, twists, turns…. Look at what happens in Jurassic Park: the guy takes his kids to the park, the raptors get loose, the last boat leaves trapping them on the island, a storm blows up, the power goes down, the electric fences keeping the T Rexes in ceases to operate etc. If it can go wrong, it does. It’s horrible, readers can’t bear it. But they love the pain!
And why do all those terrible things happen to the hero? Because the hero is us. We inhabit his skin. And during the ordeal he changes. He learns. He sees the world differently at the end. He may discover all sorts of things about himself and the world and life and the human condition. The story teaches him these things, and this is called growth. Growth is good, we all need to grow spiritually. But who wants to fight T Rexes? It’s much better to let the hero do it for us. That, is what stories do. They teach and entertain, and the best ones leave us changed forever.
This article was first published in Admap magazine December 2013 ©Warc.