Let’s pretend I’m Eve and you are Adam. Don’t worry about what we are or aren’t wearing. So in my hand is this apple, and with it the secret to finding good stories. All yours, free of charge. But, before you take a bite I have to warn you; there is a big downside. This apple is from the tree of knowledge (yep, that one) and each bite can be as difficult as it is joyful. Tiny bites are okay, but tiny bites mean tiny difficulties and tiny joys.
As a general rule, I harbor deep suspicions against anyone who says they have “the answer” to anything. Storytelling took off around the same time my book The Story Factor was published. Probably a coincidence. I wasn’t the only exploding with ideas at the Jonesborough storytelling festival in 1994. In 1998 and 1999 I wasn’t the only one running experiments and writing about stories. But there wasn’t a big crowd, either. I felt complete freedom to explore storytelling without restraint and I had more than enough arrogance to assume I understood what I thought I understood. I mainly sought advice from traditional storytellers although my questions came from psychology, group dynamics, and teaching self-awareness workshops.
It was a lot of work…but I felt pure joy writing about storytelling (except for the editing part, editing sucks). Back then stories were allowed to go anywhere and come from anywhere. It felt like exploring a natural wilderness of surprises. There was no internet to harsh my buzz with numbered lists and so I mapped what felt natural to map, connecting my own dots, for my own reasons: I had a shiny messiah complex and I was out to save the world – share storytelling for good, not evil, and all that.
Anyway, it’s 20 years later and you can’t swing a dead cat in a coffee shop without hitting a storyteller. The neighborhood looks a lot different than it did. I see the equivalent of fancy cars and big malls, secret clubs and Disney story wonderlands with hefty entry fees. My friends call it the “storytelling industrial complex.” Do any of them have “the answer?”
Honestly? Some do. I still like my six stories and I’ve felt “this is it! several times since then. But after twenty years, the “this is it!” moments run together. So…I needed one big thing, something pivotal, basic, primitive, and organic to help organize my thoughts and zero in on really good stories.
It’s not surprising I found my new “unifying theory of story” listening to Joseph Campbell. I was two blocks from my house walking Lucy, when through my earbuds I heard Joseph Campbell tell Bill Moyers that he had revised his opinion that the purpose of myth was to create meaning. His tone got lively as he explained that maybe creation stories prompted it, but in his revised opinion the purpose of myth is to chart what it is to “feel truly alive.”
Who cares about a love story if it doesnt make you feel more alive? Horror stories aren’t interesting unless they remind us how precious life is or validate that you are not alone in your fear, a good mystery offers shared wonder that produces a visceral and physiological change in heart rate, etc. I now think this is the common denominator in all good stories. They remind us we are alive.
The secret to great storytelling is: does this story make me/us feel more alive? It is as simple and as difficult as that. This aliveness seems to happen when opposites touch: life/death, good/evil, rich/poor, dangerous/safe, dark grey/light grey, love/emptiness, beauty/ugliness and the rest. So contrast is key to creating a narrative frame, but there is a big difference between a story that should work and one that does.
Joseph Campbell spoke of the knights on their quest for the Holy Grail “If a path exists in the forest, don’t follow it, for though it took someone else to the Grail, it will not take you there, because it is not your path.”
My advice? I recommend you go take a big juicy bite out of a real apple. Let the juice run down your chin, look at the red, green, brown and white of it and think about what else makes you feel truly alive. Then look for stories that make you feel like that: more alive. When you find it, that’s a good story.