It is part of the storyteller’s art to tinker with details. Story templates are a wonderful shortcut to framing a message (moral) as a story. We must heed a few words of warning, though. The risk of relying on a favorite format is that every story cooked according to the same recipe may begin to sound the same. Turning storytelling into a template runs the risk of a convenience that may miss the depth and emotion that offers proof of life. Reducing stories to mere formulas undermines the crazy irrational promises that love, trust, and generosity are worth it, even when they cost time and money in the short term.It’s also important to remember that any template a storyteller develops tends to reflect the goals and values of that storyteller. My own bias towards preserving connections above all fuels the following commentary on the strengths and weakness of several story templates. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, it is simply a set of example approaches that can help as well as distort.
Template One: Hero’s Journey
In 1949, Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces made a strong case that all cultures share a common monomyth: the hero’s journey. The hero’s story line is often drawn as a circular journey from what is known into the unknown and back again, with the hero growing wiser from the journey. The hero first refuses, then accepts a call to adventure, and with the help of a mentor, explores the unknown, risks high stakes, loses, wins, loses big, wins big, and then returns transformed by the triumph. This story template can celebrate individual goals as well as collective goals.
Campbell’s work reflects his own authentic search for meaningful life lessons. But he was more of a literary scholar than an anthropologist, and his theory of one monomyth does not reflect critical variations that might have become more obvious had he conducted fieldwork within the cultures he studied. Still, his summation of a universal hero journey illustrates how many cultures’ myths direct us to address complex conflicts with courage, to leave what is known, seek what is not yet known, show kindness to strangers, ask for help, and find mentors.
The problem is, when storytellers cut corners on traditional hero stories to increase speed, convenience, or get straight to the exciting parts it often erases the lesson in these stories. Edits may drop scenes that not only change the story and its emotional effectiveness, but also lose important wisdom absolutely critical to our collective survival.
The first episode of a recent TV series titled Myths and Monsters, summarized a complicated Slavic story about Koschei the Deathless Wizard. The TV version omitted traditional details about how Ivan, the hero, was actually responsible for setting the evil wizard free in the first place. How? Ivan didn’t listen to his wife, Marya Morevna (her name was the original title of this story). Starting this story with Marya offers a different moral lesson. Marya was the warrior princess Ivan married. He came to live in her castle (not his). Marya had already locked the dangerous wizard securely in a room. However, when she left her castle on a war campaign, she asked Ivan to promise to leave one particular door—the door to the evil wizards’ cell—locked while she was away. She didn’t tell him why. From the moment Ivan makes his promise, we can guess what will happen next—curiosity will do what it does. And sure enough, once she is gone, Ivan opens the door, the wizard escapes. The rest of the story is about Ivan trying to make things right again.
As in many hero stories, the original Ivan did three good deeds near the beginning of his journey. These good deeds offered no immediate payback and no promise of a return on his “investment.” Traditional stories regularly portray heroes displaying acts of random kindness early in their journey that unpredictably pay off much later when these characters find a way to help the hero. The moral lessons reinforce personal sacrifices to share food, save a baby bird, or oil a tin man in order to build support for the future. The moral of the story is a pattern of expectation that random kindnesses contribute to future help. Many traditional stories reinforce the Karmic theme that both generosity and selfishness are returned in kind, eventually. Without stories to reinforce our faith that short-term inconveniences and personal sacrifices that help others might accumulate to deliver positive long-term returns, these inconveniences and sacrifices begin to seem inefficient or worse, unnecessary.
Hero stories either help us frame human struggles as a complex struggle between good and evil, or they oversimplify complex choices by editing the story to remove these sequences. Screenwriters, filmmakers, and authors have repeatedly proven the value of the hero story as a solid structure for producing blockbuster movies and books. Many storytellers, most notably Star Wars creator George Lucas, have mined the hero story template as a framework. Listeners stay engaged as long as each stage symbolizes a human dilemma we recognize.
When applied to business storytelling specifically, the big advantage of the hero story is that it helps you characterize your customer as the hero of his/her own journey and casts your role as helper. Customers like that. Trial lawyers also mine the advantages of treating jurors as truth-seeking heroes. Framing a message as coming from a mentor to a hero simulates the trustworthiness of mentor relationships. Taking up the helper/mentor role also keeps us from the dangers of ivory-tower thinking. In most traditional stories, the wisdom of humility and connection usually wins out over dominating forces in the end. These stories illustrate the benefits of humility and remind us that superiority just makes people stupid.
The real beauty of the hero template is the opportunity to personify the flesh and blood experiences of negotiating the tough parts of living a meaningful life. We feel a visceral pleasure when a story helps us explore dangers, test values, or vicariously risk our lives without real personal risk. And yet, we should remember that, in an interview with Bill Moyer, Campbell revised his idea that myths exist to provide meaning with the idea that myths specifically represent the contrasts and conflicts that make us feel more alive. The shadow of death makes being alive suddenly more significant and visceral. Paradise is more precious after it is lost. If you place your palms together you can feel how pressure from your left palm creates sensation in the right and vice versa. We can better feel alive, loved, included, happy, or safe when these joys are juxtaposed against opposite experiences. Just as the powerful sensation of skin on skin reminds us we are not alone, conflict and contrasts produce the most meaningful drama.
The most engaging heroes struggle with universal paradoxes of good/evil, individualism/collectivism, safety/freedom, logic/love, rules/relationships, etc. and illustrate how solutions for these aspects of life are usually both/and rather than either/or. Campbell himself said it this way, “We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. Story genius Robert McKee says essentially the same thing when he advises screenwriters to ensure that every scene presents a difficult dilemma because easily resolved dilemmas are borr-r-ring.
Excerpt from Chapter 11, 3rd ed. of The Story Factor (2019) AUDIBLE VERSION HERE