Telling a really good story

A very young Diarydad enjoying a good storyA good story can’t wait to be told. Sometimes it has to be found, worked on, and whittled into a shape that can be digested by an audience. Some stories we have been telling for thousands of years and at the hands of a master craftsman it is received not just by our mind and ears, but by a very primal part of ourselves deep within. It is why we love the stories crafted by Homer and Shakespeare. It is why the stories of the Buddha, and the Bible are so powerful to us.

We have been telling stories to each other from the moment we learned to communicate. We’ve drawn them on walls, carved them in stone, written them on paper, and published them on blogs. I am a huge fan of good storytelling. A few years ago my boys and I finished reading the ancient Greek myths. Since then we have dabbled in other like Norse mythology and some Asian Mythology. They are riveted each time we read the acts of heroes and plots of villains. There are times that I am amazed that stories concocted thousands of years ago hold my boys so enthralled.

This week as we were driving home from a night out my youngest pointed out the similarities in every Disney movie for kids, he was spot on too. He caught so many of the themes.  So I had them compare the plot of the Lion King with the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope.  They were amazed at all the similarities like Obi-wan and Rafiki, R2-D2/C3-P0 and Pumba/Timon, and the fact that both Luke and Simba have to be prodded on to take up the quest to save the “world” they know.  They were so amazed that I decided to share with them the fact that there are really only a few different story types, and that  every story that we have ever heard fits into one of these types.

I briefly described to them what I learned a while back when I read a book by Christopher Booker  called “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories“.  If you really want to dig into this topic I recommend that book as a starting point. The book he goes into detail about the 7 basic plots we have used for our stories since ancient times:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

These plots fuel the stories that we love. They are the stories we love to watch, listen to, and tell. If you take a moment you can find them in your favorite movies, TV shows, and books. To break it down let’s look at the plots briefly.

Overcoming the Monster – The world is out of order something big and powerful has shifted the balance of power largely in its/their favor. In this plot the hero must overcome great fear or summon up great strength to overcome the monster and set the world right. Examples: David and Goliath (The Bible), Luke Skywalker and the Empire (Star Wars), Maximus and Commodus (Gladiator), or Beowulf and Grendel (Beowulf).

Rags to Riches – This is the great “American Dream” story. Climbing the ladder from the bottom rung to the top. There is usually an element of a strong work ethic along with a little bit of luck along with learning how to manage the change in status. Examples: Annie, Cinderella, Joseph (and the coat of many colors), Aladdin, or Pygmalion.

The Quest – This plot makes great movies. The protagonist(s) must go and overcome obstacles to reach a goal or treasure. Examples: The Iliad, Hercules, or The Hobbit.

Voyage and Return – Ripped from the normal and thrust into a world that is foreign and unusual a hero must find a way back to their normal life again. Examples: The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, The Never-ending Story, Quantum Leap, or Back to the Future.

Comedy – The hero just can’t seem to get out of his/her own way. Only through a series of humorous series of misadventures that must be played out to their most extreme possibilities can the protagonist(s) find resolution. Examples: Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, or The Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau.

Tragedy – These are the morality plays. The stories of what happens when we can’t control our flaws and/or egos. Examples: Hamlet, Pandora, King Midas, or Macbeth.

Rebirth – In this plot doom and gloom is looming large and a total victory seems to be at hand. Only through a series of fortunate or chance events does the protagonist with the power to turn the tide experience a change that turns back the tide and leaves the world a better place often to their own doom. Examples: Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi), Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Javert (Les Miserables), or Samson (The Bible).

If you’ve never done it before, now you can take your favorite stories and see where they fit.

A big part of being a father for me has been telling my kids stories.  I think it is one of the greatest things about being a dad.  I also think it is important tool we can use to we can pass on knowledge, wisdom, and entertainment in an entertaining and informative fashion.  We need this skill set so that the morals, values and information we want our kids to have stick with them long enough to pass them on to their kids.

After all if history has taught us anything it is that nothing captures our minds and imagination like a good story.


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