The Only Story In The World

The debate was over what makes up a great story.

The crowd filtered into the gym.

They took their seats.

Wedging themselves into the metal folding chairs that can turn your butt to stone in an instant.

A small podium faced them

On one side of the podium sat the traditionalists. Joseph Campbell, Keith Browning, Christopher Booker, Kathy Hepinstall, et al.

They began the debate by contending that in order for a story to be good it must follow one of seven plots. In fact, all stories fit into one of these themes.

In turn, they each presented and discussed each one.

Here they come

Joseph Campbell began with his favorite. He called it “The Hero’s Journey.”

Some people call it “Journey and Return.” It’s all about going in quest of a vision. And how the journey home from strange lands far away result in a richer life.

Then came “Overcoming the Monster.”

In that one, heroes must defeat an antagonistic force that threatens them or their homeland.

Wait, there’s more

That was followed by “Rags to Riches.”

A poor protagonist acquires wealth, power, popularity, and love. But then they lose it all. But wait. They gain it back again. But only when they grow as a person,

“Comedy “was next.

In that one, things become increasingly complicating, tangled, and confusing. But not to worry. It’s all simply and instantly resolved through a single revelation.

And then

Then, of course, came “Tragedy.”

That’s where the central character has a flaw that eventually brings them down. Even though they posses many good balancing qualities.

And don’t forget “The Quest.”

In this one, something very specific is lost, missing or desperately needed. But never fear. A hero enters and overcomes obstacles and temptations to find it.

And, finally, “Rebirth.”

Here’s another flawed character. But this one faces a reckoning that forces them to change their ways. And as a result, they renew themselves and often those around them.

There you have it

Seven sweet stories that explain all of storytelling.

Seven plots that make a story great.

The crowd went wild with excitement and enlightenment.

But now for the other side

On the other side of the debate podium sat two lonely figures. John Steinbeck and me.

Our contention was that there is only one story. Not seven.

I magnanimously allowed John to go first.

That’s the John Steinbeck, my friend

He slowly, deliberately approached the podium.

After staring the audience into silence for what seemed to be an eternity, he looked down.

He opened a tattered, dilapidated book entitled East of Eden and began to read.

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?”

And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil.

I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.

Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners.

There is no other story.

A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?

John paused for a moment

He shuffled about a bit. Finally he retrieved another book called Of Mice and Men and continued reading.

In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme.

Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.

There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

The crowd was silent. With a bit of a tear in most every eye,

John had said it all.

So what does this mean to purpose-driven storytellers?

It’s easy to get so involved in the details of story structure and plots that we forget the source of our stories’ power.

The power of our stories lies in understanding our tribe. And knowing the good they do for the world.

It’s true that our stories must have certain elements to be real:

  • A real story is a narrative.
  • A real story is aimed at a specific tribe.
  • A real story has characters … a hero and a mentor.
  • A real story has intention, an obstacle, and a resolution.
  • A real story contains change.
  • A real story has a moral.

(For more details, check out What’s A Story, Anyway.)

But beyond that

We need only concentrate on our base theme.

And that is simply the triumph of good over evil.

We need to focus on showing how virtue wins over vice.

For purpose-driven organizations it is the only story.

And how do we tell it?

If we truly understand each other, our stories can show how we are kind to each other.

Knowing a tribe well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?