All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town– Leo Tolstoy
We are storytelling animals. The worlds we create begin as storylines – what if I do this, then she’ll do that, or when he did that what did he mean, and so on. Our minds are constructed from stories we learn and experience. The imagination springs from the ancient wellspring of storytelling. Although science likes to pretend it is purely based on cold hard logic, narrative nurtures the root of all human knowledge. A theory is a supposition and a supposition, in turn, is little different than a narrative plot. The tapestry of our worlds are woven from countless interconnected narrative threads. In a very real sense, we are the stories we tell ourselves.
I won’t jinx myself and reveal any of the story, but I have been working on a novel during the months my wife has been gone. More accurately, I have been re-teaching myself how to write fiction while she is gone. The storyline of the novel I have been rewriting repeatedly week after week has undergone a series of transformations large and small. When I am not writing, I do my best to keep healthy, while I spend hours reading about or watching videos about storytelling and writing. Being endlessly alone has worn me down at times, but working on writing and art continues to be a lifeline. I find myself back where I started from. But this time I am learning how to write – better.
Many of you may have heard of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth or as it is better known – the Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s ideas have been woven into thousands of movie plots and book storylines. It has become further ingrained in our communal psyche because of its use by movie-makers, writers and advertisers. In fact, if you want to be a mainstream screenwriter you had better be well-versed in the Hero’s Journey, it will nearly be impossible to get your script rid. This is why the storyline of many modern movies are easy to guess. Look at the Character Arc of the hero’s journey, and you can guess the steps ahead. Other than plot-twists, incredible special effects, you can guess the story of 90% of mainstream movies. When the lazy movie-makers run out of ideas they Jump the Shark, or Nuke the Fridge. Most television shows are a little different because they can’t reach the actual climax. And in this way, they are a bit more like real life. Things happen – good or bad – and then things continue to happen.
These charts were compiled from dozens of sources. I ordered some art supplies online and when they arrived, to my joy, they included large swaths of brown butcher paper. We used to sketch on this in art class, so I started using the paper as a placemat. As I relearned how to rewrite, I began sketching out story circles, narrative structures and character arcs. I look them over when I’m eating, painting or simply staring out the window over a cup of coffee or tea. My wife and I used to have our afternoon sessions of tea, snack and conversation, but without her it’s just a cup of tea. To avoid getting lost in nostalgia, I channel that stale energy back into storytelling.
The shape of stories can be boiled down to a few. The marvelous Kurt Vonnegut, has reduced the vast majority of shape of stories. Man in a Hole; Boy Gets Girl; Cinderella.
But he says real life is more of a straight line. Things continue to happen to us. Vonnegut says, We don’t know enough about life to know what is good news and bad news. The story ends when life ends, and then it becomes destiny.
It is never too late though to shape the arc of your story. There are countless ways to improve the direction you are heading. The reward is a life lived well. The treasure is the person you are. We are the stories we create in our lives. Tell yourself a good story today, and then start living it.