Storytelling, solidarity, and smiling strangers

Three things I learned or loved this month

Small dog, big smiles

The hero’s journey is trotted out regularly in discussions on storytelling (and, therefore, also on advertising, campaigning, fundraising, and so on). The protagonist goes on a journey to fulfil a desire or answer a call to action; overcomes the enemy; returns home a changed person. Even if we don’t know the theory, we’re all aware of the formula somewhere deep in our bones. 

Into the Woods: How stories work and why we tell them, by former BBC/Channel 4 producer John Yorke, picks this formula apart, exploring each element and providing a few more clues to watch out for in any narrative. The three-act or five-act structure; the inciting incident, midpoint, crisis and climax; the central character who must face his or her opposite.

Some of it is almost gloomily formulaic: in a Bond or Hitchcock film, he writes, the crisis is nearly always a high-octane, 25-minute sequence at the end, set in a unique location, and almost always on territory that’s alien to our hero.

But Yorke also shows the hero’s journey to be more layered and complex than you might think. For example, the protagonist may set out on a journey desiring one thing, but discover along the way that what he/she needs is something different. And he shows how the shape of a Shakespearean story (and of all the story formats the playwright influenced, including, apparently, reality TV) is symmetrical – act four mirrors act two, act five mirrors act one. The story structure exists in smaller units too: each act, even each scene follows a similar five-act structure, Yorke writes (“every character comes into a scene with a desire”).

Interestingly, the conventions of story also mean most TV series have short lifespans: “Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large… insist they stay exactly the same.” We want to come back each week to familiar characters; yet if they never evolve, the story feels incomplete.

Above all, the book provides a satisfying explanation, I think, of why we tell (and need) stories. At its simplest, it’s a way of ordering and making sense of a messy world. Humans are “incapable of perceiving randomness”, and so we “insist on imposing order on any observed phenomena, any new information”. Journalists do this, too, of course. We create “stories” by approaching messy reality from an angle that will make sense to our readers. In selecting and ordering the facts, we create a narrative.

As Yorke writes: “A story is like a magnet dragged through randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of shape and – if we’re very lucky – some kind of sense.”

They do

Amid a Twitter feed these past few days that is hard to look away from – of blue and yellow (waving flags; not always waiving visas); of armchair experts and armchair-expert-attackers; of the surreal, the upsetting and the bewildering; of offers of help and of veiled racism; of fact-checking and fact-ignoring; of fear and of events unfolding too fast to grasp – there is a little humour, a lot of pride, and oh so much solidarity. And there are bits of ordinary lives continuing, like this young couple getting married on day four of the Russian invasion.

A recipe for simple pleasures

Follow a tiny dog carrying a big stick (it doesn’t even need to be that big) along a busy path. Choose a narrow canalside route, on a bright Saturday afternoon, when there’s a continuous stream of post-lunch strollers, winter-sun-seekers, hungover hipsters and deep-in-conversation couples. Then watch how the humour and delight dawns on each face you pass, with pleasing regularity, at the simple pleasure of a small animal with a big personality, and notice how their smiles make you smile too.