What Makes a Good Story?

by Lorne Mitchell on 13/10/2011

I have always been fascinated by what makes up a good story and the effect that is has on the way we think about the world and our place within it.  I have only recently came across the work of Joseph Campbell and his seminal work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.  In the book he explores the underlying pattern of the heroic struggle from each of the great myths from around the world. He then goes on to uncover an underlying sequence of typical “hero-actions” which are embedded in each of these stories.

George Lucas (the creator of StarWars) was so impressed by Cambpell’s work that he wrote the StarWars epic using his ideas.  We are very fortunate that a series of six programmes summarising Campbell’s work and his ideas were recorded just before he died. You can see the first (and subsequent) videos on the (rather whacky) internet site below – though it is obviously much better to buy “The Power of Myth” DVD on Amazon or elsewhere and watch it legally:

Campbell neatly summarises one of the heoric struggles with phrase early-on in the six-part documentary:

“where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world”

The orphan archetype is possibly the most common storyline that Campbell uncovered.  Moses, Romulus and Remus, Cinderella, Oliver Twist, Mowgli, Tarzan, Superman, Annie, King Arthur, Frodo Baggins, and yes, Harry Potter – as well as Luke Skywalker.

As Terry Windling so succinctly puts it:

“The orphaned hero is not, however, a mere fantasy cliché; it’s a mythic archetype, springing from some of the oldest stories of the world. This archetype includes not only those characters who are literally orphaned by the death of their parents, but also children who are lost, abandoned, cast out, disinherited by evil step–parents, raised in supernatural captivity, or reared by wild animals.”

Christopher Volger (in his book The Writer’s Journey) created twelve distinct stages to a good story:

1. Ordinary World

2. Call to Adventure

3. Refusal of the Call

4. Meeting the Mentor 

5. Crossing the Frist Threshold

6. Tests, Allies and Enemies

7. Approach

8. Ordeal

9. Reward

10. The Road Back

11.  Resurrection of the Hero

12. Return with the Elixir 

So there you have it.  The twelve stages to telling a good story based on Campbell’s “Monomyth” – or common pattern for all good stories. Try it.  It really works.  Whether you are narrating an important case study that is being used as an example to help you sell a product or service at work, or giving a bed-time story to children, the underlying drama always touches a chord.  And it is fun to hold the attention when only you know where you are going to end up! Ah, yes. That is the other trick. It is important to know where you are going to end up (roughly) – though I find some of the fun of story-telling is that the story itself can unfold in unexpected ways. The Hero always finds his or her way through, though!

Oh, and by the way.  Steve Jobs was an orphan.  Which is probably why his real-life story has touched us in so many ways in the past week.

Makes you think, anyway!

Other References:

Joseph Campbell Foundation – for a lot more resources

Joseph Campbell Foundation on YouTube – for some other great videos from Campbell

Windling, Terry.  

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