By Shawn Coyne | Published: October 14, 2016
What if tomorrow everything you’ve learned about storytelling disappeared?
What would you do?
Where would you begin to relearn your craft?
For those of us who spend a considerable amount of our conscious hours inside our heads, the likelihood of this happening is pretty slim. Barring some highly unlikely blunt force trauma to our noggins, we’re not going to lose everything we know overnight.
But is it not instructive to use our imaginations to consider what we would do if the worst catastrophic fantasy of a storyteller were to actually happen?
For anyone who has played competitive sports, this idea of having to start all over again is not exceptional. And the longer you played, the more likely it was to occur.
The football player or soccer player who blows out an Anterior Cruciate Ligament on the field on Friday, Saturday or Sunday game faces surgery on Monday. And that unnerving and ethereal experience is soon followed by one of the most painful words in the English language…. Rehab.
Rehab is a process of managing pain in the service of regaining fundamental skills. It doesn’t just require an acceptance of intense discomfort (my old physical therapist’s softer phrase for torture), it requires the abandonment of a taken for granted reliance on previous mastery.
You literally have to relearn how to stand up before you’ll be able to walk. You have to relearn how to walk before you can jog. And jog before you can run in a straight line. And then you have to relearn how to best change directions (that’s when the real pain begins when you’re 90% back to form)…and what muscles must be rebuilt to accomplish those changes.
It’s a humbling process, but it’s not a baffling series of steps.
You simply do what you need to do to stand. Do what you need to do to walk. Do what you need to do to jog. Do what you need to do to run. Do what you need to do to cut. Repeat. Those are the five stages of rebuilding a knee.
Which begs the question…
What would be the equivalent series of intellectual steps to learn or refresh our understanding of storytelling?
What must we do to “stand” as storytellers?
Good old Marcus Aurelius’s recommendation that we peel back the onion layers of a skill and “Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?” is a good place to start.
All of those who’ve read anything I’ve written about story structure will not be surprised by my go-to starting point to figure out what story is in itself…
I’m going to begin by looking at Genre.
And what I mean by Genre is simply the way by which we divide or classify kinds of stories. What kinds of boxes we put them in.
There are a lot of Genres. Check out my five-leaf clover definition of Genre here and you’ll soon want to run for the hills.
But before you do, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves a simple question…did all of those Genres come from some primal place?
Was there some fundamental want or need that human beings desired or required to survive a hostile environment? And could that want or need be fulfilled by simply following the behavioral prescriptions inherent in a compelling story?
What I mean by “behavioral prescriptions” isn’t as complicated as the phrase may seem. Just think of asking someone or some artificial intelligence for directions.
What do they do? They tell you a story. You start here, turn there, turn there, look for the gas station on the left, turn right and you’ll get where you need to be. Those are behavioral prescriptions that derive from a third party narrative…How to change your behavior to get to the place you want to be.
So what was the first story?
Obviously Action stories were probably first. They concern overcoming an external life threatening force, like hunting prey or avoiding a pack of hungry wolves or something. The stakes are huge and ancient cave drawings prove how important these stories were to our loincloth-clad forebears. Getting our water, food and shelter are mucho importante. And the behavioral prescriptions to get those things are crucial to our day-by-day survival.
And War stories were primal too. They lent direction when human forces intent on our destruction marched into our private valley. So stories about how to outmaneuver and survive an invasion sit alongside environmental Action stories as a primary genre.
But wait, let’s back up even more…is there a need within us all that is even more fundamental than water, food, and shelter?
Without love, we’re dead.
If mom doesn’t love us enough to take care of us as infants, we die. Simple fact.
None of us can make it alone. Not even Donald J. Trump.
When the state wants to destroy a person, they put them in solitary confinement. Sentenced to 365/24/7 with only our internal voices is torture. It’s just not better to connect with others…it’s life-saving.
Love is the force that not just binds us to the rest of humanity…it’s the very thing that preserves our species. To fail to love therefore is not only an external threat to our own private lives; a love breakdown across humanity will take down our entire life form.
So, sure the short-term primal genres (Action, Horror, War, Thriller) concern the concrete foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…how to survive today.
But the Love Story is the long-term mother of all Genres. It’s not just about how to survive today; it’s about how to last a lifetime…and even how to gain a measure of immortality. Good old Marcus Aurelius has a measure of immortality, doesn’t he? His work still resonates today…probably far more than it did in his own lifetime.
Love story is the structure that instructs us on how to discover the meaning of our existence. Both as individuals and as atomic particles that bump in to one another in a complex action and reaction that comprises the human collective unconscious. Don’t forget that Marcus Aurelius is still bumping around in that soup today even though he left earth 1,836 years ago…and we think Cal Ripken’s Ironman streak is something…
So if we want to refresh our storytelling craft, what better Genre is there to examine than the Love Story?
In the next series of posts, I’ll open up the hood of the internal combustion Love Story engine and see what makes that baby purr.