The archetypal story

15th May 2017

A few years ago, in order to better teach my English Literature students about classic storytelling techniques, I learned all about the archetypal story. It’s something I’d always resisted – the idea that every yarn in the world fits into seven universal stories. Or is that three? But somewhere along the way, I caved in. Actually, now I’d be the one to argue that there’s really only one story with as many plot variations as there are grains of sand.

Every single story in the world fits into one box

But what about true stories? What happens when you try to superimpose the classic story arc onto something that actually happened? In this post, I’m going to explore this a little further. To begin, here’s a crash course in the archetypal story.

Every story ever told, demystified

Every single story in the world fits into one box. In a nutshell, this is it:

archetypal story arc

Perhaps you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the plot of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings where the treasure is something real that can defeat the forces of evil. On first glance, the story arc lends itself best to quest stories, the ones where someone is actually looking for that tangible ‘holy grail’ that will solve all their problems (aren’t we all?) You’d be absolutely right. But it goes much deeper than that.

Home is where the start is

Now imagine that “home” isn’t just a place, but a state of mind. Equally, “treasure” isn’t only a tangible object, it’s also some kind of inner realisation. Travel and storytelling work so well together because they share the physical roadmap of the archetypal story. But you can just as easily have an epic narrative where the protagonist never leaves ‘home’, per se. Or a story where someone loses everything they own, but still finds a certain kind of ‘treasure’ that transforms their life.

You might be wondering about where different genres fit here, or what about tales with multiple narratives or complicated chronology? On further examination, they all fit. One of my favourite books is the excellent Into The Woods by screenwriter John Yorke. He analyses the plots of famous films, novels and series and shows how all, without fail, slot neatly into the structure (even those tricky post-modern numbers, like Pulp Fiction).

Simply put, the difference between a tragedy and a happy ending isn’t that the characters don’t find the treasure. It’s that the thing they discover sets them on a trajectory that means they can never return home. Othello’s unravelling comes once he discovers the ‘proof’ that his wife is cheating on him. And it’s pretty much the same for every tragic hero, from Shakespeare to Anakin Skywalker. The treasure they desire is the thing that sets them on the tragic course.

the hero's journey archetypal story

The archetypal story shown in a little more detail. The ‘death and rebirth’ point here is also known as finding the treasure, or the midpoint

Redeploying the archetypal story for life

Stories impose order on chaos, meaning onto the abyss

Art is one thing, but in life, we all want to avoid that unhappy ending. Whether or not the home we want to return to is the same one we left behind, we all want to find that sense of belonging in this vast universe. So how can using classic storytelling techniques help us achieve that?

When I think back over my six months on the road, there are a lot of different stories I might tell. I could tell the story that starts with my getting on the plane at Heathrow, and ends right here, typing in a homestay in Bolivia. Then again, I could tell the one that starts on my wedding day on a wine farm in Stellenbosch just over a year ago and ends in a vineyard in Mendoza exactly one year later. I could also tell you the story of the month that I spent on a farm in Chile and how it changed everything. Or I could shrink that down into the week of ayahuasca trips where I died, was reborn and found a new perspective on the world.

Each would be as true as the next, and equally just as much of a story. In each version, “home” would be different, and so would my “treasure”. One story might be a tragedy, another a comedy, yet another a coming of age. But all of them would share one important feature: the imposition of order on chaos, of meaning onto the abyss.

Rewriting life

If we travel through the world, or through life, without looking back and “rewriting” our journey, we’re letting our own story pass us by

That isn’t to say that what happens to us in life is an inconsequential stream of events. Cause and effect is the chain on which our lives our strung. But it’s only by looking back and considering where the beginning and end occurred that we can start to understand the process of change that happened in between.

If we travel through the world, or through life, without looking back and “rewriting” our journey, we’re letting our own story pass us by. In order to be able to change, grow, develop, we need to be the editors of our own existence. That doesn’t mean deleting the parts we’re not proud of. It means placing them into a narrative, reevaluating them, and knowing whether we want to keep or weed out some of our behaviours in future story arcs. The examined life, after all, is far richer, and far more interesting.

In fact, we can all be prodigious story tellers, spinning several yarns all at once.

Some of our stories are finished chapters – chains of events that have been completed, narrative circles that have been closed. And others are still in motion. Right now, half way through our year of travel, Anton and I are still writing one of our own. We’re reaching the midpoint, and it feels like we’ve found our treasure. Now how will we take it home? That remains to be seen. But we have developed our awareness of ourselves as travellers on a journey. Now, we’re clutching the treasure that will enable us to return home transformed.

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