The Story and narrative module in the labyrinth theatre course/workshop for educators working in and with museums - an output of Labyrintheme, a LLP/Grundtvig Multilateral Project (2011-2012).
Story and narrative theory-focused session
The rationale of the inclusion of such a module is to introduce trainees to the importance of story and narrative, as well as to some structural elements common to fairy tales and myths around the world deemed essential to effective narratives.
The module’s objective is to offer a brief theoretical background to developing a narrative. By the end of this module, trainees should have a grasp regarding the importance of storytelling and basic knowledge regarding some technical aspects of storytelling and narrative.
2.1. Required competences of trainer/s
The trainer should be knowledgeable of narrative / storytelling theory and practice, derived either from a literature studies or a performing arts studies background. Background in creative writing practice helps :)
2.2. Required competences of trainees
Trainees need no specific competence, skill or background, except curiosity and openness towards the subject matter of the module.
2.3. Required logistics
No specific logistics is required, the module is delivered within the training course space.
2.4. Duration and timing
The duration of the session is 2-3 hours, with appropriate breaks, provisionally positioned in the morning of Day 4.
3. Module program and content
3.1. Actual content
a. Lecture (max. 30 minutes)
In Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick have to travel from their native mountainous Ramtop to the distant lowlands of Genua to fulfil an apparently easy task. You have to admit: how hard can it be to ensure that a particular servant girl does not marry a prince? However, since this happens on Discworld (which travels through space on the back of four elephants who in turn stand on the shell of the Great A’Tuin, the sky turtle), things are not so simple as they appear. And this is because Discworld runs on magic, and magic is indissolubly linked to Narrative Causality, the power of story. On Discworld servant girls have to marry the prince; wolves have to eat grandmothers; and it is impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, upon embarking on a particular quest, not to succeed.
In Terry Pratchett’s words,
[…] stories are important.
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independent of their players. If you know that, knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling… stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time. […]
Stories don't care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.
Even more, on Discworld, the narrative imperative is reified into narrativium.
Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron, and has an iron-like job to do and is not, for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.
If the descriptions above remind you of memes, the cultural analogues to genes first described by Richard Dawkins, you are indeed on the right track. And you’d better be, because on Roundworld (that is, obviously, Earth) the story is at least as important as it is on Discworld. In all human cultures, from very early infancy, each and every bit of socializing and of learning is achieved through stories. Children hear stories even before they are able to recognize any words at all, and by the age of three most of them are already set to make up their own stories about their immediate environment. And things continue like this, year after year, story after story, until they grow older and some of them get ashamed of referring to ‘stories’ anymore, preferring to call their made-up stories ‘alternative scenarios.’ However, they’re still using stories, narratives, to shape and communicate their experiences, no matter how they call them.
Now, even if most of us were able to make-up our own stories by the age of three, only a fraction of us are really successful when telling jokes at parties. A much smaller fraction is able to make careers as stand-up comedians, novelists or movie-makers. And an even much smaller fraction is eventually so successful with storytelling so as to get rich and internationally famous (this arithmetic does not apply to politicians, a distinct category of storytellers!). As a consequence, in order to alter such statistics, some of us become teachers of literature, or even (if we’re really over-structured) narratologists, while some hold creative writing or screenwriting workshops, training others to unlock their potential in a) writing stories (movie scripts included), that b) grab their readers or audience from the first moment and don’t let them go back to their mundane world until the story is over. This second outcome is a tricky business indeed, because stories passed on to other people have to interest them, to make them care, and consequently to make them learn something about the world and, in the process, about themselves.
Due to a variety of cultural and economic factors and stakes, the most energy to develop such advice for the novice storyteller emerged from within the movie-making sector. Aspiring storytellers might have occasionally heard about Syd Field and Robert McKee, or Catherine Ann Jones, or John Truby, or Linda Aronson, or Blake Snyder for that matter, because such screenwriters and story consultants in the movie-making industry put their advice on paper claiming that the things they recount about making a story ‘work’ are relevant and applicable to writers of all kinds, including short story writers, novelists, but also journalists, memoirists, and other non-fiction writers.
This module chose to present to you a model developed on some structural elements than can be found in myths, fairy tales, and even dreams across the world: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero's Journey refers to a basic pattern found in a substantial number of narratives in Eastern and Western cultures alike. This identifiable pattern was first fully described in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Slightly more than four decades later, Christopher Vogler, a Walt Disney Company development executive, compiled a 7-page company memo based on Campbell's work, A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, that circulated extensively around Hollywood. Vogler's memo was later developed into TheWriter's Journey. Mythic Structure For Writers, with a first edition in 1997 (and a third printed in 2007 as the latest edition at the moment of writing this).
Please mind (again!) that this is only a model of a variety of models, which you might find useful or not, within or outside the Labyrintheme training course’s scope, and as such it is the personal option of the author of the present module. Such an option is primarily based on the fact that each story worth its existence recounts a protagonist’s journey, be it outward or inward, in the end of which the hero is changed forever. Or until a next journey, of course…:>
Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey
[the names of the stages of the Hero’s Journey as dubbed by Vogler are in Bold; only some of them correspond to Campbell’s terminology]
1. The heroes are shown (more or less extensively) in their ‘home environment’, the Ordinary World, where they mind their own daily businesses, until
2. one day the Ordinary World is shaken in one way or another and the heroes are presented with a Call to Adventure, a way out of their familiar environments and their routine;
3. at first, the heroes are reluctant, from a variety of reasons, to respond to the challenge, and a Refusal of the Call is tabled;
4. however, a Meeting with the Mentor helps heroes to rise to the challenge and embark on their quest.
5. Leaving the Ordinary World and effectively entering a non-ordinary, unfamiliar world, the heroes are Crossing the First Threshold,
6. entering a stage during which they encounter Tests, as well as sort out Allies and Enemies.
7. The heroes and their allies are furthermore preparing for the major challenge of their journey, that is for the Approach to the Inmost Cave,
8. a stage in which they are subjected to an Ordeal, confronting their most terrible fear or death,
9. which they survive and consequently get their Reward.
10. The Road Back now begins, as the heroes must (or choose to) return to the Ordinary World, to bring back the Reward and implement lessons learned during the journey;
11. however, perils along the journey are far from over: the heroes have one more dangerous meeting with death and undergo a final purging and purification, a Resurrection, before re-entering the Ordinary World.
12. Finally, heroes Return with the Elixir, in the form of an artefact and/or specific wisdom; they are forever changed by the experience, and the Ordinary World is expected to change too, in some minor or major form.
Mentors, Allies, the Heroes themselves and many others are character types. Myths and fairy tales throughout the world tend to share a series of recurring character types, symbols and relationships. Carl Gustav Jung first suggested that a collective unconscious may exist, to the same extent as there is an individual unconscious. And since a series of such character types consistently occur at both levels, across vast cultural spaces, Jung used the term archetype to account for such patterns of personality as a shared heritage of humanity.
Christopher Vogler describes, in his The Writer’s Journey, eight archetypes as “the most common and useful” for the storyteller, acknowledging there are many more, but introducing just “the most basic patterns, from which all others are shaped to fit the needs of specific stories and genres.” As Vogler’s Journey, the following list of archetypes is just a proposal; you are obviously welcome to find others that do not seem to be particular variations of the ones below.
However, before examining a list of possible patterns, please note two more important things about archetypes. First, while they look like character types, they may very well be roles or functions performed temporarily, in various stages of the story, by various characters, including the hero her/himself. Second, if you think that all humans are complex (like I do!), you might as well look at all archetypes as facets of the hero’s personality, acquired or gaining prominence in various stages of her/his journey.
Hero. The term comes from the Greek ἥρως (heros) and literally means protector, defender. As such, the hero is a central protagonist that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice for the common/greater good. Its psychological function is to represent what Freud called the ego, the part of personality that considers itself distinct. Its dramatic functions (because the Hero has several) are: to facilitate audience identification; to display learning/growth; to act, in control of own fate; to confront literal or symbolic death; to sacrifice herself/himself. In any story, the hero is the one who learns/grows the most.
Mentor. Most often a positive figure, the Mentors teach, inspire and protect heroes. Its psychological function is to represent the Self, the aspect of one’s personality connected with the world, therefore the wiser and nobler part of it. Its dramatic function is supporting the heroes through teaching/training, but also offering them gifts that will be of help at some point through the journey.
Threshold Guardian. A guard at each gateway to a new world encountered along the journey, the Threshold Guardian is there to keep the unworthy from entering. Its psychological function is to represent the ordinary obstacles in the everyday world, but ultimately our internal demons: fears, self-limitations, dependencies. Its dramatic function is to test the hero at various checkpoints along the journey.
Herald. The Herald issues challenges, announcing imminent change. Therefore, its psychological function is signalling the need for change. By issuing challenges, the Herald’s dramatic function is to motivate the Hero.
Shapeshifter. Shapeshifters are characters continuously change appearance or mood, with their loyalty and sincerity always questionable. Their psychological function is to express the energy of animus and anima in Carl Gustav Jung’s terminology: the male element in the female unconscious, and the female element in the male unconscious, respectively. Consequently, their dramatic function is to bring suspense into a story.
Shadow. The Shadow archetype represents the energy of one’s dark side. Its psychological function is therefore to represent the power of repressed feelings, not so much neuroses (as in the case of the Threshold Guardian), but psychoses threatening to destroy oneself. Its dramatic function is to challenge the hero, posturing as a worthy opponent.
Ally. A companion, conscience or even comic relief, the Ally is an archetype whose psychological function is to represent positive unexpressed or unused parts of one’s personality that should be brought occasionally to action. Its dramatic function is to support, and occasionally challenge, the hero.
Trickster. A catalyst character, it embodies de desire for change. Its psychological functions are to cut egos down to size, bringing everybody taking themselves too seriously down to earth, as well as facilitating change or transformation. Its dramatic function is therefore that of comic relief.
Defining story or, for the purpose of this brief, storytelling can consume whole libraries. There’s no easy way out of this, so I’ll just refer you to a TED Talk in February 2012: Andrew Stanton - The clues to a great story. Says Stanton:
Storytelling -- is joke telling. It's knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you're saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.
For the other 19 minutes of Stanton’s TED Talk, check http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story.html. Then read or watch stories whenever you can to make up your own definition for ‘story’ :)
b. Practical activities:
* reconfigure your choice of a story [with yourself as the protagonist in a museum setting] as a ‘hero’s journey’
* design a brief ‘hero’s journey’ whose hero is a museum artefact of your choice
3.2. Resources used
Material resources needed: flipchart, paper, pens/pencils, personal objects of participants.
Christopher Vogler’s A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Cristopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: MythicStructure for Writers - Michael Wiese Productions, 2007 (3rd edition)
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad – Corgi Books, 1992
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, TheScience of Discworld II: The Globe – Ebury Press, 2003
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, TheScience of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch – Ebury Press, 2005
Only indirectly referred to in this brief, but essential for aspiring storytellers:
Robert McKee, Story: Substance, structure,style, and the principles of screenwriting – Methuen, 1999
If you feel over-analytical :) and wish to update your knowledge of narrative to an academic level, go to
David Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative – Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
Archetype. an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/archetype). The term derives from the Latin noun archetypum, the latinisation of the Greek noun ἀρχέτυπον (archetupon) and adjective ἀρχέτυπος (archetupos) – a compound of ἀρχή (arche = origin) and τύπος (tupos = pattern, model, type).
Meme. An idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meme). Alteration of mimeme, from Greek μίμησις (mimesis = imitation). First coined by Richard Dawkins in The SelfishGene (1976).
4. Concluding session
The concluding session should discuss trainees’ opinions on what makes a good story and what makes a well told story.