I recently ran a storytelling workshop for a group of senior managers in Denmark, using the classic Hero’s Journey as a way of developing narrative structure. None of them were professional communicators. They wanted to explore how storytelling skills might help them communicate and manage big changes in their business.
The Hero’s Journey is problematic (transmedia guru and ‘Collective Journey’ proponent Jeff Gomez sets out some good reasons why) but it remains a potent way to explore storytelling, especially for those with an adventurous tale to tell.
As is often the case in these sessions, one question kept resurfacing — how do we know what’s enough?
To some extent, structure can help guide us. The Hero’s Journey stages remind us to honour the psychological transitions that bring a story alive.
These include the Refusal of the Call — the moment of doubt and fear we might experience as we stand on the cusp of the unknown. The Meeting with the Mentor — where we receive a gift (wisdom, truth, belief) that spurs us on. The Road Back — where our pride at having faced down a great challenge can easily turn to dangerous complacency.
These moments are sometimes awkward to recall and easy to skip over, but so often they are where the story really connects with its audience. Considering 12 or more stages can feel overwhelming at first. But, again and again, it pays to spend time with them, and see what they can bring to the whole.
Back to the question of ‘what’s enough?’ There’s a dance here, and it runs through the heart of what it is to tell a good story. It strikes a path between the light and shade in which the story might get lost, between:
So without the recognisable setting or circumstances (The Ordinary World) there’s no connection. The one made by Harry Potter’s suburban existence with the Dursleys, or Dorothy’s frustrations with farm life in Kansas. The one you might establish with your own recollection of feeling stuck.
And without the unknown (the Call to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold), there’s no surprise or shift in perspective (no change - no story). Whether that’s a change that happens to you, uninvited, or one you create out of a need to do something.
So narrative structure gets us some of the way to achieving that sense of ‘enough’. But throughout that structure, it’s a Goldilocks amount of detail that holds our attention. Too few specifics (names, places, actions, dialogue) and we have nothing concrete to hold on to. It becomes abstract. Too many facts, figures or descriptions of the sunset and we will lose the plot, and the listener’s interest.
How do we hold these dimensions of the story in balance? At the risk of offering a meta-answer, maybe it’s only through telling the story that we can know.
Stories need listeners, they don’t exist without an audience. To tell better stories we must cross the threshold ourselves, and tell them, however imperfectly, with our own eyes open. Ready to read the landscape we find ourselves moving through, and adjust our course where necessary.
updated 15 November, for clarity
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams
Some time ago, I came to realise I was becoming reliant on an unsustainable source of energy. Not the subject of progressive government taxation, or of pressure from environmental groups. Or coffee, though I run on that too.
The fuel in question is the stomach-churning, bum-clenching urgency of the imminent deadline.
There’s a phrase in the film Boyhood that captures it: voluptuous panic. It’s the pure, self-inflicted drama of a rapidly approaching precipice, following an indeterminate period of procrastination.
And it can conjour Amazing Things.
It can Produce Work Miracles At Short Notice. It can Get Me Up When It’s Still Dark Outside (Even In Summer). It can also readily Spoil Appetites. Result In Missed Appointments. And Ruin A Sunday (Or Any Day).
And crucially it can Release Me From The Burden of Deciding When Something’s Good Enough. That last one’s where it gets juicy.
Because in creative work, there’s no objective measure of when something’s finished. And as the creator, immersed in the doing, it’s often a challenge to make that decision.
What better than an artificial constraint to make the judgement for you? “It’s finished, because it’s time it has to be finished.”
There are some attractive story opportunities in this too, for the ego to exploit.
Did the result of adrenaline-fuelled labour go down well? Well, then that’s a heroic effort. Damn, I’m good.
Did it not go down so well? Maybe not my fault. After all, I didn’t really have enough time.
Either way, it’s a rush when you finish with moments to spare. Having been up most of the night, maybe several nights. Having traversed the valleys of Blank Despair, into the sunny uplands of Something To Show. Nothing much beats that feeling.
But it’s brief. And what goes up… Once the adrenaline’s drained away and the body’s suppressed demands assert themselves, euphoria’s forgotten fast.
In my experience, what’s produced by this cycle of procrastination, panic, relief and regret isn’t good work, not enough of the time to justify it as a process. It discourages collaboration. It generates excuses that get in the way of receiving useful feedback. And it’s sometimes painful for those around me.
Disrupting the habit
I now have a few trusty ways to disrupt this pattern.
To avoid procrastinating ahead of solo work, there’s the one-hour rule — tell yourself you only have to spend an hour tackling something and then you can stop if you want (I almost always go on, quite happily, into hour two).
To get over the tyranny of coming up with good ideas, there’s the worst ideas exercise- articulating the worst ways you might think to approach a project or piece of copy (it ‘breaks the seal’, and something interesting often surfaces anyway).
And there’s the simple, prescient act of breaking work into a series of milestones, and making a point of sharing progress, rather than allowing the schedule to build to a single, dramatic win / lose reveal.
But the foundation is just noticing. Noticing the cycle, the drama, and the ego. Talking about it. Breaking the spell of it.
It’s work in progress. The pattern’s habitual to me — I can get sucked back in, just like that.
But the more aware of it I become, the less power it has. It’s not so voluptuous now.
Slightly adapted from an original article written for The Human in the Machine on superyesmore September 2017
Image by tictac on Flickr, reproduced under CC BY 2.0