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