A storytelling masterclass from a Christmas classic

Good stories are change journeys.

Thinkers from Aristotle to the American mythologist Joseph Campbell have observed that good stories are change journeys.

At the start of a story, life throws down a gauntlet – a call to action – challenging the hero to embark on an adventure. Fearful of change, as we all tend to be, the hero hesitates at first then commits to the quest enduring many trials before finally emerging transformed and with a treasure or insight that will benefit the wider community.

This pattern can be found in every compelling story whether it is fictional or factual. It is the universal shape of story and it can be helpful to think of it as a wave.


Laura Peek

Laura is a former Staff News Reporter at The Times and Daily Mail and the founder of StoryCode. She has also written for The Guardian.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Photos: Die Hard photos licensed from the Ronald Grant Archive; story model is © StoryCode 2020

The Story Wave

On the chart, the ‘x’ axis shows the passage of time and the ‘y’ axis shows the level of tension. The wave maps the journey of the story. There are two parts to the journey: the physical journey (in upper-case lettering) and the emotional journey (in lower-case lettering). If you have a physical journey without an emotional journey, you have a case study not a story and nothing wrong with that – sometimes a case study is just what you need.

In a year when office Christmas parties are cancelled due to the pandemic, a movie about an office Christmas party anyone would be happy to miss seems a good choice to illustrate the point…

HERO – Dissatisfaction
At the beginning of a good story, we meet an ordinary person going about their everyday life: they are not in crisis but things are not perfect either. There may be a sense of unfulfilled potential.

In Die Hard, we meet John McClane as he arrives at LA Airport. His estranged wife’s firm has sent a car to collect him and, as he chats with the driver, we discover his wife Holly got a job in LA and McClane stayed in New York. We learn McClane is dissatisfied with the situation and resentful of his wife’s career.

“She had a good job. Turned into a great career. I’m a New York cop with a six-month backlog of New York scumbags I’m still trying to put behind bars. I can’t just pick up and go that easy.”

Life throws down a gauntlet challenging the hero to embark on a journey. Fearful of change, he hesitates at first but then commits to the quest, sometimes with the help of a mentor.

In Die Hard, McClane is cleaning up in the bathroom when he hears shots. This is the call to action. McClane grabs his gun and runs barefoot to the door. He peeks through and sees terrorists pouring into the atrium. He hesitates then makes a dash for the exit staircase. Safe upstairs, he berates himself for not staying to fight – even though he knows it would not have done any good.

“Why didn’t you stop them, John? Cos then you’d be dead too.”

QUEST – Commitment
The journey involves difficult challenges, which might include practical problems, other people and the hero’s own temperament – we are often our own biggest obstacles.

McClane sees the terrorist kill Holly’s boss and commits to the quest to save Holly and her colleagues with the help of the police office Al on the end of the radio. There are many obstacles along the way: McClane faces practical problems – he is shoeless in a building full of broken glass; people problems – when he calls for help, the police dispatcher doesn’t believe him; and personal problems – he is tired and demoralized.

“The man is hurting. He is alone, tired and he hasn’t seen diddly squat from anyone down here.”

The hero emerges from the journey transformed and with valuable insights to benefit the wider community. Heroes are ordinary people willing to leave the safety of the group to quest for new resources or knowledge. They achieve mastery or heroic status from the lessons they learn on the journey.

McClane started his journey fearful of change: he was threatened by his wife’s career and unwilling to support her. Over the course of the story he overcomes these fears. After escaping the building, he and the festively-named Holly leave together in the car with Let It Snow playing on the radio.

“It took me a while to figure what a jerk I’d been, but when things started to pan out for her, I should’ve been more supportive and I should’ve been behind her more.”

Story is change because life is change. We could spend our days contemplating our smallness in an infinite universe but that would result in chaos and overwhelm so we set goals and embark on journeys to achieve them. Each journey is a story that provides purpose and meaning and protects us from the existential abyss.

In a tightly structured story, there are several challenges of mounting difficulty culminating in the story’s climax: the rising tension grips audiences therapeutically purging pent-up emotions when it is released. The Ancient Greeks called this catharsis, which means cleansing or renewal: a good story balances our emotions, increases our insight and helps us achieve change in our own lives.

A good story is not a panacea – the best communicators uses equal measures of theory, data and stories – but it can be a powerful antidote to uncertainty helping us visualize and prepare for changes ahead.

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