In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, he outlines the fact that every story we tell ourselves as human beings – since the beginning of time, whether around the campfire or in a big budget superhero movie – all fit into seven basic categories:
1 – Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. (Beowulf, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Wars, Jaws, The Dark Knight, James Bond, Jurassic Park)
2 – Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. (Cinderella, Aladdin, Pretty Woman)
3 – The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. (Iliad, Indiana Jones)
4 – Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience. (The Lord of the Rings, Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Interstellar)
5 – Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Bean, Dumb and Dumber)
6 – Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad)
7 – Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. (Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me).
This observation – that we find these same basic story structures all over the world, and throughout time, is fascinating in and of itself – but the thing I was pondering recently, especially since we just came through eight straight parables Jesus taught in Matthew 13 at our church, was the power of stories and their place in our lives, and more specifically, how we can leverage that to influence others in every area of life from ministry, to business, to even raising our own kids.
Trump vs. Hillary
Let me use an illustration from American politics. It surprised everyone that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the end. The media, the politicians, and the institutions were all surprised, and of course there are complex reasons why he did beyond my understanding, but I think one reason he won is because he told a better story than she did (whether that story is true or mean-spirited, etc., is again, not the point). Whatever one thinks of the content of the story he told, they must admit it was a clear, large, simple, and compelling. It was about bad guys and good guys and an old America which was perfect and wonderful, and simple solutions to get America back there again (a combination of “Overcoming the Monster” and “Voyage and Return”). And it was a story that invited people into it.
The power of story is its ability to influence and capture the imagination of millions of people, and to influence them in one direction or another. Not to equate the one with the other : ), but this is the same reason Jesus brought his message of salvation and the kingdom in the form of stories and not just prose. Stories inspire, re-frame the world, turn facts into meaning, answer our biggest questions, and in so doing, change our very behaviour. It’s why we shouldn’t just answer our kids questions with straightforward answers, but tell them stories about why the answers are what they are. Frame their lives in the context of the larger narrative of the world to help them find their place in it.
What story are you telling?
What churches, ministers, charities, and businesses need to ask when thinking about how they get their message out most effectively is “What story am I telling?” “Is it compelling, big, inspiring, and inviting enough?” “Is it clear, or convoluted and complicated?” “Is it boring or exciting?” “Am I presenting just facts, or something more – a mythology?”
I am watching the Netflix show The Crown right now. Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen is one of the most moving scenes of the whole show, and while the guests are watching it on TV, there comes a part in the ceremony when they put a barricade around the Queen so the audience can’t see and a group watching the TV ask why they blocked the cameras, and the answer one of the characters gives is telling:
“Symbol upon symbol,” he says. “An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it.” “It’s crazy,” one of his guests remarks.
“On the contrary, it’s perfectly sane,” he replies. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose, when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. Wrap her up like this and anoint her with oil and hey, presto — what do you have? A goddess.”
As a Pastor and church leader I have the greatest story of all time to tell on a weekly basis: the story of the gospel of Jesus, and how it in many ways is the combination of all of the seven basic plots (think for instance how the story of Jesus is all about “Overcoming the Monster” of Satan, sin and death, how it is “Voyage and Return,” of Jesus from Heaven to earth, and a “Rags to Riches” story as well, with Jesus as a poor baby who is vindicated in the end). The question for a church leader then, as an example, becomes the sub-story that you invite your city, community, church, or guy in the coffeeshop into as a local expression of that larger story of the gospel.
What local monster can you overcome? What global ones can you kill together? When we do our annual Golf Tournament, this is what we do. The Monster of slavery and sex trafficking needs to be defeated and we are invited in to overcome it. What great Quest and adventure are we all on as disciples of Jesus to “get to the location” of heaven in the end, “facing many obstacles and temptations along the way”?
When my wife Erin and I lead Marriage Conferences we often end, not by cute stories and how-to’s of ‘communicating better’ and ‘having a better sex life,’ but by explaining that the most important thing for their marriage is to be swept up into the mission God has for their lives as a married couple: to together push back the evil in the world, to love and bless the poor, and to fight sin and Satan in the lives of their friends and families, and in their own hearts, and that if they are busy in the trenches doing that they won’t have time to turn the guns on each other. Usually at the end of this rallying cry people cheer and amen and clap. And when I ask them why they usually say they’ve never thought of their marriage in this context of the global spiritual war around them and their place within it before and it helps to frame their problems (usually making them look small and insignificant) and give them something to work toward together.
So, if you own a business, or lead a church, or even just a family – what story are you telling to frame your lives, your product, or your mission? Is it big enough? Clear enough? Compelling enough? And does it invite people in? If not, work hard at figuring out a way to do so. Why? Because, as Elias Canetti once pointed out, in his Nobel Prize winning book, The Voices of Marrakesh:
“The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest…their words come from further off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people.”
And as a Pastor I admit, I want people to linger. I want people to stay longest, to hear the greatest story ever told and one that can change their lives now and forever. A story about a God who loves them, and died to save them. Who overcame the monster for them, so they never have to. Who turned a Tragedy into a story of Rebirth – and who now invites everyone to experience the joy of that accomplishment.