13 Ways of Looking at a Story

Book with pages rising up and becoming birds

1. A Story Is an Archetype

Experienced storytellers will tell you there are no new stories, just endless variations on old tales. That was certainly Shakespeare’s attitude, who would probably have found the idea of inventing a story faintly absurd, and who habitually plundered the works of historians, mythographers, ancient authors and his fellow dramatists for stories to use in his own plays.

When I saw The Lion King in the cinema, it seemed obvious to me that the story was based on the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris. According to the filmmakers, it was inspired by the Old Testament stories of Joseph and Moses, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And the plot thickens when we consider the allegation that elements of the film bear a strong similarity to the Japanese animation series Kimba the White Lion. As with many films and books, it’s possible to see all of these stories and more in The Lion King.

For an intriguing analysis of the mythic archetypes that can be traced in Hollywood feature films, read Christopher Vogler’s book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

2. A Story Is a Shortcut to the Emotional Brain

Stories don’t just give us facts and logical arguments – they give us the human drama of characters facing problems, challenges and ordeals. We can’t help but respond emotionally: we are wired with mirror neurons that replicate in our own bodies the actions and emotions we observe in other people (even if we only hear about them in a story).

So if you want to engage an audience at an emotional level, and influence them at a more profound level than logical argument, tell them a story that dramatizes your point in terms of characters they can relate to.

3. A Story Is How We Think

Narrative imagining – story – is the fundamental instrument of thought … rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining … most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organised as stories.

(Cognitive scientist Mark Turner, The Literary Mind – quoted in A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink)

Observe your own trains of thought and listen to the conversations around you, and you’ll find stories everywhere.

Like the character in Molière’s play The Bourgeois Gentleman who discovers he has been speaking prose all his life without realising it, you may be surprised to learn that you have been a storyteller all your life.

4. A Story Reveals a Human Face

Ever since I heard about the Spartans of ancient Greece, whose entire lives were devoted to mastering the art of war, I was fascinated and repelled by them. Yes, they were fearsome warriors, but they sounded more like machines than human beings.

Then I read Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire, written in the voice of a Spartan warrior who fought at the epic battle of Thermopylae. As the story progresses, I felt I reached a deeper understanding of how people can be capable of feats of apparently superhuman bravery and subhuman cruelty – while still remaining human.

You’ve probably had the experience yourself, of taking a dislike to someone on first meeting them, then finding your attitude softening on hearing their story and gaining some insight into why they are the way they are.

5. A Story Is a Solution to a Problem

By definition, stories are dramatic. The protagonist responds to a challenge, either successfully or unsuccessfully, giving us the classic forms of comedy and tragedy.

So if your audience has a problem to solve and you believe you have the solution, then a story offers the ideal format for making your case, by introducing the problem and then showing how your ideas/product/service/call to action can help them solve it. (N.b. if you’re trying to persuade or sell, you’re usually better off with a comic story structure than a tragic one. ;-))

6. A Story Is a Trance Induction

Next time you hear a presenter utter the words, “The best way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to tell you a story…”, notice how the audience reacts. You’ll see them relax and settle into their chairs, looking forward to hearing what happens. As if they were seven years old again. The presenter might as well have said “Once upon a time…”.

When I trained in hypnosis, storytelling was one of the methods of trance induction I learned. When we listen to a story, and become absorbed in the plot and characters, we enter the dreamlike territory of our imagination, and start to experience many of the symptoms of hypnotic trance: slower breathing, heart-rate and blink-rate; unfocused gaze; relaxed muscles; decreased awareness of our surroundings; heightened awareness of internal imagery; and time distortion. Which explains why we have the feeling of ‘coming round’ at the end of a particularly captivating presentation or engrossing movie.

7. A Story Is a Factory of Understanding

I borrowed this phrase from the poet Ted Hughes, who wrote that stories are “little factories of understanding”. Once we know a story, we can read and re-read it, or watch it many times as a play or film, without exhausting its meanings. Each time we encounter the story afresh, we can learn something new from it.

So even if there are no new stories, new meanings emerge continually from the old ones, as they are told to different audiences, in different versions, via different media, with different settings and different interpretations of the characters.

Once you’ve seen one Macbeth, you haven’t seen them all: over the centuries, actors and directors have interpreted the character in many different ways. And that’s before you consider adaptations of the story into different media and languages, such as the animated Shakespeare, Verdi’s opera Macbeth and Kurosawa’s stunning samurai movie version, Throne of Blood.

8. A Story Is an Aid to Memory

When coaching clients on their presentation skills, I often find a light goes on when I tell them to forget about trying to memorise every single fact, or every word of their presentation, and instead to tell a story that dramatises the main point they are trying to get across.

For some reason, stories are easy to remember, even though they may contain plenty of twists and an enormous amount of information. There’s something about story structure that makes the information ‘sticky’ and easy to recall.

No wonder some of the most powerful memory techniques described by Tony Buzan and other experts involve using stories as ‘hangers’ on which to attach the information you want to remember.

9. A Story Is A Trojan Horse

Virgil tells us how the wily Greeks got fed up of banging their heads against the brick walls of Troy, and instead built a wooden horse and left it outside the gates. Intrigued, the Trojans wheeled the horse into their citadel, unaware that it contained a team of crack troops, who sneaked out after nightfall and opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army.

Now, clearly this analogy has its limits. You’re probably not locked in mortal combat with your audience, nor trying to raze their city to the ground. But if you’re trying to get the point across to a sceptical or even hostile audience, then telling a story can be a great way to capture their attention and get them to lower their defences long enough to give your idea a hearing.

10. A Story Is a Rallying Cry

Influential leaders instinctively understand the power of stories. Gandhi told a story about injustice and nonviolence that galvanised a nation and transformed its fortunes.

But the power of storytelling is a two-edged sword. Hitler and the Nazis told a different story about injustice, with the Jews as scapegoats, which led their nation down a dark and twisted path. Goebbels infamously said that if you repeated a lie often enough, people would come to believe it.

11. A Story Is a Witness

In a film such as Schindler’s List or The Last King of Scotland, the story bears witness to unspeakable events, making them vivid and unforgettable in a way the mere facts, however shocking, cannot.

In the latter case, James McAvoy’s character Dr. Nicholas Garrigan was an invention of the novelist Giles Foden – as an adviser and confidant of Idi Amin, he gives us a close-up view of the tyrant, forcing us to confront Amin as a flawed human being, which is even more horrific than dismissing him as an unspeakable monster.

12. A Story Is a Tool for Transformation

Storytelling is one of the core skills of coaches, therapists and teachers. Clients or students often begin their journey by telling a story about who they are, where they have from and where they are going – sometimes a tale of woe, with an unhappy ending in prospect. But an effective facilitator can help them rewrite their life story, keeping the same facts, but with an emphasis on coping, learning and moving forward to a happier future.

The same pattern can be observed in companies who turn themselves around, as their leaders help them to change the ‘company story’ from decline and failure to renewal and revitalisation.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about glossing over facts or ignoring uncomfortable realities. But the same facts have a very different meaning when you look at them in a different light. Just ask the Ugly Duckling.

13. A Story Is a New Beginning

Each time we tell a story, we open up a new world. Even with a well-worn tale, there’s always the possibility of a new twist that gives it fresh meaning. Even when the story is relentlessly bleak, with a tragic ending, the story itself is a way of finding meaning and understanding.

Whatever the story, it’s a story of hope.


With special thanks to Wallace Stevens.

How Else Can We Look at a Story?

Which of these views of story is most revealing for you?

How has storytelling helped you – personally, professionally and/or creatively?

What other ways are there of looking at a story?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Hi Mark, thanks for the post. You’re right – stories are very, very important, to the point of being the primary way in which we as people learn. Anyone who liked this post may want to check out “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath, and “The Secret Language of Leadership”, by Stephen Denning – both largely about the effective use of stories.

  2. I love this article – it just resonates so strongly with me on all levels. With regard to the coaching, I agree completely with your point. I have also found that sometimes when people are blocked, it helps open up their thinking if tell their story as though it was about someone else, for whom anything is possible. For me, I find anything that I remember as a story stays with me far longer than just the facts.

    • Yes, I think that’s the key to using stories effectively for change work – finding a story that’s close enough to someone’s experience for them to relate to it, but different enough to help them get a bit of third-person perspective on their situation.

  3. You have listed the many ways we might approach story to express meaning. Story works well in the hands of a master crafts person an orchestra conductor. If it fails to connect the reader to the point or is overdone in presentations, it can backfire. That’s why it takes a maestro to elicit desired results.

    • Hi Robyn. I agree that a maestro will get stellar results with a story, but think it’s also true that you don’t need to be a master performer to get good results using a story. If the story is genuine, relevant and told with passion, then even a beginner can create a connection and get good results by introducing a story into their presentation. (Agreed it sucks if overdone or irrelevant!)

  4. Love this post, Mark. What a wonderful interweaving of the story of stories. Thank you.

    For me, one of the most exciting things about story is the idea that our minds are fundamentally ‘literary’ and that narrative and spatial metaphor seem to be fundamental to how we experience and structure the world. The neuroscientist, Antionio Damasio, has some interesting ideas about the kind of pre-verbal narrative that gets translated into words too.

    In my work with clients, I love the way that stories are so full of possibilities and resonances. As you say, a story has so many possible interpretations which permeate over time and each of us can make and remake a story in the ways that are most helpful for us.

    • For me, one of the most exciting things about story is the idea that our minds are fundamentally ‘literary’ and that narrative and spatial metaphor seem to be fundamental to how we experience and structure the world.

      Yep, me too. 🙂

      Damasio is another writer on my ‘investigate further’ list…

  5. To me this article itself is a story; a hugely-captivating story about stories!!!

    It certainly sent me to a trance-like state while I was reading it, and as with all great stories, I was compelled to read it again and again.

    Well, this article has TURNED INTO A MAGIC LETTER!

    Almost uncanny, I thought, as it seems to give me some vital messages which I’ve been looking for, for some time. It somehow SPEAKS to my ‘particular’ case.

    And at the same time, I can see here in the forum that it’s sending powerful ‘personal’ messages to other readers as well.

    This, I suppose, is a characteristic of a great story being both universal and particular’ at the same time!

    While all 13 points in the article seem so true, I’m stunned by the the last point;

    ”Even when the story is relentlessly bleak, with a tragic ending, the story itself is a way of finding meaning and understanding.”

    This reminds me; while studying Kafka’s stories, often their utter hopelessness and lovelessness actually make us aware of, and want, love and hope that aren’t there.
    In other words, the story which is devoid of love and hope can make us long for what’s missing.

    And in this sense, as Mark points out, we find a new meaning and understanding in a story, kind of LATERALLY… as well as linearly.

    So reading a story, too, can be a LATERAL ACT… ??

    • To me this article itself is a story; a hugely-captivating story about stories!!!

      You know, until you and Sophie both made that point, I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but I’m glad it came across!

      It certainly sent me to a trance-like state while I was reading it

      Ah, well, that was purely accidental as well. 😉

      So reading a story, too, can be a LATERAL ACT… ??

      Yes. And reading poems too, of course…

  6. Dayum, Mark there is so much powerful stuff to unpack from this one! It deserves several readings and some “digestion time.” Sometimes you just hit one out of the park! 🙂

  7. Well Mark, this story had me in its grip in an instant. A fine example in and of itself.

    Great article. I agree with Michael. I need to come back to this, many times. 🙂

    Cheers.

    Conor

  8. This is so great! I always call myself a storyteller because it is the best way I know to communicate to people.

    Here is one you did not mention.

    1. A story is a way to preserve traditions.

    Growing up, we were always told about how uncle so & so met aunty so & so and how the family had a meeting to see if he would be good for her and refused him a few times before they finally agreed…

    The stories were beautiful, but they also taught me at an early age that our family was important.

    2. A story is also a way to bring families together

    Either during bedtime, or when children or spouses share what happened in their day. The stories help the speaker to feel heard, and the listener to understand a little better – bringing the family closer.

    • Great examples. And the traditions one applies to countries/cultures as well as families.

      And of course, a story is (theoretically at least) a great way to get kids to sleep at bedtime! 🙂

  9. Stories are important because they help relate the message we are trying to communicate with what the audience is already familiar with. Story is more like bridging the gap between theory and practical knowledge as they help form the right context for people to relate what they have learnt.

    Thanks for the post Mark.

  10. Great article Mark. I would also recommend Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ which speaks about the many ways all cultures have an archetypal hero story. Put briefly the hero feels a calling, the hero goes in search of it, the hero faces many tests, the hero hits a low point and then the hero fulfills his destiny. Much like the Lion King – or Luke Skywalker: George Lucas has spoken many times of the book’s influence on Star Wars. Anyway, highly recommended read, cheers Mark.

    • One of my favourite books Mike! Christopher Vogler’s book is basically an adaptation of Campbell’s ideas for Hollywood screenwriters. But to really get to the heart of mythic storytelling, Campbell is the man.

  11. Beowulf, for example! Funnily enough, for heroes to exist, there must be MONSTERS. Monsters in all kinds of shapes and forms. We all love and admire heroes, but these horrid, ugly, nasty monsters are always absolutely necessary for our great heroes to be heroes!

    • Very true Chieko. Reminds me of Unbreakable…..

    • Yes, I’ve always thought monsters in general – and Grendel in particular – get a bad press. I mean, we’re told it was a completely unprovoked attack, but I get the feeling there’s a bit of backstory that the poet conveniently forgot to include…

  12. Thanks for the article, Mark. I am a lover of storytelling with all of its magic and power. As a personal coach, it is such a powerful tool with my clients. And as a human, a good story just makes life richer and more complete.

    Thanks for highlighting some of the different ways that stories are used. As I begin the process of writing my personal stories, these are a good reminder. I’ll have to come back to this as the writing progresses to check my intent!

    And I agree with some of the other book suggestions – the Brothers Heath book- “Made to Stick” is great for applying storytelling to marketing and of course Campbell is the go to source for myth and archetypal interpretation. I also love the way Angeles Arrien uses archetype and myth cross-culturally to evoke life’s passages. She is also a master storyteller and cultural anthropologist.

    Thanks for your work!

  13. This is lovely. As Carl Jung said: “The story is all.”

  14. That’s a great quote, I like Jung’s work but hadn’t come across that one before!

  15. Dear Mark,

    thank you for posting this thought-provoking and useful post; also I fell under its spell and thought it a good story in itself!

    One question; do you think we frame or rather tell the stories we share with ourselves and others according to structures we are familiar with or do we tell them and then find the structure afterwards?

    I realize this is a bit like the egg and the hen… but what is your experience/idea?

    • I’m not quite sure I’ve grasped your question, but maybe it’s both! I think we gravitate towards stories whose structure matches something in our lives – but maybe unconsciously, so that we tell the story and the structure emerges in the telling.

      Does that answer the question or have I missed what you were getting at?

  16. Amazing post as eveyone else has not failed to notice!
    Syncronistically I am reading The Writer’s Journey at the moment…I’ll never look at a movie the same way again!
    I’m a great fan of Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkolo Estés. Even if you’re not a woman (!) and don’t identify with the interpretations, it’s a fabulous way to learn about (Jungian) archetypes…and she’s a fabulous storyteller, as are you! Me, I’m a storyteller too but I tell my tales visually 🙂

    • There are some fabulous visual stories on your site. I like the ones looking through the trees…

      • Thanks Mark, one of my faves too. Interesting that it took five steps to get to that one. My daily artworks are more like vignettes or quick poems than full-blown stories since I only spend a max of 1 hr on each. Often, it might take nearly a week to get to one that really says something.

        Thanks again for visiting my site. Comments over there much appreciated too 😉

  17. I tell story a lot especially with my designs.. I love this article. Thanks a million Mark.