Have We Run Out Of Stories?

Have we run out of stories

Have we run out of new stories?

Vulture recently posted an article about the demise of the blockbuster. In it, Gilbert Cruz itemizes all that’s wrong with Hollywood’s blockbuster system from a lack of imagination to the high cost of production.  It seems our preoccupation with rehashing old stories in a spectacularly expensive way is beginning to wear thin. The article prompted me to ask the question, have we run out of stories? I wondered because I regularly watch movies and television with half an eye and yet follow the story line with no challenge. It may be because I’m an avid reader but it’s more likely that the same stories are often retold. It makes you wonder if Christopher Booker didn’t have it right when he proposed there were only seven stories in the world and they were continuously being retold.

Cover of "Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell ...

Cover of Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

If you are not familiar with his perspective, in his book, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” he suggests that there are only seven stories and they are:

  • overcoming the monster;
  • rags to riches;
  • the quest;
  • voyage and return;
  • comedy;
  • tragedy and
  • rebirth.

He falls into some interesting traps based on his own paradigm and at times seems to counter his own argument, but that aside, if his basic theory is correct, it poses a conundrum for communicators. The business of communications is the telling of stories.  We capture the attention of our audiences by telling them well. Whether we take them by surprise, intrigue or mystify them, we need to be clever and original. That becomes increasingly challenging if we believe we have to choose from a limited number of options. While Booker’s ideas are interesting and Hollywood’s challenges perplexing, I don’t think there are a limited number of stories. That would be the same as saying there are limits on our imagination.

I am reinforced in my belief through my work. As I go about the business of my job, I encounter an endless array of stories. In fact, I have encountered so many good stories during my career that my biggest challenge is finding the time to tell them.  When I worked with pharmacists, I was constantly amazed at the stories that would emerge when they were relaxed and reflective. They told amazing stores, funny, sad, bizarre and poignant ones. The one about the pharmacist who leaves her shop in the middle of the day because one of her clients needs to get home from the hospital and she’s the only one who can pick her up.  Then there was the pharmacist who made house calls out to the country and regularly got chased by an unfriendly turkey. In my current job, it’s the Meals on Wheels volunteer who doesn’t just leave the food at the door when no one answers, but investigates and saves the life of a client in the midst of a medical emergency.

Imagine how the conversation went the next time the meals on wheels program coordinator had to explain that the program was an important security check for seniors and shut-ins, not just a necessary food service.  Imagine what that story did to increase the number of volunteers the program receives. What do you think I might have said when an interest group leader suggested that pharmacists just counted pills? Stories provide us with powerful ammunition. They allow us to illustrate the complex in accessible ways and they allow us to inspire others to action.

The stories I hear are endless and I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the health sector, I think all sectors have great stories to tell, but someone has to choose to tell them. We haven’t run out of good tales, we just stopped looking in the right places for them and listening when we do find them. One of the best parts of my job is to hear those stories. I sometimes joke that it’s a good week if I cry once, a great week if I cry more than once.  That’s the power of a good story. It moves you and makes you think about the world in a different way.

As communicators, we all need to look for the story that illustrates our objectives, our brand and our aspirations. Clever tag lines, corporate colors and advertising dollars are worthless without the stories.

Have you ever used a story to make a point?  Has a story moved you when you thought you were resolved?


0 responses to “Have We Run Out Of Stories?

  • It always amazes me how there are only really seven major plot lines stories originate from. However, the key these days seems to be keeping things fresh. Presenting new and unexpected characters can go a long way to liven up a tried and true plot line. Readers and viewers liked to be surprised, and paradox can provide a way for that to happen.

    • I live for the unexpected turn in a story. Even if you are sharing an old favourite, if you can take an original turn or in some way innovate on the theme, it makes it more appealing. Then of course there are some innovations that really should be allowed to go into the sunset. My son just told me they are going to release yet another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. Why???????

  • Like Jeanette I wondered why ‘love stories’ were not on Booker’s list. It’s these stories that really touch me and make me cry 🙂

    • There is nothing quite so touching as a good love story. In my organization one of our sites used the 50th anniversary of two of our clients as an opportunity to share their wonderful love story and to talk about the challenges they currently faced as she slipped into the complications of Alzheimer’s disease. We also talked about the work we were doing to support them staying in their home. We then invited the community to send them a congratulatory message for their anniversary by giving a donation. Needless to say the congratulations poured in, much to the couple’s delight. For them it wasn’t just about people acknowledging them and the challenges they faced, but by sharing their story they got to give back to their community. I still get a teary when I think about it. 🙂

  • I think there will be new stories as long as there are new people, but it helps to understand these basic themes that everyone is so drawn to when you are trying to communicate a new idea and make a connection with someone, which is what all storytelling is really about.

    • I have no doubt there will always be new stories and I think the themes Booker suggested are common, but we are in no way limited to them. When I look at the depths of invention and the fast pace of creation happening all around me in the physical world, I find it hard to believe that there are limits on our creative world. 🙂

  • I’ve often said to my husband how “everything old in Hollywood, is now new again.” There are no original ideas in Hollywood anymore. The same can be said about the music industry. Everything you hear on the radio sounds the same for the most part. It’s always refreshing for me to hear someone have a new and interesting story to tell, with their own spin put on it…either through lyrics, or film.

    • Tanya, isn’t it amazing how long they want to cling to the same old thing? Given the growing price of buying a ticket to a movie and the wide variety of options available to us to watch at home, sooner or later the money engines that drive Hollywood will force them towards original thought. Innovate or stagnate are rules that apply to all businesses and Hollywood is no more immune to them than others, though they have enough money to take longer to get there.

      As for music, I love the diversity of music I encounter, but then I don’t listen to “popular” stations. I don’t know what kinds of music you like but a station my whole family likes is KEXP out of Seattle. They are available online and while I don’t love everything they play, they never bore me. 🙂

  • Debra — excellent topic for discussion. Maybe I’m a romantic but I’d add the category “love.” Maybe he subsumes that into the other categories, but I think we all love — love stories! When I meet a new couple I always ask how they met and invariably I learn how they fell in love. My beloved Charles and I used to tell people how we met all the time. He, in particular, wanted people to know how we met, fell in love, decided to get married in two months and married in seven months. Love stories — think Shakespeare, although he mostly wrote about unrequited love!

    • An excellent edition. Kind of crazy that boy meets girl, boy meets boy or girl meets girl didn’t make it onto the list, not to mention Madonna or other parental motifs, but then one of the challenges with Booker is he ignores all kinds of things that don’t fit nicely into the paradigm he created. It may have been difficult for him to include love given some of his attitudes towards women, modern literature …it’s along list of things he doesn’t like actually.

      I love the question about how did you meet? I realize I rarely ask it…should make for some interesting conversations and stories over the next little while as I discover things about friends and family that I never thought to ask about. 🙂

  • Good post, Debra. I think what the world desperately needs is effective storytelling concerning climate change. Talk about a monster that needs to be overcome, or if not overcome, then at least consistently faced and dealt with. Climate change is one of the topics I blog about, yet it’s hard to make it digestible to readers, and even to myself. As a species, we’re not used to dealing with stories that are this global and this difficult. It takes a leap of spiritual growth, in my view.

    • Thank you. I think one of the single most powerful tools in the climate change arsenal over the last twenty years has been Al Gore. He transformed the science, which has been clear for years, into something people could wrap their heads around. By making the facts larger than life and developing stories that shocked people into paying attention. Even in those instances where he flubs the data, it still initiated a discussion that had all but disappeared from popular culture. I was amazed to realize how many North Americans still believed that climate change wasn’t real. The science has been undisputed for quite some time, but media coverage in the U.S. in particular, kept characterizing it as a debate. An inconvenient Truth, for all it’s hype, ended a lot of that. The challenge is to find the new powerful storytellers.

  • I read this and thing about how it relates to my field. I was asked during a job interview, “what was the competitive advantage of X company when you worked for them? My answer: “All companies in that sector pretty much were capitalizing on the same thing so I was the advantage. I always communicated the message in story form, which let people get to know me”. They thought it was strange but it fed into my belief that the story has to be right and create connectivity for people to like you and want to work with you. It could also be the reason that Hollywood retreads the same basic premises, it worked the first time, people bought the story, why not retool it and feed it to them again?!

    • It makes total sense to me that the storyteller is the asset when all things are equal. The story becomes the brand, the feelings it evokes, the way it stays in the memory. Even for people who won’t recall the details, they will remember the sentiment that came with the story. If you can get clients to associate your brand with positive sentiments…isn’t that the objective? It certainly makes getting and maintaining business easier.

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) says:
    July 24, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    This post certainly provoked some thoughts. I think Booker has a point. After reading your summation of his thesis, I tried to think of some stories (including the one you told about the Meals on Wheels volunteer) and, in fact, they all have at least one of the elements Booker mentioned — usually more than one. However, I don’t think this detracts from the power of stories. All those elements have to do with some aspect of the human condition and we are all endlessly fascinated by ourselves.

    • One of the best parts of blogging is hearing what others think, it opens horizons. 🙂 I couldn’t agree more, we are fascinated by ourselves. The first question you have to answer in any marketing or PR activity is, “What’s in it for the audience?” If you don’t know why they should care about the product, service etc., then you haven’t resolved the communications. Thanks for commenting.

  • Debra everyone has a story to tell and they are all different. I think that what makes so many of the blogs that I see today is that they are stories that relate to the individual or how they see life.

    As for Hollywood stories are evolving although it may not look like it. Twenty Five to Fifty years ago the Hollywood stories were boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. We were going through wars and the great depression so people needed feel good stories and the way to take your mind off of the wars and the depression was to go to the movies. Today the movies are about violence and sex scandals which there is more of that in the world today. Sex sells.

    • Very true about the blogs Arleen. They are so diverse its like setting out on adventure when you start to read them. Even when they run to similar themes they always bring such an individual flavour or perspective. Great point on the changing landscape of Hollywood. Sometimes its easy to get preoccupied with the present and not see the changes that happen over time.

  • I might need to check out that book. I’m already wondering how “quest” is different from “voyage and return”.

    I think a lot of stories do fit within those categories, but it’s a bit unfair to say that’s all there is to any story. As any writer can tell you, it’s the details that matter and allow storytellers to differentiate their tell from another. The details give you a chance to do things differently from how they’re usually done (like having the hero die at the end, which doesn’t happen that often).

    As far as Hollywood goes, making movies and tv shows is a huge business. And since all businesses want to make as much money as possible it can be easy for them to fall into doing the same thing over and over. We’ve all seen how one successful idea gets copied as competing studios/networks try to find that same level of success. LOST has been off the air for at least two years and every network is still looking for a twisty, mythology-heavy, sorta supernatural character study that’ll capture the audience in the same way.

    • That’s funny. I get why the distinction is challenging. We often see the themes “voyage and return” blended with “quest”, but the essential difference is that the voyage does not have to include gathering or finding anything. The blog, “How To Be A Writer” offers a nice summary of the various elements. http://how2beawriter.blogspot.ca/search?q=plot.

      I like the example of LOST, it had such a crazy conglomeration of themes, character sketches and possible outcomes that it absolutely captured and held our attention. I remember seeing a variety of false starts as other stations tried to create their own crazy and convoluted plot lines. Maybe its just me, but I would have been more interested in finding the next J.J. Abrams or Damon Lindelof (two of the shows creators) than I would have been in trying to copy what they did. After all, J. J. Abrams also brought us Felicity. Damon recently gave us Prometheus (which while it has loose ties to Alien, goes its own way all together).

      Essentially, why not invest in some good story tellers rather than trying to mimic good stories? You don’t have to be online long to discover we have many great ones to choose from. 🙂

  • Where does memoir fit into these categories? I would think that this is, perhaps, one of the biggest storytelling venues out there!

    • The stories from our lives can be absolutely fascinating. I have to confess, while I love catching the short stories, the interesting bits, I’m not really a fan of memoirs. You could say that for me, it’s too much of a good thing. 🙂

  • mkslagel says:
    July 23, 2013 @ 04:54 pm

    I am a huge fan of stories, sometimes more so than others, and I have always blamed that on the writer side of me. But I believe we are all born with the want and desire for stories. We are read stories when we are younger and consume television and movies regularly. We dream and make up stories in our heads. It is a way to escape the world and it is also as you said a way to prove things and make points. Stories make the best examples because they are true. When somebody wants to come up with a movie concept or a book plot, they push too hard to come up with something. Sometimes the easiest stories come from just listening to others or being open to your surroundings. I often use a picture or people watch to get a good story going. People need to stop pushing a story and let the story find them.

    • I really like the idea of a story finding you. I don’t start my day thinking, what story can I develop? The stories unfold naturally if you create the space for them by listening.

  • I try to use stories as an example but find myself forgetting key parts so my point isn’t always made.

    • Sometimes telling other people’s stories can be like sharing jokes. If you don’t remember the punch line, then skip it. 🙂 I tell the stories from my own experiences for the most part. I think sometimes people don’t realize how interesting and illustrative their own activities can seem to others.

  • Stories are as individual as the people who live them! They are the glue that binds us together as human beings, the perfect tool to teach, inspire, nurture, empower… Although there may be a certain number of themes around which we gather our stories, I do not believe that we could ever run out of unique, poignant stories. I worked for 20 years as a film and television editor and always gravitated toward documentary type of projects, those who dared to be unique and share a powerful story without being overly concerned about box office success. Stories that were grounded in truth.

    One of the television shows I worked on, Drive: Notes From The Wilderness, consisted of 18 episodes over the course of three seasons. We followed a professional skateboarder by the name of Mike Vallely as he set off on the road to meet with kids and young adults across the US and abroad, who had accomplished something powerful through Skateboarding! The show was such a joy to edit because of the many beautiful stories that we shared! Sure there were similarities in theme: a group of young kids who joined forces, petitioned their mayor or town council and raised funds to build a skate park so they had a place to be safe… a young man in Brazil who changed his way after discovering skateboarding and started a program in juvenile prison to inspire and empower teen criminals to get back up and try again… there were stories of Rags to Riches, of the fallen guy turned hero… each unique and filled wit heart. Therein lied the power of those stories, the heart! I never tired of these stories! And in a way it is the universal aspect of these stories, that pull us in in such a powerful way. It is when we can relate to a story, or better yet, put ourselves into that story that we can experience it’s full power!

    • What an amazing project that must have been. I can only imagine that what you ended up sharing was only a small portion of what you saw. I love going out and telling stories.

      We did a short film for our organization a few years ago and I followed the film crew around as we met with different people, it was amazing. I cried as often as I laughed. With one exception, it has remained one of my strongest and fondest memories of my current work. The exception is a more recent experience. Last year our former CEO was featured on Undercover Boss Canada and it was an emotional, educational and reaffirming experience for the organization. It was also was a great touch point for our communities. The stories really matter and people care about them.

  • Laurel says:
    July 23, 2013 @ 02:18 pm

    This is an interesting and thought provoking article…thanks Debra. It had me thinking of a conversation that I had recently with a groups of friends about music…..the conversation revolved around one individual’s premise that there is no new music any more. It is all the same and that artists are reverting to covering old familiar songs or old familiar genres of music. WHAT? I maintain that music is much like a new story: the setting, the protagonist, the character flaws, the story tellers style….these are all factors in a building a new and captivating story. Tempo, key, major, minor, and hundreds of various instruments all factor into a new sound in music. We can reflect on many popular music genres that have come in and out of fashion (Cantata vs rockabilly)…..we can also consider how stories have changed over time (Homer’s Iliad vs Harlequin Romance) . And progress, technology and invention also affect both story telling and music………believing that there are no new stories or no new music also discounts humanity’s ability to draw from day to day inspiration and creativity.
    I think that like anything new, it takes people a while to adjust to that new way of thinking. That new song on the radio which at first makes you feel uneasy because it is so unfamiliar, begins to become an earworm that you cant stop humming.
    It is unfortunate that mainstream popular culture, which Hollywood serves up to us, is more about profit than promoting and fostering originality and imagination.

    • The music comparison is a great one. I’ve heard the same complaint about the “sameness” of the music scene. I always think, you need to listen to a new station. Even at a micro level music offers great variation and growth. I was chatting recently about even the depths and height of range you can get from notes as time moves on. What he hear and what Bach heard are vastly different.

      What I find fascinating about the discussion of stories is that many people have told me that they like innovation, they are interested in new stories and that they see the power of new stories. Others have said there is an abundance of new stories to tell, but that Hollywood does not tell those stories because they like what sells. Who do we think is buying what Hollywood sells?

      Even the positive reviews for the Lone Ranger sound like soft criticism. My personal favorite, “Disney spent over $200 million to prove The Lone Ranger is too old-fashioned for such a new fangled, smart-aleck world.”That was from an audience member who liked the film.

      I think the media and Hollywood are figuring out what we have known all along. The story matters and there are lots of stories to tell.

  • Debra, life offers us a never ending supply of stories. Oh the stories I tell being 30+ years in business, married for 40+ years and other significant emotional events. And my husband is a master story teller. With us both being in sales we often use stories to make a point with a prospect. Sometimes we’ll bounce ideas around about one until we get it perfected.

    I think Catarina is spot on about Hollywood. I’m not into watching many movies, either in the theatre or at home. Hollywood is just, well, the same old same old. I never see a movie theatre filled on the occasion that I do go; not like when I was a kid and you couldn’t find a seat.

    Valuable insights. Thanks.

    Over from LinkedIn BHB group

    • Isn’t it amazing how many wonderful stories flow in and out of our lives on a daily basis? The opportunity for creativity and invention is limitless. For those dinosaurs who refuse to see the potential, I wish them empty theatres and low ratings. 🙂

  • It is an interesting thought. Why do we rehash a story in film. As Catarina said, it’s all about what will sell. However, every now and then one finds it way in and is a huge success. Then we are off on another run of sequels… LOL.

    I’m with youI I too encounter or have so many good stories that my biggest challenge is finding the time to tell them. Some fleet through my mind like a butterfly, fragile and beautiful. So when you figure how to capture them all PLEASE let me know. 🙂

    • I wish we would collectively make more of an effort to find and appreciate innovative ideas, rather than just applauding when old ones are regurgitated. The optimist in me can only hope for more and more failures from blockbusters and a crash and burn on the reality TV phase.

      Susan, I’ve thought about carrying a recorder, a note pad, my laptop. I’ve put pens and paper beside my bed and next to the TV and even in the car (I pull over to write) but either they stick or they don’t. Given that our challenge is tracking them, makes you wonder why an engine as wealthy as Hollywood can’t be more creative.

  • We haven’t run out of stories. What we do have is a limited number of plot lines. The basis of plot tends to follow a certain pattern and there are only a few. But this is something we have lived with since the beginning of stories. The number of stories we can tell using this limited number of plots is infinite. It is a bit like music. There are only a few notes. But through those notes we have symphonies, we have different branches of music and still we create new music.

    It is sad that many times when someone reads something they want to compare it to something else. A better attitude would be to take each story as its own slice of the life we live and enjoy it for what it is.

    • Oh ya, and I love your new banner. The lonely boat out in the middle of the ocean has so many different meanings and it just looks cool.

      • Thank you! A friend of mine heard me complaining about trying to find a new image and offered up his photos from a recent vacation. Its good to be friends with photographers. 🙂

    • I’m not sure if I agree about even plots being limited, but will acknowledge that many of them are reoccurring. Whether you are travelling to a new village or a new planet, the inhabitants may seem alien and the story can reflect the same range of human reactions and engagement. My resistance to acknowledging the “limit” may stem from my understanding of paradigms. We are all victims of what we know today and until someone comes along and discovers something new, then those are the “facts”. It was a fact, that you could not make a tool that would locate you on the planet until we understood quantum mechanics and general relativity, once we figured that out, then the GPS was possible. We know a lot of the same plots, until someone discovers a new one.

  • Debra we have not run out of stories at all. But when it comes to Hollywood, or the media for that matter, they need stories that sell and make money. That’s what it’s all about.

    A headline mentioning a celebrity, preferably having problem, sells a lot of newspapers. Haven’t you noticed that the amount of readers of this blog varies depending on the subject? Personally think the iKnife is a fantastic subject. But it doesn’t attract anywhere near the amount of readers an article on leadership gets.

    • Caterina I think the public would enjoy the iKnife story you recently posted (catarinasworld.com) as much I did, who doesn’t want to learn more about a clever tool to combat cancer? The thing is, they have to know what the iKnife is. Leadership draws attention because there is so little of it out there, which I guess is precisely my point in saying we need to tell more stories and better ones. The failure of the recent blockbuster “The Lone Ranger” is evidence that no matter how much money and star power you throw out there, you still have to tell a good story too. If the public was only interested in nonsense (and agree, they have a high tolerance for it) then blockbusters would not be running out of steam. Cable TV shows that involve thoughtful character development and unexpected plot twists are drawing audiences and reminding the traditional networks that there is only so much reality TV the public will tolerate. Hollywood and the media need to show a little imagination and leadership.

  • Janet MacLeod says:
    July 23, 2013 @ 09:22 am

    I hear ya! I often (habitually) use other people’s stories to make a point. Analogies are my best friend because I am not a “storyteller” by nature. The information I receive through these conversations, discussions, informative articles (and so on) are the tools I use to “texturize” my own writing, conversations, etc. I need other people’s stories (hopefully good stories) as much as I need food and oxygen! Stories are ever-present – we just need to be listening to the details and digesting them. I cannot imagine a world where we’d run out. It’s an impossibility!

    • Janet, you are one of the best story tellers I know. You weave wit and wry humour into your approach to marketing, communications and engagement practices. When you are asked, “What’s going on?” The recipient expects something good.

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