“Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
Some say it’s storytelling that makes us human. As the only animals known to have the power of storytelling, it’s what makes us, well, us.
Storytelling has been around for as long as humans have had the power of speech. It’s the age-old way to transmit information and values. It’s used to transmit cultural narratives from one person to another, one group to another, or one generation to another. It’s one of the most powerful and most important means of forming connections and bonds that we have.
It entertains us, inspires us, and can be a powerful motivator for good.
Is story form important?
There are many ways to tell a story, but one form resonates powerfully with most of us. Different people have identified this form at different times.
Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle made the observation that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Later, in the nineteenth century, Gustav Freytag developed “Freytag’s Pyramid.” He observed that dramatic narrative begins with an inciting incident in part one that sets the protagonist off on an adventure, continues with rising action in part two when the protagonist is running around trying to solve the problem from part one, and, finally, in part three, the climax, falling action, and resolution where the protagonist completes his quest and then continues on in what is his “new normal.”
Finally, in 1949, a famous scholar of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, identified an underlying “universal” story form that cultures the world over use to express their cultural stories and myths. Campbell called it the “Hero’s Journey.”
It, too, is a three-part journey. He called the first part the “departure,” the second part the “initiation,” and the third part the “return.”
At the beginning of the Hero’s Journey, the departure, the protagonist loses or is missing something that is key to her happiness. In the initiation, she sets out on a quest to find or recover the missing thing and encounters an ever greater set of obstacles along the way. In the return, the protagonist has a life-changing experience and either recovers what was lost or finds some magical item with which she returns to make life better for those she left at home.
These three observations came from very different time periods and cultures, but they are ways of describing the very same structure–the “traditional” story form we are most familiar with and which just feels right to most of us.
How do we tell an effective story?
First, it has to follow the traditional story form. If it doesn’t, it risks losing our attention or worse–not even grabbing our attention in the first place!
Second, it needs to keep our attention. The Hero’s Journey does this by subjecting the protagonist to an increasing amount of tension or conflict as the story progresses.
Third, it needs to evoke an emotional response.
Connecting emotionally through storytelling.
Connecting through storytelling requires telling a story that evokes an emotional response, enabling a deeper connection. That requires powerful story content. The most powerful stories are the ones in which the audience can put themselves in the place of the protagonist.
How storytelling affects our emotions.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have discovered the mechanisms by which an effective story produces an emotional response. Paul Zak and his team of neuroscientists performed a series of experiments during which they asked subjects to watch a movie about a child with cancer and recorded their brain activity and hormone levels.
The researchers discovered that the rising tension portion of the story made the subjects’ bodies produce stress hormones, which in turn increased the subjects’ attention and focus.
In addition, the researchers noted that once a story had the subjects hooked and maintained their attention for a certain amount of time, the subjects began to empathize with the characters in the story!
Scientists have long known that oxytocin, a natural hormone produced by the body, makes us feel compassion and empathy and helps us become more aware of social cues. Oxytocin, the researchers found, was responsible for the subjects’ transportation into the protagonist’s view. Further, Zak’s team discovered that once they were able to trigger empathy in their subjects, the subjects were far more likely to make charitable donations after the experiment was over.
What’s the takeaway?
Storytelling doesn’t just delight us. Great stories bring us together and make us feel more connected to each other. Great stories evoke emotion and action. Great stories are memorable. As the Indian proverb says, “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
But, perhaps most importantly, great stories can inspire and motivate us to do good.
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