Hearing the Story (3)

One of the ways that we are becoming over-stressed today, in our information age, is that broadcasters do not understand the impact of the stories they feed to us. And when that impact becomes clear, they refuse to accept responsibility for their storytelling.



The words formula

indicated that a creative process was about to begin. Signalled

simple, personal and profoundly creative process journey

initiated the process, for when I heard them, I knew that a story was about to start, and because I wanted to hear it, I settled down, ready to listen.

Accepted the discipline, because of the reward. I had to sit still and pay attention, but while my body was quiet, my mind was free to roam.

through my “mind’s eye” I could “see” things that were not “there”.  

These things were not “real” in the sense that I could touch them,

but in another sense they were very real indeed, because, whilst the story was being told, it shaped my thoughts and governed my experience.

I saw what the words described, and felt what they conveyed.

There were so many possibilities with which I could play.

There were so many characters

challenges to overcome

a mulch of impressions and ideas which would one day fertilize my own storytelling.

Within the story, I had access to them all,

and even when the story was over, I could remember them. They were mine.

When it was over, I still had access to those images and emotions because I could remember them. They were inside me now

I had been entertained for a time, but enriched for years to come.

(the wilderness) It is not the place that God has provided for us, but somewhere else.


happens because good stories, as I am defining them, are those that follow one or more of the basic plots. These plots appear again and again throughout human storytelling, across the world, throughout history, as though human beings only know certain ways to tell a story. Or only have a limited number of reasons for telling stories. So that, despite our amazing creativity as a species, as soon as we begin to tell stories, it is inevitable that the plot unfolds along particular lines.


Wherever we begin, however we continue, if we make our artistic choices according to what “feels right” or what “works best” - if, in short, we follow our intuition - a familiar pattern emerges. As hearers, readers and viewers, we feel a great sense of satisfaction when this happens because, regardless of the quality of the product or performance, we expect stories to follow these lines. We want them to do so. We need them to do so.


Because however much we appreciate the surprises or subtleties that the storyteller is able to add to the mix as their personal contribution to the story, the plot itself is feeding us. If we think of a story as food, then the plot is bread and the quality of the telling is jam, the extra layer of satisfaction that adds to the richness of the experience, but which we can manage without if we must do so.  


We are fed by the basic plots because they fit the way our brains work, because each basic plot is an archetypal process.


An archetype is an image that is the focus for a vast store of associations, thoughts and feelings. Imagine holding a magnet close to a tray of iron filings. The filings are attracted to the magnet and attach themselves to it. The first layer is attached directly to the magnet itself. A second layer attaches themselves to the first layer. A third layer becomes attached to the second layer and so on until the pull of the magnet is no longer enough to overcome the force of gravity which is keeping the filings on the tray. But by this time the magnet has developed a hairy beard of iron filings.

Just as the magnet collects filings, so an archetype collects thoughts. Along with the thoughts come the feelings which are expressed by those thoughts, or that we have learned, through experience, to attach to them. And with the feelings comes energy, strong or weak, clear or ambivalent, positive or negative, depending on the nature, mix and scale of the experience concerned. In this way, archetypes such as “bread”, “home”, “island”, “boat” and “treasure” act as keys, opening store cupboards brimming with memories and ideas, all of which are energised by the feelings we associate with them.

An archetype is like a website, bringing together all our experience on a given subject. And just as we can follow a link between one website and another, so archetypes can be linked together in our minds, so that “bread” may lead to “home” and then to “mother” or “refuge” and so on. The routes are personal, but just as our computer remembers our favourite journeys through the web, so our brain remembers our favourite associations and will call them up as soon as we hit the right button.


Archetypal processes operate rather like these links, except that instead of a single image acting as a focus, or our mind linking one image to others, it is the process as a whole that acts as an archetype, collecting associations. These associations refer to the total experience, as well to its various parts. “Race”, “quest”, “pilgrimage”, “pursuit” and “journey” are all archetypal processes, and it is no coincidence that they also provide us with plotlines for books, films and television programmes galore. Even documentaries about historical or scientific subjects are now written so as to fit with one or other of these plots.  


A process is a sequence of actions; an archetypal process is rather more. The very idea of the process has become loaded with associations. It is now a pattern of action or activity undertaken with a particular attitude, and/or for a specific purpose, and both are more important than they might appear. This loading means that while we can still speak of “making a journey” in the ordinary sense of travelling from one place to another, we slip very easily into using the term with these added shades of meaning. All of a sudden, the process of travelling becomes significant, pointing beyond the obvious activity to a shadowy hinterland composed of all the ideas, thoughts and feelings that we associate with it, you and I.


So “making a journey” is more than following a route from A to Z. It has become one way of entering into an imaginary landscape, and of passing through an imaginary world.   It has become a description of how we approach the business of living, and how we engage with change. It supplies us with a language for emotional transformation. And in so doing, the idea of “making a journey” has become a route for energy, the channel for a current to run along. The basic plots are like this: routes for the energy that is the living story to electrify our experience.

The fact that they occur in so many diverse and disconnected cultures suggests that these paths reflect the way our brains are structured. At the very least, these dynamics have proved to be so useful that they have become ingrained in our minds. They remind us of ways in which we are restored, point to stores of latent energy, and release that energy so that it can renew us.


So the first way in which a story resources us is through the plot. Any story with a clear plot-line that follows one of the basic plots will feed us energy because the plot itself functions as an archetypal process.


Good stories use archetypal processes and deploy archetypal images and though we may not be aware of the full scale of their influence upon us, we are nourished by them to the extent of depending upon them for a healthy emotional, psychological and spiritual life. All the basic plots are archetypal processes, or, as I have said, variations on a single archetypal process. And there are hundreds of archetypal images, each with their own significance to the human heart and mind.


All archetypes are hidden stores of potential energy that we can access and deploy to meet our needs, serve our purposes and share with others. There are hundreds of them. But some are especially powerful, and one of the most powerful of all is “treasure.”




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