Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Four innovative models for digital story design

by Steve Seager on April 8, 2015 . Views: 1000


Hero’s Journey image above excerpted from Action Philosophers! © Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente.

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For most storytellers and communicators structure is an anathema to creativity. Yet all storytelling has inherent structures. Exploring them can unlock new approaches to digital storytelling — and digital content design more in line with the bits and bytes of our digital ecosystem. Here are four innovative models to get you in the mood.

Roland Barthes, master linguist and semiotician once said: “There are countless forms of narrative in the world.” And yet the majority of western storytellers have been ploughing just one narrative model for well over 60 years: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey from the Hero with a Thousand Faces.

While it has its value, Campbell’s model is not a useful model for digital story design on a structural level. Down below, I offer four alternative narrative structures that we could use to design intelligent stories more fitting to our digital context. Why the big deal about structure?

Structure makes the digital world go round

From data models and information architectures to the taxonomies and ontologies used in content strategy, clearly defined structures allow our stories to be read, understood, delivered, discovered and managed by our digital plumbing.

In fact, structured content is fast becoming a necessity, not a luxury. That’s why content strategists are already exploring intelligent content:

“Content that is structurally rich and semantically categorised and is therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable” — Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper, Managing Enterprise Content

I’m going to be posting what that means for communications design later. But for now I want to explore something new on the structure of storytelling on a macro level. This is something that’s not yet in the content strategy lexicon, or communications either. It has major impacts on both.

Plot versus Story: a working definition

The most important structural element in story design is the difference between plot and story. The debate is deep and complex. For now, and in line with my take on storylining, I will define these as:

  • Plot is the ‘what and why’ things happen
  • Story is ‘how’ those things are told

Check out Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Russian Folk Tale (1928) as to why this works on a structural level. I have highlighted the most important bits for a quick read.

Drawing on Propp’s masterwork of narratology; while the ‘how’ we tell stories varies greatly even within cultures, the ‘what and why’ (the plot) is the most stable, structural element you can consistently identify. Or, as Propp put it, the plot is the ‘simplest irreducible narrative element’.

Now, back to the Hero’s Journey and some myths.

Myth #1: There is one storytelling form to rule them all

For over 60 years, the storytellers’ go-to model has been Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: complete with Volger’s adaptation of the Hero’s Journey and the three act structure. However, there are very good arguments as to why the monomyth is actually a myth itself, a strong argument that the Hero’s Journey stages are not the elements that drive plot at all, and indisputable proof that the three act structure is a nonsense.

Plus, there is a new meetey, frilp, bubbly or kenshoo popping up every day — almost all of which require their own unique approach to digital story design. So why do we not employ non-linear storytelling structures from film theory and information science, where appropriate? How about funky ones in experimental literature? Gossip clearly has its own messy, open ended narrative form specific to the ‘medium’. And the great Kurt Vonnegut described 8 story shapes here.

That said, my single biggest issue with Campbell is the monomyth itself. Supposedly, this ‘Grand Unified Theory’ of storytelling allows us to design stories that will connect with anyone at all — from any culture, from any part of the world.

In my experience, that’s just not true.

Try telling a Russian a Japanese story, a Kenyan a Canadian one, a German a Saudi story. Do they all ‘click’ regardless? Do they really all have the same plot structure – the same ‘what and why’?

Myth #2: Story structures can cross borders

Cognitive linguists have already proven many times that stories are interpreted differently by different cultures. But what about structure?

For several years I worked as an expeditor (troubleshooter) in supply chains that spanned Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and more. And boy, was it hard work on a communications level.

Sometimes I sat around a table with five or six different nationalities and tried to broker a consensus. Over time, I learned I not only had to adapt the my storytelling to ensure everyone had the same interpretation, but also adjust the order and logic (the ‘what and why’) — according to the preferences of each nationality on the table.

So I believe that every culture has their own structural storytelling preferences. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that distinct narrative structures are embedded wherever people group and interact.

What if?

What if there were stable narrative structures inherent within cultures — on a geographic, business culture, organisational purpose or values level? What if we could surface them?

Applying some best practice content strategy and UX-thinking, we could map these structures against data-points. Create hypotheses about the storytelling preferences of our audiences, test and adapt story design accordingly.

Potentially, this would allow us to generate more powerful, personal stories via intelligent agents, social simulations and even crack the complexity of personalisation, omni-channel, and trans-media communications.

Down below are sketches of four narrative models to consider.

1. Scandinavian Narrative forms

Scandinavian Narrative

Unlike Hollywood or Western European narratives which privilege a single protagonist (like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey), Scandinavian narrative forms are often built around multiple characters (most often three or four), with a ritual-based truth as the red thread. Yes, each of these characters has their own trajectory — a beginning, a sort of middle and a sort of end. And yet, during their journey, all the characters meet in a central meeting point several times. They discuss their adventure to date. Realign around the ritual truth. They fight. Learn. Develop — sometimes not. And then they move on to the next stage of their journey. There are typically five acts for each protagonist and, in line with the number of protagonists, there are usually at least three consequent ‘endings’.

2. Indian narrative forms

Indian Narrative

Indian narrative forms are radically different from western forms. Watch a Bollywood movie. One moment the film is a romance, then a thriller, then a musical, then a martial arts movie — confusing for a western audience but totally natural for an Indian audience. As experienced in mathematics, microtonal music, literary forms and more, Indian culture seems eminently comfortable with complexity and non-linearity. The traditional starting point of common narrative forms (especially in Hindi) is a religious ritual invocation that establishes an emotive, spiritual sensibility for what follows. The ensuing narrative form is dendritic and offers multiple diegeses (world views), designed to accommodate many differing perspectives.

3. Central African narrative forms

Central African Narratives

Unlike Scandinavian and Indian narrative forms, the stable plot elements in Central African forms are often not function-based, but rather thematic and relational. Unlike many other narrative forms, the environment is privileged over a single protagonist, the social context is privileged over the individual protagonist, and the spiritual centre is privileged over the individual. All of the action — the ‘journey’ if you will — happens concretely within these clearly defined parameters. You can find this narrative model within Central African oral traditions, film, literature and more.

4. Autochthonous narrative forms

Autochtonous Narrative

Autochthonous people are those native to the place they live rather than ‘just’ being born or engendered to the place they live. While my research is admittedly limited, regardless of geographical location, it appears that common autochthonous narrative forms are quite unlike any other forms — with the possible exception of avant-garde film. To illustrate: whereas many Hollywood films are all story and no plot (big visual plays for attention with little motivation) these narratives are, in effect, all plot and no story. While the plot points are offered, the actual interpretation of the ‘story’ is left entirely up to the reader. The prime narrative function; to equip the reader with the skills to ‘read’ and interpret signs and create their own stories. The key message is left entirely up to the reader to decide. These narrative forms are often an interactive, learning device with no ‘auteur’ — only, in effect, an audience.

Applying these forms

When discussing editorial strategy with clients, I sometimes show them my models as an ice-breaker. I ask them to visualise the structure behind their organisational storytelling and choose a narrative model they think best fits with their culture. My goal: to see if I can surface the implicit narrative form.

Interestingly …

  • Teams in strongly innovation-focused companies almost always choose the Indian narrative form.
  • Teams in heavily campaign and product-focused companies almost always choose the Scandinavian model.
  • NGOs almost always choose the Central African narrative model.

I am not yet 100% sure what this means. Are these narrative forms really fixed? At what level of culture? Do they adapt over time? Can they be engineered?

What I do know is that we live a data-driven world. And it is possible to map data against against narratological patterns. (See The Infinite Adventure Machine which uses Proppian structural analysis to automagically generate stories)

My belief is that if we focused on surfacing and mapping culturally-specific narrative forms as my sketches above, we could open up a whole new world of new insights into the storytelling preferences of our audiences — and so begin to design truly ‘intelligent’ stories.

— Steve

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These models have been in my head for years. It feels good to share them. Thanks to Kenneth Mikkelsen for the prod to share them as they are. And to my patient and smart other half, who helped me unpack them, then put them back together again. Many times.

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  • Rob England

    A pleasure to read, thank you Steve. I was recently in Shanghai where I heard the following tale. I can’t help thinking that it neatly encapsulates the idea of theory of mind in just a few words.
    Two men crossed a bridge. As they walked over, the first man looked at the carp swimming under the bridge, and said, “Look how happy those fish are”. The second man replied, somewhat annoyed, “How can you know that they are happy? Are you a fish, so that you know what they think?”. The first retorted, “How can you know that I can’t think like a fish? Have you ever been inside my head?”. The second man stopped and said, “Where do you get all your ideas from?”. The first man replied, “From that bridge that we just crossed.”

  • Most welcome Rob. Glad you enjoyed. Love the tale – so very true 🙂

  • nathanbweller

    A lot of great thoughts here Steve. I’m really looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    As someone relatively new to narratology, I’m still all about Campbell. But not exclusively. I’ve been careful to vary my story theory perspectives in order to avoid getting stuck in a mental rut.

    For instance, I’ve also enjoyed The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, Morphology of the Folktale by V. Propp, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and more.

    One book I’m reading right now that I’ve found quite interesting is The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. Although I’m not sure it qualifies as story theory so much as psychoanalysis of literature coupled with applicable insights for raising kids.

    Regardless of precise definitions though, I’ve found all of these books and their perspectives to be extremely helpful in providing me with mental tools for approaching literature, cultural narratives, and more.

    I look at them as consciously defined frameworks for unconscious activity. Or, in other words, as locating within myself and others just why a piece of content or messaging resonates and then polishing that central idea until it’s all that’s left.

    Maybe that’s what you mean by surfacing?

    Anyway, I try not to get too stuck on the question of if these models are TRUE or not, since at the moment there’s really no way of knowing for sure. I think you’re absolutely right in saying that we need to bring data science into the equation if we ever want to get to the bottom of what’s really going on when we humans create and interact with stories.

    Long story long, great stuff! Hope we can chat sometime in the future.

  • Cheers, Nathan.

    I like your ‘consciously defined frameworks for unconscious activity’. That is indeed the stuff we need need to surface.

    Overall, It’s a bit like the form versus function debate in architecture – which follows which?

    If you think about media – the 120 minute western format for film, the half hour TV soap, even the one hour meeting in business – there have always been certain restraints that dictate storytelling in our modern context.

    However, the actual plot constructions within those restraints have been more culturally embedded – absorbed and filtered subconsciously.

    Going one level deeper; we get Propp and others looking at storytelling modes: Fairy stories, folk tales, speeches, even the bardic oral traditions.

    To me, surfacing those narrative forms gives us the opportunity to get more creative with storytelling.

    On content versus message etc, that’s a whole different topic 😉 I’ll be posting on that very soon. Almost finished an archetype for digital content.

    Would be great to have a chat. I like your site btw.


    – S

  • Ellen Sverdrup

    Hi! I’m swedish, and i was wondering which scandinavian stories you are referring to? (to gain a better understanding of what you mean with scandinavian structure)

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  • Cheers for the comment, Ellen.

    While I lost most of my bookmarks, I remember ‘netting up’ Norse Eddic poetry, Folkesagn and Icelandic sagas-especially Family sagas. That gave me enough to develop the idea.

    What’s your take? Truth in there?

    – Steve

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