Why We Tell Stories

The first of a series on what Joseph Campbell called the "one great story" of humanity.

The following are excerpts from The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker cut together and highlighted to create a dialogue between the reader and the text.


At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story. 

We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories:

telling them;

listening to them;

reading them;

watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage.

They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence. Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, films or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories.

These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives

But it is obviously in their fictional form that we most usually think of stories. So deep and so instinctive is our need for them that, as small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories, as evidence of an appetite likely to continue to our dying day. So central a part have stories played in every society in history that we take it for granted that the great storytellers, such as Homer or Shakespeare, should be among the most famous people who ever lived.

In modern times we have not thought it odd that certain men and women, such as Charlie Chaplin or Marilyn Monroe, should come to be regarded as among the best-known figures in the world, simply because they acted out the characters from stories on the cinema screen. Even when we look out from our own world into space, we find we have named many of the most conspicuous heavenly bodies – Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Orion, Perseus, Andromeda – after characters from stories.

Yet what is astonishing is how incurious we are as to why we indulge in this strange form of activity.

What real purpose does it serve?

So much do we take our need to tell stories for granted that such questions scarcely even occur to us. In fact what we are looking at here is really one mystery built upon another, because our passion for storytelling begins from another faculty which is itself so much part of our lives that we fail to see just how strange it is: our ability to ‘imagine,

to bring up to our conscious perception

the images of things

which are not actually in front of our eyes. 

While writing a book on a quite different subject, I found my attention focusing on a small number of particular stories. They included a Shakespeare play, Macbeth; Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita; a 1960s French film, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim; the Greek myth of Icarus; and the German legend of Faust. On the face of it, these stories might not seem to have much in common.

But what haunted me was the way that,

at a deeper level,

they all seemed to unfold round the same general pattern.

Each begins with a hero, or heroes, in some way unfulfilled.

The mood at the beginning of the story is one of anticipation, as the hero seems to be standing on the edge of some great adventure or experience.

In each case he finds a focus for his ambitions or desires, and for a time seems to enjoy almost

dream-like success.

Macbeth becomes king; Humbert embarks on his affair with the bewitching Lolita; Jules and Jim, two young men in pre-First World War Paris, meet the girl of their dreams; Icarus discovers that he can fly; Faust is given access by the devil to all sorts of magical experiences.

But gradually the mood of the story darkens.

The hero experiences an increasing sense of frustration.

There is something about the course he has chosen which makes it appear doomed, unable to resolve happily. More and more he runs into difficulty; everything goes wrong; until that original dream has turned into a nightmare.

Finally, seemingly inexorably, the story works up to a climax of violent self-destruction.

The dream ends in death

So consistent was the pattern underlying each of these stories that it was possible to track it in a series of five identifiable stages:

from the initial mood of anticipation,

through a dream stage when all seems to be going unbelievably well,

to the frustration stage when things begin to go mysteriously wrong,

to the nightmare stage where everything goes horrendously wrong,

ending in that final moment of death and destruction.

No sooner had I become aware of this pattern than many other well-known stories began to suggest themselves as following the same general shape. Not surprisingly, these included a good many dramatic and operatic tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet or Carmen. They included myths and legends, such as that of Don Juan; novels, such as the dreams turned to nightmare of those two unhappy heroines, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, both ending in suicide; or films such as Bonnie and Clyde, describing the two young lovers who lightheartedly embark on a career as bank robbers and end up riddled with a hail of bullets. Again and again through the history of storytelling it was possible to see this same theme, of a hero or heroine being drawn into a course of action which leads initially to some kind of hectic gratification and dream-like success, but which then darkens inexorably to a climax of nightmare and destruction.

And at this point two questions began to intrude.

Firstly,

why was this so?

Why has the imagination of storytellers seemed to form so readily and regularly round this theme?

Why do we recognize it as such a satisfactory shape to a story? 

Secondly,

were there other patterns like this underlying stories, shaping them in quite different ways?

After all, this cycle of self-destruction only describes a certain type of story, with an ‘unhappy ending’. What about all those stories which have ‘happy endings’? Were there any similar basic patterns underlying these too?

- End of excerpt


Note: The presented model for stories is bleak because the author is referring to stories in which the main characters stray from the correct path. They are not able to overcome their fatal flaws and fully develop into who they are meant to become, which is why their stories end in despair and death. As Booker writes later on in the book, "There are... a great many stor[ies in which] somehow ‘going wrong’, in terms of failing fully to realize the basic plot... lies behind [an unhappy ending]. As we shall see, the question of how and why stories can go wrong in this way, usually leaving us, the audience, with a dissatisfied sense that something has somewhere gone adrift, provides some of the most significant clues of all as to how stories work and what they are really about." We'll be exploring the duality of light and dark stories in later posts.

I first became interested in stories by accident. As a teenager I would watch the hit television show, Supernatural. The creator, Eric Kripke would always reference the The Hero's Journey as a blueprint to the series' story (first five seasons). The way he talked about this "Hero's Journey" and it's importance fascinated me so I started researched it. The concept of The Hero's Journey was introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell, through his studies of the world religions and mythologies kept identifying the same themes and structures in stories all over the world at different times. His research led him to believe that these stories were part of one larger story, humanity's story and that these stories exist to make sense of and guide us through life. 

As I read more and more about stories I became very interested in where they came from and the real they play in people's lives today.

Join my journey to explore why we need stories.

Praise for

The Seven Basic Plots

Why We Tell Stories

"This is the most extraordinary, exhilarating book. It always seemed to me that 'the story' was God's way of giving meaning to crude creation. Booker now interprets the mind of God, and analyses not just the novel – which will never to me be quite the same again – but puts the narrative of contemporary human affairs into a new perspective. If it took its author a lifetime to write, one can only feel gratitude that he did it."Fay Weldon

I perform wonders without hands and walk the earth without feet.