It was a time of heroes…
Here are three of the most powerful storytelling tools available to you as writers, bloggers and audience-facing creators of all kinds.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the 2,000+ year old formula for putting these 3 things together to create a story nobody will be able to resist.
It’s 1993. Snow is falling, and I’m stumbling up the side of a mountain in Austria, moaning in horror.
A week ago, I thought I could handle this. A week ago, I was smug, ignorant and half a stone heavier. What a difference a week has made.
Ahead, my walking party is making good time, way too good for my wobbly legs. I call out for them to slow down, feeling a burden and a fool. What the hell am I doing here?
“Get a move on, Mike!” someone says cheerfully when I catch up. Everyone’s looking amiably tolerent of my inability to do this properly. They’re all clad in breathable fabrics and warm fleeces, like the seasoned enthusiasts they are. I’m wearing a thin padded jacket that’s cheap enough to vent body warmth at every step, and a neon-green kagool borrowed from someone twice my size. It flaps and billows around me like I’m Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway vent. One good gust of wind and I’ll fully inflate, bouncing away down the mountainside to a profoundly undignified death.
I hope they’re not watching when it happens. I hope they don’t see it.
I’m on this holiday because I want to be the hero of my own life again. Things haven’t been right for a while. I left school with a vague yearning towards being a writer but no clue about how to make it happen. I quickly decided I needed some other career first, because, young people didn’t write, did they? They went off on wild adventures, did reckless stuff that would turn their parents white, and got into the kind of trouble they’d always be absurdly proud of. Me? I was working in a pottery for the minimum wage, gluing handles onto cups. I couldn’t imagine Odysseus doing this, or Bruce Wayne, or Gandalf.
Something was desperately wrong, and I needed to fix it.
That’s why I spent my meagre savings on an intensive 2-week walking holiday in the Austrian Tyrol. The second I booked it, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Destiny, get out the damn way – I’m in charge here. As an addict of adventure & fantasy fiction, I instinctively knew the shape of how my life should look, and walking up mountains was a hell of a lot more like it.
I felt – for want of a better word – more heroic.
Fact is, we’re all hardwired to be heroes. Yes, I really just wrote that, and yes, I’m rolling my eyes as well. Because it sounds ridiculous. It sounds like the kind of self-aggrandizing nonsense that has led to Millennials being regarded by other generations as entitled, positivity-addled dipsticks who can’t do anything except complain that the world isn’t fair, especially when their Apple products break. We oldsters love a good excuse to whine about young people, and wow, are we buried under excuses with this lot. (And so on.)
I don’t mean “heroes” in the sense that we’re stronger, wiser, better than everyone else. True heroism isn’t flashy, the same way it’s never just about men, despite the appallingly sexist male bias that often accompanies the word. But above all, it’s not always special. We’re no Neo or Katniss Everdeen. We’re not the mystical videogaming entity known as Player 1, magically gifted with the ability to dodge every obstacle as if we’ve done so a thousand times already – as if the whole world revolves around us. Anyone who thinks that is in for a rude awakening (let’s hope).
But we are supposed to be the most important person in the story of our lives, and that story is supposed to be one hell of a ride that thrills and terrifies us in equal measure. When it isn’t – when something feels desperately wrong – that story is broken.
We’ve all grown up with various versions of what Joseph Campbell dubbed “The Hero’s Journey.” The template is pretty simple: Our Hero starts with nothing, has a moment of revelation where they acknowledge their potential, work really hard to turn that potential into something real, overcoming massive, frightening challenges along the way – and then they thunder over the finish line and achieve victory against the odds.
That’s what heroes do.
And sometimes they’re not that special until they act. Sometimes it’s the journey that makes the hero.
All modern filmmakers know this formula, all the way from the bombastic excesses of the latest Hollywood CGI-fest down to the story of Hazel in The Fault In Their Stars, whose heroism is to choose to live in the present when her future seems lost. We understand this plot arc, and it really gets to us. Consequently, modern entertainment is so awash with it that when something comes along that turns the hero’s journey on its head, we don’t know what to do except yell, “You can’t do that to Ned Stark! He’s the hero!”
If you’re telling stories that are designed to influence other people, the Hero’s Journey is the sharpest tool at your disposal. It’s what cuts deepest. This may be why the internet is flooded with “live the dream” self-improvement material, because we’ve all become so ravenous, so addicted to that story that we can’t stop using it. We’re all hooked.
This means if you’re trying to reach your readers and customers, making them the heroes of what you’re attempting is the fastest way to build an audience that cares.
This is why novels that speak to the universal truths that bind society together are so popular (and why, in George RR Martin’s case, stories that contradict those themes are such a refreshing shock to the system). It’s why some businesses explode in popularity, because they give their customers power – or just a sense of power – over the story of their lives. It’s why Upworthy.com gets traffic. (“Bullies Called Him Pork Chop. He Took That Pain With Him And Then Cooked It Into This.” Actual Upworthy headline there. I’m not linking to it, sorry.)
Remember I said a good hero’s journey is all about ambition, failure and revelation?
Let’s look at a few good examples.
Steve Kamb (who is 30 years old today) is a man on a mission. Not only is his wildly popular website Nerd Fitness dedicated to improving the health of his 200,000+ readers and subscribers – he also has an admirably gutsy bucket-list of things he wants to achieve in life. Well, nothing new there. We all have one of those, in some form, buried in the depths of our heads or scribbled in the back of a treasured notebook…
In Steve’s case, the difference is – he went public with his, in a fascinating way.
His ‘Epic Quest Of Awesome’ is a To-Do list turned into a leveling-up exercise, in much the same way a videogamer levels their character up in a roleplaying game. This is an entirely fitting angle for Steve to take, as he’s a self-professed gaming fan (hence the “Nerd” in “Nerd Fitness”).
His list includes lofty ambitions like “buy a tropical island (yes, I’m serious)” and “get in the Guinness Book Of World Records for something” – the kind of things most of us are afraid of sharing with the world for fear of looking absolute dorks. Not Steve, bless ‘im. He puts it up there, for anyone to read. And alongside the wilder ambitions are more achievable ones, mainly based around his love of travel, his business, and – of course – upping his fitness levels. It’s all there in full view.
Clearly this is someone with delusions of grandeur? Except – he’s ticking them off. He’s already turned Nerd Fitness into his full-time income (Level 1) and paid off his student loads 4 years early (Level 11). He guest-spoke at Google (Level 3), Facebook (Level 8) and at TEDx (Level 9) and he’s chasing a slot in a prime-time talk show.
What’s wonderful about Steve’s approach is how much it could have gone wrong. When you pin up your most heartfelt ambitions, your dream Hero’s Journey, for all the world to see, you’re taking public ownership of the battle you’ll fight to achieve them. And that’s what will make people care. Audiences love it when you throw yourself at a challenge, and they’ll cheer you on all the more if you’re completely transparent about what you’re attempting – the gutsier the better.
But – what if you fail?
Tim Grahl is a book-marketing wizard. He wrote the above book for authors wanting to build themselves an online presence and a dedicated tribe of fans – and he’s qualified to do it because he’s landed his clients on the New York Times bestseller lists (including Daniel Pink, author of To Sell Is Human).
For the last year, Tim has been experimenting with all sorts of ways to sell his own book, and he’s been documenting it under the name “The 10k Experiment” (selling 10,000 copies in one year).
As I write, he has 9 days left…and he’s about a thousand copies short.
Which is a bit embarrassing for him, right? This is the book marketing guy, in danger of failing to sell enough books by his own deadline. He’d be forgiven for going quiet about it and hiding in a corner with a tub of ice-cream until the deadline passes.
Instead? He’s writing about the very real possibility of failure – and I can’t think of a better way to get people to promote his book and do everything they can to give it one last big push, Kickstarter style. Because of his honesty, I have the feeling he’ll storm it.
Update: thanks to that post, Tim sold another 1,000 books in 2 days. That’s the power of asking for help.
If you pluck up your courage and work your vulnerability into the stories you’re creating, you sound human. A regular person. Just like your audience. And if you’re trying to get people interested in what you’re doing, you want them to empathize, to feel you’re approachable and normal, underneath all those awesome things you’re attempting.
It’s a great way to make them care.
When I’m not writing about storytelling, I’m looking for ways to hone my travel writing skills. For the next month or so, because of family matters, opportunities to travel are limited. I can’t go far, so I can’t really travel.
Nonsense, says Alastair Humphreys.
A former National Geographic Adventurer Of The Year, Alastair has been on some absurdly intrepid expeditions: walking 1,000 miles of the world’s largest sand desert, for example, or rowing across the Atlantic. However, Alastair’s latest project is to turn the concept of “adventure” into something everyone can have a go at, no matter how busy/time-strapped/broke they are.
Enter microadventures: short, thrilling excursions into the (fairly) unknown that stretch everything except your wallet and your day-job’s holiday allowance. Travel? It doesn’t need you to leave the country. You don’t even have to go far from your front doorstep. All it requires is a change of perspective, and the revelation that “adventure” is anything that’s meaningful, challenging and uncomfortable enough.
All heroic journeys have a moment of supreme enlightenment, where the protagonist crosses a threshold and nothing will ever be the same again. As a storyteller, if you can bestow this gift upon your audience, if you can change their worldview in a meaningful way – they will remember it forever.
Sign up for the microadventure revolution with Alastair’s new book (which I heartily recommend, being halfway through it as I write).
Where do they fit into your stories – and how are you telling the world about it?
– The latest project from Pulitzer-winning journalist Paul Salopek is a hero’s journey by any definition imaginable: he’s spending 7 years (!) walking from Ethiopia to the southern tip of South America, writing all the way. Follow this incredible journey on the official website, and on his page at National Geographic.
– “I want to find an accommodation between telling stories about life and living it well.” Writer Zadie Smith steals the show at the annual Moth Ball Gala in New York.