The sharing of stories predates writing and every other medium we use to share stories. But we know a lot about ancient story telling because, once you look 'under the hood' stories, story telling hasn't changed very much in human history.
Stories have been told since the beginning of human consciousness using a combination of oral narrative, music, art and dance. Stories, at their best, bring understanding and meaning of human existence through remembrance and enactment.
Today may seem different than the ancient past, but the mediums for story telling have changed only a little and architecture of stories has changed very little in all human history.
Because of this we all know a lot about stories. We're born with story sense and we learn a lot more very quickly. We learn the rules, vocabulary and style of story telling fast. By two most of us know as much about story as anyone, and we go on to refine our story hearing skills throughout life.
When people study storytelling there's a running joke that there is really only 10 or 7 or 2 stories. The two story model says 'someone goes on a trip' and 'a stranger comes to the door' are the only two stories when it comes down to it. But if you think about it someone going on a trip and a stranger coming to the door are really just two points of view of the same story. So, maybe there really is only one story and it just gets told in many ways.
In 1949 Joseph Campbell, an American professor who studied myths through history, released the most influential book ever written about how stories work - what's 'under the hood' of storytelling.
Wikipedia explains that Campbell explores the theory that mythological narratives frequently share a fundamental structure. The similarities of these myths brought Campbell to write his book in which he details the structure of the monomyth. He calls the motif of the archetypal narrative, "the hero's journey". In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes the monomyth:
In laying out the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. "The hero's journey" begins in the ordinary world. He must depart from the ordinary world, when he receives a call to adventure. With the help of a mentor, the hero will cross a guarded threshold, leading him to a supernatural world, where familiar laws and order do not apply. There, the hero will embark on a road of trials, where he is tested along the way. The archetypal hero is sometimes assisted by allies. As the hero faces the ordeal, he encounters the greatest challenge of the journey. Upon rising to the challenge, the hero will receive a reward, or boon. Campbell's theory of the monomyth continues with the inclusion of a metaphorical death and resurrection. The hero must then decide to return with this boon to the ordinary world. The hero then faces more trials on the road back. Upon the hero's return, the boon or gift may be used to improve the hero's ordinary world, in what Campbell calls, the application of the boon.
As a fun exercise you can think of any story, movie, book, or TV show you've ever enjoyed and plug it in to this model. If you're like most people you'll be astonished how well it fits.
Amanda and I just enjoyed a three season binge watch of the Prime Original TV series RED OAKS. Surely, a sprawling 3 season modern TV series wouldn't follow the Hero's Journey. But it does. In every regard. In particular the ending. The series, which was great, was also a text book example of 'the happy ending' or 'happily ever after' as children stories tell it. In Russian it's expressed as "they lived long and happily, and died together on the same day". It doesn't get better than that. And that, since we sat around ancient fires, has been the fundamental reward for listening to stories: entertainment, insight, new understanding, meaning where there was none, a new way to look at change and our own experience, and in the end, at least a way to imagine that sometimes things will turn out as good as they possibly can. A kind of promise that good things are possible.
Story telling and beauty are closely related in this sense. Up until about 100 years ago people studied and got educations about stories and beauty as if they were measurable, knowable, things. Then in the modern age something strange happened. People began to mess with the ideas of stories and beauty. What if beauty could be anything. Anything a powerful or influential person said it was. What if stories could be told in any way at all to influence, inform and 'move' an audience.
In experimental circles artists and creators tried almost everything. Exploring every possible combination and permutation of the rejection of beauty and story. Some dug back in history to find radical forms from other cultures and eras. Some raced into the future without any rules or guides.
After about 100 years of this, and through incredible advances in the mediums in which stories are told, the truth is people, as a whole, haven't been that interested in the efforts of these artists and creators. I believe their efforts have been worthwhile, and they've definitely changed some things for the better: how fast stories can be told, who is qualified to do art, and much of the new technology can be credited to these modern creators.
But by and large people still know beauty when they see it and people still insist on stories being told exactly as our ancient ancestors told and heard them. And in the story telling form of most dramatic TV, melodrama, that means Happy Endings.
The creators who reject story and beauty would say that everything is relative. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc. This leads, at best, to a kind of moral relativism. The idea that good and bad, right and wrong are just ideas for each of us to decide. At worst it leads to nihilism, the idea that there is no right or wrong, good or bad. That life is genuinely without meaning or purpose. And that all stories are artificial and not part of any possible real world.
In some ways this is a history lesson. All these ideas were explored in the 20th century. It seems to me the power purpose and possibility of story prevailed. We now live in an age of story wars. Those with the best stories will decide our future. Those with unsatisfying stories, no mater how pop they are in some news cycle or entertainment season will, in the fullness of time, not have much enduring value or influence.
Here are the Simpsons writers way back in Season 2 struggling hilariously with how all this works in the modern age.
Tonight GAMES OF THRONES ends its final season. The record breaking HBO series based on George Martin's books is ending its 8th Season run and broadly fans are not happy. In part, over a million people have signed a petition to 'do over' the final season because it has shaped up most decidedly to NOT be a happy ending. Loved characters have been killed, villains have not been punished and it does not seem possible that anyone will live happily ever after.
But the problems run a lot deeper than that. Among the main characters it would be difficult to say that any of them have learned anything at all or gained new understanding about themselves and the world around them. Worse, with radical changes in the characters from the writers it would be a mater of much debate to even say who the 'hero' is in the hero's journey and who the other characters are. It's a thing successful stories almost never get wrong and never mess with. In this 'happy ending' debacle the problem with GoT may be most apparent to fans now, but the germ of the problem has been festering for a long time as characters changed sides, personality and direction.
The Coen Brothers are story experts. Their movie Burn After Reading ends with this epic contemplation on the form and what stories are all about.
Clever people will argue that life is like this, and that there is good and bad in everyone and stories don't have to follow a pattern as long as they move, entertain and inform us. But life is not a story. As the Simpsons said, life is just a bunch of stuff that happens. Often meaningless, terrible, and without any clear purpose. We all know life all too well. From the beginning that's why we have stories. We seek purpose. We seek meaning. We seek new understanding, or at least reassurance of our shared understanding. We seek patterns. That's what human brains do. That's what makes us human.
If the good doesn't win. If the villain can be a hero. If it can all happen and mean nothing. Then what hope is there?
And that's why we need stories to have happy endings.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.