I recently attended the wedding of an old friend of my wife. It was a well-put-together event, a fairly standard example of the genre, and though I don’t know the people getting married terribly well, I felt an upwelling of emotion at a few important points in the ceremony.
A wedding is a narrative genre: it has a beginning, a middle and an end, characters, and some sort of drama – not necessarily bad drama, just some sense of different people navigating intense experiences and arriving at a resolution together. A joining together, a vow – the terminology is well known.
It’s a standard trope of screenwriting classes and TED Talks that there are only seven basic human stories, that we’ve been recycling for thousands of years. In the screenwriting class this usually leads to the exhortation to choose an existing genre and try to tweak it in a slightly new way – for the love of God, don’t try to write something if you can’t fit it into a genre; this is folly and leads only to disaster. You won’t be able to option it or sell it, it will never get you to the semi-finals in a screenplay competition, you can’t use it to attract an agent, win a grant, or a fellowship.
The message, that one should embrace genre, was a tough one for me to wrap my head around as a film student – I always felt, and still often feel, like my role is to introduce something new to the cultural conversation – I’ve never been willing to concede that There’s Nothing New Under the Sun.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s say for a moment that there are only seven basic stories: what are they, and why would we be limited in that way as storytellers? Why only seven? And, why these? How do these all relate to human experience in a fundamental, necessary way? Why do we respond to these narratives and not other narratives?
That wedding got me thinking about ritual – about the beginnings of narrative, before anything was even written down. Once upon a time, before written language allowed the archiving of stories, they needed to be re-told frequently just to be remembered and passed on from generation to generation. And, though I’m sure they could be told privately, person-to-person in the comfort of a tent or around a fire, the most effective and memorable way to convey the key stories of a community would be in public, on special days, with fanfare, props, music and costumes.
What are the vitally important events in the life cycle of a small, tightly knit community? Births, deaths, and marriages, certainly. The Hunt would be one: going out in search of nourishment to bring back to the tribe. There would be something to do with both large-scale conflict and interpersonal conflict resolution: war, treaty, justice.
Well, that’s seven right there – so let’s look at these individually.
A Birth would be a kind of origin story – perhaps a weaving of the stories of the parents and the community into the blessing of a new life, naming, and some kind of augury of what the future may hold for that small person.
Death would be a sort of tragedy, telling the story of that person’s life and family, the contributions they made to the community, the circumstances of their death, and lessons that could be learned from their life – both triumphs and missteps.
Marriage is a story of romance, whether romantic comedy or drama – two people triumphantly coming together to navigate the challenges of life together and create family.
The Hunt serves as a kind of initiation, a quest – this is an adult role in the world, going out into the unknown and facing danger for the greater good of the community.
And, resolving conflict on any scale could be dramatized in competition – individual against individual, team against team, tribe against tribe. This type of story might contain a hero’s journey in the sense of a clear protagonist and antagonist – the storyline would involve a wrong or injustice, a challenge and setting right of that injustice.
In a community of any size – say 100 people – tracking all of these narratives would provide plenty of opportunities to tell and retell the associated stories. In any church, for example, there are weddings, funerals, christenings, communions on a weekly or at least monthly basis throughout the year – maybe fewer examples of competition and justice, because those are handled by a different department in our secular culture. And each of these events is an opportunity for the priest / elder / storyteller / shaman / judge to reaffirm the values of that community and culture, based on the genre of the ritual.
Our movie genres evolved organically over the last century, influenced by everything from theater to novels to economics to technology – but what emerged mapped (and maps) pretty closely to those basic rituals, without too much effort. A western is generally a story about justice – a lone gunslinger arrives to right wrongs and restore balance to a frontier community. A space quest is a hunt, essentially: we need to find ______ so we’re going to go out into the unknown and bring it back to save humanity. A romantic comedy is ultimately a wedding ritual; these two people were alone and sad and incomplete, now they’re together and happy, let’s celebrate! And a biopic is ultimately like a funeral – summing up a person’s life and their contribution, (usually) mourning their passing in the end.
Unlike reducing everything to the Hero’s Journey (which I think is ultimately culturally damaging) – I think that this is an intriguing and possibly valuable concept, that our major story forms can be traced back to essential rituals whose purpose was to keep the community healthy.
The telling of these stories around the community events is never objective or neutral – it always reaffirms the values of the community, either explicitly or implicitly. People get upset with romantic comedies for presenting single people as unhappy and married people as happy – but that’s the whole point. The point of the romantic comedy is to reaffirm the cultural core value of marriage. Because, for good or ill, that’s one of the core values of this contemporary cultural context.
Even though big-budget mainstream movies are tremendously expensive, they arose, arguably, as an industrial efficiency – it’s actually easier to communicate and reinforce these core cultural values with a single $100 million film that will be seen by millions of people than through thousands upon thousands of community rituals, happening all over the country every week of the year.
But, as with so many industrial efficiencies, over the course of a few generations, the underlying truth or point has been lost to most people. “Give the people what they want” – a film industry maxim that basically means stick to your genre – is actually starting from the middle, rather than the beginning of the storytelling process.
The genre is not the initial seed or spark – the Platonic ideal, story in embryo form. The genre is a response to the needs of the community. To use genre as a starting point is to remain unconscious about the basis or foundation of the genre, and ignorant about the point of the story. It is self reinforcing, recursive in a really dangerous way, hollowed out of its purpose.
I sound very conservative, fundamentalist even, to myself as I think this out. But the values I’m talking about are actually a variable – if they have a specific ideological orientation, it’s about the literal survival of the tribe – whichever of the seven stories are up for discussion.
On the subject of movies, and of how the seven stories relate to our culture, I’m not advocating for a specific set of values, certainly not “traditional family values” as they would be defined by a self-described “conservative” political ideology today. But I do think we need to consider the purpose of the stories we’re choosing to tell and focus our energy and attention towards today – superheroes, aliens, spies, serial killers – how are they serving us, how are they giving us the narrative threads we need to make sense of our shared experience on this planet, how are they helping us at least survive, and ideally thrive as a culture?
Maybe this is a way to gradually loosen our grip on the Hero’s Journey, maybe this might help us see that making a serial killer into the Herculean protagonist actually is perverse, and potentially damaging on some level.
What if we were to start from ritual, and the seven essential stories that together comprise the narrative of life in community, from birth to death, “how to live in a world in which we are doomed to die,” as David Mamet memorably wrote? What would change if, instead of the lone hero, these Seven Stories formed our starting point?