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Myths and folktales have an intrinsic power to move us. They seem to have always been around. Why is that?
Why do our hearts open when the glass slipper fits and Cinderella is united with her Prince? Why do we smile when Hansel and Gretel shove the witch into the oven?
As humans, we’ve evolved to consume information through story form. Stories are the best way natural selection and evolution have found to get knowledge into our thick skulls. Stories help us make sense of the world.
Where do all those folktales we know and love originate?
I like to think of myths and folktales as stream-worn pebbles. Time and repetition have washed these stories down to the very essence of human motivation, human vice and human desire. Because they’ve been told and retold by people as they went about their lives, myths and folktales deal with what it means to be human. What it means to exist in the world.
Their long history has allowed these stories to develop a rich baseline of proven structures for writers to make their own.
How many books, movies and TV shows use the Little Red Riding Hood folktale structure of a young person out on her own, meeting unsavory characters and learning that the world – and she herself – is not as innocent as she thought?
How many books, movies and TV shows use the Odyssey myth structure of a person or group wandering in faraway, dangerous places, looking for a way back home?
Spinning Stories into Gold
Let’s look at how we get to the story-gold within myths and folktales, dig it out, and apply it in ways that resonate in our writing. But first, we need to reverse engineer the folktales that speak to us and peek inside their structures. Then, we can take that structure and make it do the heavy lifting, leaving us to fill in our own details and make it reflect us.
A few years ago, when I wrote my first book,* I looked at how we can get our message across and make it memorable and meaningful in an increasingly noisy world.
As it turns out, the way to structure a really good story that resonates with the power of myth comes down to common sense. Now, like anything that’s common sense, we often don't see the fact of the matter until it’s pointed out. Then it becomes obvious.
Telling a really good story involves 4 steps.
In the next part of this blog series, we’ll get into what those steps mean, and we’ll reverse engineer a folktale to get at its emotional core. Then we can hang our own details on that core and make a story that has the heft of an old folktale but is completely ours.
In the meantime, think of a myth or folktale that really resonates with you. One that speaks to the best and oldest part of what you are. We’ll open up its structure for you to write your own version of it next time.
*Ed. - Check out Jim Jackson's book How to Tell a Really Good Story Absolutely Anything in 4 Easy Steps to dig deeper into this topic.
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