What stories affect you profoundly? Which ones are your favorites? If you had to make a list of the three most influential of stories, could you?
About 15 years ago, I heard a wise publisher say that, and I’ll paraphrase, “there is only one great story. It’s the story of a young person who loses his or her family and must go out into the world and accept responsibility for it, work to change it and make it better.”
Being the kind of person that I am, I had to stop and think about that, and I’ve been trying to decide for the past 15 years if that is true. Is it the one big story? Or are there other big stories?
The problem is, us humans sometimes don’t look at things deeply enough. I hear a lot of truisms from writers that just aren’t true. For example, years ago I read a book on screenwriting where the author said, “Here is a list of the top 50 bestselling movies of all time. Look at them and see if you can figure out what they have in common.” So I read through the list and identified three major factors that they all had in common.
But at the end of the list, the author said, “See, they have nothing in common!” Well, I see it differently.
So I’ve had to wonder if there is only one big story. You see, we all have our individual tastes in stories just as we have tastes for foods. Your favorite food might be a chocolate shake, while mine might be cherry-vanilla, and the lady down the street might find herself eating the sulfur tips of matches.
In part, the stories that affect us most deeply do so because they resonate with us strongly. (See my book Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing for more information.) Our own past experiences, positive and negative, lend power to a story. For example, if you’ve ever fallen deeply in love and then lost that person, you will probably find yourself in tears if you watch a well-written love story that deals with loss. If you were ripped from your family as a child and put into foster care, then stories about being reunited with family will influence you more deeply than others. If you’ve ever struggled to uncover a deep family secret, then perhaps a dramatic suspense story will be more to your taste.
After thinking about that one big story for fifteen years, I have decided that it’s a little off. Yes, there is only one big story, but the definition that was given doesn’t encompass it all.
You see, the one big story is life. It’s the myriad experiences that we have as human beings that unite us. It’s about a person facing universal conflicts. It’s about growing up and discovering great things. It’s about how to fall deeply and irrevocably in love—and the pain that comes when we love amiss. It’s about learning to understand our place in the universe. It’s about nurturing the next generation. It’s about conquering evil and being destroyed by time. It’s about growing old and accepting loss. It’s about learning to be happy in spite of it all.
Every hit book or movie that I’ve ever seen seems to be just a part in the tapestry of the one great story, maybe just trying to capture a single thread of it, or two or three.
A few authors try to weave it all together. Homer tried it. Shakespeare did, too, as did Chaucer and Tolstoy. But few of us are that ambitious.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to talk about Storytelling—what makes great stories— but I want to first put it in perspective. Whenever I look at the One Big Story, it seems to grow just a little, as if its furthest limits have never been explored, and it’s up to you to discover them.
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