Discovering a heroine’s journeyComments

While thinking about Pitch Perfect I thought it might be fun to examine it in the context of "The Hero's Journey" popularised by Joseph Campbell.

The idea is that stories can be linked back to stages in a "monomyth" - a single arc that describes events in just about all tales. Campbell identified 17 distinct stages but it is generally accepted that not all stories will feature all 17 whilst still following the general outline.

I just thought it would be interesting to examine what many would consider a low brow, throwaway movie in this way and see how it matches up. I used a typical template found online to compare it to.

There are obviously going to be some spoilers if you've never watched it.

The ordinary world: Beca, our lead, joins college.

The call to adventure: this comes first in Beca being asked to audition for the Barden Bellas a cappella group, then in her Dad telling her she can have wonderful experiences and make great memories at college. There are also echoes in the repeated attempts by Jesse, the love interest, to get Beca to expand her horizons.

Refusal of the call: Beca first declines to audition, tells her dad she's not interested in college and wants to move to L.A. and also repeatedly rebuffs Jesse.

Meeting with the mentor: this is the shower scene with Chloe where they sing together for the first time.

Crossing the threshold: Beca's reluctant agreement with her father to give college a try for a year, combined with the above shower scene, leading to her audition for the Barden Bellas.

Tests, allies and enemies: allies is obviously the rest of the Bellas, tests is the struggle to find her place in the group when she feels restricted by its leader, Aubrey, and enemies is clearly defined as the rival group The Treblemakers.

The ordeal: improvisation during a performance leads to an argument and Beca leaving the Bellas. There is also a big bust up with Jesse leading her to reassess how she is living.

The road back: Beca's return to the Bellas fuelled by her realisation that she's been pushing people away and needs to do something about it.

The reward: there are a couple of things here - getting to play her music on the college radio station (but this is a bit hollow in the context of the above) and the return to the Bellas in a position of authority. We might also consider her awakening to her mental state as a reward.

The resurrection: when the Bellas turn to Beca and say "what do we do?" thus putting her in charge.

Return with the elixir: Beca and the Barden Bellas winning the a cappella contest.

This may all seem a bit overkill for such a film, and we certainly don't think about this when we sit down to enjoy it, but being able to relate back to such core tenets helps to explain why we do enjoy it and why it works so well as a story.

Discovering a heroine’s journey

A story is only as long as its telling.

Stories are told and then they are done. Some are longer, some are shorter but they are all stories: self contained, self sufficient. Complete.

I like that idea.

It's ironic as I often feel that my thoughts are left unfinished, that they have an unsatisfactory conclusion but, in their own way, this is how those stories were supposed to be told at that time - that was all there was.

Not a word more, not a word less.

A story is only as long as its telling.

Life is a series of commas, not periods

"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together - Van Gogh"

With the launch of Medium's new "Series" offering, conventional wisdom compares it to SnapChat's Stories, that the rest of the social web just happens to have copied. My immediate reaction, however, was that it was similar to Hardbound.

(Maybe it's just that I don't use SnapChat.)

Somewhat ironically, the first promotional quote on the Hardbound website comes from none other than Ev Williams.

Nathan Bashaw, the mind behind the company, noted the comparison some people were making between Series and Hardbound and graciously tweeted:

"We believe this format is bigger than any one company, and it might not be obvious now, but our goals are very different from Medium"

Whether there is even the slightest annoyance at the launch of a similar product it must still be a vindication that what Hardbound is doing is considered worthwhile.

Nathan has described discovering how tapping through a series of quick steps helped people learn more easily than reading a longer, drier piece.

They connected with it far better.

There are echoes of this in the description of Series:

It’s a new way to tell deeper, more meaningful stories

Commas

The title is a quote from Matthew McConaughey. It is a perfect articulation of how we don't live our lives in isolated chunks; everything flows from one event to the next and this is what Medium is trying to bottle.

The goal is for readers to drink it in and connect with these ongoing story arcs in a way that single, episodic posts could never hope to achieve.

Rather than omnipresent, grandiose think pieces Series feel like reclaiming the normalcy of the old web when weblogs and journals lived up to their names.

Creating a captivating series, however, is a far cry from writing an effective blog post - the skills required are different, tricky and complex even when the tool is quite simple.

It may seem strange to say when we are swamped with social networks that include a "stories" feature but we will, no doubt, be subjected to many failed tests while people try to find their feet with the new format.

Medium just has to hope that this doesn't cheapen the feature leaving users to abandon it as a neglected experiment.

Commodity

After my previous comments about Twitter homogenising "live" it was interesting to see a piece from The Verge end with the following statement:

"Series starts looking less like a big swing and more like a commodity."

Whether you compare Series to Hardbound, SnapChat stories, or any other network's variant, it becomes just another option in an already crowded space.

It's only natural.

The feature du jour becomes the "social norm" irrespective of being the best. It will become the de facto standard (for the time being) and users expect it or, at least, a semblance of it.

The pressure is on but any implementation only has to be good enough to deter a move away to another product or network.

In this context is Series a viable addition to Medium's toolset or just another "me too" feature added because every other service has it?

Life is a series of commas, not periods

Our stories

Stories

“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.”
― Laurie Anderson

As human beings we are students of story. We are enthralled by them just as we are enthralled by the flames of a campfire, fascinated by their twists and turns and always want to know how they end. We feel cheated if we can't get that closure.

Stories affect us because we can relate to them, understand them at some subconscious level beyond words on a page, beyond rational thought. We feel them, imagine ourselves within them, and live through them.

Some make us laugh, others make us cry but all good stories have one thing in common: they affect us, make us react, and in this they have power.

All writing is storytelling of a sort.

Instructions tell the story of how to achieve a desired result; ingredients tell the story of a product; a sign tells a story, be it information or a warning, and has an implied back story full of potential outcomes should we ignore its message.

Pause and affect

I originally wrote this having just finished watching the film "Her" and then, as now, I was dumbstruck by its power. I couldn't recall when I had been so affected by a story.

A lot has been written about it from the technological point of view, about possibilities and vagaries of the future, our relationship to it and the "creepy line" but this is not its purpose.

There is a line in the film that says:

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves "

It is our story, true, but a story nonetheless, perhaps written with a degree of artistic licence. We write it day by day, chapter by chapter but can place more importance on the telling than on actually writing it, living it, existing in the moment rather than reflecting on the past.

We are more connected than ever but often, as individuals and as a society, somehow more distant.

Our lives are becoming ever more digitalised. With machines, gadgets, and the web, so much of what we used to do has been outsourced. What made us the people we were slowly being removed, eroded.

We have reached a stage in our evolution where the story has changed. Some are uncomfortable with where the plot seems to be taking us. Maybe, we are now using technology to revert to a more familiar course, to recreate some of our humanity, to replace some of what has been lost.

Perhaps the old story was wrong and we needed a change. Perhaps we are overcompensating.

It's hard to say.

Before it's too late?

Biz Stone's recent post "The Future Is Simple" inspired me to revisit this. He wrote that he hopes the future of technology "somehow amplifies the best qualities of humanity" but in a way it's kind of sad - sad that it takes technology to make us realise who we are, what we could be, and perhaps even how we are... failing.

Maybe it reminds us how society is changing, how we are changing, and that we might not like what we become. Maybe it makes us question if this is the right campfire.

That people are having these discussions, people in positions of influence, is a positive sign. Still, the rest of us shouldn't wait. We should take our own steps without waiting to see what future technology awaits us.

For, what if the tech doesn't work?

Original version posted 18th November 2014 as part of the #Write365 Project, now deleted

Our stories