Friday, July 25, 2008

There Are Only Two Types of Stories



A stranger comes to town

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 | 2:28 PM ET

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, seen at his Paris home in April 2007, says there are really only two types of stories: 'the voyage of discovery — and a stranger comes to town'. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)
Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, seen at his Paris home in April 2007, says there are really only two types of stories: 'the voyage of discovery — and a stranger comes to town'. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

A while back, before he became an international superstar, the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho was in town for a book festival.

Sitting on a couch in Toronto, he told me, the producer, before the official interview began, that there are really only two stories in the world.

"There's the voyage of discovery — and a stranger comes to town."

Take it from a man who has written, among many books, the most translated book in the world (67 languages) by a living author, The Alchemist.

It has sold 65 million copies. So Coelho must know something about the art of storytelling.

Now, I love statements like that, categories that rope in the world.

The Alchemist is precisely a voyage of discovery, a novel about a young Spanish shepherd on a spiritual quest. It is written with child-like simplicity and reads like an allegory.

But surely, in this whole wide world, there must be more than two categories of stories?

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Or maybe not. Our lives are all voyages even if we never leave the cities and towns we were born in.

In this country, where it seems everyone came from somewhere else (even the aboriginals who apparently walked across the Bering Straits), we all pick up and leave one spot at some point in our lives to move on to the next.

But if a "voyage of discovery" is too capacious a category, a "stranger comes to town" is almost the opposite. It is everywhere, in our media, in our movies, on the news. It is also the more enticing tale.

Coehlo himself was the stranger come to town that day, to give an interview to the CBC. So was the gunslinger in the old movie, Shane, who helped the good farmers whip the nasty ranchers who wanted their grazing land.

Add to that list the Terminator, dropping in from the future. And maybe even our German-Canadian dealmaker (of Brian Mulroney fame), Karlheinz Schreiber. He's the stranger who is doing all he can to stay in town, in Canada. And he as he has been trying to do so for years.

Seven basic plots

Still, you might balk at the simplicity of these pigeonholes. It's easy to lump everything into the voyage of discovery category. What about Romeo and Juliet? (Get smart, Coehlo and Handler!)

Fortunately, others have taken up the trick of turning the world of stories into neat categories. Like the journalist and critic Christopher Booker.

He's written a book which boils down all literature to seven basic plots. His categories are more foolproof, more intellectually sustaining.

They are also useful in any storytelling enterprise, fictional or documentary. For some time now I have had a print-out of them over my desk.

Here are Booker's categories:

  • Overcoming the monster (David and Goliath, taming the Canadian wilderness, etc.)
  • Rags to riches (Cinderella, Jean Chretien)
  • Quest: the world traveller, fighting evil or adversity (Odysseus, Norman Bethune)
  • Voyage and return: hero returns from abroad, renewed (Robinson Crusoe, Michael Ignatieff)
  • Comedy: confusion reigns, happy ending (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Quebec referendums)
  • Tragedy: human overreaching, terrible consequences (Oedipus, Paul Martin)
  • Rebirth (Scrooge, the North American auto industry)

That last one, amid the lamentable closings of auto plants, is probably more of a hope embedded in a story category. Rebirth of a once mighty industry is by no means guaranteed.

Tell the right stories

Regardless of how many types of stories there are, the idea of the narrative is so appealing that it can be quite commanding. For example, I read in a recent op-ed piece in a newspaper: "To fix the economy, tell the right stories."

Behavioural economists, as they now call themselves, are telling us that the tales we tell each other — about financial "bubbles" and the once glimmering stock market — drive our economy more than the once triumphant, rational principle of personal cost-benefit.

So what the op-ed writer is saying is stem the tide of viral gossip. Let's all get on the same page. We must "overcome the monster" of economic downturn by means of telling more plausible stories to each other.

If you think about it that way, then stories are the real currency in an economy like this one, in the consumer-driven marketplace. Narrative has cash value.

A complicating factor

Let's hope that most of the stories we tell each other in these circumstances are truthful. We shouldn't just be whispering pleasing falsehoods.

Journalists tell themselves that they are in the business of storytelling. Our mandate at the CBC is quite explicit on this front: to tell Canadians their stories.

So every now and then we are overcome by this rapturous storytelling mystique. We feel like clerics with a holy writ.

So, I think it's only fair to ask: what do we mean by story? Doesn't it have to be more than one darn thing happening after another? Or a mere confidence building exercise?

Jon Franklin, one of the pioneers of modern "narrative journalism," thinks he has the answer to these questions.

More than two decades ago he published a seminal book, Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.

He defines story very simply. A character encounters a "complication." The complication obstructs the character. Eventually, he or she resolves it.

Trapped in mid-story

In its nuts-and-bolts formula, it is very simple: complication, development, resolution. Sometimes several times over.

As it turns out, very few of us journalists tell stories that way.

Of course a story needs complication. And the stories we tell often have that ingredient by the barrel load. But too often, by the provincial nature of what we do, there is no resolution.

Journalists are always in mid-story, according to Franklin (refugees are fleeing from fighting, etc). We are constantly telling stories without their proper conclusion.

Fiction writers and screenwriters tell stories that resolve contradiction, the way Franklin wants. And sometimes journalists do, as well.

But mostly we don't (especially in daily journalism).

That's why I always liked the little "essay" Paul Coehlo tried out on me before he went into the studio for his interview. There is no formula. No glad-day insistence on resolution.

When the stranger comes to town, we all stop and pay attention. That stranger is on a voyage of discovery. Mostly that stranger is someone else. But sometimes that stranger is you.