Do All Cultures Use the Same Story Structure?

By: Clyde Taber

When I taught a workshop on the Four Elements of Story in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I borrowed most of my material from my story mentor Jeremy Casper. There were a few people who questioned if the "hero's journey" structure is more of a Western construct. This conversation came up again in a recent series of emails prompted by this article Launching a Story with An Inciting Incident.

  • Is the 'inciting incident' a western story element?
  • Is it necessary in other cultures for a successful and compelling story?
  • Should we doubt ourselves more and rely on local storytellers?
  • What parts of our known successful western formula of storytelling can we count on as we cross cultures to help locals tell a compelling story?

I asked Jeremy to weigh in and here is his response:

Thanks, Clyde for inviting me in on the conversation. For those of you reading, feel free to take my notes with a grain of salt. Before I delve into a few things, I would just like to say that your observations are keen and worth addressing. 
There is NO universal way to tell stories. However, there are a few elements to certain TYPES of stories that do tend to be universal... meaning... we've observed them throughout history since the first days that humankind began penning narratives. So many of the tropes that we talk about in our story classes far out date Western thinking. There are a few elements of story that do seem to transcend time. But, let me clarify just a few things.
The types of stories that have inciting incidents, journeys, goals, etc. are a very specific type of story (a type we see throughout all of collective history). We call that type of story the monomyth. The first recorded monomyth was a Sumerian poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh, and we see the same pattern of storytelling evident in that poem that we see in many modern stories. A single character, called on a very specific journey, to find some sort of an elixir to bring back to the community, the destruction of the hero's ego, and the world is made a better place (on a side note, in ancient stories, the hero rarely lived happily ever after; the journey usually required the literal or metaphoric sacrificing of the hero's life).
It should go without saying that not all stories fall into that very rigid category. Fairy tales, Fables, Dramas, Comedies, etc., tend to reflect the elements of the monomyth, but rarely in such exaggerated forms. In most of my teaching, I used heightened examples like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, even The Wizard of Oz, because these elements are just so easy to see. But Frodo taking the One Ring of Power to Mount Doom to destroy it, and a boy helping his grandmother wash the laundry can both be story journeys and both are usually introduced through some sort of moment in the story we call an inciting incident.
In dramas, the journeys tend to be much more internally driven. Dramas are often about two worldviews colliding with each other and how the main character figures out how to live in that tension... there is usually some sort of external journey as well, but it's so light that it might not even be visible at first glance.
It's also important to note that stories often reflect the psychology of a particular area at a particular time in their history (and that "particular time" might span generations and generations)... so yes, the French love their circular stories with no real clear resolution; Americans like their "happily ever after" stories; Asian cultures love their cautionary tales; Middle Eastern cultures and many African tribes love their Fables. etc. So some expressions of stories resonate more strongly with particular cultures at particular times. We can see this (even in Western culture) when it comes to genre studies. Certain genres lend themselves well to certain themes, for example, an antagonist in a horror film is going to look very different from an antagonist in a drama... and since the antagonist is a key component to the construction of your theme, you might gravitate to certain genres over others simply because the themes you want to explore just work better in one genre over another.
As far as relying on indigenous people to completely guide the process... I don't think it's an either/or situation, but rather a both/and. In all of my travels, I have discovered that most cultures (with possibly the exception of some oral cultures)... are no better at telling stories than westerners. The struggle I run into in other countries is when students come up to me after class and say, "That's not how we tell stories here." Their observations are probably correct, but that doesn't mean they are prepared to tell stories in their own culture either. I even get this in the States - students who come up to me and tell me that they want to write indy films, not Hollywood films. I often relent and let them write what they want but discover quickly that most of their resistance had more to with not wanting to do the hard work of learning as opposed to "they truly know better."
I have made the mistake of letting some of my classes in other cultures disregard some of the things I've taught and let them dictate their own writing, and the results were disastrous. So... yes, listen to the culture, but don't assume your students know what they are doing. Allowing story EXPERTS in other cultures to drive the process is good, but most of the students I deal with are far from experts and are just as baffled and confused about storytelling as I was when I first began writing. Without naming cultures... haha... I had a recent overseas experience where I spent two weeks teaching students about story only to be told in the end that I was completely wrong and that they were going to do things their way. Upon viewing their final films it was evident (even to locals) that these filmmakers had no clue what they were doing, so, again... there was probably some sort of "meeting in the middle" that should have occurred... and that's the difficult thing to find.
The more I grow as a writer, the less I hold on tightly to all of these story tropes. There are just too many exceptions to the rules. But also, the more I delve into these story tropes, the more I realize how much they are a reflection of human psychology (storytelling aside)... so, I believe they are still (universally) worth pushing into.
My ultimate goal in teaching story is to get students to really think about the psychology of their characters... and the heart of so much of what I teach is ultimately about helping students focus... deeply focus... on what they REALLY want to say (the biggest problem I see with beginning storytellers, is... they're just all over the map... they really don't know what to focus on, and so they just ramble on and on and try desperately to piece together a few moments in a character's life that have no relationship with each other). Asking the hard questions of WHY a character is doing what he or she is doing is doing, often requires a level of maturity, bravery, and honesty that most writers (in any culture) just aren't willing to embrace or simply aren't ready to do. I tell my students that they won't write much of anything worth reading if they don't write terrified. In all honesty, most of the stories I see people create in my classes are bad (sometimes because they just don't know what they are doing), but often times because they just aren't brave enough to write what really needs to be written, so they rely on cliches and stereotypes. I've always thought it would be really fascinating to run a writers retreat that wasn't about structure and story tropes, but was more like a therapy group - aimed at helping writers find the courage to write the stories they want to tell but are too afraid to do so.
The last thing I'll say is this. Almost every story I hear (regardless of the culture) is about a character (or yes, sometimes a group of characters) that have to deal with some sort of problem. The problem might be major, it might be minor, it might be obvious, it might be subtle, it might be comical, it might be beautiful, it might be dangerous, it might be mundane, it might be internal, it may be external... but there is some central "thing" that has the attention of our main character... and in the end the character(s) may or may not deal with that "thing."
I think in ministry, this is where the hangup often occurs. I meet more and more storytellers that just want to tell stories about the problems that a particular group of people are facing. These are stories that don't necessarily have endings, it's just a "narrative" about a character living in a broken world and that's acceptable. These types of "stories" tend to work better in short formats as opposed to longer stories, and they are usually used as a prompt for deeper conversations.

Okay, one more thing... I guess I should also say that when I use the word "story" I'm referring to something very specific (a character trying to solve a problem - which implies an inciting incident). Poems and prose are typically not stories (based on this definition) but that doesn't mean that they aren't powerful. I think sometimes my students want to create the FILM equivalent of a written poem and I think there is a very important and needed place for that. That's just an entirely different approach to screenwriting. I don't want anyone to fall into the trap of believing that the only thing that film (and written words for that matter) can do is record dramatics. There are a thousand expressions that cinema and storytelling can take.

I am a conflicted soul. I believe wholeheartedly in learning these common story tropes... but I also believe that the best writing happens when the master can hold those tropes loosely in her hands.
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