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Posted, Jun. 15, 2004
Updated, Jun. 15, 2004


QuickLink: A66041

Writing Tool #10: Recognize the Roots of Stories

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Recognize the mythic, symbolic, and poetic. Be aware (and beware) that common themes of news writing have deep roots in the culture of storytelling.

In 1971 John Pilger described a protest march by Vietnam veterans against the war:

"The truth is out! Mickey Mouse is dead! The good guys are really the bad guys in disguise!" The speaker is William Wyman, from New York City. He is 19 and has no legs. He sits in a wheelchair on the steps of the United States Congress, in the midst of a crowd of 300,000 ... He has on green combat fatigues and the jacket is torn where he has ripped away the medals and the ribbons he has been given in exchange for his legs, and along with hundreds of other veterans ... he has hurled them on the Capitol steps and described them as shit; and now to those who form a ring of pity around him, he says, "Before I lost these legs, I killed and killed! We all did! Jesus, don't grieve for me!"

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Since the Greek poet Homer wrote "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," writers have recorded stories of soldiers going off to war and their struggles to find a way home. This story pattern — often called "there and back" — is primeval and persistent, an archetype so deep within the culture of storytelling that we writers can succumb to its gravitational pull without even knowing it.

Ancient warriors fought for treasure and for reputation, but in the passage above, the blessing becomes the curse. Symbols of bravery and duty turn to "shit" as angry veterans rip them from green jackets and toss them in protest. These soldiers return not to parades and glory, but to loss of faith and limb that can never be restored.

Good writers strive for originality, but they can achieve it by standing on a foundation of narrative archetypes, a set of story expectations that can be manipulated, frustrated, or fulfilled, on behalf of the reader.

  • The journey there and back.
  • Winning the prize.
  • Winning or losing the loved one.
  • Loss and restoration.
  • The blessing becomes the curse.
  • Overcoming obstacles.
  • The wasteland restored.
  • Rising from the ashes.
  • The ugly duckling.
  • The emperor has no clothes.
  • Descent into the underworld.

My high school English teacher, Father Horst, taught us two important things about the reading and writing of literature. The first was that if a wall appears in a story, chances are it's "more than just a wall." But, he was quick to add, when it comes to powerful writing, a "symbol" need not be a "cymbal." Subtlety is a writer's virtue.

That said, writers in search of a new story will often stumble upon ancient stories forms. Let's call them archetypes, story shapes that are so deeply rooted in the culture that they appear over and over again. Badly used, archetypes can become stereotypes — clichés of vision — warping the reporter's experience of the world to satisfy the requirements of the form. Used well, these forms turn the stuff of daily life into powerful experiences of news and culture.

Some of the best writers in America work for National Public Radio. The stories they tell, making great use of natural sound, open a world to listeners that is both fresh and distinctive, and yet often informed by narrative archetypes. Margo Adler admitted as much when she revealed that her feature story on the New York homeless living in subway tunnels borrowed on her understanding of myths in which the hero descends into the underworld.

More recently, NPR reported the story of an autistic boy, Matt Savage, who has become, at the age of nine, an accomplished jazz musician. The reporter, Margo Melnicove, tapped into the standard form of the young hero who triumphs over obstacles. But the story gives us something more: "Until recently Matt Savage could not stand to hear music and most other sounds." Intensive auditory therapy turns the boy's neurological curse into a blessing, unleashing a passion for music expressed in jazz.

"We use the archetypes," says Pulitzer winner Tom French. "We can't let the archetypes use us."

As a cautionary tale, he cites the reporting on the dangers of silicone breast implants to the health of women. Study after study confirms the medical safety of this procedure. Yet the culture refuses to accept it. Why? French wonders if it may arise from the archetype that vanity should be punished, or that evil corporations are willing to profit by poisoning women's bodies.

Use archetypes. Don't let them use you.

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Workshop:

  1. Read Joseph Campbell's "Hero With a Thousand Faces" as an introduction to archetypal story forms.
  2. As you read and hear coverage of the military actions in the Middle East, look and listen for examples of the story forms described above.
  3. Re-examine your own writing over the last year. Can you now identify stories that fit or violate archetypal story patterns? Would you have written them differently?
  4. Discuss Father Horst's advice: a symbol need not be a cymbal. Can you find a symbol in any of your stories? Is it a cymbal?

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