Tag Archives: story

The Hero’s Journey

(To frustrated readers wondering why on earth I’m blogging about this on sciencedemo.org, bear with me. There is a point. I hope.)

Read about the theory of stories and you’ll soon stumble across one model, called the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell famously depicted his “monomyth” story-structure as:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The essential idea is that many narratives share this common structure in their major character types and plots. Story enthusiasts love playing Hero’s Journey I-spy. Points are awarded for the most surprising movies and stories in which you can spot the pattern. Even if some of them do require you to balance precariously on your right leg and squint with your left eye.

Read a bit more and you’ll encounter the controversy that this model has produced. Does any such structure depend on a naive “chimera of universality“? Can astrologers learn from the masterful ambiguity of Campbell’s prose? Is this narrative model a useful pattern or a creativity-killing formula?

For me, the key question is always the practical imperative – how can we, as educators, use models and discussions from related fields to stimulate how we think about engaging and communicating? Like finicky magpies we need to scavenge widely, but selectively take only the practical ideas and insights that resonate with us.

To that end, the above video (by Glove and Boots) uses puppets and movies to introduce the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey model.

  • How can the model inform the way we use narrative in our communication?
  • How can we learn from the engagement techniques used in the video?
  • How can the wider debate around the validity of this model, help us to frame the many learning models we encounter in our work?

The power of *****

Tricky thing, language.

Imagine that there was a communication tool that had an almost magical hold over learners of all ages and cultures.

Imagine how useful such a technique would be.

Imagine how frustrating it would be when working with science teachers, researchers and communicators not to be able to properly discuss this silver bullet. All because of the associations evoked whenever you simply mention its name.


There. I said it. What does it make you think of?

On the face of it stories can seem the antithesis of science. In my training courses I hear recurring objections. Stories are works of fiction. I can’t tell stories. Stories are childish. Stories over-simplify. Stories manipulate. I used to share much of this baggage about stories too.

Yet whether you’re trying to interest, explain, convince, or create memories, stories are unreasonably effective to the human brain. Yes, it isn’t fair.

When engaging non-specialists stories win. Always.

Get over it. Use it.

So what do I mean by “story”? Most formal definitions of story come down to:

“A sequence of events in which characters you care about face obstacles in trying to reach their goals.”

If you unpack this bland definition the secrets of narrative spill out.

Characters. Empathy. Curiosity. Conflict. Escalation. Resolution.

These are the irresistible ingredients we all crave when we try to make sense of our world. The deceptively simple power of stories lies in the many different ways that you can cook these elements together within the potency of the story framework.

Fundamentally, story is about structure, not about content.

  • How can you craft your demo into an edge-of-the-seat conflict between you and your telegraphed outcome?
  • Does your lesson or show flow as a gripping narrative journey, or are you just telling ’em what you’re going tell ’em, telling ’em, and then telling ’em what you’ve told them?
  • How can you share the roller-coaster of pain and joy scientists felt in making this discovery?
  • What’s the human story behind your fascination in this topic?
  • How can you reveal the awe-inspiring meta-stories of science – the overarching concepts that unify seemingly diverse contexts, the deep process ideas which underpin science as a way of searching for patterns?

I’m not arguing for everything to be communicated through story, but rather that stories are the most powerful known structure through which to communicate ideas.

What I’m asking is to give stories a chance.