Once Upon a Time or Happily Ever After? You Choose.
Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people.
Things happen to people.
Actually, things happen and people exist. Those people (meaning you and me) make up stories to understand and conceptualize the things that happen.
I have a somewhat radical view of these stories. It’s not original and it’s not all that weird once you think about it but most people don’t think about it much so it’s outside of the mainstream. My view is that:
- Humans create stories about reality.
- Those stories about reality have almost no relationship to reality. (It’s not like they haven’t ever met but they really don’t know each other.)
- Humans live based on those stories rather than reality.
One of the many powerful corollaries to this idea is that changing the stories you tell yourself will change the way you interact with reality. Note that I didn’t say you can change reality. You can’t do that. But people don’t live in reality, they live in a story about reality.
(By the way, if you think you live in reality with out any filters, think again. If you use language you filter reality. Boom. Mic drop. Count it. )
I think its a good idea to note that these stories we create are almost all told to an uncritical audience of one inside the echo-y theater of our own heads. They are rarely written down, re-written, edited, checked for errors and almost never read by anyone else.
In other words, they are not very good stories and they are not really heard. This is why journalling can be so valuable, by the way. Journalling gets the unexamined stories that we’ve been performing in the cramped black box theater of our heads out into the world where we can see the flaws.
These stories we tell ourselves are the ancestors of campfire stories and novels and Netflix series and they have the same elements. Aristotle identified the 7 essential elements of storytelling as:
Today let’s just look at character and plot. Clearly, the main character in whatever story you tell yourself is you. You are almost always the hero in your own story. Why not? (If you’re consistently the villain you should probably seek professional help or at least try to be nicer.)
Plot is key and there’s one aspect of plot that I want to focus on right now. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. In the stories we tell ourselves we usually see ourselves at the end. Whatever happened led to this (whatever this is).
It’s really valuable to notice that when we define the end of a story we define the kind of story it is. Comedies end with the good guys winning in some unexpected way. Adventures end with the good guys winning and the bad guys defeated. Romantic comedies end with a kiss. Romances end with a wedding. Tragedies end with death or defeat. If you can be conscious about how you see the story of your life you can change the context into which the main character (yeah, that’s you, congratulations!) is living. Is the crisis that just happened the tragic end of the story or a challenge in the middle of it? Did your romance end when you got married and now you’re halfway through a screwball comedy or a modern version of Ethan Frome?**
Or maybe this is just the beginning of a new tale. This is, in fact, what I would recommend. Start writing a new story today. Today is the first day of the rest of your life (cue opening credits). Beginnings have power. The hero (yep, still you, casting hasn’t found anyone who can do the job better) has lessons to learn and is imbued with unlimited potential. Your next step is the first on the magical yellow brick road. Everything that has come before is just prologue. That horrible thing that just happened? That was the inciting incident. The event that started this new story. The past is nothing but old stories filled with lessons learned that will help you climb the next mountain, win the final kiss and get the last laugh.
And how about those other elements that Aristotle identified? If you start to look at the story that you tell yourself about life and reality as it’s happening to you and as you think about your past and your future, I’m sure you can see how changing the theme or accentuating certain bits of dialogue or changing the setting would change the meaning of the story.
*Honestly, I don’t know what Aristotle means by melody. I have some research to do. In the meantime, let’s pretend that he meant the soundtrack of your life. Is it composed by John Williams or Danny Elfman? Maybe Pharrell Williams is what you’re bopping your head to as you watch your life unfold in front of your eyes. (That sounds happy!)
**If you haven’t read it, don’t. I read it in high school and I still haven’t recovered. Makes Anna Karenina look like a rom-com.