The four American stories

Your English teacher probably told you at some point about types of stories: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society, etc.  English teachers like this may or may not be why so few movies pass the Bechdel test.

hickey-bechdel-11-0

Anyway, there is a taxonomy of storytelling I prefer to these types of conflicts — it’s the four American stories discussed by Robert Reich in Tales of a New America.  Those stories are:

  1. The mob at the gates.  The enemy is out there and we are in here.  We are a beacon to others, but we are fragile unless we arm ourselves against the barbarian horde who want to destroy us and our way of life.
  2. The triumphant individual.  This is the person who made her own bootstraps and pulled herself up by them.  These stories include pluck, grit, gumption, not to mention moxie and spunk.  It’s hard works, late nights, and early mornings.  It’s Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger.  It’s Rocky and Rudy and the venerated entrepreneur.  
  3. The benevolent community.  This is neighbors coming together to help.  It’s the end that we are generally good at heart and will come together as one people to solve the tough problems.  
  4. The rot at the top.  These can be aristocrats, bureaucrats, banks, the 1%, the conspiracy of the day.  These people in high places are corrupt, decadent, and reckless and the keep their boot on us all.

In their raw forms, these are the intersections of two dichotomies: optimistic versus pessimistic and few versus many.

Few stories are only one of these and powerful ones intertwine them.  A classic example of these is the ebb and flow of the fortunes of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  In one scene, he defends his bank on his own (triumphant individual) against a bank run (the mob at the gates) engineered by Mr. Potter (the rot at the top) and triumphs when his neighbors agree their money is best kept in their neighbors’ houses (the benevolent community).  

So, how do you craft your nonprofit’s story and people’s places in it?  Some implications:

  • You want to yin with your yang in temperament.  An unrelentingly positive communication leaves no thought that there is still a need.  An unrelentingly negative one makes a person want to take a bath, not try to create their own hero story.  I would recommend making sure you are both heroing your donor (whether you cast them as the triumphant individual or part of the benevolent community depends on their personal bend) and talking about the threat you face, whether from without or within.
  • Like temperament, I also find that it’s good to have few versus many in opposition.  True, two evenly matched individuals or equally sized armies can make for good stories.  But when one individual stands up for what is right against the masses (there’s a narrative reason we like when the crowd isn’t chanting Rocky’s name at the beginning of the fight, especially when fighting godless Commies) or when a people throw the bums out, you have a truly gripping story.  
  • Everything that isn’t in a category here is noise.  You’ll note that there isn’t a storytelling category for talking about how great your programs are, for the same reason that the benevolent community story of a barn-raising doesn’t dwell on the awesomeness of the hammers.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about some tricks to make your story more compelling.

The four American stories

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