This week, I was talking with Gloria Coppola and some other friends about story archetypes.
Did you know there are only about seven types of stories in the world?
You don’t have to take my word for it. Christopher Booker wrote a whole book on the topic.
What’s crazy is this is true whether we’re talking about fiction or non-fiction.
Okay, I admit, there is some debate on this because literature is always subject to interpretation. Much of this debate is answered by incorporating subtypes, but it’s remarkable how consistent it is.
I’ve tried to find a book that proves the theory wrong, but I haven’t done so yet.
After I learned about the archetypes, I wanted to create something new and tried to write books that don’t fall in one of them, but I never have.
Looking back, even when I wasn’t aware of the archetypes, my books accidentally followed the classic patterns.
Why Story Archetypes Work
These classic story structures work because we’ve been listening to them since we were children. Our parents listened to them. And our grandparents.
Archetypes are found in our favorite classic stories: Hansel and Gretel, The Odyssey, Cinderella, Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello.
Story structure is built into our cultural DNA
Because we’re already aware of the structure, whether we know it or not, we have an instant connection with them.
Wouldn’t you like your readers to feel an instant connection with your path?
Using classic archetypes while telling your story helps you achieve that sense of intuitive understanding.
What are Story Archetypes?
I hinted at these earlier with a few classic fiction examples of the seven archetypes. Now I want to give you the quick breakdown of these archetypes and an example or two of some popular non-fiction titles that employ them.
Overcoming the Monster
‘Overcoming the Monster’ is the term used by Booker, but I think most people understand it as the Hero’s Journey.
This is the classic story of the individual who encounters a life-changing event.
Before they can return to any sense of ‘normal’ life, they have to overcome the challenge.
Even when things do return to ‘normal’, it won’t be the life they were living before.
Non-fiction examples of this structure are frequently found in personal transformation stories. One example is Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins.
Another example is Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym.
In the quest, there is a group of individuals setting out on a journey to accomplish a well-defined goal.
They meet a bunch of challenges along the way that all seem to be unrelated.
But these challenges are all revealed in the end to teach an important lesson needed to win the prize.
To find a non-fiction example of this kind of story, look to All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Rags to Riches
The classic Cinderella story, the reader is introduced to a down and out everyman who struggles to always do the right thing. But they never get their chance to shine.
Through some amazing twist of fate or chance encounter, they are given a gift, obtain the right tool, or get the right shot to take that first important step toward their dreams.
Before the dream really becomes real, they have to put in some work and overcome a final internal challenge to truly reach the success they seek.
The popularity of shows like Star Search and American Idol are build on these kinds of stories.
Look to biographies of Carrie Underwood, Beyonce, or Usher and you may find a Rags to Riches story.
Another good one is the story of Daymond Johns from Shark Tank.
To find a non-fiction example of this kind of story, look to Milestone: The Strangest Conduit.
Voyage and Return
Because of its nature, this particular story archetype often has a touch of creative imagination to it.
In this structure, the main character is transported to an alternate reality where they are forced to see the world through a different perspective entirely.
Separated from friends, family, and anything they might normally anchor to, they are forced to question their assumptions about what reality means and the nature of truth.
While their objective is simply to return home and their normal life, which they do by the end of the story, the character’s perception of home has shifted as a result of their internal growth.
This is a good archetype for the addiction recovery story, spiritual transformation, or digital nomad, depending on the message you want to convey.
Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard may be a good example of how to use this story archetype in a non-fiction work.
Another good archetype for the transformational book, this story archetype begins with a character in need of some polishing.
Originally angry, miserly, narcissistic, or otherwise unpleasant, the rebirth story presents the character with some sort of threat if they don’t change their ways.
The best ones make that threat the character’s greatest fear.
A great example here is the transformational weight-loss story. There are many of them available relating how someone massively obese is warned they need to lose 300 pounds if they want to live to walk their little girl down the aisle on her wedding day.
Throw in a few more incentives, or make that wedding day 11 months from now, and you’ve added urgency.
To find a not so terrifying example of this, check out The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
This story archetype brings the audience in on a basic misunderstanding.
This misunderstanding often has something to do with a mismatch between an individual’s goals and the expectations society has set for them.
The initial misunderstanding leads to light-hearted or whimsical hardships for the bumbling main character until the truth finally comes out.
In the end, the misunderstandings are cleared up, and the main character practically falls into a happy ending through no fault of their own.
This is a great archetype for the self-help book if you have a flair for humor. Take a look at Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh for an example.
The seventh story archetype in this list, tragedy is the flip side of comedy.
Also usually starting with a basic mistake, one the audience may or may not be aware of, the character continues to make decisions that lead them increasingly down the road to ruin.
The audience is always aware of how this is going to play out badly long before the character gets it.
Once the character finally realize where this is going, it’s too late for them to stop it.
Non-fiction examples of this are often written as warnings to future followers not to take the path this person took.
The Big Short by Michael Lewis relies on elements of tragedy while Monster by Aileen Wuornos and Christopher Berry-Dee tells a true tragic story.
Put Archetypes to Work for You
Now that you know the secret to building natural connections with your readers, using story archetypes to provide the basic structure, you probably want to know how to make that happen.
Most people have no problem understanding these concepts applied to made-up worlds, but transferring it to non-fiction is a little trickier.
As I mentioned earlier, my earlier works accidentally fell into one of these archetypes before I realized they were there.
You may be tempted to assume this means you can simply free-write and come up with magic.
Not necessarily true.
Remember I’ve been interested in writing since I was a tiny tot. I’ve spent most of my life studying it. You may not be as natively fluent in it.
And remember, this is all about helping you write with more confidence and make it easier to get your book done right the first time.
Writing is an evolutionary process.
If you put the thought in ahead of time to choose the right archetype for your book, you can save yourself a lot of time.
Simply knowing the steps your ‘character’ needs to take makes the process flow faster.
In the real world, that means focusing on those elements of your story that connect with the major plot points for that type.
To help you with that, I’ve developed this free resource that maps out the basic points you should hit for each archetype.
Of course, some archetypes are more suitable for specific types of stories, as pointed out above.
Which archetype works for your story depends on several variables – the story itself, the action you envision to drive the reader through your content, and the point you’re trying to make for your audience.
Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to download the PDF resource and find some examples of your own for each of the archetypes listed.
If you do, come back and post a comment about some of your discoveries.