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Goldilocks & Sandworms, or How to tell great story
You can read this (and all life on earth exists) because our planet is the perfect distance from the sun. It orbits in a band of space called the circumstellar habitable zone, or more commonly, the Goldilocks zone.
I want to suggest another kind of Goldilocks zone, within which lies the key to great storytelling. It is the space between the mundanity of everyday life and the realm of pure archetype. Let’s call it the narrative Goldilocks zone.
Everyday life is hyper-specific, ordinary, routine. The minutiae is detailed but dull. Watching a random two-hour slice of your neighbour’s life probably isn’t very interesting to many people (not even your neighbour). Distraction is widespread and addictive because there often just isn’t that much going on. Most lives don’t make great stories.
Pure archetype, on the other hand, is too abstract and general to create story. The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal narrative, but it’s not a story. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story, The Odyssey is a story, Star Wars is a story. You can’t know “the wise old mentor”, but you can know Merlin the wizard, Gandalf the Grey, Obi-Wan Kenobi. We know archetypes through individual characters, not the other way around.
Regular life is too ordinary and specific to make great story. Pure archetype is a description of a pattern, not a story itself. The narrative Goldilocks zone in between is where great story lives.
The following contains spoilers for the book Dune
Let’s take Dune as an example. I recently reread it and was struck by this pattern. Dune is a great story because all of its key elements strike a beautiful balance between the familiar everyday and the purely archetypal. It’s supercharged, gripping, larger than life, yet somehow deeply relatable. Here are some examples:
Sandworms, the dragon of chaos of the desert sea, the ultimate monster
Each element of this story (and I’m sure there are more!) is a ramped-up version of something specific and real, yet believable and relatable enough to float within the narrative Goldilocks zone. This is at least part of what makes Dune a great story.
📚 Book recommendation: Story by Robert McKee
Focused on storytelling for screenwriting but contains insightful and broadly applicable principles. I’ve read less than a quarter, but that at least, in my opinion, is well worth reading.
📖 Good short read: Storytelling: Harmon vs. McKee by Venkat Rao
Addendum to the above (Rao is not a fan of McKee). Includes discussion of highly compressed (and highly useful) “caveman’s grunt” version of the Hero’s Journey.
📖 Good short story: Understand by Ted Chiang
What would it feel like, and what would you do, if you kept getting smarter, and smarter, and smarter… beyond all previous human capacity? This is one of my favourite short stories.
📖 Good short story: A Little Cloud by James Joyce
How might your life turn out if you never conquer your fears and follow your dreams? This is another one of my favourite short stories.
🎥 Good video essay: How to Write a Great Ending
Why the ending of The Matrix is great, and the ending of Casino Royale sucks, among other things. High quality video essays are one of the saving graces of Youtube these days.
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