Episodic storytelling: beyond the myth
“Life is a spiral staircase… the journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.” – Y.B Yeats
When it comes to understanding the power and influence of episodic storytelling, there are perhaps few better examples than Star Wars. For over 40 years, Star Wars has delighted and entertained billions of people across the world, and the franchise shows no sign of stopping. So far: we have had two complete trilogies; we await the finale of the most recent, third trilogy; and there is another subsequent trilogy planned. There is a Hans Solo spin-off in the cinemas right now, and there are at least three other ‘anthology’ films in development. From its humble beginnings in the 1977 film ‘Star Wars’, the story has grown to a point that surely was beyond even the wildest dreams of its creator. It truly is storytelling on a grand scale.
So what has made Star Wars so successful, and given it such incredible longevity? The answer can be found in the art and science of a particular kind of storytelling: episodic storytelling.
In the broadest sense, one could define episodic storytelling as the art of telling the story of an epic journey via a series of interconnected, smaller episodes that link together thematically, and that each have meaning and value in and of themselves.
The original Star Wars trilogy is a crystallised example of how this works: each individual film has its own ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and evolving cast of characters. But over the course of the trilogy, there is a more profound narrative that emerges: a battle of good and evil on the grandest of scales… and of course, a particularly difficult relationship between a father and son.
As each episode adds a new layer of meaning, the story gradually unfolds before our eyes – it’s incredibly engaging. The challenge that Luke Skywalker faced in the first film was real, but the true test only revealed itself in the second – and the compelling nature of what it meant to overcome this challenge was only meaningful by the time we arrived at the third, concluding film, when we finally came to know who Luke had now become. To put it bluntly, without ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’, Luke is a pretty forgettable hero. But by the end of the trilogy, we understand that he is someone who has not only overcome mortal and existential challenges, but who has also come of age.
As an audience, this kind of understanding and meaning is only possible through an evolving, episodic journey. Each of the three films in that original trilogy has a beginning, middle and an end. The beauty of episodic storytelling is that as we follow the mini beginning-middle-end of each chapter in the overall story, the key messages become both focused and magnified. In this way, episodic storytelling takes an original, monological ‘myth’, and makes it real, meaningful, deeper and altogether more human.
So what does any of this have to do with The Storytellers? Is there anything we can learn from Star Wars in this sense?
At The Storytellers, one of our main goals is to perfect the art and science of storytelling in business. For over fifteen years, we have developed and refined narrative frameworks that help our clients answer a primary, yet deceptively simple question: ‘where are we coming from… and where are we going?’
Our experience in engaging people in these ‘strategic narratives’ tells us that the key to how an organisation moves towards its goals and destination can almost always be found in the centre of that story – whether it is a key opportunity that must be seized, or a crisis that must be resolved.
However, in an era defined by constant and continuous change, we are seeing an ever growing need for clients to be increasingly agile, responsive and compelling in how they describe the changes that are happening around them – and it is only really through episodic storytelling that this is achievable.
What constitutes the central challenge of any journey is constantly and subtly shifting, and this can only truly be countered by consistently updating what that journey really means now. Deciding to climb Everest is one thing, but does the journey look the same when you arrive at Base Camp, months after that initial decision? Does it look the same when you are 100ft from the summit? The destination may be the same… but the motivation that took you from your home to Base Camp – and the true meaning of that journey – is constantly in flux.
To put it simply: it is how we continuously and compellingly redefine what the journey to our destination looks like that makes climbing the mountain possible.
Perhaps more importantly, episodic storytelling also provides a meaningful opportunity to connect the overarching journey to what people are experiencing on a collective level – breathing a new kind of life into that same journey. And again, Star Wars provides us with a great example.
One of the most high-profile decisions in ‘The Force Awakens’ (Episode 7) was the casting of one particular role. Every single Star Wars film before it had a man playing the main hero, but in 2015, for the first time in seven Star Wars films – the hero was played by Daisy Ridley, a woman.
It’s fair to say that we would not have seen a female hero in a film of this size and scale in 1977 – but in 2015, the time had come for a female Jedi. In this one casting decision, Star Wars showed that it was moving with the times, choosing to better reflect reality – and bravely making progress on a very different journey.
Of course, some people were unable to get past the decision to have a woman play a Jedi hero. Unbelievably, one fan took it upon themselves to make their own ‘cut’, and entirely removed all women from the film. This act was met with a withering response on Twitter, with even the film’s director and stars responding directly to voice their dismay.
The point is that while the events of the 7th episode in the Star Wars saga take place ‘in a galaxy far, far away’, down here on Planet Earth another story was unfolding on social media and in everyday conversation that arguably had a much more pertinent lesson. Effectively, episodic storytelling had taken Star Wars beyond a mere parable of good vs. evil, and to a point where, for a brief moment, it became a bonafide force for progress in society.
The decision to go against convention by casting a woman as the hero; the conversation that took place on a global level in response to the casting of Daisy Ridley; and the actions of the filmmakers in defending that choice could well be regarded as the most important achievement of the Star Wars franchise to date. Arguably for the first time in this galaxy, Star Wars had truly shown us what good looks like.
So the power of stories is not only in how we tell them, and in telling the ‘right’ story; but also in the conversation that happens when a population is engaged through storytelling. In and of itself, a story has the power to motivate people to act in service of progress, to move as one towards a common goal – but it also has the power to spark an invaluable conversation about who we are and who we want to be; and therefore, to directly influence reality. In this sense, as a methodology for real change and progress, it is quite unparalleled.
In conclusion, I come back to that wonderful quote from Yeats: it’s true, the journey really is repetitious. Just as in Star Wars, we all know that in life, we tend to circle back round to the same characters, the same themes. The big question is: how exactly do we make sure the journey is progressive?
It is in how a new story builds on the one we told yesterday; it is in how the conversation around the journey evolves in response; and perhaps most importantly, it is in how, as leaders and as individuals, we choose what should stay the same on that journey, and what should maybe be different this time.
At The Storytellers, our aim is to make sure that our clients don’t go round in circles, but that they see real progress. In an era of constant change and shifting values, it is only through episodic storytelling – the continuous connection between the epic, evolving stories that we tell, and the reality around us each day – that real progress begins to become truly possible.