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Why do archetypes underpin all our stories?

Why do all stories follow a similar pattern? Andy Orrick outlines John Yorke's theory of narrative structure.
We’ve looked at the seven archetypes that form the base for all our stories. Here, in the second of his five articles, Andy Orrick from Rattling Stick explores why we can’t escape archetypal story structure.
Into the Woods by John Yorke, acclaimed screenwriter and founder of the BBC Writers Academy, is one of the best books I’ve read about how stories work and why we tell them. I’d encourage you all to read it, whatever you want to do in life. It’s the wisdom and research of a man far more qualified to talk on this subject than me, so I’m going to paraphrase (and hopefully not mangle) his thinking in this chapter.
There are many theories as to why we tell stories, and Yorke (among others) offers excellent analysis, but what is perhaps more useful for any student of storytelling is to understand why all stories share a similar underlying structure. Why is it that, as much as we try to escape archetypal story structure, every tale can be mapped onto it in some way (even those of Charlie Kaufman!)? The fact that the formula – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is inescapable in the stories we tell suggests it is in fact a formula for living and learning, hardwired into our brains to serve a far deeper purpose. It isn’t a chicken and egg situation, we haven’t appropriated archetypal story formula into our mental processing, rather at a deep structural level, all stories reflect the natural way our brains work to bring order to the chaos of our worlds.
So, here are some of Yorke’s explanations as to why this might be so.
  1. ‘The Societal Reason’ – Yorke suggests that it may be possible for “archetypal stories to carry in their DNA a blueprint for survival”. What does this mean? Well, think about the first time you ever used a cash machine. You approached it with fear and trepidation, thinking at best it would swallow your card, at worst swallow your fingers. The machine was your antagonist. But you needed to overcome your fear and scepticism to get your money because the bank was closed. So you plucked up courage, did what was required with the machine, and lo and behold you got your money and kept your fingers! And in the process, you came to appreciate the simple ‘out of hours’ service the cash machine offered, and you also learned not to be quite so fearful about technological change in the future. Inherent in this everyday task then is archetypal story structure – protagonist (you) faces antagonist (cash machine) and overcomes, ‘synthesising’ his or her findings to be born anew (no longer fearful of technological change). The ‘formula’ then is used to get us through life, pure and simple; it helps us to face and overcome challenges big and small every day, helps us to learn and grow, to survive and thrive.
  2. ‘The Rehearsal Reason’ – Archetypal story structure allows us to emotionally connect to characters in stories – characters have to face their antagonist for us to care (as I did with Adele in Blue is the Warmest Colour). We are taken on an emotional journey with that character in a fictional world through which we experience, by proxy, the problems, circumstances, situations, etc., our protagonist faces and overcomes. Therefore, by learning how to navigate and manage these circumstances in fictional form as the character, it gives us the wherewithal and tools to do the same in real life. Archetypal structure then allows stories to be a rehearsal for real life.
  3. ‘The Information Retrieval Reason’ – Archetypal story structure brings order to chaos, and the mass of information inside our heads is essentially chaos until we give it structure. And structure it we do. In fact, we understand our thoughts, memories, dreams and the ebb and flow of life itself as story. The maxim you learn on day one of every screenwriting course is ‘show, don’t tell’. As soon as we bombard someone with information, as soon as we ‘tell’, they switch off. Wrap that information into story – governed by archetypal structure – and it hits home far more emotionally and effectively. We like people to feel and remember the information we impart, so we deliver it as story.
  4. ‘The Panacea Reason’ – Life is tough and the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is hope. Without hope we wouldn’t survive and hope is inherent in archetypal story structure. Just think about this – boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl again. Stories reinforce the fact that although we face challenges daily, we can overcome them and grow. They tell us we are right to believe in hope.
  5. ‘The Procreation Reason’ – If we look at the Darwinian reasons we humans exist – to be the best versions of ourselves and procreate – then archetypal story structure leads us right there. It’s no great surprise that a lot of stories end with the two leads kissing and we all know that one thing leads to another. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl and procreates. Archetypal story structure then suggests that by achieving “balance and harmony as an individual” we earn sexual union.
  6. ‘The Psychological Reason’ – We have constant struggles as humans between our desires and needs, both conscious and unconscious, and also between our internal and external worlds. Archetypal story structure – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – ultimately helps us find balance, be healed. The ‘formula’, therefore, helps us to find where sanity lies.
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