Why Stories Are Infectious And What Makes Them So…

Howard Hawks

“I guarantee you that two directors that are any good can take the same story, change the name of the characters, change the name of the town, and make an entirely different picture.” – Howard Hawks, Born May 30, 1896.

I think Hawks is selling himself short. Anyone who is good at spinning tales can give you more than one completely different story from the same premise.

Really, there are only a handful of different stories anyway. Something like seven, as I recall. Only the details change, but any story can be said to fall within one (or more) of these archetypal structures.

Now, one kind of story structure that marketers and content creators love is commonly called “The Hero's Journey”.

This structure was identified and described by Joseph Campbell, who took all the known mythological hero stories he could find, and discovered that they all follow a common, shared pattern.

And many film and novel writers now use it – and at some point, marketers figured out that it's really easy to use this in sales copy. You cast the prospect as the reluctant hero, and the seller as the wise advisor, and make purchasing the symbol of taking up the quest.

That works. I recommend it.

But here is the thing I think a lot of people miss about Campbell's work, if I may get weird for a moment.

The “Hero's Journey” structure is a highly evolved memetic virus. But not only that, it's a highly addictive memetic drug, too.

Let me explain.

In ancient times, when stories ONLY spread and survived through word of mouth, you can presume the stories that became world famous and stood the test of time had some key features.

It was compelling.

It was easy to remember.

It was easy to retell.

It was easy to embellish.

It was easy to personalize.

These features are why humans were able to become “infected” by his story virus and pass it on to more and more people, generation after generation.

Lesser stories got forgotten and died off.

In the savage jungle of collective human consciousness, seen as a single organism, the environment put all stories through the process of natural selection. Only the best story TYPES survived.

And the fact that Campbell was able to find a COMMON thread among ALL the stories that have achieved this feat of bridging the dark ages and pre-literate societies, indicates something remarkable.

It means human brains all have the same “weaknesses” against this specific virus. It's a potent contagion. It hooks into what EVERYONE likes. And not just likes privately for themselves, but likes enough to PROPAGATE via word of mouth.

And then Hollywood got ahold of it, and realized that if you like one Hero Journey, you will like them all. And you will consume it again and again, in a million variations.

People are addicted to this kind of story. Change a little detail here and there and it refreshes the entire structure and makes it seem fresh again. The hero is a girl! The villain is a parent! The quest is an internal struggle rather than a geographical trek!

Now, hopefully that all makes sense, because we are coming into the home stretch, and I'm going to highlight an area where some smart cookies here can do some innovation and get paid handsomely for it.


People worshiping at the altar of Campbell's creation have just gotten lazy. They are letting him do the work and they consider his work done. As if his structure is THE secret key to plots that stick and spread and make money.

But like Darwin's own theories revolutionizing our understanding of biology, Campbell has revealed a mechanism we can apply to our own field as a tool.

Look at your market/niche/industry/field and look for marketing and stories and companies that have stood the test of time.

Catalog their similarities and common features. We are looking for the things they are all doing that have contributed to their long-term success.

The presumption is the market has acted like a hostile environment. And through natural selection, the ideas that have lasted for decades are highly evolved and virulent.

So if you can identify and copy those structures…

And then set about adding in your own information, perhaps even patching your competitions weaknesss while incorporating all their strengths…

You can creat a superior marketing memetic virus. You can outsell your rivals by applying this principle to your business.

Follow Campbell's methods and not just his structure.

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