Stories. They all have a beginning: ‘Once upon a time…’, ‘the other day…’, and they all have an end: ‘…lived happily ever after’, ‘The End’. Between, they rise and fall, meandering across the landscape of time. That’s what makes a good story. More interesting than the beginning and the end are the twists and turns that happen along the way.
Lives are Stories
People’s lives are like stories. They’re about 70 years long. Some are shorter, some are longer. They have a beginning (date of birth) and an end (time of death). They all read differently; some are comedies, some are thrillers, some are fairy tales and all are part tragedies.
Some people’s stories are repetitive, some are exceptionally unique. Some people’s stories are championed – we call these people ‘heroes’. Some people’s stories are famous– we call these people ‘celebrities’. Most stories though, have only been read by a handful of people, by friends, by family and by those with intertwining stories.
When people say they ‘just want to be happy’, what they mean is they want to be satisfied with their story. Satisfied with its length, satisfied with its content, satisfied with its subject matter, and satisfied with its readership.
Authoring such a masterpiece is difficult. Some people want to write an encyclopaedia. Some just want to write a pamphlet, yet everyone seems to be dissatisfied with what’s written and what they’re currently writing. They question themselves, wondering whether the next chapter can be better than the last. They analyse and agonise over the horrors of past chapters. It’s the real life equivalent of ‘writer’s block’. Sadly, our stories cannot be edited or revised like a manuscript.
Sub-Plots and Meta-Narratives
Stories are the most satisfying when woven into a bigger, grander story. Being a sub-plot is advantageous for a person’s story – it extends the story’s length, gives it context and expands its audience.
A lone soldier’s story, killed on a peninsula in Turkey finds its ultimate place in the story of Gallipoli and the ultimate Allied victory of WW1. His story is a thread in the tapestry of a larger story. The weight of celebration and remembrance of the large story applies to his small story. This is remarkable! Sadly, even wars are forgotten. It won’t be long before primary school children are bemoaning the ‘useless’ and ‘boring’ teaching of a war that occurred ‘like 200 years ago’.
There are even bigger stories, such science, progress and enlightenment. These meta-stories are hundreds of years long (so far!). Some people wrap their entire stories within these stories, and get a Nobel Prize for their effort.
Then there are meta-narratives like the story of Jesus, which spans thousands of years. Maybe that’s why so many people sell out completely to a religious story (of any persuasion). Religious stories are some of the biggest stories we know.
Scaling back to the individual, each life is simply a short story, written and read for 80 or so years. Every year is another chapter written, in both draft and published form – there are no revisions.
The only way extend the agency or saliency of an individual story is to embed it within a larger story. So if your goal is to make your story reverberate, to make it remembered, to make it count, then find a larger story that resonates for you, and wrap it up in that larger story. Let your 80 chapters be a subplot, weaved through the tapestry of history.