The Culture Burner: Story

“When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for the storyteller.”

-Intro to Jim Henson’s “The Storyteller”

Our world is stories. Our houses are stories. Our food is stories. Our bodies are stories. When I was learning wilderness tracking, my instructor said something that has stuck with me ever since. “Everything is a track, and every track is a story.” That leaf that has fallen across the trail tells the story of the breeze that blew through two days ago, and that uprooted tree, it tells of the gale. Everything is a story.

I say this to illustrate the importance of this final piece of our cultural puzzle. A piece so important that instead of trying to come up with three separate parts of it, as we have in the last blogs, we are going to concentrate on the whole. We will ask ourselves only one question, but we will take our answer and transform it into nearly any answer we desire.

The question is: What is this culture’s Story?

It’s a big question, so let me explain what I mean when I use the word “Story”.

Every culture has a Story. It is the narrative the culture tells itself over and over in so many various forms that they become both ubiquitous and unique. Ubiquitous because the Story is literally everywhere. And unique because the people of the culture so desire to hear the Story that they savor any form that it takes, therefore rendering it free of ever being classified as repetitive. Instead of mundane, it becomes the expected base of nearly any narrative.

Usually I save this for the end, but for the sake of illustration, I’d like to bring up the great American story:

“If you work hard you will achieve your dream”

Now, take a moment, if you live in America, and think about how many movies you have seen in the past 10 years that had to do with that theme. If you need help just think, “what movie have I rooted for the underdog, who ultimately triumphs at the end?”

I’m guessing you are averaging about 75%.

So, think about that. 75% of the movies you have seen and enjoyed have been about working hard in the face of adversity, sticking with it, and eventual triumph. Now, good movies will play around with this structure, but it is still the same structure.

Every American is raised with this message constantly beat into his or her head. “Work hard and eventually you will achieve your dreams.” It’s the core of our society. It’s what makes America, America. It’s the American dream. And woe to those who try to defy it or disbelieve it. It goes so deep as to change our perception of the world. In America, if you are rich, most people will believe you got there from hard work and not entitlement and good networks, even though, most of the time, that is the case. Same thing if you are poor. You must not be working hard enough. And even in the sterile light of truth, most of us, at our core, believe the above so deeply that even as you read my words above your mind is trying to convince you that I am wrong about the rich and the poor. That what you have known your whole life is correct. Even now, you are pulling examples, proving yourself right and my words wrong. This is the power of the Story.

This also makes it one of the hardest elements in this series to truly make unique. The power of the Story is such that most ideas and imagined cultures will be either synonyms or antonyms of your real life culture’s Story. It is not easy to have a culture that exists entirely apart from the Story you were raised with. But that’s fine, because your players will be the same way. And while a purely original Story would be a mark of pride, it would also be downright alien. No need to lose sleep over a truly original Story; the vast majority of Western literature didn’t need one and they seem to have done just fine.

For your Story, you can take one of your already created beliefs and expand upon it or create an entirely new one. Brevity and versatility are what you are going for here. A thread that connects all the other beliefs, or at least most of them. This will be the undercurrent of most of the stories the bards sing, it will be the basis for most random conversations you will have (especially if its people complaining about something), it will be the enemy of rebels and rallying cry of the old guard. To use a cooking example, it will be what curry is to India. A spice, yes, but also a basis of everything that makes the culture this culture . It’s a big job. But someone has to do it.

An example of a story I made for another fantasy culture goes like this: “Every link in the chain has a role to play, it is a fool that destroys a chain to remove it’s weakest link.”

From there I created a quick war story about how the enemy was leaving its troops to die while this culture looked after their wounded. And when they were pressed, nearly defeated, it was those wounded that came to their aid.

Or another story:

In the last days of the war, the enemy was great and the resistance was few. Small skirmishes of guerrilla warfare broke out leaving many of the enemy wounded. Again, they left them for dead. This time they were picked up by the resistance, treated, and then… released. They were not part of the resistance’s “chain.” They still had a part to play. When they went back to the enemy they were treated roughly by the superiors and suspected as spies. But their friends knew better, and slowly the stories of the kindness and strength of the resistance spread as the anger of the higher ups grew. Till one day in a bold and foolhardy move, the generals sent every remaing troop they had after the resistance. The troops, still loyal to their flag but now conflicted about the enemy hesitated, some breaking rank, some even turning on their fellows. In the confusion, the resistance swooped in from every direction winning a decisive victory.

Their culture is filled with stories of apparent “weak links” growing to fill pivotal roles. But not before nearly meeting their end, if not for the help of their neighbors. This is a culture that believes in protection and community, and their Story enforces that. In addition, the base idea of the story makes it easy to give nearly any part of the society personality.

Think about it. When we say “a bard is singing at the tavern, its pretty good” have we done anything for that scene? Have we done anything as tour guides of these fantasy worlds to engross our players even a little bit more. No. I would argue that we haven’t. But if suddenly the bard song is about something, well, then it becomes so much more. Even if all you say is “a bard is singing a song about a poor farmer who worked hard and one day became the lord of the land, it’s a pretty good story,” or “a bard is singing the old story about the hero of this town who lost his leg in the war and almost died then was healed and became a great weapon maker, its a pretty good story, you see several people mouthing along,” or even “the bard is singing another story about order being great, you’ve heard it before, same old story.” All of these examples add so much more to your setting and at the cost of only a few more words.

One last thing about stories: when people start believing the story is false, revolutions happen. If the people of America every truly decided that hard work is in fact NOT what separates the rich form the poor, there WILL be an uprising. As I mentioned before as a living person, all of your fantasy worlds will hold elements of the Story your culture put in you when you were growing up, if you remember, I said that all resulting stories would hold elements either supporting or opposing your real life cultural Story. I use that to say that Stories can be wrong. Just because something is believed doesn’t mean its right. Stories can also be used to manipulate, as any reference to the Story in argument renders all retorts laughable at best and dangerously revolutionary at the worst. So when people realize that the Story is wrong or that they have been manipulated using the Story… well bad things tend to happen. Keep that in mind as you craft not only your Story but also the culture around it…as pockets of resistance always lurk in the shadows… whispering that the Story is a lie.

  1. You presented some very cool insights here, Jonathan. It jogged my memory about the stories of different cultures & sub-cultures that I’ve encountered.

    An easy example: I had a friend from Uganda in recently & we were talking about the racial tensions of America in general & Memphis in particular. He’d been in America enough to know this was so, but then he shared with me how that’s just not the case where he’s from. That kind of tension between blacks & whites doesn’t exist there, because they don’t have the history that American blacks & whites do. It was very eye opening.

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  2. This has nothing to do with this blog, but I was wondering if you, Jonathan have read STORY by Robert McKee…. probably one of the best books on screenwriting I have ever read. I will comment on the blog when I get time to read it, just the title of the book reminded me of that book. Such a great book.

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  3. The art sells it.

    Stories…eastern philosophy has much to say about the “story” that we create =D In this case, though, the cultural story is potent and probably THE way to really affect a campaign. Seems like if you master the stories of your cultures, everything comes alive.

  4. When I was in Haiti, and old man told me a story about when he went to America in the 50’s. As a black man, he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to get a job once he reached our shores, but the first guy he talked to gave him one. It was a white man, and a racist. The guy said “I’ll never give a job to an American black man, but I’ll give a job to a Haitian black man any day.” The reason, as it turns out, was that the white man had been to Haiti a few years back and immediately after getting into the city, he was approached by a young Haitian child who asked him for a Gourde (the Haitian version of a dollar).

    “But I don’t have a dollar, all I have is this hundred dollar bill, and it’s in US dollars not Haitian currency.”

    The child replied, “Well, give me your money and I’ll go exchange it for you, then you can give me my Gourde.”

    For some reason, the man agreed and gave the child his hundred dollars. And waited. After a few minutes passed, the child came running up, having exchanged the money in hand. The man knew a little about the exchange rate, counted his money, and every cent was there. The boy asked for his Gourde, no more, no less, then went on his way.

    And that’s why, he said, he would always trust a Haitian. Even though there were probably plenty of honest American black men to choose from. Ah the paradox of racism in this country.

    Also the way the man told that story, it seemed that it was an incarnation of Haiti’s “Story.” Something like, “Always do your job” or, “Work for your money” or maybe just, “Honesty.” I know it had elements of the “Story” because the man that told it to me immediately began to tell me how the young kids today didn’t behave like that anymore and Haiti was losing its soul.

  5. I have read “STORY” by Mr. McKee, sadly not all the way through. I got it for my screenwriting class in college and would turn to it (literally flip to a random page) whenever I got stuck on my feature. Unbelievably helpful.

    That book has some serious knowledge in it and hopefully soon I can find time to give it the attention it deserves. Because even though I write less scripts nowadays, I bet the stuff in there could be easily adapted for any form of storytelling.

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