The Shape of Stories.

The Quest and some brands using it.

@Studio Jelly

There are anywhere from 6 to 36 narrative plots. You’ll recognize all of them; Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Rags to Riches, etc. According to Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots:

Overcoming the Monster

Rags to Riches

The Quest

Voyage and Return




Story structure hasn’t changed much since we first started telling them around fires. Stories follow patterns. Everything from Star Wars to Finding Nemo to David and Goliath — all of these stories follow similar ups, downs, twists or triumphs.

The Matrix is “The Quest”

Warner Bros. — I’m using your images for example purposes. All rights are yours.

Campbell and Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegat argued that all stories share common shapes. His 1965 thesis was infamously rejected by the University of Chicago outlining the shape of Cinderella. Citing that its shape has been used over and over again. He argued that this pattern “is the most popular in Western Civilization and that every time it’s told someone makes a million dollars.”

Lecture on his thesis:

The Hero’s Journey is potentially the world’s oldest story or plot archetype. It universally serves as a basis for classic and modern stories alike.

Joseph Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey as:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

It’s Luke Skywalker and the caves of Lascaux. It’s Odyseus, Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of OZ and the Matrix.

Incredible example from Studio Jelly:

Image from STUDIO JELLY —

Brands: Who’s on What Journey?

Narratives differentiate these brands beyond messaging. They provide the audience with a relatable backstory, a familiar pattern that tugs at their emotions.

What’s new is the challenge to communicate the same narratives across an ever-evolving media landscape. New devices, multi-screens, changing consumption behaviors, changing demographics and new habits, etc.

Overcoming the Monster — “Got Milk?” or Allstate’s Mayhem are great examples. Cinderella and Pretty Woman.

Rags to Riches — Oprah. Certainly Steve Jobs, but Apple itself is a Rags to Riches story.

Voyage and Return — Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” plus Weiden + Kennedy’s “Born of Fire” ad for XLV Super Bowl.

Comedy — take your pick.

Rebirth — Prudential treating retirement as a new beginning.

The Quest

The Quest is about progression. It’s characterized by the protagonist stumbling onto several obstacles/challenges that must be completed in order to progress in the journey (and story).

Brands on the Quest:

  • Corona — Find Your Beach
  • AXE — Make Love Not War (eternally on the quest to get the girl)
  • IBM’s Smarter Planet
  • Lexus’s In Pursuit of Perfection
The Quest without Neo

What’s your plot?

// chief marketer / former @Intel @Creatorsproject @mitsloan / prof of digital business / co-creator of my children //

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