Story class 2.4: Internal debate

The second stage of every story is the first of two twilight zones. The twilight zones lie between the beginning and the middle and between the middle and the end of a story. They are most interesting because they are riddled with duality and contradiction. It is the hero’s choices in these moments that determine the success or failure of his/her story.

This first twilight zone is often referred to as the Debate stage. Either the hero is in conflict with the people around him or he is racked with internal conflict.

Our own story class heroes had a bit of both, but it was the internal conflict that was most revealing last Tuesday as we explored the debate stage of our story.

Again there are 3 elements that can help you structure this part of your story:

1. Refusal: The hero resists change, but if the crisis is not addressed, it could pose a threat to the group. But… (obstacle 1: personal resistance – the hero doesn’t want to go)

2. Meeting the Mentor: The hero overcomes reluctance; sometimes leaders take action to save the hero and the community. Because of this(a mentor appears to help and guide them, perhaps through giving them a magic item)

3. Crossing the threshold: The hero commits to change. Harmony is restored or the group regresses into crisis.

And so… (the hero goes)

We started the night with Queen Elizabeth’s celebration in full swing. She followed Jamimah’s plan to hold a celebration for Lord Charles’ victory over Id and his vikings. She also invited Lady Mariana, who assisted Charles in the fight. But she was not interested in honouring her. She wanted to make her jealous because she wanted to entrance Lord Charles and make him notice her, the Queen of most of the Land of Isle.

Jamimah is singing one of her most popular numbers as the guests watch in delight. But to the side Charles and Mariana are talking with each other. They are both noticing a change in the land: why this sudden onslaught from Id? Why this unusual celebration? They would rather go back to their regions to ready themselves for further battle. All is not well. Jamimah is worried that her plan is not working and tries to interrupt the conversation.

But while all this is happening above ground, someone else is present.

Under the palace in the catacombs of the unused dungeons lives a little old lady with her cats. Ouma Nollie had been living here for a very long time talking and listening to the echoes in the chambers under the earth. She loves the queen’s parties because she can sit under the main floor vent and bathe herself in the music. But she is not prepared for what is about to happen…

Above ground the queen is seething with jealousy and frustration because she is not succeeding in capturing the attention of Lord Charles. This is why she is left vulnerable when the first Dragon from Gigantica strikes…

As the palace is set ablaze by the fiery breath, Charles automatically takes charge. He orders all guests into the dungeons for safety while he himself takes cover to save what he can and find out what is happening.

In the dungeons everyone is struggling with their emotions and in the dark Ouma Nollie clutches her cats to her bosom.

Charles soon returns with the devastating news that the palace and surrounding buildings (including Jemimah’s villa) had been badly damaged. Everyone must save what they can and return to meet in the dungeon for a meeting to decide what to do.

Soon they are back together, but it is clear that everyone is struggling with internal conflict:

1. Charles looks like he is in charge and knows what to do, but inside he is overwrought with doubt and uncertainty.

2. Elizabeth wants to get up and fix everything, take control and work her power, but she was caught in a vulnerable position and finds herself needing help for the first time in many years. Will her father’s memory guide her?

3. Jemimah brings her rescue remedy for coping with the situation as well as a means of killing herself in case it does not work. She does not know whether to face the prospect of staying in the dungeons for a while, or escaping into oblivion.

4. Mariana is tempted to stay behind and stay passive, but she had really made her choice when she first road to battle with Charles. Now even the meeting seems like too much of a hastle, she wants to be on the road.

5. Ouma Nollie wants her solitude and yet something in her urges her closer to the group. A need to be heard, a need to share…

Ouma Nollie is the natural Mentor for the group with her wisdom and her years and insight into the meaning of the echoes. So here is how we will start our next class:

Still unaware of Ouma Nollie’s presence, everyone is together to discuss what needs to be done. As the debate reaches a peak they hear a cough and a mieaauw out of the shadows….

If I get your character or your part of the story wrong, please comment on this blog and fix it!!

See you next week as we cross the threshold with Ouma Nollie’s wisdom and start the adventure in earnest.

Story Class 1.7 – The gentle breezes of dawn and dusk

The gentle breezes of dawn and dusk…
have secrets to tell
Don’t go back to sleep…

You must ask for what you truly want…
Don’t go back to sleep…

People are passing …back and forth
Across the threshold,
where the two worlds meet…
Don’t go back to sleep…

The door is big and round…
Don’t go back to sleep!

–          Rumi

Thank you Margaret for this lovely quote! I will use it more often. It is so apt.

Thank you to the rest of you for a most memorable story evening. The kind of un structured improvisation I used last night is one of the most difficult things to master and all of you did extremely well. Although some of you were out of your depth at times, you allowed the story and the other characters to carry you until you were able to contribute again. I was most amazed.

Who knew Friar Charles would sacrifice himself for the triplets?

Who knew old Bluh could be a baby minder?

Who knew Lady Ishtar could let her betrothed be with the women he truly loved?

Or that Ereshkigar was so ravenous as to lose herself in the face of nourishment – she who seemed to have it all?

As promised, here are the template points for the last stage of the journey: The Return with the elixir:

The last stage of the journey starts with the hero’s resolve to cross the threshold back to her own world, although sometimes she is chased across it. Often she experiences setbacks on her return which threaten to rekindle the flaw, addiction or desire that she had supposedly overcome in the ordeal.

V. The Return: Transforming Your World  
The Road Back.   Hero rededicates to change. Harmony can only be achieved by working through the underlying reason for the crisis Finally…(hero returns)
Resurrection Hero makes a final attempt at difficult change. Old behaviour is released and new behaviour is internalized. Now every day/from that day on…(a new state of normality is reached)
Return with the Elixir. At last the hero masters the problem. Communitas (sense of togetherness and unity) and new meaning is attained. At last…(hero is healed and with her the community)

The lesson learned in the ordeal will be put to the final test as the hero faces death and Resurrection.  The hero must provide external proof of the change in her character by her behaviour or appearance.  It is one thing to learn something of oneself in the Special World; it is another to apply that knowledge back home in the ordinary world.  This is like Ishtar allowing Tamuz and Evelyn to raise their children together and giving up her betrothal.

Having provided proof of growth, the hero may now Return with the Elixir, the item or the wisdom that can heal her wound and perhaps that of her world.  The story may end neatly with all loose ends tied or it may have an open ending.  Either way the hero gives her world and/or the audience a new perspective. Clearly the triplets are the Elixir of our story.

The above is an excerpt from an article I wrote on story structure and you can use it for the completion of your story for next week.

Just remember the golden rule: the template is just a way into the story, but once the story flows it leads the way, not the template. Always trust the spontaneous flow over the analytical temptation of the template.

Also, as you complete your story, remember that different characters may have experienced certain moments of their journeys in different places in relation to the others. This is art, not science – let the gentle breezes of dawn and dusk lead you.

Next week I would like to spend some time looking at your personal story.  How will your story end? Will your story carry beyond the boundaries of your life to the lives of others?

Story class 1.5 Why we miss you when you are not there

We ended our previous story class with 5 of the 6 characters (one was away) ready to embark on the search for Duke Tamuz. One, Fair Lilly, would stay behind as contact to this side of the gate, Bluh would stay as guardian of the gate and three would desend to the Underworld in search of the Duke.

I arrived at the class this week, knowing that lollie the dancer would not be present and I have made room for her absence in the planning. Just then 2 more participants excused themselves. So we started our journey to the Underworld with only 3 people, one of whom was not present last week.

How does a facilitator respond to absenteeism? This question is crucial because life happens and you need to be adaptable. This does not mean there is no cost  to all involved. I thought it may be useful for myself as well as for the participants and everyone else in similar circumstances to see why we miss absent people so much.  What is the cost of absenteeism for all sides and what the responsibility of each agent is to minimize this cost.

Let me clarify the context in which these costs are applicable: Learning situations that

  1. are collaborative and rely on team work
  2. seek to ignite creative thinking and problem solving
  3. are designed over a period of time to build one on top the other towards a  particular desired outcome (not stand alone lessons)
  4. employs experiential interactive methods where the learning is not found in notes and reading material.

For a soft ware company such a process could be a 2 day sprint for designing a particular piece of software. For a theatre company it could be rehearsing a play, for a business it could be strategic planning for the coming year.

People who excuse themselves from the process typically think they are the only ones paying a price and they weigh that cost and decide that they are willing to pay it. They are yusually unaware of other costs they are paying and the costs for the other agents:

Silenced voices

Absent participants silence their own voices which means they lose the chance to make choices that wilol impact them and may therefore lead to frustration when having to deal with others’ choices on your behalf. This means you also lose a sense of freedom and control.

Present participants lose the chance to learn how to integrate a large variety of different ideas (because some voices are silent). This means that one of the main objectives of the process i.e. learning to listen to diverse ideas and collaborating  is lost.

Yet, no one feels the high price of silenced voices as much as the facilitator to whom the inclusion of voices and the importance of the collaborative effort carries the  most value. The facilitator has probably spent years in training learning how to be a true facilitator that does not provide answers and does not influence the out come of the project with their own agenda. Facilitators typically have to unlearn the urge to be the saviour of the group and provide the answers and learn the ultimate value of only creating the space for participants to find their own voices and hear their own answers. Absenteeism therefore asks the facilitator a very hing price.


Absent participants lose a certain amount of trust from the present participants. Often this loss is very big and frustration can be very high. Other times, as in our case, participants are very forgiving and flow with what happens and still a small amount of trust is always sacrificed.

The facilitator therefore need to make provision for this loss of trust and find ways to mend the schism on top of having to rework the plan and make other adjustments.

Lost time

When next a participant who was absent rejoins a group, it will take 15 to 20 minutes to reintegrate the participant into the group. This usually is not a problem, because everyone takes that amount of time to get back into it and they enjoy the chance to share where they are with the member who was absent.

However, when half your group was not there, it will take 15-20 minutes for every absent member. In our case that amounts to 45-50 min i.e. more than half the class time. The reason for it taking so long is that for every extra participant the amount of relationships that need to be re-established after absence increases exponentially.

For the facilitator this creates more frustration than for the participants because she carries the responsibility of keeping the big picture and overall learning process in mind. Somehow, somewhere this lost time will have to be found.

Prescription instead of diversity

All the lost input impoverishes the final product making it less enriching, less inclusive and far less aesthetic. Overall, when voices are kept silent and group decisions are left to a few, the process becomes scripted by the present participants. And script leads to prescription and this in turn leads to a loss of diversity, colour and depth. The whole process looses levels of meaning and of beauty.

In our case this is especially true because one of the participants is working with an existing story in mind. This is not a problem so long as there are enough voices that force her to stretch the boundaries of her story. But with 3 people absent and only one friend who was also present the previous class, the story suddenly became the dominant voice and this raises red flags for me as the facilitator.

On one hand the facilitator is grateful for a participant with a strong idea of where they want the process to go. At the same time it creates a dominant culture that is hard to penetrate once the absent voices as back again.

Loss of transformational power

All the lost time accumulates toward the end of the programme and shortens the time for applying and integrating  the outcome into the real life situation it was designed for. This is probably the most important reason why you are missed when you are absent. Yet, only the facilitator is fully aware of this cost.

How many times have you attended a course or a workshop that left you with the question: So what? How do I use this in my everyday life?

Most processes are well designed around the climactic moment of insight and learning. Many processes fall short on the responsibility to help participants apply that insight and build it into a customised plan for their real life contexts. But if a process have that planned into it, absenteeism can greatly impact on the time set out for it towards the end.

In our case, we would feel the impact most on the second to last day when we are supposed to reflect on the journey and shape it into a tellable story. If there are too many loose ends this will create anxiety, frustration and possibly loss of closure and satisfaction. This means that the transformational power of the process is watered down because it is left unfinished.

IT also means that the transition back into one’s real life context is not cushioned with no buffer. This leaves the participant vulnerable to the very problems they came to the workshop to solve. I recently added 3 hours to my Personal Success Story workshop because the cushioning or return phase of the process was just not enough. Too many people left feeling vulnerable and without clarity as to the path ahead.

My solution for the story class:

Can everyone who was absent please come an hour earlier (6:30) tomorrow so that we can all be closer to the same page when the rest arrive?

This way the only cost is to the absent participants in terms of time and inconvenience and myself as facilitator. But this cost is minimal since I score in contact time and in regaining the momentum of the story.

Story Class 1.1 – The Big Picture

The first two sessions of our 8 week story class deals with two big pictures: 1. an overview of story structure and the hero’s transformation. 2. The pivotal moment where the hero sees the big picture and chooses the greater good – or not. The whole story and all its elements revolves around this climactic moment, the elements are as follows:

Five Stages of story structure:

1. The Call to Adventure

 Example: Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived at the edge of a forest. She always wore a red riding hood that her grandmother had made for her. One day her mother called her: ‘Little Red, would you take this basket of goodies to your sick gran on the other side of the woods?”

2. Debate and preparation

“Sure, Mom,” she replied and set off.
Her mom called after her: “Just remember Rad, there is a wolf in the woods, so stay on the path and do not stray.”

3. The Journey (tasks and team)

Little Red skips into the woods singing to herself. She is tempted to pick flowers for her gran. She hears mom’s voice in her head, but she picks them anyway. She meets the wolf and innocently tells him where she is going. She follows his advice and take the wrong path…

4. Ordeal and reward


Little Red and the Wolf
Little Red and the Wolf

When Little Red gets to Grandma’s house…all is not well. Gran looks very ill indeed. “Gran, why are your eyes so big? Your ears? Your mouth?” So much the better to see you with, hear you with, SWALLOW YOU WITH…


5. Return

A wood cutter hears a disturbing snoring sound from grandma’s house. He finds the wolf, cuts him open and sets the two women free. Yes, Little Red is no longer that little and she never wore the red hood again…

Four Forces for change

1. The hero with the goal: Little Red Riding Hood with a basket for Grandma.

2. The guide who supports: Mom with her advice

3. The obstacles which tempts and distracts: The sick grandma who may like flowers, who must be reached asap…

4. The enemy who opposes: The hungry wolf

Three levels of character

1. Action that can be seen from the outside: Little Red wheres her riding hood everyday, she accepts the challenge without hesitating and she skips into the forest.

2. Attitude that reveals internal motivation: She is eager, innocent and full of energy, motivated by fun and adventure.

3. Awareness that comes from seeing the big picture: she learns about making mistakes and failure, but also about strength and courage. She is now more grown up and far less naieve.

These work together throughout the story in a certain sequence. In the first class last night we played with Little Red Riding Hood. Above is an analysis of the story according to the elements of story structure. What you will not find here is the depth and meaning we each gained from the experience for our individual lives. For that you need to join us next week when we deal with the story of Jona in the belly of the whale!

Here is more info on our story class

Alternatively, whach this blog as we play with the questions :

What stage of the story are you in right now?

What forces work to help you transform your life?

What really drives you as hero of your life story?

How can you use all this in helping others be their own hero’s?

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren