In the first two articles of this series, Architects as Storytellers and Architects’ Claim to Storyteller Status, we looked at the “Story Origins” of Architecture. We saw that the sculpted frieze of ancient Greek temples was used as a narrative device to honor a god or goddess. It told a story. We claimed this as the basis of describing a building level as a story. We also investigated the high value of storytelling in the world of the first Master Builders – the architektōns – with a brief look at Plato’s Republic. Plato is renowned for saying, “Those who tell the stories rule society.”
From these ancient beliefs and practices, we establish architecture’s Story Origins.
From these mythic ideas of ancient Story Origins, let’s now look at the importance of Origin Stories in modern society.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of “origin stories” form the world of comic books. Superheroes, whether on page or screen, are known to possess an origin story – an early life-event which reveals how they gained their unusual powers or found their unique calling. Typically, the hero’s origin (along with his or her true identity) is guarded; it’s kept secret from the other characters. The audience, however, knows the superhero’s secrets. The audience is drawn into the hero’s inner life while also enjoying the outward high-stakes drama.
Not a fan of comic book stories? That’s okay. Other genres, whether read or watched, reveal their characters’ secrets through “backstory.” This technique offers a glimpse into the protagonist’s past and reveals an event or relationship that shaped their character. There are no superpowers involved, but the audience gains insight into – and affinity with – the protagonist’s struggle. Some use of backstory can even be predictive of the character’s destiny. It can foreshadow final events.
Backstory can be introduced several ways. It can be a stand-alone prologue (this isn’t as common as it once was). Backstory can be a flashback in which the writer takes the audience to the specific scene. A character’s backstory can also be presented through dialog – the protagonist confides in someone and reveals the past event. Perhaps the most rewarding form of backstory revelation is when it comes as a concluding plot twist – a surprise ending. So that’s what the kid meant when he said, “I see dead people”!
When crafted well, the revelation of a character’s backstory, her origin story, is a rewarding experience for the reader or viewer. We are wired for this. We’ve connected with the character; the added intimacy is an emotional bonus.
Writing coach and story consultant, Lisa Cron, teaches that “backstory is the story.” Cron presses her novel-writing students to deeply understand what has shaped their main character because it’s this inner life, this inner struggle, that moves the story forward. Cron’s book Story Genius presents this entire development process. I highly recommend it for all writers and storytellers.
Although I haven’t applied Story Genius principles to a completed novel (yet), just being exposed to the ideas has helped me with some inner struggles. I can see myself as a character of someone else’s writing. More on this in a future article.
A Defining Moment
Michael Margolis was early proponent of business storytelling and one of my first influences in this filed. His most recent book is Story 10X – Turn the Impossible into the Inevitable.
Margolis believes we each have a defining moment that “underpins the arc or theme of our life.” Identifying this moment and understanding its impact on us can help us craft our own origin study.
Based on psychological research, Margolis suggests that from age nine to age eleven we experienced something that profoundly shook our view of the world and that we spend much of our lives trying to make sense of the world we now inhabit. I will say here, based on my own experience, that nine-to-eleven isn’t the only possible time frame for our defining moment. I also know the event doesn’t have to be tragic one; loss-of-innocence is not required. Sometimes a defining moment can be a time of wonder or discovery. It’s your story after all.
To help pinpoint your defining moment, Margolis asks a series of questions including:
- Where were you born and raised?
- What are the biggest risks you’ve taken?
- What do you geek out on?
Since we’re looking for your architectural defining moment, let me add these two questions.
- Did you know an architect growing up? Perhaps it was a parent or other family member. It may have been a friend of the family, a neighbor, or a teacher. Did this person influence you in a profound way?
- What do you recall as your first encounter with architecture? It may have been a visual experience such as a book, movie, or painting. Maybe it was a tactile experience, something you built, such as a clubhouse, fort, or doll house. Or it may have been a social experience, a building or space you enjoyed while traveling with your family or maybe on a school field trip. I suspect that the type of experience you remember (visual, tactile, or social) may be foundational to your origin story.
Please spend some time with these questions. Write your answers, journal-style, if you’re so inclined. Or use a sketchbook. Reflect on your early years and identify a defining moment that shapes who you are today. This will be the basis of your Architectural Origin Story.
There are two more ideas I gleaned from Story 10X. Knowing our defining moment helps us understand our place in life and business and cultivating this event into an origin story helps us think in terms of narrative, it helps us to become storytellers.
As you build your Architectural Origin Story, it will become the foundation for your other more public stories. You may keep your story private as superheroes often do. Or you may selectively reveal it as a well-placed bit of backstory. If and how you present your origin story will be up to you.
Your origin story will be your story origin. Let me explain this turn of phrase. Once you begin to see your life in narrative terms, the world around you – and the future you desire – will be material for further stories. Your Architectural Origin Story will be the foundation for all your story building and storytelling.
In the next article in this series, we’ll look at turning your defining moment into an origin story. I will share my Architectural Origin Story and how it has helped shape my fascination with architecture and storytelling to this day. As I’ve mentioned before, an origin story in comic books (or backstory in other genres) can be predictive of future events in a character’s arc. This is where life-imitating-art gets interesting.
As always, I would be honored to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please share in the comments.
I’m a Registered Architect with over thirty years of wide-ranging experience. I spent three years running my own business, but I have returned to the world of the employed. I still miss the people-centered activities of marketing and business development.
I find and promote (and sometimes write) great stories of architecture and architects. The world loves what we do, even when they don’t fully understand it. They need our stories.
We are in a Golden Age of Storytelling, but architects are missing out on this zeitgeist. We’re not benefiting from the public’s need to be engaged with compelling stories. We’re not leveraging our “story-building” heritage. We’re missing out. My calling is to change this for us all.
I am fascinated by the art and science of storytelling. My mission is to help my fellow architects understand and tell their stories. I also believe there’s an untapped market for fictional stories of architects and architecture – crafted for page and screen – to engage the culture at large.
“Those who tell the stories rule society.” – Plato