If someone asked you to tell the story of Cinderella, how would you do it?
I assume you would set the story hundreds of years ago in an enchanted land, far-far-away. I guess you would have the usual, well-known cast of characters dressed in medieval costumes. Your characters would almost certainly use spoken word to communicate with each other.
In other words, you would replicate the Cinderella story from Disney movies, Christmas pantomimes and the books we read to our children.
Yesterday, I went to see Matthew Bourne’s production of Cinderella with my wife. It was a ballet. It was set during the bombing blitz of London in World War Two. No words were spoken during the entire show. It was an ancient story, set in a modern world and told in an innovative way.
Cinderella and her guardian angel in Matthew Bourne’s ballet production
As an entertainment spectacle, Bourne’s production was brilliant. As a story, it worked – things were being communicated and the audience members were making sense of it. It was the story of Cinderella – albeit, not the traditional one.
One question crossed my mind whilst watching the story of Cinderella being told as a wordless production of movement and gesture.
What is it that enables great stories to be told in an infinitely variable number of ways?
I think that a key part of the answer lies in the structure of a story. In simple terms, all classically designed stories are structured in the same way, as illustrated below by two completely different tales – the fairy tale Cinderella and the blockbuster movie Jaws:
This archetypal story design is often referred to as “The Quest”. Literary scholars also refer to it as “The Hero’s Journey”. It has been used to tell stories since cavemen first sat around the campfire and will continue to be the principal way in which people structure their stories.
So why does archetypal story design interest me so much?
The aim of my work is to help construction project teams produce better buildings and provide a better service to their clients. To achieve this, a project needs to be structured in the right way and specific things need to happen at each stage before progressing to the next one. This principle of correct structure and content applies to successful stories too.
I believe that projects are structured in the same way as classically designed stories. This is illustrated below; on the left is the delivery process for a construction project and next to it is the 12 stages of The Hero’s Journey.
The 8 stages of the RIBA Plan of WorkThe 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey
These stories are fundamentally the same; there is an initial situation, a development and an outcome – all linked in a way that must make sense. In both, there is the decision to act, the action itself and the consequences of the action.
Great storytellers have a mastery of story structure and an understanding of what needs to take place at each stage of the story. This is what enabled Matthew Bourne to re-interpret Cinderella as a ballet set in the 2nd World War. The delivery of a great construction projects requires the same expertise and care.
A project may be set in a unique location, have a unique set of characters involved, have a unique design and have a set of unique circumstances surrounding it – just like the countless movies, plays and books that have been produced over the years. In both stories and projects, a structural framework is required to enable the people in charge to make the right choices – what to put in, what to leave out, what events need to come before others, and so on.
This creative limitation enhances the chance of success, rather than inhibits it. It brings creativity to life, rather than kills it off. It delivers control, instead of taking it away.
In stories, the most common resolution we all seek is “And they all lived happily ever after”. By their very nature, construction projects also aim to deliver a happy ending – for both the delivery team and the client. So my advice for built environment professionals is:
To consistently deliver successful projects, you need to master story structure.