#StartYourStory: Rock climbing, story archetypes, and fear

#StartYourStory is an ongoing series that explores storytelling lessons from popular media and how we can apply them to branding our organizations and businesses.

By Sedora Tantraphol

A classic quest story archetype about a hero overcoming a challenge that will inspire you to tell better stories and move through your fear

(Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary Free Solo yet and don’t want to know how it ends, you might want to click “close” and come back to this post after you’ve seen it. Go watch it now it’s a great film.) 

I love experiencing adventurous, history-making, impossible-until-now moments vicariously from the comfort of my couch, eating ice cream. 

So when Netflix recommended Free Solo to me, of course I pressed “Play Now.” 

Free Solo is the gripping story of free solo climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to summit the 3,200-foot, sheet granite mountain face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. At some points, his life hangs on the grip strength of half of one finger. *Eats an extra big spoonful of mocha almond fudge.

As a storyteller, I’m always looking at what’s working when I’m experiencing stories in the every day what beautiful turn of phrase or clever hook or storytelling element is resonating with me and might inspire my next piece of writing. 

While watching Free Solo and eating ice cream, three things stood out to me: 1) The story itself is fantastic and unique; 2) It’s told in a classic man versus nature / man-overcomes-challenge story archetype (also known as the classic “quest”); 3) What elevates the story is its surprisingly philosophical framing (value add). 

Let’s take a look at how these three elements can help you tell your story in a compelling way.

1. Great story content

To stand out from the noise, you need to identify a story that will be interesting to your audience. Look for unique characteristics that you can use to “hook” your readers and ways you can position your service or product as something that’s never been done before (record-breaking; expansion; inaugural), unique (you’re the only one doing X), or the best (sell your differentiator). If you’re focusing on a person, remember to humanize your subject by describing traits with which audiences can identify. In our rock climbing story, we meet Alex Honnold, a weird-but-likeable guy who is attempting to be the first to climb a wall 1,000 feet taller than anything else that has been free solo’ed before. Alex is an everyman so we’re rooting for him to do it and we stick around to see if he does. 

2. The story archetype works, and it can improve your work 

The quest story archetype is time-tested. We all love a good adventure story where our hero(es)/heroine(s) have to figure out how to overcome a challenge so we can celebrate in their triumph. In this case, our hero Alex faces a dangerous task of scaling a towering mountain that most climbing experts consider insurmountable without gear. We’re enthralled (and halfway through our pint of ice cream) during the rising action and climactic sections difficult stretches, hurting his ankle before the big climb, everyone’s worry for his safety and we enjoy the release of endorphins when he (spoiler!) successfully summits El Cap in less than four hours. (Side note, to add some perspective, he was halfway up the mountain in the time it took me to watch Free Solo. Truly incredible.

When you’re writing a story about your service or product, try using this archetype to lead audiences through challenges that have been overcome: poverty, lack of resources or opportunity, challenges in sourcing ingredients, etc. Make the reader care about your hero to get them invested in a positive resolution, set up the conflict, and then give them a sense of satisfaction by showing the triumphant outcome and how they should want to be part of that outcome. 

Read about the other classic story archetypes and how they can improve your storytelling.

3. Give readers a value-add 

Alex Honnold, in voice overs and talking head clips, discusses the “relativity of risk” and explains how he deals with fear in order to complete big, scary climbs: “I work to expand my comfort zone until there is no fear there… I’m not trying to overcome my fear, I’m just trying to step outside it.” (You can read more about his approach to learning this skill of controlling fear.) He goes on to talk about the importance of focus and preparation so you can “move through” your fear, especially since a lot of fear is perceived. I was expecting to see a lot of epic shots of a man dwarfed by the magnitude of a mountain, and I was pleased to get a value-add in the form of wisdom. When you make your content valuable to audiences, they’ll become more loyal to your brand and come back for more. 

Free Solo’s value add creating a mindset to move through fear so you can literally conquer mountains is a great approach to a lot of work projects, passion projects, or new adventures in life. 

I’m not here to motivational-speaker you into starting something. I’m here to say that committing to preparation (strategy, elevator pitches, planning) and a consistent process can help you face your fears and work towards achieving something new or big. So if you’re looking to make your passion project a reality, or you’re a little scared to be more creative, I say, just start. Take little steps, and just keep at it. We’re here to help you, every step of the way. 

Contact us to learn more about our collaborative partnerships, or just to share your favorite flavor of ice cream.