What makes a story powerful?

You know those stories you hear on the radio when you literally can’t leave the car until the story ends? This was one of those. It was about a peach farmer who very nearly ripped out his heirloom peach trees when they didn’t meet the industrial food model for color and shelf life.

NPR aired the seven-minute story on March 14, 2015. I heard it while driving and after I parked wrote a note to myself to look for it later.

The farmer, Mas Masumoto, had scheduled a bulldozer operator to tear out the fruit trees. Big buyers had blacklisted the peaches. He had 2,000 20-pound cases of fruit sitting in cold storage losing money.

He sat down and wrote a paean to the kind of peaches whose perfume makes your mouth water. The Los Angeles Times published his essay, titled “Epitaph for a Peach.” Readers wrote to him and begged him to keep his peaches.

So when the tractor guy showed up, he told him to go home. Alice Waters, a founder of the local-food and organic movement, began selling Masumoto’s peaches at her famed Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. His story and fame spread. The farm thrived.

But this was much more than a story about saving peaches.

A dying grandfather and an epiphany

Another character enters the story, and the story twists. It’s the farmer’s daughter, Nikiko Masumoto. She’d grown up on the farm, and like many farm kids, she left for college and thought she’d never return.

Nikiko loved her gender and women’s studies, feminist theory and radical political ideas at the University of California, Berkeley. But one day, after listening to a lecture on the environmental impact of industrial farming, it dawned on her that the most radical thing she could do would be to return to the farm.

So she did. She got a peach tattoo for her 21st birthday and worked on the farm. She took another educational hiatus for graduate school. But when her grandfather was dying, she returned once again.

This is where the story got me on a visceral, emotional level. On the radio, Nikiko chokes with emotion. She realizes the sacrifices her grandfather had made, how he’d bought the farm after being released from the internment camp during World War II. It was a legacy she couldn’t walk away from. In character arcs, this was the epiphany moment.

And so now she is the third-generation Masumoto peach farmer.

The power of myth and archetypes

Why did this story get me in the gut? On a conscious level, it was a great story about generations. But on the subconscious level, it tapped into roots that go deep in the collective human story mind.

  • It uses elements of the Hero’s Journey, the uber-myth identified by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Nikiko is called to her quest early and initially turns down the call – two elements of a quest story.
  • Great stories need high stakes. If Nikiko fails, her dream and her family’s farm will die. But there’s more at stake. Her quest stands for small organic farmers everywhere. If she fails, we all fail.
  • Great stories tap into archetypes. Archetypes occupy a powerful place in our subconscious. In this story, Nikiko’s grandfather, and to a lesser extent, her father, play a role identified by Christopher Booker in his mind-blowing book, The Seven Basic Plots, as the wise old man. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Gandalf for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the wise old man represents the full attainment of wisdom, strength, love and spirit that the acolyte aspires to. (If you’re developing your brand, one of the classics of the branding literature, The Hero and the Outlaw, Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, a 2001 book by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, helps you connect your story to one of 12 archetypes.)

Connect on a deeper level

What does this mean for you? It means that a) you can connect with your audience through stories and b) you can connect on an even deeper level when you link your story with embedded archetypes and myths. And that will make your story more universal, powerful and compelling.

When I’m researching a story, I look for resonance with myths and archetypes. Finding them is like finding gold. If you’d like help with finding the hidden connections to myth and archetype in your story or if you have other ideas to add to the conversation, let me know.

[contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]