Basic Plots 6: Tragedy

The word tragedy is from the Greek for goat: tragos!  It is rooted in the idea of the scapegoat, the person who dies for the sins of the community.  Frequently the innocent suffer and die in a tragic story.  Even the central character can be innocent.

This is the only story-type that does not have a happy ending.  All other types show the hero somehow prevailing but in these stories the hero fails.  Does this mean this story-type is less applicable to business?  Who would trade with a tragic business?

Actually, this story-type is really important to businesses but to see why we need to understand how the tragic story works.

Summary

Just like most story-types, the tragic story passes through 5 stages.  I shall illustrate it with a simplified business story.

  1. Anticipation – an incomplete hero has a desire that focuses his energies. The new business owner decides his priority is to overcome his competition and make more money than anyone else.  He comes up with a “harmless” scam.
  2. Dream – the hero commits to a course of action that initially goes well. The hero finds his scam goes down well with the public and he establishes himself as a leader in his market.
  3. Frustration – things start to go wrong and the hero has to cheat even more to stay ahead. Our hero must add more lies to the ones he already tells from fear of being found a fraud.
  4. Nightmare – things get out of control, mounting threat and despair. A co-ordinated opposition begins to close in.  More people are suspicious and report their suspicions to the authorities.
  5. Destruction or deathwish. A final act of violence, murder or suicide, precipitates the hero’s death.  The hero is unmasked and condemned to bankruptcy or worse.

This is a complex story type and so the summary should be seen as one possible pathway.  There are several routes to the tragic ending and the threat is not always from the hero.

The Tragic Ending

These stories end in ultimate defeat, namely death.  Fortunately business people rarely kill anyone or commit suicide.  The tragic ending as a final defeat with no hope of reconciliation or rebirth.  It does not have to be death in a real life story.  Clearly, if someone does die, it is not them telling the story!

To understand the scope of this story better, let’s look at the hero.  There are several ways the hero works in tragic stories.  There are dark and light heroes.  Where the hero is dark, they are a threat to society.  Where the hero is light, society is a threat to them.

Four Subtypes Illustrate the Scope of Tragic Stories

  1. Here the hero is an out-and-out villain,  for example Richard III.  This play is an overcoming the monster story, from the point of view of the monster!  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  He does well because determined and few have the courage or convictions to stand up to him.  Out of sight, the opposition grows and in time is strong enough to overthrow the monster.
  2. Here the hero makes a foolish decision. They make a bad decision for the wrong reasons and pay the price for their decision.  Often the outcome arises naturally from the decision, eg Faust condemned to hell or Jekyll overwhelmed by Hyde.  Some of these heroes are also victims of society and common examples are women heroes, such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.
  3. Here our sympathies are completely with the hero. A good person drawn into an external conflict against their own better judgement.  Romeo kills Tybalt because Tybalt kills Mercutio.  He has succumbed to the violence around him and so must pay the price.  He and Juliet are clear examples of the scapegoat, their death brings the warring families to their senses.
  4. Finally, the hero appears monstrous but is actually good. Victor Hugo offers us the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jean Valjean from Les Miserables.  The latter is hunted as a criminal and yet all he does is motivated by love for his daughter and general humanity.

The Deadly Focus

The 5 stages describe a journey from hubris to nemesis.  When we think about tragedies, we tend to focus on nemesis.  But from a business perspective perhaps we should focus on hubris.

Hubris is to step over the mark.  You might find a law irksome.  You decide to break it and at first it’s exhilarating.  But then …

Last time when I wrote about comedy, I suggested a typical business comedy might be where the boss is immortal.  The person who identifies with the business to such an extent that they are a single entity.  I’ve seen this several times in my working life and it is always painful and difficult to move on.  In a comedy, eventually they come to their senses; what happens when they don’t?

What is the nature of hubris?  It can be infectious, whole populations can succumb to it, usually out of fear.  What exactly is it?

Some Examples of Hubris

It is a decision to focus on something that challenges the status quo.  We find this often in modern politics where the so-called liberal establishment is the target of so-called radical challenges from the right, eg Brexit and President Trump.

As far as it goes such challenges may be based on a degree of truth.  There is a lot wrong with the establishment.  However, they don’t understand the problem and reach for the easiest solution to hand.

What is the problem Brexit solves?  Is it immigration, loss of sovereignty, too many regulations, austerity …?  Each of these could be solved in several ways and Brexit is proving not to be one of them.

Hubris is where the wrong solution is found to a poorly understood problem.  The hero is bored or frustrated in some way and an apparent solution presents itself.  It can be very seductive and is sometimes called a temptation.

The hero commits to the wrong path and then because of their immediate success becomes more committed to the path.  We don’t know what story-type Brexit will prove to be but we saw the dream stage for the Brexiteers after the referendum result and now frustration and nightmare are setting in.  The opposition is rallying (perhaps) and we may see a final battle.

The thing to note is how positions on both sides become increasingly entrenched.  Focus has shifted from the problem to a badly formed solution that bewitches political discourse.

We even have a saying: “Jumping to conclusions” which means coming up with an ill-conceived solution, most likely to the wrong problem.  Businesses are familiar with this and so are community and voluntary organisations.  Religious organisations too are not immune.

Repentance

Take any of the four subtypes I listed above and there is another possible outcome.  The hero repents.  They see clearly what is happening.  Number 4 already will have a good sense of reality, which puts them out of step with everyone else.  For subtype 1, the change is likely to be cataclysmic, for 4 less so or perhaps there’s no need for it.

In a tragic story the change of heart is too little or too late to effect the outcome.  The hero contemplates their folly and the disaster they have brought down on their own heads and for their loved ones.

The truth is folly has implications for not only the hero but for those around them.  Too late they see what has happened to those they love. They repent and the full horror of what they have done comes home to them. They die with regret on their lips.

This is important because to make the wrong decision is likely to cost in terms of turnover, relationships, work-life balance and maybe legal proceedings.  These stories paint the picture in an extreme light but the point they make is highly relevant.  The choices we make matter.

Looking Forwards

Tragedy shows us what happens when repentance is too late.  But what happens when the villain’s repentance allows them time to make amends?  This opens the way to perhaps the deepest, most meaningful story-type: Rebirth.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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Basic Plots 7: Rebirth - Market Together Blog - August 29, 2018 Reply

[…] version of the tragic story type is close to the seventh and final common basic plot, Rebirth.  It is where the hero repents at the […]

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