Why does ‘Titanic’ fascinate us so much?

While visiting London I came across the major exhibition on ‘Titanic’ at the O2.

I pondered: Why is it, 100 years on, the story of how one ship sunk still holds such fascination for contemporary society?

There have been other sinkings – with an even greater loss of life. (The story of the sinking of the cruiser ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’ with its loss of over 9,000 lives in 1945 was not helped by it being on the ‘wrong’ side in Word War II.)

But what is it about the ‘Titanic’ story that still makes it compelling?

One reason is that ‘Titanic’ has become a meme – a word of mouth icon and metaphor for human frailty and folly.

But the crucial element to why the episode of the sinking of an Edwardian ship is so meme-friendly is how the story of ‘Titanic’ actually combines the two great core story themes.

In my Brand Story and Creative Writing classes I highlight how communicators are essentially story tellers. I don’t necessarily mean we get our target audience and either sit down on the carpet, or around the campfire.

Rather, the essence of communication is that we tell stories.

By appreciating this you can then integrate into, weave your messages in the fabric of storytelling models. As a result you will create far more compelling and effective communications campaigns.

So, going back to ‘Titanic’ the lesson it seems, is that the story of how the ship hit the iceberg, loss of life, with its sub texts of hubris, class war, the meaningless of material things, and the many individual human stories they all can be traced down to the two great story themes: ‘David v Goliath’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Most great stories use one of these themes. The ‘Titanic’ story has evolved t encompasses both – and that’s why it still resonates today.

The ‘David v Goliath’ theme is about the little man beating the big man, overcoming adversity to win.

The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ theme is about how two people can come together to take on the world and win on their terms.

The ‘Titanic’ story embraces both themes: it is both David v Goliath – in this case one angle of individuals surviving against the odds, (and maybe nature overcoming the hubris of man who thinks he has built an ‘indestructible ship’), and it is also ‘Romeo and Juliet’, particularly the James Cameron film version, of the two lovers unrequited love in the context of the sinking ship.

Next time you see an epic think back to how it relates to the two great story themes. 

Why are sports so popular? All football matches are essentially either ‘David v Goliath’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’. (My beloved West Ham being a particularly sad tragedy.)

You will be surprised, whatever media, no matter how complex the storyline, it will more likely be distilled down to one of the two great stories.  And a truly great story encompasses both.

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