Good storytelling can be like medicine. Especially when the structure, or ‘bones’ of a story are well aligned. When done properly, the structure elements remain invisible, but you can feel them as you experience the story, both as a reader and writer. It’s like getting a neural chiropractic adjustment—it helps snap things into their rightful place.
Storytelling is a very old art. It dates back to pre-written history. Back in those times, people passed their life lessons to their young by telling stories. As time passed, the stories became myths. Contrary to popular belief, myths were not ‘fictions.’ They served the important role of vehicles carrying moral codes, empowering younger generations against repeating the mistakes of their forebears.
Exposure to new information builds new neuropathways in our brains. Each time we experience something we haven’t done before, and that includes a new story, new connections form in our brain. It gets especially potent when the story evokes a strong emotional response.
It appears that emotionally charged situations can lead us to create longer lasting memories of the event. When we are led to experience feelings of delight, anger or other states of mind, vivid recollections are often more possible than during everyday situations in which we feel little or no emotional attachment to an event.
― Adam Waude, Psychologist World
Reading, or even more so, writing a story is like embarking on a journey of transformation. Most of us want some form of a change. But change is difficult and draining because it requires the conscious mind to become aware of unconscious patterns and then repeated work day after day for at least two months to make the shift permanent. It’s David against Goliath—the conscious mind, which drives approximately 5% of our actions, going against the hard-wired patterns of the subconscious 95%.
When we immerse ourselves in a story, in which the hero goes through a transformation, we get to hitch a ride and experience some of that change ourselves. It gives us a taste of something bigger than us; something that can take a lifetime to go through. With a story, we get to complete an entire cycle of transformation in the matter of days or hours. That’s why good stories can feel so satisfying.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
― Joseph Campbell
Over the last seven years of working on my writing, I’ve been noticing that when I conquer something on the page, I feel like I’ve conquered a part of myself. When my character begins to come to life, it is as if a part of me that was previously hidden or unknown, rises to the surface, ripe for integration.
While an extremely difficult form of art, writing can be healing and empowering to the soul. I’ve heard many brilliant people discount this idea by saying that when you write for an audience, you have to move past the need of having a personal catharsis. And I agree! No one really cares about our daily struggles. That’s what journals and morning pages are for. To gather an audience, we have to elevate our writing to another level. Learning about structure can help with that.
But playing on this more advanced stage can also help with our personal development. Journaling and advanced writing both have a function. While the first is to purge, the latter is much more refined and can take thousands of hours to hone. It is the path towards self-actualization.
Moving the character organically through the plot, where new energy disrupts the old world, forcing the character to struggle inside and out to attain a new equilibrium mirrors what happens in life. As Joseph Campbell explained, the hero’s journey is the psyche’s way of unfolding from its seed to full realization of its potential. If we can capture that on the page, we have something that has a universal appeal and speaks not only to our minds and hearts, but also to our Spirit.
Masters of the Craft
Almost all successful stories involve external conflict for their heroes – obstacles created by other characters or forces of nature. But in stories that explore the deeper levels of character, the greatest obstacle the hero faces comes from within. This is the character’s inner conflict.
― Michael Hauge
When we follow the adventures and setbacks—comprising the character arch—of Jake Sully of ‘Avatar’ or Elizabeth Bennet of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ something fascinating takes place in the subtle levels of our mind. Our brain experiences evolution in action.
It is a little different when you watch a movie versus read a book. Reading is more straining and it engages you deeper because you have to work to both comprehend the writing and imagine the story. It’s a sensual act of co-creation. This is why your reading experience will be a little different from that of your friend.
When watching a film, the imagining is already done for you. All you need to do is sit back and relax. Your brain enters an alpha state in which it is highly hypnotizable. In both cases, the experience the authors (and directors) have architected for you are engraving new patterns over your brain’s canvass. If the story is highly relatable, the new neuro connections will entangle with the old. His is why, IMO, scenes and characters from our favourite books and movies tend to stick with us forever.
With his six stage plot structure, Michael Hauge of Story Mastery devised a very helpful formula for writers, and especially screenwriters. Same with John Truby and his seven essential steps. Both men advise that the writer moves away from the three-act structure (it’s just not enough, Aristotle!) to include a wider choice of elements.
Notice how these steps and stages mirror human growth towards self-actualization. I highly recommend you look into the work of these brilliant teachers, if you haven’t done so yet!
The story world isn't a copy of life as it is. It's life as human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.
― John Truby, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller
Fictional stories are not real. They are what I call the idealized version of reality. No one cares about seeing a day to day routine of the average earthling. We get too much of that. A good story serves the purpose of an escape into another world. Even better, it is a model from which we can draw lessons to use in our daily life.
When a writer puts in the hard work to capture in the bones of their story the workings of the human psyche going through a transformation, he or she will forge a connection with an audience that transcends everything that seems to separate us.
A good story structure is organic. It encodes with it the very process of life’s unfolding. It resonates with a deeper part of our self and we find our own story within it.