Beyond Theme: Story's New Unified Field - Part III
By James Bonnet
In the first two parts of this series I began an examination of the true source of unity in a great story and how that unity can be achieved. I introduced you to eight of the elements that can influence that unity and add significantly to the clarity, meaning, and power of your work.
The unifying forces we examined so far are: (1) The Value Being Pursued, which are the cherished values like justice, health, wealth and freedom that we pursue in real life and story as goals; (2) The Problem, which is the central event of the story, and the thing that has to be overcome to achieve that value goal; (3) The Threat, which is the cause of the problem; (4) The Anti-threat, which is the protagonist or hero that opposes the threat and solves the problem; (5) The Entity Being Transformed, which is the larger context effected by the actions of the story; (6) The Hero's Profession, which is the set of conscious skills the hero will need to solve the problem; (7) The Principal Action , which is the action that has to be taken by the hero to solve the problem; and finally, (8) The Dominant Plot , which is the dominant action of the principal action. It is this action that gives the story it's genre.
For clarity's sake, story likes to isolate these dimensions, like threads from a complex skein, so that these dimensions may be examined in great detail. These isolated components are the stuff that story is made of and the true source of its unity and power.
The Dominant Trait
The next source of unity is The Dominant Trait. The dominant trait is a dominant character trait or quality which the character personifies. Every truly great character has a dominant trait that has been isolated and taken to the quintessential.
Achilles' dominant trait in The Iliad is anger. Rick's dominant trait in Casablanca is neutrality. Ebenezer Scrooge's dominant quality in A Christmas Carol is greed. They are quintessential personifications of these qualities, and that is the secret of their success. And that is the key to making your characters truly memorable and even merchandisable. You isolate their dominant traits and take them to the quintessential.
When a great story isolates the dominant trait, it isolates that particular emotion or quality and this makes it a unifying force, and like all of the other unifying forces, it can add significantly to the clarity, meaning, and power of its effect.
The dominant trait should, of course, be in the context of a full human being. If you just play the dominant trait and leave out the rest, you will create a stereotype or a cliché.
The Inauthentic State
Another important source of unity is the hero's Inauthentic State. The authentic or inauthentic state is the state the hero is in at the beginning of the story. Is he or she ready for the adventure or does some personal handicap or shortcoming have to be worked out or overcome first? When the characters are in an inauthentic state, it has to be resolved before they can solve the problem.
Frodo, despite his youth, seems psychologically completely prepared. So do Harry Potter and Indiana Jones. They are in an authentic state. Rick in Casablanca, on the other hand, is in an inauthentic state. He is a disillusioned patriot and lover. The young boy in The Sixth Sense is paralyzed by fear. Bruce Willis is dead. Russell Crowe in Gladiator is a slave. Scrooge is a miser. Jodi Foster in The Silence of the Lambs is haunted by bleating lambs. And, if I can bring in a few ringers to better make this point - Paul Newman in Verdict is an ambulance chaser and an alcoholic. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is a prostitute. The beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast is an enchanted prince. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man is autistic. Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love has lost his muse. Pinocchio is a puppet.
Psychologically, these metaphors are incredibly valid, indicating the stultified condition of our conscious selves. Compared to what we could be, we are all like ambulance chasers, drunkards, and prostitutes. We are all like Robert DeNiro in Awakenings, or the paralyzed hero in Princess Bride. We are all like little boys and princes that have been turned into puppets, frogs and beasts or were left Home Alone.
The mind easily accepts all of these inauthentic states as metaphors of our present condition and identifies with them. Then the great stories show us how to become real people again; how to resolve these inauthentic states and become who we were really meant to be. And going from where we are to where we could be is like going from a puppet to a real boy, or a frog to a prince. But in order to do that, we have to get involved in the problem and become part of the solution. The clear message of story is: if you want to reach your full potential, then you have to get involved. You have to link your destiny to the fate of some entity that's threatened. You have to live and act like a hero and do what a hero does.
When a great story isolates an inauthentic state, it is isolating a particular shortcoming that has to be overcome and looking at it in great detail. This makes it a unifying force and will add another dimension to the clarity, meaning, and power of the work.
The Marvelous Element
The final unifying force is the Marvelous Element is the thing without which the hero cannot accomplish the task. Psychologically, these elements are the building blocks of consciousness, the energies without which higher states of being cannot be achieved. They consists of the vast, unconscious spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical powers that are waiting to be awakened and released - all things which are difficult to realize but without which the problems cannot be overcome, the tasks cannot be accomplished and the transformations cannot be made.
In great stories, we see these extraordinary powers and great potentials expressed as real things or as fabulous treasures, supernatural powers, secret formulas, magic potions, ultimate weapons, magic objects or fantastic places like Camelot, Shangri-La, or a heavenly paradise. In The Lord of the Rings, the marvelous element is the ring of power. In The Iliad, it's the Trojan Horse. In Gladiator, it's the love of the crowd. In The Silence of the Lambs, it's the profile of the serial killer. In The Sixth Sense, it's the tape revealing the true mission of the dead people. In Casablanca, it's the letters of transit. In Ordinary People, it's the secret behind the young boy's suicidal tendencies. In A Christmas Carol, it's Scrooge's money. In The Pianist, it's Adrien Brody's musical genius, which persuades the Nazi officer to let him hide in the attic.
Joseph Campbell calls these special powers and objects the "ultimate boon." Alfred Hitchcock called them the "McGuffin" - the thing everybody wants. I call them the marvelous or terrible elements. In the hands of the hero, they are Excalibur or the Holy Grail. In the hands of the self-destructive antihero, they become voodoo dolls, Svengali's hypnotism or Dracula's addictive fangs. Or they become death stars or doomsday machines - the scourges of mankind.
When a great story isolates one of these marvelous or terrible elements, it is isolating and exploring a metaphor of potential consciousness and this makes it a unifying force that can add more clarity, meaning, and power to the experience.
These are the 11 elements that create unity in a great story: The Value Being Pursued, The Problem, The Threat, The Anti-Threat, The Entity Being Transformed, The Hero's Profession, The Principal Action, The Dominant Plot, The Dominant Trait, The Inauthentic State, and The Marvelous Element.
One of these elements will be dominant and that dominant element will become The Subject of the story - what people will say the story is about. And if that subject is explored in depth, which it is in all of these examples, it will become an ultimate source of unity - and an ultimate source of clarity, meaning, and power.
The ultimate source of unity in The Iliad (soon to be a major motion picture called Troy, starring Brad Pitt) is Achilles' anger, his dominant trait. More than anything else, the story is about Achilles' anger. The Iliad is, in fact, everything you ever wanted to know about anger - how it is created, it's destructive power, how it is transferred and ultimately resolved. It is this clarity and singleness of purpose that has kept this story alive and relevant for over 3000 years. Anger is anger. If you isolated that one element and described it perfectly 3000 years ago, that description would be relevant today. And this is where the story gets its enormous power, from its singleness of purpose. What is more, all of the other unities support that dominant unity. They link the story to the larger whole and reveal its place in the larger scheme. And the same can be said for all the other stories we've been analyzing, each of which has a different dominant unity.
The ultimate source of unity in The Lord of the Rings is the marvelous element, the Ring of Power. Everyone in that story has their "will to power" tested by that ring. In The Exorcist, it's the problem, demonic possession. In Jaws, it's the threat, the shark. In Star Wars, it's the hero, Luke Skywalker, the anti-threat. In The Pianist, it's survival, the value being pursued. In Gladiator, it's the hero's new profession, gladiator. In Casablanca, it's the love story, which is the dominant plot. In A Christmas Carol, it's Scrooge's greed, his dominant trait. In The Sixth Sense, it's the boy's fear, another dominant trait. In The Silence of the Lambs, it's also the marvelous element - a profile of the serial killer.
Each one of these stories is a puzzle piece that contributes more information to the larger picture - which, as I indicated in Part II, is nothing less than a dynamic model of the human psyche. And, basically, what I'm saying here is if you reveal one of these puzzle pieces in your stories and explore that puzzle piece in great detail, you will not only increase the power of your story and make a powerful artistic statement, you will be exploring those dimensions in yourself and using the creative process to bring forth the truth about those dimensions, which are locked inside you and waiting to be released.
A knowledge of story and the act of storymaking are essential links in a creative process that can reconnect us to our lost or forgotten inner selves. An understanding of story leads inevitably to an understanding of these dormant inner states and to a perception of the path, which can lead us back to who we were really meant to be. In short, a vast, unrealized potential exists within us which a knowledge of story and storymaking can help to make real.
Meet the Author: James Bonnet
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.