Hidden Structures in Great Stories and Their Enormous Power
By James Bonnet
When I speak of a great story, I mean stories or films that are critically acclaimed and generally acknowledged to be classics. I also mean bestsellers, box office successes, and stories that have lived for hundreds or even thousands of years. So I'm talking about stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs, Batman and Superman, Milk and Charlie Wilson's War, The Verdict, The Lion King, Groundhog Day, Shrek and Macbeth, plus the hundreds of other stories that fit into this category.
Being familiar with the lesser known hidden structures that all of these great stories have in common, will not only help you improve the structures of your own stories and master the art form, they can open the door to deeper levels of understanding great stories - namely, the real source of their power, a profound understanding of yourself, and an equally profound understanding of the world, all of which might be translated into a great success. The two stories I will analyze in this article are The Sixth Sense (which grossed over $660 million), and Casablanca (which appears on hundreds of all-time best lists).
You may already be familiar with some of the patterns - like the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of Aristotle's classical story structure - which are important but only a small part of what you will need to know to create great stories on your own.
Others patterns you may not be familiar with because they're hidden and a little harder to see. These are equally important because they reveal information about our psychological selves that the classical structure does not. There are more than thirty such hidden structures that can open the door to the deeper levels of understanding. I'll introduce a few that are related to the larger entity being transformed and the story focus, then use them to analyze the two stories.
The larger entity being transformed can be a family, an institution, a city, a country, the world - any human group, in fact, that is organized around a leadership. These entities form the larger context which surround and support the stories being told. The structures of this larger entity play a major role in all great stories and hold the keys to understanding story and also ourselves.
The problem of the larger whole story is the central, unifying event that is holding together the larger entity surrounding the story.
The story focus is the part of the whole story that we actually see. It can be the main problem of the larger whole story or one of the smaller actions or problems that make up the larger problem.
The subject of the story is, of course, what the story is about, but in a great story there are two subjects - the subject of the larger whole story and the subject of the story focus. The interplay of these two structures, the larger whole story and the story focus and their subjects, makes a psychological connection that is so powerful that it rivals the hero, the central action, and the classical story structure in importance.
The threat is the cause of the problem which brings about the change to a negative state. When the story focus is not the main problem of the larger whole story then the problem of the focus will have its own threat and cause which has to be resolved. These threats will become the principal source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve these problems and restore a state of good fortune. This resistance will create the classical structure that occurs when a problem solving action encounters resistance.
The transformation of the hero (when he or she is the central character) is linked in a great story to the transformation of the larger entity - which, in effect, links the destiny of the hero to the fate of that larger entity. When this occurs, you will get a story of enormous power.
The narrative structure is the way the story is being told. And in a great story, once the larger whole story and the story focus have been worked out, there are an infinite number of ways to tell that story. Not only can the story be focused anywhere, the great story can be told in almost any sequence and from the POV of any character. Given that all great stories have the same underlying structure, the narrative structure is one of the things, besides variations in the metaphor and genre, that makes one great story seem so different from every other great story.
So these are a few of the patterns that all great stories have in common, and on this level of understanding they are the structures that transform ordinary real events into dramatic actions that are entertaining, have meaning, emotional impact, long life and universal appeal.
To achieve the next level of understanding you take these same patterns and look for similarities in yourself - in your own psychology - and very soon you will discover that the same structures that form the foundations of a great story also form the foundations of our psyches, revealing, among other things, how the psyche is organized, and how the structures and dimensions of the psyche interact, evolve and are transformed. And with that you will have discovered the real source of the great story's power.
In The Sixth Sense, the larger entity being transformed is the city, Philadelphia. The problem of the larger whole story is the legion of ghosts that have unfinished emotional business with the living and are haunting the little boy. The people responsible for their deaths are the threat, the cause of the larger problem. They will be the main source of resistance that will create the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure when someone becomes available to help solve this problem. The one person the ghosts could communicate with who can help them is terrified of them. The story is focused on the transformation of this little boy, and the problem of the focus is the fear that prevents him from realizing the value of his gift. He thinks that his ability to see them is a curse and a sign that he is going crazy. The solution to this problem is the resolution of his fear. At the end of the story, it is clear that he was a hero-in-the-making and that he intends to do his part to help solve the larger problem - and this links his destiny to the fate of Philadelphia, the larger entity.
At this level, the structures I've described help to create the drama and suspense of a well-told story - but in truth, on a psychological level, these same structures are revealing the relationship between the shadow, the subject of the larger whole story, and fear, the subject of the story focus. The larger whole story, and the ghosts who are haunting Philadelphia, are, in fact, a perfect metaphor for the psychological functions of our shadow side - namely, how we repress vital functions of ourselves and how those repressed dimensions can be resolved and reintegrated into our personalities. And the story focus is a perfect metaphor for what happens when our ability to see and communicate with these repressed elements is blocked. The revelation that results from this exploration is that we can never recover the lost and repressed dimensions of ourselves until we overcome our fear of this special gift.
To achieve the third level of understanding, you take these same patterns and look for similarities in the real world (and again you will discover they are the same) but now these structures will be revealing the psychology and dynamics that underlie the groups human beings form. They will also reveal how problems in the real world are created and resolved - and why, in human affairs, managing crises is the most important thing we have to learn to do in order to survive and succeed.
In Casablanca, the larger whole story is World War II and the larger entity being transformed is the world. Hitler is the threat. His taking possession of Europe creates the problem that brings about the negative state; and he is the main source of resistance that creates the classical structure, when the allies get together and try to solve this problem. The story is focused on the transformation of one ex-patriot, Rick, who has become disillusioned with the war. The cause of the problem in the focus is the misunderstanding that developed when Ilsa didn't show up for their meeting at the railroad station. If that love was false, Rick decided, what's the point? And he drops out of the fight. The story explores the relationship between tyranny, the subject of the larger whole story, and patriotism, the subject of the story focus. The fundamental truth being revealed: you can't defeat tyranny without patriotism. At the end of the story we know that Rick has resolved the misunderstanding that created the problem. His heroic frame of mind has been restored, he is back in the fight and he will play an important role in the war - and this links his destiny to the fate of the larger entity.
And why is all of this important to writers and filmmakers? Because the world we live in is the larger entity being transformed, and the world, as we know, is in desperate trouble. If you take the things you really want to write about and support them with these structures, your stories will make a psychological connection and possess enormous power. Then if you link your destiny to the fate of the world, your great stories will become a part of the solution. You will become a hero and that will transform your life into a great story.
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.