The Coming Age of Story
By James Bonnet
The interest in story is greater now than it has ever been, and - putting aside for a moment the movie business, television, book publishing, other major producers of story and their consumers - that interest now extends to every facet of our society.
Heavily funded, major research projects now exist throughout government, the sciences, and the corporate world. And everywhere that interest is growing. Everyone - from stock brokers selling derivatives, lawyers trying to convince a jury, preachers trying to save our souls, and neophytes looking for employment - wants to be able to effectively tell their story - who they are, what they do, how they (or their products) fit into the scheme, and why they (or their products) are destined for great things.
In short, people everywhere have begun to realize just how important story is
and the key role it was meant to play in our lives. We are, in fact, entering the age of story and the time is not far off when knowing what stories actually are and how to create them may well be the most valuable knowledge a person can possess. In such a world, unbounded opportunities will exist for skilled storymakers and others with a profound knowledge of the art.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment. Along with this new interest, and considerable research, has come the realization that the inner workings of a great story are more elusive and profound than previously assumed - and what great stories actually are, the real purpose they serve, and the mechanics of their creation remains, for the most part, an intriguing mystery.
The three act structure, which is the most popular storymaking tool being used in Hollywood these days, it turns out, isn't really a story structure at all. It's a holdover from the theatre and the arbitrary division of an action into three parts, and you can't find it in the great stories and literary masterpieces of the past. Other popular structures like those that hinge on conflict and turning points are derived from Aristotle's classical story structure - which is important because it's a structure of action and will appear naturally in any problem solving action that encounters resistance. But there's much more to a story than the action. Then there's Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey which is also important and even more sophisticated because it is grounded in the initiation rites of primitive societies and has a lot to say about our psychological development. But taken together, the Classical Structure and The Hero's Journey still add up to just a small part of what writers and filmmakers will need to know to actually master the art form. There are huge missing pieces to the puzzle.
This, of course, is not hard to prove - when you consider that out of the hundreds of feature films that are produced each year in Hollywood, fewer than ten or fifteen are worth seeing. That's a pretty sorry statistic. And in television it's even worse. Mozart, Beethoven and Van Gogh (artists who understood their art forms) could do what they did every time. That's not happening in Hollywood. If you study the credits of our top writers and directors, you'll discover a few outstanding hits and a long list of things you never heard of. Why? Because the principles of the art form have not really been established so it's still a hit and miss process. Which leaves us, in effect, with an entire industry manufacturing something which it doesn't understand. Story. That leaves about six and a half billion people in this world with a desperate need for real stories which isn't being met. So despite the nine billion dollar yearly grosses, there is a vast, untapped potential market out there - and if we can actually crack the story code, there will be, to paraphrase a line from Shakespeare in Love, "rubies in our saddlebags."
Be that as it may, there's a new, higher level of understanding emerging in the world of story concerning deep, hidden story structures which all great stories have in common. These hidden structures are intimately linked to our evolutionary journey and are extremely powerful. They are the reason some of these great stories defy time and remain active and relevant for thousands of years and why others became so charismatic that religions were formed around them - religions that attract millions of followers who have worshipped the revealed truths in these stories for an equally long time. These new deeper structures make clear where these extraordinary stories got their enormous power and why these hidden structures are the missing pieces of the puzzle.
In this new series of articles, I will attempt to reveal the significance of these
new deep structures and why it is critical for every writer and storymaker to know. This is what's coming in the age of story, and this is what we will need to know, if we are going to become masters of the craft.
By far the most important revelation contained in these new deeper structures has to do with the source of our creativity. And this is absolutely where the search for the truth about story must begin.
When we work with the creative process, the creative decisions we make are governed by positive and negative intuitive feelings. That's how we know what works - by how we feel about our ideas.
Well, what's behind those feelings? Where do those feelings come from? Carl Jung called the source of those feelings the collective unconscious. Others call it the muse, the psyche, the holy spirit, or the God within. George Lucas called the positive aspect The Force and the negative aspect The Dark Side. I call it the creative unconscious, the hidden truth or the self. You can call it anything you like.
My own take on it is this. We traveled an evolutionary path. A record of this path has been kept and is buried deep in the unconscious like a treasure. This treasure is probably stored in the DNA. It may be a manifestation of the DNA itself. Whatever it is, or whatever you call it doesn't matter, it is the source of all of the higher intelligence and hidden wisdom we possess. It plays a major role in our lives and it plays a major role in storymaking. And when we're creating stories, it helps to be aware of it.
Great stories, especially those created in oral traditions, bring this creative unconscious wisdom to consciousness. The information contained in great stories
is all about this hidden wisdom and how we can use it to achieve higher states of being and awareness.
And how do great stories do this? With the use of metaphors.
Metaphors are the symbolic language of great stories. This hidden, creative unconscious energy is translated into the visual images and intricate structures of story. These metaphors are made of real things that have been taken apart and artistically rearranged to represent these hidden truths. The unique combination of these real things when brought together creates the characters, gods, Shangri-las, haunted houses, and real people, etc. which expresses different attributes and dimensions of the hidden energies. The natural world is taken apart and rearranged to reveal the supernatural, unconscious, hidden world. And this is what makes a psychological connection. When these visual images correspond to this hidden energy, you get a story of extraordinary power.
In any event, if you analyze hundreds of great stories, the patterns hidden in these deeper structures begin to emerge. These patterns are called archetypes, and you can use these archetypal patterns to create models of this hidden truth. These models reveal some amazing secrets, not the least of which is a dynamic model of the human psyche, all of the life cycles we experience from birth to death, and all of the archetypes and passages that can lead us to higher states of being and success. You can use these models not only to analyze and create great stories, you can use them to fathom your own psychology and analyze important events in the real world. In fact, you can use them in every aspect of your life.
And why is all of this important to writers and filmmakers? Because the patterns hidden in the deep structures of these great stories have enormous power, and if you utilize these patterns in your stories, you can create super powerful stories that have a significant impact on the world. And, if that isn't enough, there are enormous psychological benefits to be gained from a creative storymaking process that engages and collaborates with the creative unconscious self (the source of our creativity) using our intuitive feelings.
My next article, in March, 2009, will be about one of these new models: The Storywheel. Every great story, ancient or modern, has a place on this storywheel, and when taken all together in this way, you begin to see how they are all really connected and have a common purpose, namely: they all have something to do with guiding us to higher states of being. In fact, they only begin to reveal their deeper secrets when they are viewed together in this way.
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.