By James Bonnet
In this article, I will introduce you to a new phenomenon called the Storywheel, which brings all the different types of story together into one grand design.
To help picture the Storywheel, visualize a wheel with eight spokes. Then, starting at the bottom section on the right side and moving counter-clockwise, number the eight separate pie-shaped sections in between the spokes from one through eight.
All great stories, ancient or modern, have a place on this wheel, and when taken all together in this way, they reveal their deeper, more amazing secrets, not the least of which are all the life cycles we experience from birth to death. The archetypes, patterns of action and cycles of transformation revealed in great stories are the same archetypes, patterns and cycles which run through every individual and every group, and are being played out in all of life's important stages. If you understand these patterns, you can understand the world, your place in the scheme, and the paths which can lead you to higher states of consciousness and success.
Which is to say, that 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 each of us that a knowledge of story and storymaking can help to make real.
On the right, or upside, of the wheel, you have stories with happy endings. The heroes resist temptation, go through a psychological ordeal, and ascend to a higher plane. On the left side, the downside, you have stories with tragic or unhappy endings. The antihero gives in to temptation, performs an abominable act,
and descends to a lower plane.
No one story contains the whole truth. The process is accumulative. Each story contributes a little bit of the vital information hidden in these great stories, and little by little each step of the passage is revealed. In fact, they only begin to make sense, and reveal their deeper secrets, when you put them all together in this way. Then you can 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 and success.
The stories in section I, on the upside, are stories like fairytales and other stories of childhood and youth that help connect us to ourselves, our families or otherwise prepare us for life.
A fairytale like Rumpelstiltskin tells us about an unconscious creative mechanism, a "Rumpelstiltskin," that can help us solve problems while we sleep. E.T. is about a child's first encounter with the spiritual dimension. Dracula and The Exorcist are all about puberty, Dead Poet's Society about the importance and risks surrounding acts of non-conformity.
In section II, stories like Milk, The Sixth Sense, and Lars and the Real Girl help connect us to our society. These include love stories, like Slumdog Millionaire, which reveal how lovers who are estranged and kept apart are brought together.
In A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Future is showing Scrooge his own tombstone, the kneeling, pathetic, nearly repentant Scrooge asks him: "Are these things that will be or things that may be?" The answer to that question, and the point of the whole story, is that these are things that "will be," if he does nothing, and things that "may be," if he does something about it, if he repents and changes his character. If he changes his character, he will change his future.
In other words, at any given moment we have a certain destiny. And, if we're not content with that destiny, we can do something about it. We can transform our futures by transforming ourselves. If we change who we are, if we awaken our humanity, we can change our destiny. That's good news.
The stories in section III, like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Charlie Wilson's War and stories about superheroes help to relate and connect us to the world at large. And now we're talking about heroes who are willing to sacrifice themselves for people they don't even know.
On the upside in section IV, you have religious stories and myths like the stories of Jesus and Buddha, the movie Cocoon and the last few minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These stories can help relate and connect us to the cosmos and the spiritual dimension.
On the downside in Section V are the anti-myths like The Garden of Eden, Lost Horizons and Faust which do exactly the opposite. They show us how we can be alienated and disconnected from the cosmos or the spiritual dimension.
In section VI you have stories like The Godfather, Macbeth and The Dark Knight. These stories tell us how we can be alienated and disconnected from the world at large.
The stories in section VII tell us how we can be alienated or disconnected from society. These include anti-love stories like Othello which show the alienation of the lovers rather than their reunification.
The stories in section VIII like The Wolfman, Taxi Driver, Psycho and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tell us how we can be alienated from ourselves.
Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood tell us how we can be alienated from all of the dimensions - the spiritual, the world, the community, our families and finally ourselves.
And why is all of this important to writers and filmmakers? Because the patterns hidden in the deep structures of great stories have enormous power, and if you utilize these patterns in the stories you really want to write, you can create super powerful stories that have a significant impact on the world. And, perhaps even make yourself whole in the process.
What we could gain if we traverse these passages is nothing less than a vast, unrealized potential - our unrealized mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual genius, a profound capacity to love, our power to influence the world, transcend duality, and experience ultimate truth. In short, who we were really meant to be.
We get little tastes and inklings of it throughout our lives. Little tingling sensations that creep up our spines and tell us there's something more to life than we're experiencing. Much more. The path revealed by great stories can help to take us there.
When I was seven years old, I wanted to be Captain Marvel, a super hero like Superman. In everyday life, Marvel was a crippled newsboy named Billy Batson. But when he needed to become Captain Marvel to fight evil or protect the innocent, he cried out "Shazam!" and was hit by a lightning bolt, and that lightning bolt transformed him into the superhero.
On Thanksgiving of that year, when my whole family gathered at my Aunt Marie's for our traditional Thanksgiving dinner, I snuck into one of the empty bedrooms and spent three hours alone in that room praying to God to make me Captain Marvel. And with tears in my eyes and all the sincerity I could muster (at that age it was my dominant trait), I promised to use the power only to do good.
Finally I stood before the mirror on the dresser, trembling with a sense of destiny and having absolutely no doubt that I was about to be transformed into the most powerful force for good on earth, I cried out "Shazam," and braced myself for the megavolts. But nothing happened. I repeated the gist of my vows, clenched my fist and shouted the magic word two more times. Still it was in vain. I was stunned and very disappointed. It severely damaged my relations with the Supreme Being.
Thirty years later, I realized that the Storywheel is Shazam. The great story is Shazam. That is how we transform ourselves from crippled, inauthentic newsboys into human marvels, by following that path. The great story uses its imagery to stimulate our imaginations and give us little tastes of paradise which trigger fantasies that lead us to desires for positive actions in the real world. Then as we pursue these goals, the stories guide us through the passages using meaningful connections, each story revealing a little bit more of the truth.
The best example of the validity of the Storywheel can be found in the famous Arabian tale, A Thousand And One Nights.
After discovering his wife in an orgy with her slaves, and similar infidelities on the part of his brother's wife, King Shahryar vows never to trust a woman again. And thereafter, to protect himself from future pain, he has a new young girl brought to him every night for his pleasure and then has her head chopped off the next morning. This goes on for several years and, much to the distress of the king's subjects, the population of eligible young girls is being seriously depleted. Now it just so happens that the king's vizier has a beautiful young daughter named Shahrazad, who he has, not surprisingly, been hiding from the eyes of the king. But then one day, Shahrazad tells her father that she intends to become the king's next concubine. Her father pleads with her to reconsider but she cannot be dissuaded and it comes to pass.
But Shahrazad has a plan and when she's alone with the king that night she puts her plan into effect. To begin with, she keeps herself alive by telling the king a marvelous story that reaches an intriguing and critical moment just at dawn, when the king's new mistress is usually executed. The king is so anxious to know what happens next in the story that he extends her life for another day. The following night, when King Shahryar returns from his public duties, and after he has ravaged her, Shahrazad continues her tale.
She concludes this first story in the middle of the night and starts another marvelous tale which again reaches an intriguing point just at dawn, and again the king is anxious to know what happens next and so her life is extended. And by this stratagem, she survives. After several hundred stories and a thousand and one nights, King Shahryar has been completely transformed by the wisdom hidden in all of these marvelous tales and is brought back to his true humanity. And by this time he has had three children by Shahrazad and is more than ready to give up his former ways and settle down with her.
This wonderful story reveals in a most profound and delightful way how the great stories do their work. Each marvelous tale reveals a little bit more of the hidden truth, each story guides one a little further along in the process of transformation.
And piece by piece, bit by bit, drop by drop, the whole truth is gradually revealed. And, despite ourselves, we find ourselves, realize our dreams, and, like King Shahryar, Captain Marvel, Hercules, and Psyche, we reach our full potential. The creative unconscious self is the source of that wisdom and that power. The great story is the guardian of that wisdom and that power. And if you unravel their mysteries and fathom their secrets you can participate in your own creation and develop stories that help others do the same.
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.