In my book Time’s Lie: The Narrativisation of Life I make clear my dislike for rules, and specifically formulas, for storytelling. The most notable of these is the much lauded Monomyth as defined in the book Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which sets out the different moments in every story as being all exactly the same in their narrative purpose. On paper, I like things like this, something that decodes structures and the psychological roots of archetypes and trends. The Monomyth, however, since George Lucas credited Campbell’s tome with giving him the structure for Star Wars, has become a defining characteristic for writers in every genre and medium today so that if a story does not hit the specific beats of this structure it is deemed fundamentally flawed or just plain bad. This stinks. It flattens culture and homogenises story structure. It is also based on stories of mainly white, European origin that doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny beyond those boundaries. In understanding narrative structure there is essentially only one ‘formula’ which, as I explain in my book, is so because it is fundamental to how we perceive time and reality, and that is the Beginning, Middle and End structure. The start, the bit where stuff happens and the end. The open, the change, the close. That’s the only forced structure on storytelling we have because it is unavoidable. It’s also the strongest way to think about story; how does it start? Where does the story go? How does it finish? These questions posed by The Almighty Triad are a structure without being proscriptive, but in reality we like having some rigid guidelines to things. So how can we offer good elements for stories to abide by without with giving writers a strict checklist?
First of all, I’d like to clarify that writing guides and story deconstruction manuals like Hero with A Thousand Faces, The Hero’s Journey, Into The Woods and Anatomy of Story are useful, helpful and definitely worth reading. I use a version of the Monomyth format espoused by Dan Harmon, his ‘Story Circle’ method, myself from time to time. It is especially useful when I get stuck. I disagree, however, that they should be used as blueprints or hard and fast rules to write by. Storytelling is, and always has been, an intuitive art. Some people are admittedly better at it than others but we all have an innate ability to structure a narrative and tell a story. Because of that, it is important to understand why that is (hence why I wrote a book about it) but equally not necessarily as important to be told how, which is why I’m writing this.
The purposes of storytelling are myriad. Whether it is to impart knowledge, tell a history, encourage empathy or purely for entertainment reasons, stories are fundamental to our existence and understanding whether we like it or not. This makes stories a deeply human, and therefore inherently subjective, mode of thought/expression/understanding. The problem with taking a lot of structural texts literally, via their join-the-dots methodology, is that it beats this humanity out of them through strict form. This is not to decry form per se, as stated previously, structure is important and I have found it to be essential to creativity. A given form is like the proverbial glass in which you pour water, it is hard to drink without it. For me, however, demanding a certain action happen by page ten and then this action must happen with this action for maximum impact etc, is more like a sealed flask: you can get water in it and out of it but its more difficult and ends up tasting funny. A better way to offer points to hit would be to use a more open ended structure, something that reflects the subjectivity of people and stories themselves. In short, we should look for themes or feelings to hit rather than ultra-specific “story beats”.
To this end, in the typically arrogant, self-important fashion of writers everywhere, I offer my own guide to storytelling. One that reflects the core three stages of a story, the beginning, middle and end, as:
Identification, Engagement and Catharsis.
I admit it isn’t that catchy or slick but to make more appealing to the logic bros and modernist thinkers it can be reduced to an equation: Id + Eg = Ct. This method offers a guide on the core criteria of a narrative that we all want a story to meet while also being abstract enough to allow for interpretation and reinterpretation, therefore helping to create good, memorable stories regardless of genre or medium. So how does it work?
Identification: A story must, first, encourage identification either with its topic, subject matter, setting or characters. If there is no identification then there is no reason for an audience to become or remain engaged (we’ll get to that). How do we create identification then? I don’t know. And this is the point. There is no set standard for creating identification. Identifying with someone or something is a subjective thing but equally there are many levels to it. Telling a story about how hard it is to change your phone number to your old one because you love your old number, might be hard to identify with for some people, while others might know exactly how that feels and identify with it profoundly. Being more broad and telling a story that starts with “I went to the shops/store/market” has much greater potential for identification because this is a very common occurrence in most people’s lives. We can all identify with it. What this also illustrates is that neither approach is better, one has a wider appeal but the other has a more intense, precise appeal, but neither is the ‘Right’ way to help an audience identify with the story you are telling. All this guide tells you is that this is an important part of storytelling and should be your first goal when telling a story.
Engagement: Once the audience identifies itself or the experiences in your story, from there the storyteller must keep them listening i.e. engage them. This is what is normally termed as the ‘Dramatic Action’ of a story, where the key problem — or ‘question’ — of a play, book, movie, poem, etc is expressed and discussed. Action and activity are what our daily lives consist of (even if it doesn’t feel like it in a pandemic). This is where life happens to us and we make choices responding to it. As such, we engage with the world around us and that is the story of our day. Therefore when telling a story, give the characters things to engage with. This is often expressed in a lot of ways in different writing advice such as, ‘show don’t tell’, ‘actions speak louder than words’ and ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ etc. Giving characters or the world something to do, is not only engaging, it creates the essential change that we look for in a story. Importantly, again, there is no right way to do this, my guide only points out that you will lose your audience without this engagement. It does not necessarily have to be physical or visual action, it can be audio or intellectual action that helps engage the audience, but there must be something that holds an audience. This then is the proverbial ‘Drama’ or ‘Conflict’ of a story.
Catharsis: This is the conclusion of your story and, like a lot of great truisms, has a Greek origin. Catharsis was referred to by Aristotle as the ultimate goal of Drama. It is essentially the purging or purification of emotions or feelings in a safe manner, typically through art. It is used today a lot in Psychology and Psychoanalysis to describe the way in which past traumas and psychological issues can be confronted and either expunged or dealt with in a healthy, non-destructive way. In terms of storytelling, as my equation suggests, catharsis is an almost inevitable outcome of creating identification and engagement. If someone has identified with something in a story and watched it undergo a change or transformation, regardless of what the change is, there will be some element of catharsis, an audience will naturally want to feel the emotions portrayed at the end of the story. As usual, this is not strict, you do not have to foster this catharsis but it will be what people expect towards the end of your story, and, equally, what kind of catharsis you want to wring out of your audience is up to you. You could have the emotions be negative, like letting the antagonist win, let the protagonist not achieve their goal, etc; or make it positive, like letting the protagonist succeed, have characters be joyous at the end; or even frustrate it entirely, have nobody win, cut the story short. Catharsis is the product of a story whether we like it or not and knowing this allows us to better tailor our endings and the goals of our narratives to better suit the stories we want to tell.
As stated these aren’t hard and fast rules but they do offer a map, a lay of the land as it were, for what a story is and what a story does. But just like any real map, how you traverse it and what route you take to your destination is up to you.