All stories are ultimately about humans needs- specifically, a human (or human-like being) trying to meet those basic fundamental needs in some way. No matter what the story is about, or how complicated it is, on some level it’s about people trying to meet their needs.
So, what are the basic human needs?
The concept of human needs was first proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow believed that there are things we fundamentally seek out as human beings, and we need these things to live happy lives. The theory goes that if we don’t have these things, we will naturally try to seek them out and find ways to fill them because they really are fundamental to our lives.
Now, there has been arguments made about the hierarchy Maslow originally placed upon those needs, but that doesn’t really matter to us. The key here is that each of those basic needs you see there are so fundamental that if we’re missing them, and our lives are out of balance, we will naturally try to find some way to make them part of our lives again. (Even if we do it in dysfunctional ways, like staying in bad relationships because they still meet our needs in some way.)
Stories then, are also about characters trying to meet human needs, and you could even say that stories are actually teaching people how needs can be fulfilled through action (or inaction.) This is why characters almost always start stories in an unfulfilled state- one where they are missing one of their fundamental needs – and then the story itself is at it’s core about them trying to fill that missing need in their lives.
Very often, the main characters of stories don’t even know what’s missing in their lives, they are trying to fill those needs in an imperfect way or just limp along with those needs unfulfilled. The story, then, on a personal level becomes about them learning what it really is they need to be happy as a person, and then finding a solution to that need. An interesting point, however, is that often the Active Opponent of the story (the antagonist/villain) actually does know what they need (unlike the main character) and is actively trying to get it. The problem is that usually what the main character and their active opponent want is often the same thing, which naturally brings them into conflict.
Okay, enough theory. Let’s look at how some common genre plots match up with the humans needs that drive them.
Stories built around physiological needs are going to be primal stories. You don’t get any more basic than this, because these are the essential things that we need to be alive as living things. These are often stories where man is acting on the same level as an animal, and often will be about the less pleasant sides of human nature. However, these can be stories about the triumph of human nature too, like Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, where a human being must pull the basic needs from a harsh environment.
Safety covers a lot more ground than you might think. Any story where the main character’s goal is to achieve personal safety for themselves, their family, their community, their nation, or something else they deem important, is a safety-based story. Most action movies and superhero movies are ultimately about safety, because the villain will blow up/harm whatever if the hero doesn’t stop them- so the hero must risk personal safety to fight for the greater good of safety for the community. Westerns are also safety-based, since the cowboy hero is fighting to “keep the peace” or “restore order”, which are also codewords for safety. Even Mystery stories are most commonly about safety, since a murderer/criminal is loose and threatening the safety of society and the balance must be restored for there to be social order. Finally, war movies are also about safety- fighting against an invading army or enemy foe for the sake of the safety of country and loved ones. (Mom and Apple Pie!)
Since humans are social animals, we generally desire companionship of some kind and want to feel we belong to a greater community. This human need is naturally the realm of Romance movies and other love stories, but it can also be the root of many type of Dramas and Comedies, usually ones built around interpersonal relationships. The main characters in these stories are almost always lonely or isolated in some way, and the story will be about them finding and connecting with others in a deep and meaningful way.
This is another one that like Safety, covers a lot more ground than you might think at first. These are stories of achievement and gaining respect (both from others and within yourself), which is why Adventure stories are most often driven by Esteem. Young Adult stories are often Esteem driven too, since both YA and Middle Grade stories are meant for youth who are trying to find their place in the world and are often driven by gaining respect. Pretty much the whole of the Japanese boys comic industry is about Esteem stories as well- the weak and feeble youth who grows in power and stature personally and socially to become a great man.
This kind of story is a little less common, in no small part because self actualization can be a pretty vague and personal concept. While an audience can easily understand the many variants of the previous four needs, and they can be easily represented on film, self actualization and being your best personal self is a harder thing to capture. You most often see it in novels where the character is trying to figure out their identity and goes on some sort of inward or outward journey to find the missing thing they need to be happy. In movies, you see it in stories like Seven Years in Tibet, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Eat Pray Love, where a character seems to have everything, but can’t find true happiness. Of course, these stories aren’t limited to introspective drama- Rocky is also a story of self actualization, as are many sports dramas which follow similar molds. (Oddly enough, a lot of Best Picture Oscars seem to go to Self Actualization driven movies.)
Now, when talking about a genre matching up with a human need, that’s based on how those genres generally play out. By shifting the human need the main character is seeking to fill, but using the tropes of another genre, you can create all sorts of combinations and situations. You could do a superhero story where the main character is drive by self actualization (One Punch Man), or a horror story which is about the main character finding the community they need during a zombie apocalypse. However, most commonly, you’ll see these human needs matched up with these genres because they’re good fits to motivate the characters in that genre.
And it’s all about motivation – conscious or unconscious – which is what’s driving the character to do what they do. We need main characters to be active, and nothing makes a character more active than trying to fill their needs.
One note- naturally, real people may be seeking to fill more than one of these needs at the same time, but this is a good time to remember that characters aren’t real people. A character having too many needs will usually muddy the story, and it’s best to focus on just one at a time in most stories. That isn’t to say that the character can’t have another need in a different story, but usually just one need, or maybe two conflicting needs, is enough to make a story interesting to the audience.
Also, if you don’t like Maslow’s list, or perhaps think it’s a bit short or unclear, then there are others who have attempted to quantify human needs in different ways. One of these is Professor Steven Reiss, who classified 16 “Desires” that each human being has. His list is meant for use by marketers (almost all modern marketing techniques are based on connecting human needs with products in the minds of consumers) but it can work for writers as well.
Acceptance – the need to be appreciated
Curiosity – the need to gain knowledge
Eating – the need for food
Family – the need to take care of one’s offspring
Honor – the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family or clan
Idealism – the need for social justice
Independence – the need to be distinct and self-reliant
Order – the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments
Physical activity – the need for work out of the body
Power – the need for control of will
Romance – the need for mating or sex
Saving – the need to accumulate something
Social contact – the need for relationship with others
Social status – the need for social significance
Tranquility – the need to be secure and protected
Vengeance – the need to strike back against another person
The key is to remember that stories are about people acting to accomplish goals, and that action will most likely be driven by a human need. Matching the right need with the right character can really bring a character to life and help to make a story much more interesting and appealing than it might otherwise be. So know what your character’s needs are, and then make them work to fulfill them- because your reader needs a little adventure in their life.
The human brain is a pattern-seeking and pattern-making machine. In other words, we naturally look for patterns in the world around us, and will even make patterns out of things that may or may not have an actual pattern to them. In his book Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud uses the North American design of a power socket as an example of this phenomena.
Looking at this image, you couldn’t be blamed for seeing two eyes and a mouth- a human face. We’re built to look for human faces in everything around us, and anything that even vaguely looks like a face will become one in human eyes. We look for faces, and even make them in places where they don’t actually exist. (Although you could argue that since a human designed this electrical socket, it was unconsciously designed to look like a face from the start. This isn’t the only design for a power socket you’ll find around the world, after all. Here’s a French one.)
And when human brains find a pattern, we don’t just link that pattern together randomly, we use patterns we already know to “fill in the gaps”. This is why a power socket can become a human face, or why if you’re shown half a picture of something you’ll naturally assume that the other half of that thing mirrors the half you were shown.
Even though that may or may not be true!
This effect is very useful in the arts, and especially film. In fact, it’s the very basis of film storytelling! Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov proved in early 20th century that if you showed an audience two images or pieces of film side by side, the audience would naturally assume and create a connection between those things, even if in reality they had nothing to do with one another. A phenomena which became known at the Kulashov Effect.
So, what does all of this have to do with storytelling?
A lot. In fact, it may be how all storytelling works.
In a story, we don’t tell every single thing that happens. Instead we select a series of events and string them together to form what we call a story. But, how does the audience know the connection between those events? Like the pieces of Kulashov’s film, it’s because we’ve given the audience pieces of information, and structured them in such a way that the audience interprets connections between those pieces of information.
If we’ve structure them well, then the audience will piece it together as we want them so- and ta-dah! We have a story!
If we don’t structure them well, then the pieces won’t fit together properly in the audience’s heads, and instead of a story we’ll end up with a jumbled mess that leaves the audience confused, or even worse- bored!
So, storytelling is all about creating connections between what happens in such a way that the brains of the audience will see it as a single clear narrative and get what the writer wants them to get from the story. And the skill of storytelling is the ability to lead your audience through those events in a way which gives them meaning and makes them appear like there’s only one natural way to see the story.
Think of being a storyteller as being like a Wilderness Guide. A forest is a big piece of land with many trees, rocks, streams and other features and you could go through it in many ways, but a wilderness guide takes visitors to the forest through it in a way which makes them think they’ve seen everything important while only having seen a small fraction of what’s actually there. And, in the same way as telling a story, different wilderness guides can give visitors different perspectives of what is otherwise still the same forest by taking them on different routes and paths over the same ground.
By controlling what the audience sees, and the way it sees it, a storyteller shapes and creates what we call a story. This is why it’s so important that a writer have a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish in their story before they tell it, and why it’s important to know the different ways a writer can stitch together a story from events.
The main way a writer does this is through creating what is called a Throughline, which is something that links all the elements of the story together in a way which makes the audience of that story see or feel the connections. To continue our Wilderness Guide metaphor, a throughline is a path (or paths, since most stories have multiple throughlines) which the writer has made through the story elements for the audience to follow.
Let’s look at some of the different kinds of throughlines which Storytellers use to link together events into a larger narrative. While all throughlines can be used to shape and link events, some provide stronger connections than others, so I’ve categorized them in terms of Strong Throughlines (those which easy shape a story) and Weak Throughlines (those which connect ideas, but don’t necessarily form a narrative on their own).
Since stories are all about cause and effect, it just makes sense that the easiest way to create a Throughline is by basing it around naturally linked or interconnected events. These should be a series of events which the audience is familiar with in some way, and which give the story structure by their “natural” patterns. By seeing the pattern in the events, it creates a connection between those events that turns a bunch of separate events into a narrative.
A simple example of this is a Romance story- humans have romantic relationships, and those relationships have different stages they go through. The audience knows those stages because they’ve lived them (or seen them happen with others) and so the Event Throughline of a Romance story gives it a natural structure. (Girl meets boy > they get to know each other > they fall in love > they become a couple > etc > etc)
If a writer has a male and female character meet, then they have them start to get to know each other, and continue to follow the Romance pattern in each scene (or series of story events) then the audience both knows what will happen and sees this throughline of the story clearly.
And this doesn’t just apply to natural human behavior, but any commonly linked series of events which occurs in our lives or media. For example, Procedures like baking a cake, or forming a club, or solving a murder can all be used to give a series of events a clear throughline which the audience will see as a story.
These Event Throughlines form the basis for most Genre Fiction, and the audience knows and loves watching or reading about them again and again because of their familiarity. Of course, this is also the danger of an Event Throughline- because the audience DOES know the events and how they run, the storyteller needs to find other ways to bring something to entertain the audience to the story while the events are playing out in their usual (or semi-usual) order.
A Moral Throughline is sometimes called a story’s Moral Argument, and is a set of ideas that the storyteller is trying to get the audience of the story to believe. In a Moral Throughline, everything in the story represents part of an argument supporting a particular way of seeing the world or acting in the world as a human being. The truth is, the vast majority of stories contain a Moral Argument just by the way the characters act and the events unfold- if good triumphs over evil, for example, that’s a Moral Argument against evil.
This kind of Throughline goes back to Morality Plays, but can also be found in everything from legends and folk tales to modern movies. In fact, some writing teachers like John Truby would claim that ALL stories are a form of moral argument playing out in front of the audience in everything from the characters, to the setting, to the events, to the symbolism which fills the story. This may or may not be correct (argue away!), but what is true is that Moral Throughlines can be a strong way to take a series of events and turn them into a clear and strong narrative.
Like Event Throughlines, Moral Throughlines also have the advantage of being able to follow a clearly defined structure that the audience already knows- the argument structure. The argument structure is one where you make a claim (state something is true), support it with evidence, and then use that evidence to make the audience believe your answer is the correct one. In the case of most stories, this is almost all done by example, not by the character actually saying the moral argument or pointing out the different steps.
In a simple Morality Play, for instance, the Hero (main character) will do good things, and the Villain (Active Opponent) will do bad things. The Villain will then meet a bad end because of their bad actions, while the Hero will be rewarded for their own good acts. The Moral Argument of the story then, is that you should be a “good” person because if you don’t, then bad things will happen to you.
However, don’t think that Moral Throughlines are limited to just simple Good vs. Evil stories, they can be arguments for or against any type of human behavior or ways to look at the world. This can be sociopolitical views of things like Capitalism (The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand) and Communism (Animal Farm by George Orwell), attitudes towards success like David Copperfield and Harry Potter, or just plain views of the nature of human existence like in Moby Dick or The Heart of Darkness.
One note- there are two kinds of arguments- Open Arguments and Closed Arguments. In a Closed Argument the arguer is aiming for a specific target when making the argument (Don’t do drugs. Slavery is bad. Hard work pays off.) and wants the audience to believe that specific point is true by the end of the argument. Whereas, in an Open Argument the arguer has a general point they’re arguing (No man is an island. With great power comes great responsibility. Life is about helping others. etc), and then everything that follows is evidence to support that general point. There may or may not be a specific conclusion in an Open Argument because it was never really heading for one, and just trying to convince the reader of a larger truth or way of seeing the world.
I mention this because Closed Arguments create stronger Throughlines and are much easier to structure a clear story around. They have a natural starting and ending point built into them, and that’s why they get used for most films and modern media stories. The main character will start as someone who either believes or is neutral to the argument’s point, and then through a series of events ends up believing in whatever the point of the writer is (or being an example of the point). This is a Closed Argument structure, as opposed to an Open Argument where the audience is generally left to take their own lesson from the story, and which doesn’t sit as well with most audiences. (We like to see the good guys win, and the lesson clearly laid out so we have a sense that all is right with the world.)
In a Character Throughline, the story is usually structured around a character’s change from one point to another point. Usually, this is rooted in the character having a human need which they need filled, or something that needs to change in their life, and the Throughline becomes the events from the beginning of that change until the end of that time of change for the character. So, for example, a character going from being shy and nervous to outgoing and confident could be a Character Throughline because we’re watching the events unfold in a way which shows the progression of the character from being like A to being like B.
Of course, this Throughline doesn’t have to be emotional, or even positive. We could be watching a person age, grow old, and die, or go through the cycle of cancer treatments. The Throughline here is that the character is present during the events and changing in some way, and as long as there’s those two elements, then it creates a Throughline for the audience to follow and gives the story unity.
Another type of Character Throughline would be a Relationship Throughline, where the key parts are two (or more) characters being present, and their relationship with each other is changing as the events play out, thus connecting the scenes in some way by the changes which happen in their relationship(s) as things progress.
One of the reasons people keep reading stories is because they want to know the answer to questions like “What happens next?” and “Where does this all go?” Questions like these can also form a Throughline to a Story, because the events which are playing out are giving clues or answers to questions the reader has. As long as the events continue to unfold answers to questions (and maybe create news ones) then it creates a Question Throughline.
Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as the story’s “Dramatic Questions”, which are the questions which drive the reader to stay involved in the story, and good Question Throughlines can give a story a lot of power and focus. A few other common Question Throughlines are:
How will they solve the problem?
Will X survive until the end?
Will X and Y get together in the end?
Who is the real villain?
Why is all this happening?
Will X make their deadline?
Why is X doing this?
Who is Y really?
When will X figure out what’s really going on?
And so on…
Most storytellers set up a Question Throughline at the beginning of the story, and then spend the rest of the story answering them, with the story ending when the main Question Throughlines have been answered. One key here is having more than one Question Throughline, and then slowly answering them as the story unfolds in a way which keeps the reader satisfied that they’re getting closer to the answers while still not getting the main question answered until the end. It takes skill, but can make the story much more engaging.
Sometimes stories are created by having events be linked together by a clear Theme or Idea. In a story with a Thematic Throughline, that theme or idea will be present in most of the scenes and events of the story and will give the story events their connection. Thematic Throughlines are similar to Open Arguments, except that there may or may not be a conclusion that the writer wants the audience to reach through the story events. For example, everything that the characters are doing or experiencing might be connected to the theme of Racism in different ways. In a story purely about the theme of racism, we might see how racism affects different lives in different ways, while in one which is an argument about racism we’d see how each person’s life is negatively effected by racism. (Because the writer is making an argument about racism being bad as opposed to just exploring the topic in a general way.)
In this kind of Throughline, there are certain symbols which repeat in the different scenes and events, and through their repeating they link the different events of the story to each other. This can be visually, like in the use of certain colours, shapes or images, textually, like in the use of certain words or phrases, or even character traits or behaviors which pop up again and again.
As you might notice, Symbolic Throughlines are most often running through the presentation of the story, not the story itself. Character actions, choices, or behaviors can be symbols, but a symbol is something that represents something else in the minds of the audience, so we most often see these kinds of Throughlines used in the way the story is told as opposed to events. For example, the characters might all be named after makers of handguns, or the seven heavenly virtues. This is a layer of ideas which are outside the story, but which the audience still understands and they make the audience think in certain ways.
As I’ve already said several times, there are patterns in the way human beings act and think, and that includes the way we feel. An Emotional Throughline is one where the focus is a character (or characters) goes a sequence or pattern of emotions and the events are linked by that emotional pattern. One example would be the stages of grief, which is a natural emotional pattern/process that people go through after suffering the loss of someone or something important to them. A story could be structured around those stages, with each of the stages playing out in the way the characters act and behave during the events we see.
Another take on an Emotional throughline could be a single emotion (love, hate, jealousy, joy, etc) which a character or characters are experiencing in the different scenes and events of the story, and watching how that emotion’s presence or absence changes and affects those characters. For example, if a series of characters are made to feel joy, each could react to it in a different way, depending on the nature of the person and circumstances.
Someone once said that we’re all time travellers, but we can only go one way at the same speed. In a Chronological Throughline the events of the story are linked by time. What separates it from an Event Throughline (which is also linked by time) however, is that this type of throughline doesn’t need to play out in a particular order or being about cause and effect events. One of the most famous examples of a Chronological Throughline is found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where we see the events of a single time period from multiple perspectives and points of view. All the stories are linked by covering the same period of time, but offer different perspectives on what happened during that time.
Another Chronological Throughline happens when you weave stories into historical events and create Period Pieces. The historical events are giving shape and form to the events of the story, and they lend it the structure and form it needs to form a single narrative. You can find examples of this in the movies Titanic and Apollo 13, or in TV shows like Downton Abbey or North and South.
A third, and very common, Chronological Throughline is structuring the events around a ceremony, ritual, or custom which follows as a particular structure. So, for example, the events during a graduation ceremony, an exam, or even a whole school year (ala Harry Potter) can give shape to a story by giving it a framework upon which to build a narrative.
Stories are about people acting, and certain actions, when repeated, can create throughlines as well. With an Action Throughline, you could show different results of the same action taking place at multiple times and places, or even how one character keeps trying the same action and getting the same or different results. The presence of the actions create the throughline, and link what’s happening in the audience’s minds.
This can be as simple as baking a cake, or as complex as writing a symphony or climbing a mountain, the key here is that we’re viewing how different people are involved in doing the same action and that links the ideas presented in the scenes.
Someone once said that the land shapes people, and it can definitely shape stories. In a Geographic Throughline, everything is connected by place. A simple Geographic Throughline would be everything happening at a single location, but it can be more than that. The different aspects of a place can be used to connect the events of a story in different ways. Different rooms of a house could represent different steps in a larger story, and journeying through a place from A to B will also create a natural throughline as the audience knows where the story starts and begins physically and narratively.
An Object Throughline uses an object of some kind and its presence (or lack of presence) to connect the events or scenes of the story. This can be a weak connection like the anthology series Dead Man’s Gun, where the presence of the same gun in each story connects them all, or it can be a strong connection like the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, an object which everyone desires and around which the whole plot spins. On the other hand, the need or desire for an object like a key could shape a story as well, with that object’s absence causing plot events to occur or linking the actions which play out.
One variant of the Object Throughline is the Food Throughline, where the characteristics, customs and culture surrounding a particular food item shape the story events. The Japanese anthology series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is an example of this kind of throughline, where the different aspects of a dish shape the story in many ways. Of course, similar throughlines can be constructed around other types of objects besides food, but since food is so deeply rooted in our culture and has so many meanings, it allows for stronger connections than many other types of objects.
As you can see, Strong Throughlines are most often used to structure the story itself, while Weak Throughlines tend to be subplots or ideas that the writer wants to use to say certain things throughout the story. Weak Throughlines are also often used in Anthologies or collections of stories to link the stories in some way to create a greater story out of many smaller ones. For example, using a Geographic Throughline in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town allows Stephen Leacock to turn a series of stories about life in the small town of Mariposa into a multifaceted view of life in rural Canada, or a TV series like Chicago Hope to give a multifaceted (if overly dramatic) view of working in a hospital.
On the other hand, mastering Event Throughlines is perhaps the most basic skill of writing a story, since cause and effect events are the simplest and strongest way to create what human beings call a story. By then layering other types of throughlines on top of the events playing out (Usually Moral and Character throughlines) we get a story with multiple levels that the audience can follow in different ways and get more satisfaction from. In fact, what is often referred to as a “deep” story is nothing more than a story with many throughlines running inside it which can be followed and enjoyed by the audience in different ways and generate different responses.
YouTube user Super Eyepatch Wolf posted a fascinating video last year about how the manga/anime BLEACH went from being one of the big three to cancellation. It’s a sad but fascinating story that tells you a lot about the manga industry in Japan, and is worth watching even if you don’t like BLEACH. (I’m not a BLEACH fan myself, I tried but never cared for it.)
I’d have to say the reason BLEACH died sounds like it was just a case of Tite Kubo just plain not being a good writer. When you combine that with being forced to serialize a story for over a decade on a weekly basis, and not being able to actually enjoy any of the money he was raking it, it’s not hard to see why the project collapsed. BLEACH just didn’t have a core concept to carry it through and give it direction, and that’s ultimately why it couldn’t sustain itself.
A fascinating follow up to the above video was this one the same creator did on the recently finished Naruto franchise, where he goes into good detail about how and why Naruto may have managed to keep itself going while BLEACH fell into a death spiral.
Both videos are worth the watch both as a study in the Japanese anime/manga industry and from a storyteller’s perspective.
Oh, and since both videos do extensively refer to One Piece (perhaps the best anime/manga ever made) here’s his intro to One Piece video as well to round out the Big Three!
On social media across the Internet, there is a single constant refrain- “How do I write a good story?” It comes from new writers eager to make their eBook fortune on Kindle, young adults who want to join in the fanfiction fray, and even experienced writers who are looking to up their game. It’s lead to a huge boom in How-To writing books, and an even bigger boom for those who offer their services to writers like editors, cover designers and marketers. The editors especially are in demand, because the truth is most writers are flying blind when it comes to writing stories.
Don’t believe me? Go on a social media forum with writers and ask them a simple question like “How do I write a good book?” or even “What is a story?” and you’ll get a thousand different answers thrown at you, because the truth is most of them don’t know the answer to either of those questions.
Oh, they know pieces of it, and the more savvy and experienced ones have pieced together quite a bit of knowledge on the topic. Mostly though, new writers will get advice like “follow the three act structure”, “have a gripping main character”, and various other sage advice about what worked for the writers who respond.
Because most writers learn to write stories by writing them, and they do that by consuming the work of lots of other writers and then copying what seemed to work for those other writers. They basically write by instinct, and then through making mistakes and finding what works, and what doesn’t, they become better writers. This is a time-honored way to learn any art, and some would argue that it’s the best way because it preserves a creative spirit of originality and helps new generations of artists add to the great body of human culture.
When it comes to writing, those people are wrong.
If that was true, why do we keep writing the same stories over and over again? Why do almost all stories follow the same basic structure, no matter the culture or level of literacy? Why do we keep seeing the same stories over and over again, generation after generation?
The answer is pretty simple- because there IS a hardwired, human pattern to storytelling that we follow over and over again- exactly because we’re human.
[Now, the followers of Joseph Campbell are all nodding their heads right now and going “Of course there is, dummy! The Hero’s Journey!” But I’m going to argue that while Campbell was on the right track, he also complicated things up more than they needed to be. So simmer down, Jack!]
One of the nice parts about living in the age we do is that researchers on big questions have been able to use things like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look inside the human brain in real time and look at what people’s brains are doing during certain activities. Unsurprisingly, a few of those researchers decided to find out what happens inside the human brain when people consume stories, and they learned many interesting things.
One thing they learned is that the human brain is optimized for learning from the experiences of not just ourselves, but from the experiences of others. We don’t have enough time to experience everything ourselves, so instead our brains crowdsource information and make a point of learning from how other people did things. It’s a survival mechanism left over from the days when we were cavemen, and every bit of knowledge about the world we had could be a key to living another day. The ones who didn’t learn fast died faster.
So, what are stories then?
Stories are people sharing their experiences so that others can learn from them. They’re us telling the world what someone did when they were faced with a problem, so they can learn from that person’s experiences and gain knowledge about the world and the human experience.
So therefore, at it’s core, for something to be a story it has two requirements:
A character does something.
The character’s choices produce results.
This is because our brains are trying to learn from that person’s actions, so obviously they must do something, and those actions must also have results, otherwise we haven’t learned from them.
So, there you are, cause and effect- that’s all that you need to tell a story.
And if I put it that way, you do this every day, right? Anytime you, or your mother, or crazy old grandpa are telling a story, you use this structure- “I did these things, and this was the result.”
That is the root seed from which all storytelling comes- a character does something and gets results.
“I kicked the dog, and he bit me.”
Of course, as you obviously already know, there’s a little more to it than that. Saying “I kicked the dog and he bit me” may be a story, but it’s not exactly a gripping one that’s going to hold an audience spellbound for hours or express your artistic vision.
To tell an interesting story, you need details, the more the better! (But only the right ones…)
Also, there is a simple process all humans go through when approaching a problem and the audience for a story likes to know the details of that process whenever possible.
So, we break those two parts into several clear steps.
A character does something can be broken into several steps:
The character has a Need.
The character chooses a Goal based on that need.
The character finds there is Opposition to achieving that goal.
The character comes up with a Plan to overcome the opposition.
The character takes Action based on that plan.
The character’s choices producing results can also be broken into steps:
The action fails> return to Plan.
The action succeeds> go to New State.
The character’s situation has changed because of the results and they’re in a New State.
To make it clearer, let’s give an example.
Bob is Thirsty. (Need)
Bob decides to get a glass of water. (Goal)
Bob finds there are no clean cups. (Opposition)
Bob decides to do dishes. (Plan)
Bob does the dishes. (Action)
Bob now has a clean glass. (Results)
Bob drinks a glass of water and feels satisfied. (New State)
Note that this is still extremely simple, but that’s because it’s also infinitely flexible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bob getting water or War and Peace, all human stories are using a variation of this structure at their very core and when reduced to the simplest level. If a story doesn’t meet (almost) all of these steps, it isn’t a story to the human brain.
There has to be a character who has a Need and a resulting Goal, who faces Opposition, finds a Plan to overcome it, takes Action and gets Results that will put them in a New State. All of these steps are crucial because otherwise there’s nothing to learn, and the human brain isn’t interested. If I show you a video of Bob walking across the room getting water from the fridge and sitting down to drink it, you’ll get bored because there’s no challenge there (which is where drama comes from) and nothing to learn from.
Let’s go into each of the steps in more detail:
The character needs a reason to take action, and this reason can be active (they choose to take action), or reactive (someone else forces them to take action), but there must always be a cause for what they do in the story. Active characters are almost always better, since the audience can learn more from a character who is trying to actively accomplish a goal, and they’re easier to write.
In either case, the character will have a Need, something which is driving them to attain their goal. At its core, this need will usually be based on one of the Basic Human Needs that all humans have- Food, Safety, Sex, Sleep, Companionship, Self-Actualization, and so on. The character tries to fulfill that need through taking action, whether they consciously understand that need exists or not.
This can be as simple as being thirsty and needing a glass of water, or as complex as defending their galactic empire from an alien invasion, but it will always be rooted in a basic human need when it comes down to it. (We don’t tend to things that don’t try to meet a human need in some way.)
Goals always fall into one of three simple categories:
The character either wants something new (attain), they want to avoid losing something that already exists (maintain), or they no longer wish to have something and try to get rid of it (lose). All characters will have one of these three goals, with the details varying by the story. This will be based on solving the problem created by their Need.
Goals will often be based on solving obstacles that prevent the character from achieving a human need rather than directly trying to achieve a human need. (ie Losing weight in order to get sex. Losing weight is the goal, but it is still rooted in the human need of sex.) Directly solving more complex needs can often be hard and painful, so characters will often choose goals that are smaller steps towards that greater need.
If a need can be met without opposition, it usually isn’t worth telling a story about. In fact, often the heart of a story isn’t the need or action being taken to meet that need, it’s the challenges that come with meeting that need. If there’s no opposition to the character’s actions, then the story moves to the New State phase and ends there. (Along with the audience’s interest.)
Opposition can come in any form that prevents the character from achieving their Goals, however these too tend to fall into one of several categories:
Lack of resources.
Lack of ability.
Active Opposition– an opponent who is actively trying to prevent the character from achieving their goal. Usually they have the same (or similar) goal as the main character, and this common goal brings them into direct opposition with each other. Often they also have a superior position to the main character in some way, at least in terms of knowledge, resources, power or ability. (After all, if they weren’t able to give the main character a challenge, they’re not much of an opponent, are they?) Usually, they are also made specifically to exploit the weakness of the main character, thus making them exactly the right person to make the main character’s life difficult.
Passive Opposition– an opponent who stands in the way of the character achieving their goals, but who isn’t pursuing the same goal as the main character. They are pursuing their own goals, but because of their existence/presence it prevents the main character from achieving their goal. Think of this like a sleeping guard dog that prevents a character from sneaking into the house, the parent who says the main character must clean their room before they can go out, or a clerk at a tax office who says the main character must follow procedure before they can have what they want as time is running out.
Lack of Resources– the character has a goal, but lacks the physical resources (time, money, friends, contacts, clothes, equipment, etc) to achieve that goal. This will usually require the character to pursue other smaller goals first (like getting a job to earn money) to achieve this goal.
Lack of Ability– the character has a goal, but lacks the personal skills, requirements, or knowledge needed to reach that goal. This can most often be fixed through training and personal improvement, or occasionally by finding someone else who has the abilities needed and getting them to do it.
Note that a single story can have more than one obstacle to a single goal. Just as there can be big goals and little goals, there can be big obstacles and little obstacles as well, and often the character needs to accomplish several little goals first to be able to accomplish the big final goal.
A character with a goal faced by obstacles will need to make a plan, which is the route the character decides to take to achieve their goal. This can be the result of self-reflection, previous results, or gut instinct, and plans can take seconds to make, or hours, or years in the context of the story. This step is actually semi-optional, as sometimes the “Plan” step is skipped over because it’s obvious, or for dramatic effect. (Jumping from Goal to seeing the character in Action to make the audience want to see how the character’s actions will achieve that goal.)
Action is simply the character trying to follow their plan and seeing what the result is. Again, this can be a simple single movement, or a long and complex project that takes years to finish. The writer may choose to detail every step of the plan, or just a few key steps, or even jump from the beginning to the end of the Action step. However, the character must make a choice and do something, even if their choice is just to sit there and cry.
Of course, there are really only three possible results:
They succeed and achieve their goal.
They fail and must either try again or give up.
They only partly fail or partly succeed and must either try again or give up.
If the character tries again, they go back to the Planning stage, and if they succeed and have met their Need they move on to the New State. If they give up, they have also moved into a New State- but it’s one where they failed to achieve their goal and are dealing with the consequences of that failure.
If the character achieved their goal, then the story is finished, or (if part of a larger story) then this portion of the story is finished. They have their goal, and are now either satisfied or not satisfied with the result based on the Need they were trying to fulfill.
Often, the character cannot reach a New State without first overcoming some personal flaw, in which case the New State is actually one where the character has changed part of themselves in order to achieve their true (often unconscious) goal.
So, there you have it, the fundamental structure humans use when telling stories.
However, just because something follows the above steps that doesn’t mean it’s a good story, it just means that it meets the basic requirements to be called a story. It only shows a character doing something and getting results, or in other words, showing how an action might play out.
To have a good story, one which is meaningful and the audience actually gets something from, that requires not just a story, but a Moral Argument as well.
Recently I did a post looking at the ideas of a writing guru called Eric Edson where among other things he made the statement that characters in movies only have four emotional states- Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared. Edson’s view was that these are the most common emotions used in film because they’re the most visual ones and easiest for the audience to understand.
In the discussion that followed in the comments, my friend Don pointed out that there are many other visual emotions that appear on film, and that there is even a whole profession which spends a great deal of time studying human facial expression and body language- animators!
So, this sent me on a little research jaunt to see what I could find, since I have over the years regularly seen animators and comic artists do up sheets of standard expressions and emotional states for characters. What I found was the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge sheet by Nancy Lorenz.
This sheet has been used since its release by multitudes of artists to explore how their characters express emotional states, and prepare their casts before going into production. So clearly, Edson was a little off, there are more emotional states that can appear on camera than just four, although in fairness to Edson a lot of them are variants of the core four he mentions with different levels of intensity involved. It’s also missing some emotional states like “curious”, so the list is hardly complete.
The point here is that writers could also use this approach to not only think about how each of their unique characters express these emotions, but also to think about which emotional state their characters will enter scenes with and which they will leave with, which are usually not the same ones. Each scene should have consequences, and those consequences are usually reflected in the change of emotional states of the characters involved. Controlling the shifting emotional states of the main characters is one of the things which gives stories a sense of flow, and creates an emotional journey for the audience to go on with the characters.
Also, while I was hunting for the emotions expressions sheets, I came across a few others that writers might find useful as well. Animators and Comic Artists spend a lot of time thinking about body language, which is an area where many Writers are often a bit weak since they’re not visual thinkers. You will constantly see writers having their characters only do just the most basic of body language gestures because they really don’t know any more or how to present it to the audience. Many writers get away with this or find ways around it, but like most things in writing the more elements you have control over the better you can express your story’s key ideas.
One of these is the Body Language Meme, which was meant to be an expanded full body version of the Facial Expressions challenge by Deviantart User ReincarnatedParano, which you can see in action below:
Then there is the 25 Smiles Challenge by Zerinity, which gets much more specific about the types of smiles characters use.
So, as you can see, there’s a lot more body language out there than smiles and nods, and having a good repertoire of ways to express your characters emotions besides through dialog can only make you a better writer. They say somewhere between 50% and 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so the better you get at using non-verbal cues in your writing, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and enthrall your audience.
One of my favorite YouTube channels is one called Film Courage, which is a channel basically dedicated to interviewing screenwriters and screenwriting teachers. There are some fantastic interviews on there if you’re interested in writing in general, but especially screenwriting.
Case in point this interview with writing teacher Eric Edson 12 Useful Tools To Help Beginning Screenwriters Write A Better Screenplay.
Now, the title is total click bait, in that Edson really doesn’t offer anything resembling tools in this video except in the broadest sense. He opens with a semi-controversial statement that plot and story are the same thing and calls anyone who disagrees idiots (which some like John Truby and Martin Scorsese would argue with, but it comes down to definitions) and then goes on to offer some random screenwriting tips. Among these are some pithy observations that I think are worth talking about.
The first one is that main characters in film should always have one of four broad goals:
His reasoning for those categories is that main characters in film need an easily identifiable goal that includes a physical endpoint that the audience can visually see. Are there more possible goals? Yes. But these are all things that can happen up on the screen in front of the audience’s eyes, which Edson argues makes them the perfect goals for visual storytelling.
Let’s look at each.
Win– Technically, all movies have a character trying to “win” if the character has a goal, but in this case I think Edson is referring to a situation where there is a clear contest of some kind involved. This could be a naval engagement, making a relationship work, finding a killer, or trying to pass fifth grade, but there is a clear identifiable endpoint of victory involved. In a lot of ways, this is the catch-all category of the four.
Stop– The character wants to stop someone else from doing something or something from happening. This would be Armageddon, Independence Day, and even Star Wars: A New Hope could be considered a “stop” movie (since the goal is to stop the Death Star from wreaking havoc.)
Escape– The main character wants to escape from a bad situation. While there is a lot of bleed over with Stop, I guess the key here is that the main character isn’t trying to stop the opponent from achieving their goals, they’re just trying to get away from a situation. So this would include Titanic, Jurassic Park and Towering Inferno type disaster movies, but also include films about characters trying to get out of small town life, or kick a drug addiction. Their life sucks and they want out, however they can manage it.
Retrieve– The main character wants to get something (or someone) and bring it back. This could be personal (Apocalypse Now), physical (Raiders of the Lost Ark), emotional (rekindling a relationship), mental (finding lost knowledge), or even social (restoring a way of life). The key here is that the goal is simply to find something and then use it.
This ties in with Blake Snyder’s advice that a movie’s main character’s goal(s) should be primal in nature- something that human beings can all relate to because its part of our experience as people. Also, it’s very easy to visualize most of these goals, and they’re finite in nature, which gives structure to the story through the goal itself. (Once you win, stop, escape, or retrieve, the story is now over.)
On the flipside, this can lead to very simple stories where the main characters don’t have complex goals, but instead are acting like animals in a way. Yes, that lets us relate to them, but it also doesn’t go very far in plumbing the depths of the human experience. I mean, yes, you need to keep things simple in a two hour (or less) film, but this may be too simple at times.
Edson also argues that there are four emotions that characters display on screen:
These again being universal and easily identifiable emotions that audiences can react to and understand easily no matter who they are. They are also strong emotions, so they’re more likely to resonate with the audience and make the scene more interesting while being easier for the actor to display. He says that each main character should enter a scene feeling one of these emotions and then leave it feeling another to show that change has happened in the scene.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with this list, and plan to think about it more and watch to see if that’s what’s happening in the films/tv I watch. What I can say is that there should be a fifth one on that list – Neutral – a state where a character is feeling no particular emotion at all. Sometimes character’s emotions aren’t strong, or are hidden from the audience, and this could be at the start of a scene or at the end of one. Of course, if your characters are always in neutral, it might be hard to get a reaction out of the audience, unless you have other supporting characters making up for it.
This is basically all I think is worth taking from this video. Edson follows this by trying to briefly discuss some Hero’s Journey archetypes, but slightly flubs them and if you want to know more about that go read Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey or Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (The Shapeshifter is not the Opponent, for example, they can be, but are often not the main opponent but a secondary one.)
Not one of Film Courage’s best videos (it mostly seems like a disguised pitch for Edson’s book), but it did have some interesting points I thought were worth noting. I’ll probably annotate some of their other videos in the future as well.
We know that stories exist because humans use them to learn from each other- they’re a teaching tool we use to pass knowledge and ideas between ourselves. Therefore, it will come as no shock to anyone that audiences must get something from a story to enjoy it. However, not every audience member wants the same thing, and not every good story offers the same things to its audience. That said, for a story to be successful with an audience, they must get at least one of five things (and preferably more than one) from a story, which can be remembered simply by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..
Skills – If a story teaches the audience how to do something, whether it’s growing plants, judging wine, star-ship tactical combat, solving crossword puzzles, or how to get a good night’s sleep, then the audience will consider that story interesting.
Perspective – If a story offers a new way of seeing the world, or conversely, confirms or supports the way the audience already sees the world, then they will likely consider it interesting. In our lives, we only really know our own points of view, and stories let us see the world as others see it, that’s one of the wonderful parts about experiencing a story. On the flipside, we naturally want our own views of the world to be the correct ones, and stories that back up those views will resonate with an audience that wants those views to be true. (This might sound sinister to some, but most popular stories have a version of this buried inside them which acts as a comfort to the audience – “good will always triumph over evil”, “if you work hard you will succeed in life”, “there’s someone out there for everyone”, “there’s justice in this world”, etc.)
Information – If a story offers the audience knowledge about a subject they’re not familiar with, they will consider it interesting. This is different from Skills in that it isn’t teaching the audience how to do something, but giving them information about a topic or topics. This can be history, culture, fashion, sports, nature, geophysics, religion, and everything in between. If the audience is interested in this topic, or made to be interested in it by the presentation of the story, then they’ll stick with it.
Novelty – If the story offers the audience something new or that they haven’t seen before, they will consider it interesting. This can be any aspect of the story from way its told (character, plot, setting, style, structure, etc) to the content (skills, perspective, information) that is new to the audience. Give them something they don’t know, they haven’t seen done, or they haven’t seen done this way, and they’ll be on board.
Emotion – If a story can make the audience feel something, then they will find it interesting. (Although not always enjoyable.) All good stories should make the audience feel something at some point, and certain kinds of stories are even built around producing specific kinds of emotion. (Horror, Thriller, Romance, Erotica, Comedy, Tragedy, etc) If you can elicit emotions from your audience, and its emotions they want to feel ), then they’ll stick with it.
Not every story will contain all five of these things, nor all five things in the same ratios, but if you want an audience to think of a story as being “good” you’ll probably want to think about which ones your story is offering and in what ways. Obviously, not all stories teach the audience how to do something, but most do offer some new information. Similarly, not every audience wants novelty, or at least a lot of it, as sometimes a familiar story gives them comfort and new things can sometimes be challenging.
The key is that the more you’re aware of these elements, and how you’re using them, the better your story can be because you can control and shape them to get the results you want as opposed to just guessing how to satisfy your audience.
So, using my very limited HTML programming skills, I’ve put together not one, but two random generators for writers who are looking for a little inspiration to use.
The Random Scene Generator gives you a pair of people who are naturally in opposition to each other and a verb which defines the scene they’re in. I wrote this a number of years ago for use by my scriptwriting students as part of an assignment they do, but naturally anyone can use it. This is especially good for generating ideas for short one act plays or films.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by Jack Ward for a spirited debate about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Does Campbell’s opus really hold the key to writing satisfying stories? Jack thinks so, but Rob and Don aren’t so sure, and this leads to a long discussion involving comparative mythology, newspaper comic strips, 1970’s vampire hunting reporters, and more sitcom references than an 80’s flashback! All this, and Don’s unhealthy fixation with the obscure scifi comedy Quark are waiting for you in this, the 35th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.
In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.
So basically in simplest form it looks like this:
1 – You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – Need (but they want something)
3 – Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – Search (adapt to it)
5 – Find (find what they wanted)
6 – Take (pay its price)
7 – Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – Change (now capable of change)
Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…
1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?
I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.