How The Great Story Does Its Work
by James Bonnet
The purpose of story, as I see it, is to guide us to our full potential and the nature of story is to conceal that purpose in an enticing sugar coat (the entertainment dimensions) that lures us into the experience. But if the purpose is concealed, then how does it do its work?
The great story -- by which I mean the great myths, legends, fairy tales, classics, critical and box office successes -- does its work in several important ways:
First, it stimulates our imaginations by provoking personal fantasies, which lead to the desire for actions in the real world. Then it gives us a taste of what it might be like if we were actually to make one of these passages and accomplish some of these things.
Carl Jung explains it this way -- The auditor experiences some of the sensations but is not transformed. Their imaginations are stimulated: they go home and through personal fantasies begin the process of transformation for themselves. All of this happens automatically and the story recipients need not be consciously aware that the story is intentionally trying to influence and guide them.
Having lured us into the adventure by fantasies and a taste, the great story then provides us with a road map, which is to say, it outlines all of the actions and tasks of the hero's and anti-hero's journey which we have to accomplish in order to complete one of these passages. Plus, it provides a tool kit for solving all of the problems that have to be solved to accomplish the actions and tasks. The tool kit, of course, is the problem solving story structures of which Aristotle's classical structure is a significant part.
Every great story will divulge a little more of this truth, and bit by bit each step of the passage is revealed. Again, all of this is going on without the story recipients' conscious knowledge that it's happening.
How does it do that? By meaningful connections. If it's a great story, we will remember it, and, over time, we will make meaningful associations and connections with our real life situations.
The more hidden truth the story contains, the more appealing it will be; the more relevant it will be to our lives and the more likely we are to remember it. We'll cherish and work with it all of our lives, then we'll pass it on to our children.
No one story, as I've indicated, contains the whole truth. The process is cumulative. Each story contributes a little bit of this vital information. We can be affected by many different stories at the same time. We relate them to our lives when, and if we need them and make the necessary course corrections.
It was more than thirty years from the time I first heard Rumpelstiltskin until I realized that the secrets hidden in that marvelous tale were about the creative process and how the mind is organized. In Rumplestiltskin, and many stories like it, an endangered princess has to perform the impossible task of transforming a pile of straw into gold by morning or she'll lose her head. Then a miraculous helper, Rumplestiltskin, comes to her rescue and accomplishes the task for her while she sleeps.
Being a writer, I would often fall asleep at night worrying about certain difficult story problems I hadn't been able to solve during that work day. And just as often, a marvelous solution to those problems would pop into my head as I was waking up the following morning. Naturally, I wondered who or what was solving those problems. Suddenly, one day I made the connection. My God, I exclaimed. It's Rumpelstiltskin!
The miraculous little helper was a metaphor, a personification in image form of some unconscious problem-solving mechanism. The secret hidden in the marvelous story had something important to reveal about the creative process and how our minds function. Namely, that inside our minds there is an unconscious problem-solving mechanism (a Rumpelstiltskin) that continues to work, and transform our serious problems (the straw) into precious insights (the gold), while our conscious minds are asleep. Another little piece of the puzzle had been revealed. And, finally, the great story guides this whole process with incredible insights and wisdom.
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.
Believe it or not there's something similar and equally profound in the movie Back to the Future. Having seen Back to the Future Part II, and having no desire to see Part III, I have concluded that the profundity in Part I got there by accident, but nevertheless, it's there.
At the beginning of the story, we meet Michael J. Fox and his family. His mother is an alcoholic and his rather pathetic father a serious wimp and a miserable failure. They're living in a hovel of mediocrity and despair. When Michael J. Fox gets involved in his time machine adventure, he gets entangled in the lives of his parents when they are still in high school, on the very day that they met. And they met in a curious way. His clumsy, painfully shy father was hit by a car in front of his mother's house while lurking there, trying to catch a glimpse of her. The boy's mother took him into her house to nurse him back to health and fell in love with him out of pity. When Michael J. Fox arrives a moment before the father, he is hit by the car, and his mother falls in love with him instead.
He now has a very big problem. He has to make his future mother fall out of love with him and in love with his geeky, future father or he isn't even going to exist. He accomplishes this one evening when his mother is being molested by the town bully in the front seat of a car. Fox goads his father into rescuing her, in the process of which, the father knocks out the bully with a lucky punch and his mother is saved. The mother immediately transfers her love from her future son to her new hero.
Now, that in itself is profound because it says that a love inspired by heroic deeds is stronger than a love brought on by pity. But there's more. When Fox gets back to the present, everything about the lives of his family has miraculously changed. His mother is no longer an alcoholic, his father is a big success and a real dude, and they're living in a magnificent, creatively appointed house -- all because of that one change in the father's character.
The important bit of wisdom has to do with the incredible difference one courageous act can make on our lives. Standing up to that bully had an extraordinary and profound effect far into the future. We encounter numerous such challenges and opportunities to show our courage every day. The phone call we're afraid to make to ask for a date or a job -- little acts of courage that could be profoundly and irrevocably changing the rest of our lives. That's also very useful to know.
One final example. In a fairy tale called Aga Baba, a young hero on an important adventure stops to rest at a witch's house. The witch tries to delay him by asking him some intriguing but difficult questions, like, What is truth? -- Does the universe ever end? and so on. The wise young hero looks at her and says, Shut up and get me something to eat.
The wisdom in this story is simple enough: Beware of imponderables when action is necessary. Don't wile away your days worrying about infinity or other unanswerable questions when you should be out looking for a job.
So there you have three important bits of advice from stories: change yourself and you change your destiny; little acts of courage performed today can have exponential effects on the rest of your life; and beware of imponderables when action is necessary.
And here again it's cumulative, each story contributing a little bit more of the hidden truth. When you've got hundreds such bits of wisdom working for you, all you have to do is get up in the morning and you'll know exactly what to do and how to do it.
So that's how the great stories do their work. They stimulate our imaginations and give us little tastes of paradise. These trigger fantasies, which lead us to desires for 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.
James Bonnet was elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writer's Guild of America and has acted in or written more than forty television shows and features. The radical new ideas about story in his book Stealing Fire from the Gods: A Dynamic New Story Model For Writers And Filmmakers are having a major impact on writers in all media. He is the workshop leader of the popular Storymaking Master Class. Currently (Spring 2003) James is directing a feature film for which he wrote the screenplay.