Our minds are wired to process stories:
- We glue perceptions together with prior perceptions, feelings, purpose, and expectations to create a string of connections that form conclusions.
- Good mnemonics build stories out of perceptions and expectations.
- We form stories out of images that condense into symbols which represent feelings and sensations.
- Every popular song made across has a very limited number of starting chords, and has the exact same set of possible ending chords.
- People usually engage more easily with movies and novels than with documentaries and textbooks.
- Every society uses folklore and myths, as well as proverbs, that communicate important lessons.
A story isn’t a middle ground, but an exploration of extremes.
Mechanically, there are only a few ways to build a story:
- Narration – use a third-party to move the story from one point to another.
- Description – use a third-party to give context around the story.
- Dialogue – explain thoughts and feelings with some sort of conversation.
- Expression – Use sensory cues like visuals or sounds to paint an image.
- Interaction – use the audience’s decisions and expressions to influence how the audience feels by drawing them into the experience.
Every story communicates a value. The stories people remember will communicate values that reference beyond itself and add meaning to the audience’s life beyond the story. To do this, the creator must draw from associations the audience already had before the story started.
The best way to detect a good story is from how much everyone in the audience observes quality as they experience it. People only stay interested in stories as long as they see anything unexpected or unusual, which requires a vast emotional range to trigger the audience’s attention.
Usually, we set ourselves at the center of the story while we’re engaged with it, with a comparison/contrast with the main character’s decisions. As we mature to perceive others’ views as having equal merit, we’re able to imagine ourselves as the character in that story while suspending judgment about the quality of their decisions until the end of the story.
Every story has a main character (protagonist), who always experiences an inner conflict and is either favored (hero) or shamed (anti-hero) by the creator. A hero will always decide toward a sacrifice, and an anti-hero will only pursue sacrifice for self-interest.
The emphasized values and message will be on about the scope of that sacrifice. The sacrifice will be the catalyst for the character to change and may be caused by the character anticipating, performing, or experiencing consequences.
The creative quality of the character and their experiences is directly proportional to the quality of the creator’s ability to communicate their experiences. Naturally, that person would need worthwhile experiences worth communicating in the first place, which is why the culture of the creator is critically important.
Across the duration of any story, it contains 7-8 “movements” that alter the flow or feeling of the story. The story itself is a consequence, not just of a setting, of the main character (who is defined as a Hero). The main character is always facing the unknown through a ridiculously predictable set of circumstances:
- Hero starts comfortably in Ordinary World, but is missing something.
- Hero experiences Inciting Incident and receives Call to Adventure.
- Optionally, Hero rejects Call, meets Mentor, and Mentor gives Hero courage to accept Call.
- Hero crosses Threshold, enters an unfamiliar situation in a Special World to get Treasure.
- Hero encounters both Enemies and Allies, and endures experiences that will serve as his Initiation.
- Those encounters must require Hero to have adapted to the situation to prepare for encountering the Villain.
- Hero confronts Villain, acquires Treasure they wanted because of a change in the Hero that doesn’t reflect on Villain.
- The Villain doesn’t have to stay the Villain, but the VIllain change will be at least part of the Treasure (even if it’s not readily apparent).
- Hero tries to “get home” and escapes Special World.
- Optionally, Villain pursues Hero, and Hero must fight/escape again.
- Hero returns to Ordinary World with Treasure, reintegrates into Ordinary World, but the ordeal and journey’s experiences have changed them.
- By the end, Hero must pay heavy price for the ordeal.
- Alternately, Hero loses Treasure (and maybe more), but is still changed.
Each phase of the story contains even more specific elements that provide context. This context expresses through general variations in severity to create comparative contrast across the timeline of the story.
The beginning of the story starts with a “normal” environment. The main character is in a zone they feel safe in, which often includes a comfortable setting and culturally normal family. However, they want something they can’t get in that zone. In nonfiction facts (e.g., self-help guides, philosophy, science), the main character is the reader.
Sometimes, the starting point is in the middle of a conflict. Other times, it’s extremely long documentation of the environment. But, it’s always a starting point the audience has some familiarity with.
By the very end of the exposition, the main character must always want something they don’t have they sincerely believe can be accomplished by performing a risk.
The starting point has a huge impact on the story because it determines the audience’s expectations. It requires tremendous skill to choose it correctly as the storyteller, and effective stories don’t waste much time on it compared to the rest of the story.
Transition to Middle (Antithesis)
- A creation from outside the main character’s group.
- Another person inside the group who dabbles in the group’s taboos, which may include the half-safe friend.
- An outsider who attacks the group, usually to make the leader feel fearful.
The critical moment for the transition is when the main character expects a result from their environment. Great stories will either make their efforts absolutely ineffective (proving that they must try harder to succeed) or far too effective (proving that the other extreme is also a very bad thing). However, they can never stop and return to normal after they’ve performed the action or the story won’t have any meaning.
In an influential story, the arguments and values presented within the antithesis will have as much sincerity and clarity as the thesis. This can be very difficult for things that may have good aspects, because they must persist through much of the story uncontested.
Complex stories (which draw in audiences more) involve the main character severely wanting something, but also torn about that decision without being aware of it. This tends to explore itself by making the best possible situation become the worst, or vice versa.
Middle (Rising Action)
The structure of the middle of stories varies wildly. Many events happen, usually as a barrage of changes. Frequent enough changes will force the audience to rely strictly on feelings to follow the story since they won’t be able to keep track of them all or understand their implications, though the audience’s logic will eventually catch up in retrospect.
The first change will come from a threshold guardian. They will have to change to push past the limits that kept them in the safety of their zone. The threshold guardian could be anything:
- Something breaking through the main character’s safe zone
- The main character pushing past their safe zone
- The safe zone falling apart entirely
- The main character discovering the safe zone isn’t actually safe
Usually, the main character will interact with a mentor who gives wisdom about what to do, a bit like a parental proxy. However, the mentor can also be a creative work that communicates or implies the idea.
There will also often be an antagonist the main character is opposed to. The antagonist will believe their opposing cause about as much as the hero, and often more. To drive the point home, they’ll often be evil in other ways beyond the scope of necessity.
In stories larger than a few minutes, the middle of the story takes up most of the time. If the middle is large enough, good stories will also add at least one subplot that creates an ironic contrast to the protagonist’s journey.
Transition to End (Falling Action)
Somewhere in the middle, the main character will have to make a choice. They will always make a heavy sacrifice of something, often in spite of their fears. It’ll be something they value and must give up to get something else, often what they were missing in the beginning.
In a story longer than a few minutes, the character has a period beforehand where they’re willing or conflicted, but not acting yet (turning point). The storyteller will usually capitalize on their fears and hopes, usually in a relatively quieter setting compared to the rest of the story’s middle.
Even when the results are predictable, the story must surprise the audience. Otherwise, people will find it boring.
At the turning point, the character is crossing a threshold into a new thing, often for both the character and the audience. To drive it home and make it feel harsher, the character will go through a ton of pain to get there:
- Trauma they must fight against
- Bad and incorrect ideas they had believed
- Limits to their understanding they hadn’t realized
- Difficult moral decisions they must perform or reconcile
The style of the story heavily defines what the main character’s transition sits on. The audience’s gender, age range, intelligence, sense of humor, and moral beliefs all play a part into the ideals worth communicating. Generally, sophisticated stories are far more subtle. Longer stories have more turning points.
The end of the story converges the beginning and middle of the story. The main character is now clearly motivated to act, and the audience is observing the results of that action on the story’s assembled world.
The final conflict will often symbolize the main character’s first encounter to highlight how the character transformed. But, this time the character will act with more certainty and understanding than they ever had before. No matter what, they will in some way find meaning or closure in their new action.
If there’s a distinct antagonist, the main character will have changed while the antagonist will have stayed the same, though it will be reversed in the case of an anti-hero. In a bad story, neither the hero or anti-hero will have changed.
Often, adding irony to the result will heighten its emotional impact:
- Getting what they wanted, but too late to have it.
- Being pushed further and further from a goal, only to find they were led right to it. Or, reaching a goal they unwittingly were trying to run from.
- Throwing away what they later find critical for their happiness.
- The actions they take to destroy something are exactly what they needed for that thing to destroy them.
- Coming into possession of something they’re certain will make them miserable and does everything possible to get rid of it, to discover it’s the cause of their happiness.
There’s always a message at the end of the story. The mood of the ending determines everything about the values the story is communicating, and is often magnified by symbolically reproducing the beginning of the story with adaptations (“bookends”). It’s why the last few minutes of a story, no matter how long, can destroy or redeem it.
When done correctly, the end is the conclusion of a larger story, with a final image that leaves the audience with a personal decision for themselves. They can accept an expanded understanding (according to the creator) of what constitutes the good life or reject that perspective outright.
To make a good story, the conclusion must inspire a strong feeling (usually love but sometimes fear) that provokes action in the audience. The only way to accomplish this is through giving an ending they want (to clarify purpose to them), but in a way they don’t expect (to provoke trust in the unknown).
We tend to remember the end of a story along with details within the middle that were the most emotionally intense. We can typically endure a boring story with a good ending, but a bad ending can destroy our impression of a story. While we don’t tend to remember most of the details, the beginning and middle details evoke the most context for an ending.
- The Hero embodies the theme.
- The Villain embodies the counter-theme.
- The Inciting Incident is the beginning of the theme.
- Everything should ramp up to the climax of the story, which should resolve that theme.
- Even genre-defying stories keep the hero, but move them around (e.g, antihero, sympathetic villain).
Stories can sometimes take hours and days to expand details in many different directions, but they always correspond to the same theme.
These themes float around a few possible conflicts:
- The balance between life and death.
- The realm of the conscious versus unconscious.
- The distinction between order and chaos.
By world-building, the storyteller is giving more details that give the audience something to feel. While everything in world-building could express as a dry fact sheet, an expert creator will weave those details into the story, often expanding the world while advancing the plot.
Story-building is communicating the changes that take place, specifically in the amount and scale of things happening. Without changes, the story is merely a list of things. Those changes must bring relatable feelings to the audience. In the case of any story longer than a few minutes, there must be at least 3 major events that change everything.
Through character-building, the creator is designing the personality of the character. While all characters merely need a purpose, a story will allude to their past decisions, prejudices and sense, and who they are. An excellent storyteller can create someone so vivid that the audience will identify with the character and be able to approximately predict what they will do next.
One of the most critical components of story-telling is through repeated patterns. A small, subtle object or expression is typically mundane at first, but creates its own theme as it’s recycled throughout the story. By the end of the story, its final state creates a wave of meaning to the audience.
Some of the story’s patterns must expose secrets of the characters (“exposition”). These secrets should exist in small segments throughout the chronology of the story. Any character that’s fully self-aware, flawless, or without contradiction will be boring to the audience.
Creators can also add other characters. Those characters can complicate the situation or add more to the story world, but always connect to the main character somehow:
- Shapeshifters will have obscured motives that vacillate between helping and hurting the protagonist.
- Tricksters will add humor to lighten the situation.
- Dragons will be secondary antagonists to add more drama to the conflict.
To add value to the story, every additional character should be able to evoke unique emotional states in the other characters of the story. It becomes too many characters when a side character doesn’t draw a new feeling out of a main character.
Generally, the first-person point of view is difficult for most people to handle because it constantly remind them that they’re not experiencing the story. Instead, writers tend to prefer second-person viewpoints whenever possible, and they tend to add factual inconsistencies to keep the audience guessing about reality within the story’s context.
Any one detail can dramatically change the values of everything in that story, especially near the ending. One out-of-place remark or body language gesture may demonstrate ideas the creator secretly hid in the story’s message. In this sense, observant consumers who detect details and understand a story entirely differently that less observant or more immature consumers will interpret.
Frequently, most plots tend to fall into a few predictable patterns:
- Maturation – a coming-of-age story.
- Redemption – a moral change where a character becomes good.
- Punitive – a good character turns bad and is punished.
- Testing – a character’s resolve is tested against hardship.
- Education – a character must change their negative understanding of something.
- Disillusionment – a character’s must change their positive expectations.
Extremely effective stories all carry the same highly polished components:
- The story is simple enough to hit the audience’s feelings. The audience will find it amusing and want to continue consuming it, usually because there’s a new experience inside the story and because it’s fulfilling a wish embedded in the audience’s culture. This only comes from the creator having a fierce belief they want to share through that story.
- The storyteller will intentionally omit information. They understand a more elaborate concept, but they use simpler ideas to articulate smaller ideas, then require the audience to connect the larger picture.
- Few or no facts refute the story, which implies that it’s true or could easily be true. The creator will often obscure the details by using their authority or something unknown instead of logic for the audience to feel persuaded:
- Describing the story firsthand, but explaining how all evidence of it was lost (most older fiction)
- Setting the story in a hypothetical far future or alternate reality (science fiction)
- The world operates with science behaving very differently (fantasy)
- Unknowable fears take on a more tangible form (horror)
- The entire story will appear as if the creator had specifically purposed the story for the audience to hear. While the message may be vague, the action the creator wants for the audience must be explicit. If possible, the creator gives clearly defined consequences for those actions. While a coincidence can bring a character into that story, they’ll only come out of it with a coincidence if the message is to trust the unknown.
Audiences have a limited attention span, so fewer details delivers more impact. To maximize details that create meaning for certain cultures, most genre styles heavily expand specific details of a story:
- Sci-fi/fantasy focuses on the world, with sci-fi emphasizing technical details and fantasy expanding long-term history and myths.
- Biographies and small-scale stories focus on characters.
- Romance focuses on character relationships.
- Drama expands on story.
- Horror focuses on the antagonist.
One component of every story is its suspense. Before the creator reveals the ending, the audience can interpret any uncertain details to have any form of implication they want. Expert storytellers give enough suspense to keep people somewhat reliably guessing the end, but not enough to frustrate them from lack of understanding.
We usually make stories retroactively. The season finale of a TV show or the plot twist of a movie can change everything about it and destroy the experience. Sometimes, creators will try to merge a completely fictional story with reality by making it an origin or future story of our world (especially in sci-fi).
We often see a story as an abstracted existence, but it’s part of a greater whole:
- Each story is composed of many mini-stories woven together.
- Every story you consume is part of a grander story that spans your entire life, and beyond.
Taken far enough, our understanding of a single word, data point, or sensation is its own story, and all human understanding is a vast collection of connected stories.
We retroactively make stories automatically about our own lives. History is the stories of our past woven into one large story that leads to the present day. Journalism is stories about the present, with varying degrees of truth to them. Mentally well people use plenty of humor throughout any story they make.
Since every story is inspired by other stories and reality, stories can be analyzed and reproduced by observing specific values called “tropes“. Every decent storyteller, beyond conveying feeling, is also aware of where a trope’s trend currently is for their audience.
To the degree we want to feel safe, we will revisit a story we love. We already know the ending, so we find more pleasure in seeing retroactively how the beginning and middle contributed to it.
Often, story writers will create ordinary people, then put them in odd situations. By contrast, performers will place odd people into ordinary situations. For those reasons, jumping across media can be emotionally dissonant.
This story-based means of understanding has a few issues. While we can capture feelings and values precisely (especially morals), we tend to misrepresent facts. Our information-gathering is too poor to accurately understand all things.
Our brains don’t have segmented areas for fiction versus nonfiction, so the experiences we consume (such as movies or books) will bleed together with our real-life experiences. At its extreme, habitual liars start losing track of reality.
Because of stories, it’s humanly impossible to not have a bias. The very order of how we read information and data changes how we feel about the conclusion. Logic itself is a story. We can understand facts better with more patience and rigor, but must always believe in something we can’t prove entirely.
We tend to believe our stories are reality and make expectations based on those beliefs. Our decisions often mean we compromise on large benefits (e.g., extreme safety) and receive small gains (e.g., exposure to extreme risks). The only way to influence people otherwise is to use dramatic characters that portray extreme examples of what people ought to do or not do.
To live a good life, we must experience great stories, which means we must routinely veer into extremes.
If a story is bad, it’s often the best the creator can do, especially in with media designed for large-scale appeal. Don’t judge them too harshly, since they’re attempting to conquer the unknown. If they’re representing a destructive value as a good thing, we should feel pity before anger.
A very good story will feel more real than reality itself. Often, many storytellers use existing tropes that overshadow reality’s rules (e.g., how automobiles are used). Sometimes, they’ll use their story to invalidate legitimate points of view (e.g., politics). Other times, they’ll use their stories to attach untrue things they speculate to legitimately true things.
- To Go
- And Changes
The scope of things that qualify as stories is vast. There’s literally no limit to its size, length or medium.
- A few seconds or a single perception:
- Combine the events together to create a short story:
- Verbal exchange among people.
- Short story or novella.
- Chapter of a textbook or book.
- Website landing page or internet article.
- Short videos.
- An episode of a TV show.
- Independently-made electronic game or board game.
- A sales pitch.
- Combine small events into a larger picture or spanning a few days:
- An event, with its repercussions and aftermath.
- A website or large essay like this one.
- A song album.
- Popular paperback novels.
- AAA games.
- Attach the large images into a trend:
- A TV show season.
- A book series.
- Every creation one specific creator makes.
- A life stage.
- Role-playing games.
- Multiple trends weave into the maximum possible experience of living:
- Further, we can mix-and-match stories into seemingly unrelated realms:
A beautiful story has a buildup to something, which means there’s always a public notice before dropping something fantastic on people. Otherwise, that creator won’t handle the story well enough to make a broad effect, and someone else will tell that story better and receive more glory from it.
A feature-length story uses 40-60 scenes that form 12-18 sequences that build into 3+ acts that merge and weave into each other. Accomplishing this without boring the audience with repetition requires making hundreds of scenes and throwing out most of them. It also means most creators should pare down their feature-length stories to maximize impact.
The most applicable and enjoyable nonfiction uses plenty of examples to expand and clarify the idea and gives discussion topics for everyone to discuss at the end. This makes the experience more interactive to the audience and, thus, more memorable.
Popular trends, especially formal media, are fulfilling the secret latent desires of its surrounding culture. It’s the reason their base splits along age-based, gender-based, and lifestyle-based lines.
Interesting stories must have dramatic shifts. This requires empathy with what can create emotional range, meaning the creator has to have had significant experience with the good life compared to their audience.
The truth, in all its normalcy, is a relatively dull story. Often, we prefer a stylized, artistic depiction of reality over reality itself. We must constantly examine anything considered true which also evokes strong feelings because it may veer away from reality into trust.
If you’re reading story lore, a wiki, or listening to a company presentation, you’re the main character of a relatively uninteresting story.
The details dictate everything. We must be very mindful of the elements inserted into stories, what they imply, and the values they define.
Different people (e.g., social classes, age groups) see stories differently because their value systems are different. Wealthy people find meaning in winning, while poor people find it in trying your best. Young people find meaning in exploration, while old people find meaning in receiving closure. The majority finds a good story that references their experience acceptable, while critics are more concerned about the art of the story.
People would rather have the experience of climbing social classes from lower to middle than drop from upper to middle, even if the second would be a more pleasant experience.