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Accessing our innate power to tell stories.
Storytelling is woven into the fabric of our being, as ancient as human consciousness itself. It transcends time and place, connecting us across cultures, languages, and shared memories. From the cave paintings of our ancestors to modern cinema, storytelling is the heartbeat that drives our emotional and psychological connection to one another.
Remember, your ancient ancestors survived because they told the best stories. They passed on their genes to you. You were born to do this. Storytelling comes as naturally for you as breathing.
Then, why should I write an essay on how to tell a story? We tell stories all day – we gossip or recount our morning, intuitively leaving out the boring details and sticking to “the interesting parts” (the story).
Capital S "Storytellers" sometimes get so in our heads that we forget how to do what comes naturally. We make coffee, clear our desks, and sit down to type out a novel, and suddenly, “storytelling” feels like something other people do. Creative people, maybe.
I’ve spent the last ten years writing books and TV shows and trying to become “great” at storytelling. The harder I tried, the more awkward I became. The more I practiced, the more I realized that I already knew how to tell stories. Practicing wasn’t about learning anything, after all. It was about unlearning.
The truth is, you and I, just like every other human being, are storytelling animals.
Joseph Campbell, a prominent mythologist, introduced the "Monomyth" concept in his influential book, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." The monomyth is a narrative pattern found in myths, legends, and stories from around the world, highlighting the universal themes and stages of human experience. It comprises 17 stages broadly divided into three acts: Departure, Initiation, and Return.
Some feel that not all stories follow this pattern and that applying it limits creativity. I understand this reaction. Creativity is about freedom, right?
The monomyth functions more like a grammatical framework than a rigid formula. Stories need a foundational structure to be recognizable and engaging. While Tarantino may hide traditional story structure in a more naturalistic style, like in "Pulp Fiction," the core elements of the monomyth persist. This structure is not meant to constrain but to provide a foundation upon which unique and captivating stories can be built.
All myths and stories share a standard underlying structure, regardless of their cultural origins. Of course, nobody planned this (unless you count ancient aliens) – so you have to conclude that there is a universal grammar to storytelling. Like breathing, the only way you can tell it wrong is to get too in your head about it.
Dan Harmon (“Community” and “Rick and Morty”) simplified all this to an 8-step circular storytelling structure (read the blog – it’s annoyingly good). Harmon took Campbell’s ideas and made them as simple and understandable as possible (thankfully, he’s not an academic). He spent his youth watching TV and reading books in Milwaukee. As a result, his lucid grasp of story structure is legendary here in LA.
It’s simple but based on profound ideas. It’s just there to remind you of what you already know – to get the ball rolling.
You don’t need to know these steps to tell a good story. But, if you’re stuck or overthinking it, they could help.
Remember, good writing is re-writing. Use your power of intuitive storytelling to get out a first draft, and then, at least, you’ll have something to work with. I find that the more intuitive the first draft, the easier the edits.
Don’t be afraid to get wild.
Basics of structure
Stories go like this (I’m taking these simplified steps directly from Dan):
The steps go best in a circle like this:
Here's a very simple example: YOU are comfortable on your couch, but you NEED a LaCroix, so you GO to the kitchen where you SEARCH for a can, FIND one in the fridge, TAKE a long drink of bubbly water, RETURN to your couch, CHANGED into a quenched person.
Now, that's not going to win you any Oscars. But it's important to understand how dirt simple this is.
Again, some people will bristle at this idea – that this makes storytelling too “formulaic.” But like the 26 letters of the alphabet give you the ability to craft nearly infinite combinations of words, the simple 8-step grammar of storytelling gives rise to every story we love and any story we might love in the future.
Having a firm grasp on simple storytelling grammar gives storytellers more freedom, not less. By mastering the basics, whole worlds of possibilities open up to you. When you quit trying to reinvent the wheel (circle), you paradoxically gain access to the infinite possibilities the constrained grammar of the story makes possible.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
― Pablo Picasso
Fundamentally, storytelling follows a simple circular structure because humans desire to embark on a journey, return home, and experience change. Since our earliest days of trekking away from the campfire to find food for our family, we have sought to share these experiences. There is no outsmarting the process, just as there's no outsmarting breathing.
It’s not a trick or a hack. It's a map. I can remind you how to breathe, but it’s not like you’ll really forget.
Let's get into a more detailed breakdown of each step of the story using The Matrix as an example.
Hopefully, by showing you the simplicity of a “complex” story, you’ll feel liberated to tell stories with a little more ease:
Before the start of the story, your audience is floating around in space, unattached. They need a place they can land. A person they can identify with.
Don’t leave them hanging.
Neo is introduced to us as somewhat of a loner – living in a tiny apartment and working a boring job. Not to mention, he’s played by Keanu Reeves, and I like the look of his face.
Introduce someone people can relate to. Show a relatable flaw.
Now the audience is engaged.
We’ve established our hero, but now we need to establish something missing in his life. The hero needs to want something he is unable to get. That’s what makes it a story.
If this were a love story, this is the point where we start seeing the person swiping on a dating app and doing big sighs as she receives yet another unsolicited dick pic.
Neo is searching for a strange man named “Morpheus” after having another day at his terrible office job. He wants... Freedom. To be special. To see something beyond the ordinary world.
Be careful what you wish for.
Now it’s time to leave our ordinary world behind. This is where Dorothy goes to Oz, where the thirsty man goes to the kitchen.
In this case, Neo takes the famous “red pill.” He “crosses the threshold” into a new world.
If you look at the story circle in the beginning, we are entering the bottom half. Everything down here is the “unconscious.” This is where you keep all the parts of yourselves you don’t want to know about – like your love for Imagine Dragons.
For the most impactful story, you want to make the protagonist face everything he avoids here. If he fears crowds, put him in Time Square on New Year's. If he fears a lack of freedom, like Neo, show him that the real world is all about hiding underground from hyperintelligent machines like rats.
After descending into the strange world, it’s time to adapt to it.
In an 80s movie, this is when you watch a training montage in a forest clearing to the song Flashdance.
In the Matrix, this is when Neo gets fighting programs downloaded into his head and says, “I know kung fu.”
A moment of quiet in the story.
If steps 4 and 6 are masculine moments of action, 5 is feminine a moment of rest — the eye of the storm. Campbell called it the “meeting of the goddess.”
This is where the protagonist gets what he needs – even if it’s not what he originally thought he wanted.
Neo wanted to be special and free in the beginning, remember? Now, he’s learning he wants something deeper: faith.
Neo admits to the Oracle here, “I’m not The One…” He is OK with letting go of his ego. That will allow him to actually become The One later.
But he can’t know that now.
Meeting of the maker. The drama is coming to a head — a moment of action.
Everything we’ve learned in steps 1-5 is being put to the test.
This is the scene in the subway where Neo fights Agent Smith. Neo’s kung fu training from step 4 comes in handy. But it’s not enough.
He dusts himself off and is the first human able to go toe-to-toe with an Agent. How? What he learned in the previous step: faith.
Or, as Morpheus puts it, “He’s beginning to believe…”
We got the LaCriox from the fridge, and it’s time to walk back to the couch.
This is where we’re hauling ass back to the “normal” world where we started.
Another way to think about it: we’re ascending back up from the unconscious to the conscious with the treasure we attained (in this case, faith).
We’re not free yet, and too much of the unconscious wants to come back up. Drama is high. If he doesn’t figure it out quickly, he will be responsible for destroying both worlds.
Neo discovers, by a full leap of faith, how to be a true master of the unconscious and the conscious.
He is no longer the victim to change; he is the one who brings change. He is a sort of god: he breaths, and the Matrix breaths with him.
In the simplistic terms of the opening example, we are both comfortable on the couch and quenched — basically, a god.
The 8-step structure is only here to rekindle what was ablaze within every cell of your being since the dawn of time. Dolphins swim, and humans tell stories.
Everything “deep” and “genius” about The Matrix came from intuition, not understanding any structure. The structure is merely a framework to express deep truths. If you didn’t already know them, they wouldn’t be deep.
The secret to telling powerful stories is to keep it as simple as possible and trust that something great is already in you, waiting to be expressed. The more you “try,” the more you become awkward. It’s no coincidence that these are the exact lessons Neo learns in the movie to become The One.
If you're tempted to overcomplicate your stories, just remind yourself it's as simple as breathing. You don't consciously flex your diaphragm to breathe – you just suck in and blow out.
Storytelling has been a part of you since the beginning of time. Let this simple structure guide you, but don't forget to trust your instincts and let your imagination run wild.
Make your mark on the tapestry of human experience.
Remember, storytelling is your birthright.
Trust your instincts.
Thanks for reading,
Here are a few more simple story breakdowns so you see this is universal:
YOU: Cinderella, a kind-hearted and mistreated girl, lives with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters.
NEED: She desires to escape her miserable life and attend the royal ball.
GO: With the help of her fairy godmother, she goes to the ball.
SEARCH: Cinderella enjoys the ball, dances with the prince, and experiences the life she dreams of.
FIND: She finds her love in the prince. But, as midnight approaches, she must leave the ball and return to her old life, leaving behind her glass slipper.
TAKE: The prince searches for the girl who fits the glass slipper, ultimately finding Cinderella.
RETURN: Cinderella is taken from her old life and brought to the palace.
CHANGED: Now married to the prince, Cinderella's life is forever transformed.
The Lion King
YOU: Simba, a young lion cub, is the heir to his father's kingdom.
NEED: After his father's death and Scar's manipulation, Simba runs away, seeking a new life.
GO: Simba befriends Timon and Pumbaa, adopting their carefree lifestyle.
SEARCH: Simba learns to enjoy his new life, distancing himself from his past.
FIND: Nala, Simba's childhood friend, finds him and informs him of the devastation in the Pride Lands under Scar's rule.
TAKE: Realizing his responsibility, Simba decides to return and confront Scar.
RETURN: Simba returns to the Pride Lands and battles Scar to reclaim his kingdom.
CHANGED: As the rightful king, Simba restores the Pride Lands and embraces his role as a wise and compassionate leader.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
YOU: Harry Potter, an orphan living with his cruel aunt and uncle.
NEED: Harry learns about his magical heritage and attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
GO: Harry arrives at Hogwarts and starts learning about the magical world.
SEARCH: He forms friendships, gains knowledge, and unravels the mystery of the Philosopher's Stone.
FIND: Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione discover the hidden chamber where the stone is guarded.
TAKE: They confront a series of challenges and eventually face Professor Quirrell, who is trying to steal the stone.
RETURN: After defeating Quirrell and preventing the theft of the stone, Harry completes his first year at Hogwarts.
CHANGED: Harry embraces his magical identity and forms a deep bond with his newfound friends, setting the stage for future adventures.