All Stories Are the Same

This article was written by John Yorke and published in the Atlantic, January 2016. 

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From Avatar to The Wizard of Oz, Aristotle to Shakespeare, there’s one clear form that dramatic storytelling has followed since its inception.

 

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

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Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth. But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all of them.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and 11th centuries.

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And it’s more familiar than that: It’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob—all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House, or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho, and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture—in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community—stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown …

It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down. And if you transplant it from fantasy into something a little more earthbound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone, and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the characters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, and Thelma & Louise.

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So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf, Alien, and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories—but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic “quest” stories like Apocalypse Now or Finding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even “Brave New World” stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness, and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: The characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But these tenets don’t just appear in films, novels, or indeed TV series like Homeland or The Killing. A 9-year-old child of my friend decided he wanted to tell a story. He didn’t consult anyone about it, he just wrote it down:

A family are looking forward to going on holiday. Mom has to sacrifice the holiday in order to pay the rent. Kids find map buried in garden to treasure hidden in the woods, and decide to go after it. They get in loads of trouble and are chased before they finally find it and go on even better holiday.

Why would a child unconsciously echo a story form that harks back centuries? Why, when writing so spontaneously, would he display knowledge of story structure that echoes so clearly generations of tales that have gone before? Why do we all continue to draw our stories from the very same well? It could be because each successive generation copies from the last, thus allowing a series of conventions to become established. But while that may help explain the ubiquity of the pattern, its sturdy resistance to iconoclasm and the freshness and joy with which it continues to reinvent itself suggest something else is going on.

HOMELAND (Season 5)

Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be—though we must be careful—a universal archetype.

Most writing on art is by people who are not artists: thus all the misconceptions.

—Eugène Delacroix

The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one. From the Prague School and the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century, via Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, many have set themselves the task of trying to understand how stories work. In my own field it’s a veritable industry—there are hundreds of books about screenwriting (though almost nothing sensible about television). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away:

1. Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?

2. None of them asks “Why?”

Some of these tomes contain invaluable information; more than a few have worthwhile insights; all of them are keen to tell us how and with great fervor insist that “there must be an inciting incident on page 12,” but none of them explains why this should be. Which, when you think about it, is crazy: If you can’t answer “why,” the “how” is an edifice built on sand. And then, once you attempt to answer it yourself, you start to realize that much of the theory—incisive though some of it is—doesn’t quite add up. Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not: They’re constructs. Unless we can find a coherent reason why these shapes exist, then there’s little reason to take these people seriously. They’re snake-oil salesmen, peddling their wares on the frontier.

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I’ve been telling stories for almost all my adult life, and I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working on some of the most popular shows on British television. I’ve created storylines that have reached over 20 million viewers and I’ve been intimately involved with programs that helped redefine the dramatic landscape. I’ve worked, almost uniquely in the industry, on both art-house and populist mainstream programs, loved both equally, and the more I’ve told stories, the more I’ve realized that the underlying pattern of these plots—the ways in which an audience demands certain things—has an extraordinary uniformity.
Eight years ago I started to read everything on storytelling. More importantly I started to interrogate all the writers I’d worked with about how they write. Some embraced the conventions of three-act structure, some refuted it—and some refuted it while not realizing they used it anyway. A few writers swore by four acts, some by five; others claimed that there were no such things as acts at all. Some had conscientiously learned from screenwriting manuals while others decried structural theory as the devil’s spawn. But there was one unifying factor in every good script I read, whether authored by brand new talent or multiple award-winners, and that was that they all shared the same underlying structural traits.
In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.

By asking two simple questions—what were these traits; and why did they recur—I unlocked a cupboard crammed full of history. I soon discovered that the three-act paradigm was not an invention of the modern age but an articulation of something much more primal; that modern act structure was a reaction to dwindling audience attention spans and the invention of the curtain.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the history of five-act drama took me back to the Romans, via the 19-century French dramatist Eugène Scribe and the German novelist Gustav Freytag to Molière, Shakespeare, and Jonson. I began to understand that, if there really was an archetype, it had to apply not just to screenwriting, but to all narrative structures. One either tells all stories according to a pattern or none at all. If storytelling does have a universal shape, this has to be self-evident.

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When it comes to structure, how much do writers actually need to know? Here’s Guillermo Del Toro on film theory:

You have to liberate people from [it], not give them a corset in which they have to fit their story, their life, their emotions, the way they feel about the world. Our curse is that the film industry is 80 percent run by the half-informed. You have people who have read Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, and now they’re talking to you about the hero’s journey, and you want to fucking cut off their dick and stuff it in their mouth.

Del Toro echoes the thoughts of many writers and filmmakers; there’s an ingrained belief for many that the study of structure is, implicitly, a betrayal of their genius; it’s where mediocrities seek a substitute muse. Such study can only end in one way. David Hare puts it well:

The audience is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and personal journeys—from the moment that they start cranking. It’s angry and insulted by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, courtesy of Joseph Campbell. All great work is now outside genre.

Charlie Kaufman, who has done more than most in Hollywood to push the boundaries of form, goes further:

There’s this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on, this three-act thing. It doesn’t really interest me. I actually think I’m probably more interested in structure than most people who write screenplays, because I think about it.

But they protest too much. Hare’s study of addiction My Zinc Bed and Kaufman’s screenplay for Being John Malkovich are perfect examples of classic story form. However much they hate it (and their anger I think betrays them), they can’t help but follow a blueprint they profess to detest. Why?

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All stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.Is this therefore the magic key to storytelling? Such hubris requires caution—the compulsion to order, to explain, to catalogue, is also the tendency of the train-spotter. In denying the rich variety and extraordinary multi-faceted nature of narrative, one risks becoming no better than Casaubon, the desiccated husk from Middlemarch, who turned his back on life while seeking to explain it. It’s all too tempting to reduce wonder to a scientific formula and unweave the rainbow.

But there are rules.

As the creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, puts it:

The real rules are the rules of drama, the rules that Aristotle talks about. The fake TV rules are the rules that dumb TV execs will tell you; ‘You can’t do this, you’ve got to do—you need three of these and five of those.’ Those things are silly.

Sorkin expresses what all great artists know—that they need to have an understanding of craft. Every form of artistic composition, like any language, has a grammar, and that grammar, that structure, is not just a construct—it’s the most beautiful and intricate expression of the workings of the human mind.

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Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not.

It’s important to assert that writers don’t need to understand structure. Many of the best have an uncanny ability to access story shape unconsciously, for it lies as much within their minds as it does in a 9-year-old’s.

There’s no doubt that for many those rules help. Friedrich Engels put it pithily:

Freedom is the recognition of necessity.

A piano played without knowledge of time and key soon becomes wearisome to listen to; following the conventions of form didn’t inhibit Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich. Even if you’re going to break rules (and why shouldn’t you?) you have to have a solid grounding in them first. The modernist pioneers—Abstract Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Futurists—all were masters of figurative painting before they shattered the form. They had to know their restrictions before they could transcend them.

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As the art critic Robert Hughes observed:

With scarcely an exception, every significant artist of the last hundred years, from Seurat to Matisse, from Picasso to Mondrian, from Beckmann to de Kooning, was drilled (or drilled himself ) in “academic” drawing—the long tussle with the unforgiving and the real motif which, in the end, proved to be the only basis on which the real formal achievements of modernism could be raised. Only in that way was the right radical distortion within a continuous tradition earned, and its results raised above the level of improvisory play … The philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees.

Cinema and television contain much great work that isn’t structurally orthodox (particularly in Europe), but even then its roots still lie firmly in, and are a reaction to, a universal archetype. As Hughes says, they are a conscious distortion of a continuing tradition. The masters did not abandon the basic tenets of composition; they merely subsumed them into art no longer bound by verisimilitude. All great artists—in music, drama, literature, in art itself—have an understanding of the rules whether that knowledge is conscious or not. “You need the eye, the hand, and the heart,” proclaims the ancient Chinese proverb. “Two won’t do.”

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Storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all—almost—as breathing. From the mythical campfire tale to its explosion in the post-television age, it dominates our lives. It behooves us then to try and understand it. Delacroix countered the fear of knowledge succinctly:

First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.

In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.


This article has been adapted from John Yorke’s book, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.

Where Are The Female Superheros

A strong theme of Bear Skin is how narrative both reflects the world and shapes it. Story is educative, story asserts a view, story informs and we viewers and readers engage, and re-tell and become.

Deeply truthful stories are vital to good and strong society. This wonderful TED talk by Christopher Bell sums up the importance of this fact by addressing the place of strong female role models in narrative, not only for little girls, but also for little boys.

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But here’s the question that I have to ask. Why is it that when my daughter dresses up, whether it’s Groot or The Incredible Hulk, whether it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Maul, why is every character she dresses up as a boy? And where are all the female superheroes? And that is not actually the question, because there’s plenty of female superheroes. My question really is, where is all the female superhero stuff?Where are the costumes? Where are the toys?

Because every day when my daughter plays when she dresses up, she’s learning stuff through a process that, in my own line of work, as a professor of media studies, we refer to as public pedagogy. That is, it is how societies are taught ideologies. It’s how you learned what it meant to be a man or a woman, what it meant to behave yourself in public, what it meant to be a patriot and have good manners. It’s all the constituent social relations that make us up as a people. It’s, in short, how we learn what we know about other people and about the world.

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen.  In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.

One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat!  it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the  audience. 

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According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.

The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the  protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.

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He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:

Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.  

Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.

“Empire of the Sun” a reflection on Memory and Story

J G Ballard’s 1984 novel Empire of the Sun was made into a Hollywood film in 1987. In his article, published in The Guardian he reflects on 40 years of memories and how story re-wrote them.

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Memories have huge staying power, but like dreams, they thrive in the dark, surviving for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed. Hauling them into the daylight can be risky. Within a few hours, a precious trophy of childhood or a first romance can crumble into rust.

I knew that something similar might happen when I began to write Empire of the Sun, a novel about my life as a boy in Shanghai during the second world war, and in the civilian camp at Lunghua, where I was interned with my parents.

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Coming to England after the war, and trying to cope with its grey, unhappy people, I hoarded my memories of Shanghai, a city that soon seemed as remote and glamorous as ancient Rome. Its magic never faded, whereas I forgot Cambridge within five minutes of leaving that academic theme park, and never wanted to go back. The only people I remembered were the dissecting room cadavers.

During the 1960s, the Shanghai of my childhood seemed a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence. But how could I raise this Titanic of memories? Brought up from the sea bed, the golden memory hoard could turn out to be dross. Besides, there are things that the novel can’t easily handle. I could manage my changing relations with my parents, my 13-year-old’s infatuation with the war, and the sudden irruption into our lives of American air power. But how do you convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage?

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I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

In fact, I found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story. We had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating our boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for me after the formality of our prewar home, where my parents were busy with their expat social life and I was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at me and never spoke to me.

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But I needed to move my parents out of the story, just as they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room. They had no control over their teenage son, were unable to feed or clothe him or pull those little levers of promise and affection with which parents negotiate domestic life with their children. My real existence took place in the camp, wheedling dog-eared copies of Popular Mechanics and Reader’s Digest from the American merchant seamen in the men’s dormitory, hunting down every rumour in the air, waiting for the food cart and the next B-29 bombing raid. My mind was expanding to fill the possibilities of the war, something I needed to do on my own. Once I separated Jim from his parents the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet.

Even then, I had to leave out many things that belong in a memoir rather than a novel. Lunghua camp, with its 2,000 internees, was a grimy bidonville, a slum township where, as in all slums, the teenage boys ran wild. There were unwatched screwdrivers or penknives to be snaffled, heroic arguments with a bored clergyman about the existence of God, buckets of night soil to be hoisted from the G-block septic tank and poured into the tomato and cucumber beds that were supposed to keep us alive when the Japanese could no longer feed us. In a bombed-out building I found a broken Chinese bayonet, sharpened the stump of blade and used it to prise away the bricks of the kitchen coal store, filling a sack with precious coke that would briefly break the chill of our unheated concrete building. My father said nothing, feeding the coke into a miniature brazier as he rehearsed his lecture on science and the idea of God. I ran off, and nagged the off-duty Japanese guards in their bungalows until they let me wear their kendo armour, laughing as they thumped me around the head with their wooden swords.

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In 1984 the novel was published, a caravel of memories raised from the deep. Enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth. Curiously, my original memories of Shanghai still seemed intact, and even survived a return trip to Shanghai, where I found our house in Amherst Avenue and our room in Lunghua camp – now a boarding school – virtually unchanged.

Then, in 1987, like a jumbo jet crash-landing in a suburban park, a Hollywood film company came down from the sky. It disgorged an army of actors, makeup artists, set designers, costume specialists, cinematographers and a director, Steven Spielberg, all of whom had strong ideas of their own about wartime Shanghai. After 40 years my memories had shaped themselves into a novel, but only three years later they were mutating again.

Hazy figures now had names and personalities, smiles and glances that I had seen in a dozen other films: John Malkovich, Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson. With them was a brilliant child actor, Christian Bale, who uncannily resembled my younger self. He came up to me on the set and said: “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” He was followed by an attractive young couple, Emily Richard and Rupert Frazer, who added: “And we’re your mum and dad.”

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Coincidences were building strange bridges. Thanks to the film studios in Shepperton, many of my neighbours worked as extras, and now called out: “Mr Ballard, we’re going to Lunghua together.” Had some deep-cover assignment led me to Shepperton in 1960, knowing that one day I would write a novel about Shanghai, and that part of it would be filmed in Shepperton?

Spielberg, an intelligent and thoughtful man, generously gave me a small role as a guest at the opening fancy-dress party. Warners had rented three houses in Sunningdale to stand in for our Shanghai home. When I arrived at the location I found an armada of buses, vans and coaches that filled entire fields and resembled the evacuation of London. Bizarrely, it also reminded me of the day we were bussed into Lunghua from our assembly point at the American club near the Great Western Road. I can still see the huge crowd of Brits, many of the women in fur coats, sitting with their suitcases around the swimming pool, as if waiting for the water to part and lead them to safety.

The Sunningdale house where the fancy-dress party was filmed closely resembled our Amherst Avenue home, but this at least was no coincidence. The expat British architects in the 1930s who specialised in stockbroker’s Tudor took the Surrey golf course mansions as their model. Past and present were coming full circle. The Warners props department filled the house with period fittings – deco screens and lamps, copies of Time and Life, white telephones and radios the size of sideboards. In the drive outside the front door, uniformed Chinese chauffeurs stood beside authentic Buicks and Packards. A 12-year-old boy ran through the costumed guests, a model aircraft in one hand, racing across the lawn into a dream.

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Surprisingly, it was the film premiere in Hollywood, the fount of most of our planet’s fantasies, that brought everything down to earth. A wonderful night for any novelist, and a reminder of the limits of the printed word. Sitting with the sober British contingent, surrounded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Sean Connery, I thought Spielberg’s film would be drowned by the shimmer of mink and the diamond glitter. But once the curtains parted the audience was gripped. Chevy Chase, sitting next to me, seemed to think he was watching a newsreel, crying: “Oh, oh . . . !” and leaping out of his seat as if ready to rush the screen in defence of young Bale.

I was deeply moved by the film but, like every novelist, couldn’t help feeling that my memories had been hijacked by someone else’s. As the battle of Britain fighter ace Douglas Bader said when introduced to the cast of Reach for the Sky: “But they’re actors.”

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Actors of another kind play out our memories, performing on a stage inside our heads whenever we think of childhood, our first day at school, courtship and marriage. The longer we live – and it’s now 60 years since I reluctantly walked out of Lunghua camp – the more our repertory company emerges from the shadows and moves to the front of the stage. Spielberg’s film seems more truthful as the years pass. Christian Bale and John Malkovich join hands by the footlights with my real parents and my younger self, with the Japanese soldiers and American pilots, as a boy runs forever across a peaceful lawn towards the coming war. But perhaps, in the end, it’s all only a movie.

JG Ballard – The Guardian, 3 Mar 2006.