Beyond Theme: Story's New Unified Field - Part II

Posted by James Bonnet on

In Part I of this series (read Part I here), I began an examination of the true source of unity in a great story and how that unity can be achieved. I introduced you to four of the elements that can influence that unity and add significantly to the clarity, meaning and power of your work. The unifying forces we examined so far are: The Value Being Pursued, which are the cherished values like life, health, wealth and freedom that we pursue in life as goals;the Problem, which is the central event of the story; the Threat, which is the cause of the problem, and the Anti-threat, which is the protagonist or hero that opposes the threat and solves the problem.

The Entity Being Transformed

A fifth source of unity is The Entity Being Transformed. The central character in a story goes through a transformation - but in a great story, this transformation is always in the context of the transformation of some larger entity. In real life, that larger entity is governments, religions, unions, businesses, institutions, families or other groups we form to help us pursue these values - i.e., we form governments to help us pursue life and liberty, hospitals to fight disease, schools to fight ignorance, armies to protect our freedom, police to prevent injustice, and so on. In story it's the same.

In Ordinary People and The Exorcist, the larger Entity Being Transformed is a family. In Jaws, it's an island. In The Sixth Sense and A Christmas Carol, it's a city. In The Silence of the Lambs, it's a state. In The Lord of the Rings, it's Middle Earth. In The Iliad and The Pianist, it's a country. In Gladiator, it's the Roman Empire. In Casablanca, it's the world. In Star Wars, it's an entire galaxy.

As a unifying force, the selected entity will exclude all the other entities related to the governing value, and limit the story to an examination of that one particular entity. And if it is a great story, which all of these stories are, we will learn a great deal about how that particular entity is organized. Hidden inside these entities are some amazing secrets, not the least of which is a dynamic model of the human psyche. The archetypes, patterns of action and cycles of transformation revealed in story are the same archetypes, patterns and cycles which run through every individual and every group, and are being played out in all of life's important stages. These are the forces that bring the threat and the anti-threat into being and create the hero's and the antihero's journeys.

And because the human group shares these similarities in organization and function with the human psyche, the human group is an excellent metaphor for the human psyche. You can see this important pattern operating in many great stories and successful films. This is the phenomenon I call The Entity Being Transformed.

In Star Wars, the entity being transformed is a galaxy. That galaxy has an archetypal structure (i.e., the forces of good are opposed by the forces of evil and Luke Skywalker is caught in the middle) and it acts as a metaphor of the psyche, which has the same structure. Furthermore, the fate of the galaxy is linked to the destiny of the hero. The ego is part of a greater whole and acts on behalf of the whole psyche, and the fate of the psyche depends on the ego's success. The hero is part of a greater whole and acts on behalf of the whole entity, and the fate of the entity depends on the hero's success. By linking the hero and his destiny to the destiny of some group that has this archetypal structure, you create a metaphor of the psyche. And that means a story with extraordinary power.

In Gladiator, the entity that has this archetypal structure is the Roman Empire and the fate of the empire is linked to the destiny of the hero. In The Lord of the Rings, the entity with this archetypal structure is Middle Earth. And the fate of the Middle Earth is linked to the destiny of the hero. The same can be said for all the other stories we're analyzing. In fact, if you study hundreds of great stories and films, you will see this phenomenon at work. It is one of the more important patterns.

The Hero's Profession

Another important source of unity is the hero's Profession, which is the set of conscious skills he or she will use or need to solve the problem. In real life, the specialties of the different professions are all functions of the conscious self, and each of these special functions can be personified as a different hero. Real doctors, lawyers, detectives specialize in the different conscious functions that handle the specialized problems related to their professions. The judge specializes in weighing the facts and making judgments, the artist specializes in his creativity, the doctor in diagnosing and curing illnesses. Whatever career you choose, or whatever problem you are trying to solve, you are specializing in that conscious function. It's what division of labor is all about, different people specializing in different conscious functions.

It's the same in story. The detective represents that part of our conscious self that solves mysteries, the investigative reporter the part which seeks out the truth, and so on. Each of these professions requires a different set of conscious skills and expresses a different function of the conscious self.

Russell Crowe in Gladiator, is a Roman general and a gladiator. Achilles is also a warrior. Luke Skywalker is a Jedi. Rick is an ex-freedom fighter. Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense is a child psychologist. Scrooge is a moneylender. Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist is a mother, Max von Sydow is a priest. Roy Scheider in Jaws is a sheriff. Jodi Foster in The Silence of the Lambs is an FBI agent. Frodo, in The Lord of the Rings is an incorruptible youth chosen to destroy the Ring of Power. Each of these professions requires a different set of conscious skills - and great stories isolate these special skills and examine them in great detail. This makes it a unifying force, and this can add significantly to the clarity, meaning and power of its effect.

The Principal Action

The next source of unity is the Principal Action. This is the action that has to be taken by the hero to solve the problem and bring about the change of fortune. It is also the action that dominates most stories. As such, it is the central, unifying action that tracks down the serial killer, casts out the Devil, or leads to the destruction of Sauron, Commodus, the shark, and the Evil Empire. It is also the line of action that frees one boy from his suicidal tendencies (Ordinary People) and another boy from his fear of dead people (The Sixth Sense), and the line of action that brings about the transformation of Achilles' anger, Rick's disillusionment and Scrooge's greed.

And this is the only unity that Aristotle described:

"The imitation (of a story) is one when the object imitated is one. So the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action, and the whole of that (one action)."

When a great story isolates a particular principal action, it is isolating the special sequence of actions required to solve the particular problem. This makes it a unifying force, and another factor that can add great clarity, meaning and power to the work.

The Dominant Plot

Another source of unity is the Dominant Plot. The principal action is made up of many other smaller component actions. Each of these separate actions has
either an Emotional, Physical, Mental or Spiritual character. And when you sort out these threads, they become the Plots and Subplots of your story. The dominant action or plot will give the story its genre.

You can tell which is which by how the action ends. Mental story actions end in solutions or enigmas and are called mysteries. The Silence of the Lambs is a mystery, a sophisticated whodunit. Ordinary People is a psychological mystery. The dominant plots asks the question: why is the young boy suicidal? Emotional story actions end in separation or reunion and are called love stories. Casablanca is a love story. It ends with the separation of the lovers. Physical story actions end in victory or defeat and are called war stories. Jaws, Gladiator, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are war stories. They end in victory. Spiritual story actions end in transcendence or descendence and are called franscendental. The Exorcist, The Iliad, The Sixth Sense, A Christmas Carol and The Pianist end in the elevation of the central character to a higher plane.

When a great story isolates the plots and subplots, it separates the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical dimensions into separate threads so they can be examined in great detail. This makes it a unifying force which can add even more meaning and power to your work.

When I continue, in Part III, we will explore the remaining unifying forces.

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