All great stories have the same structure (see my articles on The Essence of Story and Beyond Theme: Story's New Unified Field) which, for the purpose of this article and in its simplest form, can be summarized as follows: A threat, either agent or perpetrator, creates a problem that brings about a change to a state of misfortune and is the main source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve the problem and restore a state of good fortune.
In stories that end tragically it's the reverse - the story starts in a state of good fortune and ends unhappily. In either case, the resistance to the central action will create the classical story structure - i.e. the complications, crisis, climax and resolution that occur when a problem solving (or problem creating) action encounters resistance. The problem, change of fortune, and complications, crisis, climax, and resolution constitute the very essence of story - that without which there would be no story.
In this series of articles I will reveal the three other important dimensions beside this universal structure that you need to master in order to create a truly powerful and unique great story - and this is true in both a novel and a film.
The first of these important dimensions is the Metaphor; the second, the Genre; the third, the Narrative Structure. These three qualities account for the differences that make great stories that have similar structures appear fresh and unique.
This article will be about the metaphor.
The metaphor creates the world - the time and place; the who, what, when, where and why. Metaphor literally means to "carry over," to substitute one thing for another. To describe one thing by means of another. To describe something that is unknown by the use of things that are known. These metaphors are made of real things that have been taken apart and artistically treated. The unique combination of these real things create the characters, locations, atmospheres, etc. that construct the unique world you are trying to create. Put another way, the underlying universal structure, which needs to be expressed and revealed, is the thing that is hidden and unknown, and the unique combination of real things you use to create the world of your story is the metaphor that expresses and reveals this hidden structure. (see my article The Secret Language of Great Stories).
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is the threat. His desire to take possession of Middle Earth creates the problem that brings about an undesirable state. And he is also the main source of the resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure when Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring try to solve this problem and restore a state of good fortune.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort is the threat. His efforts in the seven books to take possession of the wizard world create the problems that bring about an undesirable state. And he is also the main source of the resistance that creates the classical structure whenever Harry tries to solve these problems and restore a state of good fortune.
So their structures are very much the same. Their differences are differences of time and place and differences of who, what, how, and why. And they have different subjects. The Lord of the Rings is all about power, and Harry Potter is all about magic. But they have the same underlying structure. Furthermore, there are many other very interesting similarities. Sauron and Voldemort are both potentially super-powerful, dark lords who have lost their power but want to become tyrant masters of their worlds. Gandalf and Dumbledore are both personifications of very similar "higher self" forces that are guarding the destiny of their charges, Frodo and Harry. And one might reasonably conclude that J.K. Rowling was more than a little influenced and inspired by Tolkien's books. But so what? All great stories have this same structure. What Rowling did with the inspiration was create a totally new and fresh metaphor to express that underlying structure. And I read recently that she was earning over a billion dollars a year from that franchise. If it's true, she deserves it.
The truth of the matter is that the underlying universal structures of these great stories hide some amazing bits of wisdom concerning who we really are and who we were really meant to be, and what we can do to become fully realized human beings - but to keep these amazing hidden bits of truth potent and relevant, the metaphors that express them have to be constantly renewed and kept fresh - i.e. the underlying story and message stays the same but the costumes and other outer trappings have to keep changing with the times.
In Star Wars, Darth Vader and the Evil Emperor are the threat. Their desire to take possession of the galaxy creates the problem that brings about a change of fortune and they are the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis etc. of the classical structure when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi try to solve this problem.
In The Exorcist, the Devil is the threat. He takes possession of a young girl, which is the inciting action that creates the problem and brings about the change of fortune. He is also the source of resistance that creates the classical structure when the priest tries to solve that problem by casting out the Devil.
And so it is with all great stories - from Gilgamesh, The Iliad and Cinderella, to The Pirates of the Caribbean, King Kong, and Spiderman to The Godfather, Ordinary People, and The Queen. They all have this same underlying structure - and yet they are all delightfully and deliciously unique. They are as different as daisies from roses and roses from orchids which, like all flowers, also have a similar underlying structure.
If you analyze Alien, you will find Beowulf, but you will also find the universal structure. Grendel taking possession of a castle and devouring its knights one by one and an alien monster taking over a space ship and devouring its crew one by one are similar stories with similar meanings being made relevant by differences of time and place.
If you analyze The Lion King, you will find Hamlet plus this same universal structure. An evil uncle murders his brother, steals his kingdom and queen, and tries to prevent his nephew, the rightful heir, from assuming the throne. The change of time and place and a change from human to animal do not affect the meaning of the story. They just make it more accessible to children.
The underlying motifs of this universal story structure are adaptable to any age or time and can be redressed as a hundred different metaphors, depending on the audience you're trying to reach.
Using these same underlying structures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a unique London for his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Dashiell Hammett created a San Francisco unlike any other, and William Faulkner created a fictional county in Mississippi - a world that was uniquely his own.
In short, given a well-constructed and well-told story, the surest way to success is a brilliant and unique metaphor - i.e. you are only as good as the world you create, which is to say, you are only as good as the metaphor you create - the new life you breathe into the underlying structure. In any event, if you can find your own, unique and original world, there will be no stopping you. You will create your own Harry Potter, Godfather, Pirates, Spiderman, or Shrek.
My next two articles will be about Genre and Narrative Structure - two other
important dimensions that play a critical role in making the great stories that ride upon the underlying, universal structure appear different and unique. The genre governs the plots and subplots, the emotional adventure, and the entertainment values of the story and arise when you focus on certain dominant qualities or dimensions. The Narrative Structure governs how the story is told - the arrangement of the incidents, the sequence of events, the emphasis each dimension or quality is given - the central event, central character and central action that comprise the focus of the story and the various points of view by which the events of the story are perceived. This creates clarity and meaning and also power and magic.