Designing story (5): Possession, the relations between minds

Sexy, funny, lovely: Still from Possession (2002)

He felt that he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity  – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.  – Possession,  A S Byatt (1990)

[ Part 5 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5) Possession, the relations between minds]

I have read many a How to write a bestselling... novel/book/etc. I love them inexplicably, though, I have never written (or published) a novel/book/etc., bestselling or otherwise. 

In all of the how to books I have read, they identify the bestselling pattern, after the fact, after the book has been hailed as bestselling, which I think is cheating a little, especially as the author who identifies the bestselling pattern is never the one who has written the bestselling book under analysis. Personally, I would love to have someone write a how to, then wait a while, and then afterwards, publish a best seller. How cool would that be?

We all want to be seen, heard, and matter

As usual, I was wondering why the need to write (or publish) a best selling novel is so compelling and, why how to write a bestselling… books are so successful. Finally, the reason I came to is the one I always use for everything, probably now and forever, on this blog, in conversation, on social media, and it’s what I murmur during my sleep and that is: We all want to be seen and heard, we all want to matter. So, if we write (or publish) a bestselling novel, then of course, people will take notice of us, we will be seen and heard, and we feel like we matter.

The closest thing that I have read to a how to by a best selling novelist is A S Byatt’s Possession and all the wonderful things she said about writing it during interview. Byatt said that she set out to write a bestselling novel. And, I believe her. It is very different from her other work. (Just an aside, if you are thinking of Stephen King On Writing, as good as it is, a) it is part memoir, b) he wrote it long after he written many a bestselling book, and c) I’m psychic.)

I first read Possession in the midst of completing my PhD in Engineering and it was the only novel I have ever read before or since, that made me wish I’d stuck with my original plan of doing a degree in English Lit (I have A levels in History, French and English Literature and I have degrees in Computing, Artificial Intelligence,and Structural Engineering – I know!). Even today, as I am rereading Possession, whilst wrapping up this blog series, it still fills me with that yearning for things lost, you know the one.

A yearning that I’ve always known and always had

For me, it is brought about by the first spring evening when the clocks have gone forward, especially on a day like today (Mother’s Day) – a flash bulb memory causing you to remember all the other days you have lived through when you experienced that yearning, which somehow includes the promise of light, of life, of creation. Or, the other one which undoes me, sometimes in the middle of a pub, or a conversation, when I forget what I am saying because I hear a key change in a song, it might be a bridge, or include a certain phrase in a chorus, it’s that change which causes an uplifting and undoing all at once. It reflects a yearning that I’ve always known and always had, even before I had reason to yearn.

Possession makes me yearn too, for it is a fantastic novel of love lost, of lives not lived out loud, and it demonstrates all the things I have spent ages fathoming out whilst writing about what makes a good story, which begs the question: Did I write this blog series with Byatt in mind? I don’t think so. However, her desire to write Possession, began with the very nature of the question: If you spend time considering other people’s words then who possesses whom?  In Byatt’s words: Possession is about the relations between […] minds.

Truth is what feels right to us, the only truth we know

Possession starts with a familiar genre: the detective story. Byatt said she had been asked to review Umberto Eco’s Reflections on the Name of the Rose, and she liked the detectives, and how in order to destroy a library with fire, Eco had to design it so it could easily go up in flames.  To detectives she adds a quest for the truth after a serendipitous discovery of an unsent-beginning-of-a-love-story-letter in the London Library. And, then very cleverly she includes 1,700 lines of short story, poems and letters, so that we the reader find our own truth in these writings, knowing what we now know between the two authors, because truth is defined in semiotics, by what feels right to us. It is the only truth we know.

Mr and Mrs Smith in a B&B

Then, she describes the time and place so perfectly, we feel that we are researching too, in the British Museum, or that we are in Victorian times doing, as my mum would have called, a Mr and Mrs Smith in Whitby (alright: a euphemism for booking into a hotel to spend time together). Indeed, the still above is the two of them travelling up north in a train carriage, and it portrays that sense of intimacy which two people who have never been alone before, but who have corresponded for a while, experience on meeting for the first time, and which we sometimes feel online nowadays, before even meeting.

Archetypes and the twists in the tale

And, we have our archetypes: the academics, the feminists, the down trodden scholars, the women who endure, each which bring their own energy. Byatt provides twists on them, because although we like what is familiar, we want a twist in the tale. We want surprise and we want our archetypes to be just that – archetypes not stereotypes. The found letter is a catalyst, a herald of change archetype, for everyone involved in the story. And, to that mix, Byatt explores lesbians, spiritualism, and gothic grave digging in the present day and Victorian times to juxtapose living between the ages, with our liminal women who live enclosed lives, and our different ways of managing life, birth and death, influenced as she said by Henry James The Bostonians.

We feel the intimacy of the trip, the intimacy of a séance even written in the omnipresent third person. We feel happy escaping there, even when Byatt presents us with those polarities of life and death, of love and pain, of agony and ecstasy. She describes them exquisitely.

Creativity: sex, life, and rock and roll

I once saw Byatt at the Oxford Union and remember her saying that she reads The Lord of the Rings when she is ill because it is comforting, because it is asexual. I remember giggling a bit at the time. But, now I get it. I often watch The Two Towers when I feel too ill to do anything. So much of life is about creativity which of course is inextricably linked to sex, the ultimate act of creation, to life, birth, death, and all the big questions such as: Why are we here? So, no wonder, grappling with all that, everyone needs the day off feeling sexy sometimes. Byatt writes about sex beautifully too, yep I know you were thinking about it.

So, how is this answering the question I started with in Part 1: How do we design a classic story? The answer is, we write about the emotional truth of a situation. We write about what touches us most and we do so with an open heart, with vulnerability, we lean in and we love, and we capture it, along with our regrets and the things we mourn, with a sense of significance. Stories matter, so we must do it in a way that uplifts us so that regardless of what happens, we can still look on life with a shiver of awe.

Sexy, funny, lovely detective work

And, this is the thing about Possession, a lot of the reviewers said that the book had a big heart, as if it was a surprise, that someone so erudite could be so sexy, funny, and lovely, but Byatt leaves us clues all along, even fusty, dusty James Blackadder thinks about learning things by heart, as if poems are stored in the bloodstream, and then quoting Wordsworth: Felt along the heart. Byatt knows that we all want the same things. We all feel the same way. We are all experiencing the human existence, even the seemingly fusty dusty characters (and that is just one point of view of a person) want to feel sexy, funny, and lovely sometimes.

And, we the reader spend the whole book reading the poems and short stories and letters (which Byatt achingly holds out on us for the longest time) trying to see the sexy, funny, lovely parts of the interaction between the two people who wrote them, mentally intertwined but physically far apart, after their passionate time doing a Mr and Mrs Smith in a Whitby B&B.

And, don’t we do that with any book we read? Whether it is part of the English Literary Canon, the one that Byatt knows so well, and wears so lightly in this book that it dazzles us. Or, any other story from anywhere else literary or not? We are looking for a resonance, an intimacy, a connection, we are looking to fulfil our Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (‘cos I never miss a chance to mention that either in any blog I write). And once we close the book, armed with that new knowledge gained by violent curiosity, we too feel sexy, funny, and lovely, and can dazzle and feel dazzled in return in and amongst the intimacy and connection which makes our world a brighter, better place.

Designing story (4): Women

When they write about you do they talk about your thighs? Or your girlfriend? They validate me through having a boyfriend, someone wants me – Abby Whelan, Scandal.

[ Part 4 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

Scandal is extraordinary, precisely because the women in it, like Abby Whelan above, articulate exactly how society views them in 2016 and depressingly enough, she is spot on. Women are still viewed by the way they look and the men with whom they are associated.

It is said that Jesus had a whole entourage of women who travelled with him. But if the women were there, we don’t know anything about them when we read the stories in the Bible. If they held his hand, uttered words of wisdom, or stood in the light receiving the same appreciative words of confirmation that God uttered over him, no one cared to write it down.

Prostitutes and saints

The one time they had to, was when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’s grave on Easter morning to find him resurrected. The men had fled, so she was the only one there to meet him. History has rewarded her by calling her a prostitute and even though historians have said that wasn’t the case at all, the label has stuck. All the men got sainthoods, btw.

It reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent.

In his book, Christopher Vogler tries to demonstrate how the hero’s quest could apply equally well to women, like this:

The masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess may be replaced in the woman’s journey by the drive to preserve the family and the species, make a home, grapple with emotions, come to an accord or cultivate beauty.

Cheers, thanks for that Chris!

Busy women

Campbell himself said that we only find women in fairytales because women have always been too busy to sit around telling stories. And, when Frank McConnell analysed how hero’s stories make us better in his book Storytelling and Mythmaking, it is men who do the self-actualisation, whilst women are playing prostitutes with hearts of gold, or enduring like Penelope, whilst Odysseus is off chasing glory.

It is the same with the archetypes discussed in the previous blog. We have women playing the shadow or the trickster purely as a plot devices to move the plot along; like the damsel in distress, the old crone jealous of the fair maiden, or the jilted lover. These are all tropes which the hero battles and conquers. The poor women are never the heroine, never the mentor, and they are never allowed to self-actualise. The rare cases in which they do, they become outcasts (don’t be taken in by the sexy pic above of the goddess trinity), shunned and lonely, or punished. Because they are not there to be anything but decoration and to soothe a man’s brow.

Women in the movies

Thankfully, things are changing. In previous blogs I have talked about Rey in Star Wars, and the women’s worlds of Spy and Suffragette. And, to this I want to add Ghostbusters (2016) .

I watched it last night for the first time, and thought it was brilliant. I have never watched the original Ghostbusters, because I never wanted to. The first time I was aware of it on TV, I was a teenager and as it started, I thought: Huh blokes and I went upstairs and read a book.

Last night was totally different. I loved every second, it made me laugh out loud, and as someone who has decided not to dye her grey hair anymore, the riff on hair dye was really funny, because that was happening to me a lot. And when Sigorney Weaver turned up at the end to high-five and utter the immortal line: Safety lights are for dudes… well my life felt complete.

A room of one’s own

There was no patronising female quest of creating a home or attracting a man to make a woman feel validated, it was just smart women being themselves and saving the world. They didn’t need recognition, just a nice space to carry on doing what they love. Virginia Woolf would be so proud.

I can’t wait to see more stories like this one. Lot’s more.

Part 5: Possession, the relations between minds

Designing story (2) : Structure

 

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door.  If I stay here……the plot can’t move forward, the story ends. Also if I stay here, I’m late. – Prof Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[ Part 2 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

In life, stories are the way we communicate, so much so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to a story pattern are the most likely to be believed as truth.

In these uncertain times, thankfully we are questioning the news shown on TV and in the newspapers, because media companies have long used the old adage first uttered by Mark Twain: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But, what is truth? Semiotics, the study of how meaning is created, is the only measure of truth human kind has been able to devise encapsulated in the question: Does it feels right? When the answer is yes, this is because the new data often fits with standard or known truths that we refer to already. It feels true, it is familiar, it adds to our understanding of meaning.

Meaning comes from contrast. The greek god Agon (agony) represents the struggle and wrestling we do in order to create meaning, from light and dark, good and bad, love and hate. We use polarity to organise our thinking.

It works the same way in fiction only in a tidier, yet larger than life, fashion. We have our goodies and baddies. We have our agony and ecstasy. And we, the readers, figure it out because we interpret the polarities and the story structure to derive meaning.

Narrative or story structure

The story of any individual in any narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator.

Normally we have a protagonist (our goodie) and an antagonist (our baddie) in polarity. As the goodie’s situation improves, the baddie’s will deteriorate. The narrator can invert this relationship and create a tragedy. When we are looking at the baddie as our main protagonist from that point of view, we are sympathetic to their plight, they become our goodie. If they do something morally questionable we go on an exploration with them. Often this a cathartic one. Their story helps us negotiate our own conflicts unconsciously or otherwise. Some of our most sympathetic characters are baddies, like Macbeth, nothing he does is admirable, yet we are there feeling for him until the end.

Sometimes the main protagonist gets improved by something coming in from outside the narrative. If this is near the end of a story then we can feel unsatisfied, because it does not feel true, like the Greek deux ex machina  (literally machine of the gods), the equivalent of then we all went home for tea. This rarely happens in life so it doesn’t feel true, unless it happens in comedy like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In that story though it doesn’t really matter how our ‘hero’ gets saved as we know he would be much better off anywhere else than where he is. It is ok. Comedy aside, if we don’t get to live through the full range of emotions, we don’t get closure and we feel dissatisfied with the ending.

Closure is a psychological term first suggested in Gestalt which explains how incomplete shapes are interpreted by the brain as whole. From the 1990s the term has been used with respect to relationships. So, when a relationship is over, sometimes we need closure to find an answer especially if it ended ambiguously, so we can learn from it and manage our world or people next time, or so we like to think.

Managing expectations

This is because according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we need certainty. We need to feel certain that our physiological and safety needs are met, this in itself feels like a reward. Consequently, in a story we are rewarded by the plot unfolding in a particular way.

But, we are complicated and only want certainty up to a point. Social media shows us that the information we share most often is surprise. For more than anything once we have a low level of certainty we need to be lifted up and inspired. So, in any given story we want it to follow a specific path (certainty) but have surprise twists in the tale. This enables us to transcend ourselves.

It doesn’t matter what story is being told, it matters if it is being told in the right way. As Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: We don’t need a why, we just need a how. The medium is the message or form follows function, the actual content is to a certain extent, irrelevant, as long as it hits the main beats and has the right scenes with enough surprises in them to follow the story pattern we are expecting but with a freshness that transcends both the story pattern and our thoughts.

We have models to explain the world around us, ourselves and our behaviour. It is the same when we are being entertained. We construct the pattern and the meaning as we go along so that even if a certain narrative merely infers something off screen/scene, we still know how to automatically assimilate it into the rest of the narrative to make it into the complete story. So, when something inexplicable happens either in fiction or in real life, it leaves us baffled and without a way of incorporating it into our explanations.

Ups and downs

The general pattern of life is that we work up to something, we have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The momentum gets going, we have highs and lows – those moments of great joy and those moments when we think we can’t stand it a minute longer, in all of our activities from sex and childbirth to prolonged hospital treatment, shopping in IKEA, and even meditation. Our emotions follow this pattern too. Think of laughter, of crying, or a wave of grief. It is the same so it seems logical that our stories would follow a similar pattern.

Thriller editor Shawn Coyne in his book Story Grid refers to Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief as a useful tool to model change, as all stories are about change and says: Even those wonderful literary novels in which nothing happens… the characters’ moods and ideas are constantly changing.

Patterns and genres

Depending on our reading tastes, we know the stories, we know which pattern to follow and it doesn’t matter where it sits on the often debated scale of entertainment: genre or literary, all action or internal, we feel when something is emotionally true because it is meaningful to us.

Here are some random patterns to think about:

  • Hero’s quest: The hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, has trials and tribulations, allies and foes, nearly falls at the end, returns home to great reward.
  • Chick lit:  The girl has problem in life, there is a cute guy, the problem becomes much bigger, everything looks bleak, she pulls it together as she is smart, solves her problem and gets the guy.
  • Thriller: Personal stakes life/ family/career are high enough to make the reader sweaty, often internationally the protagonist is chased about, has a show down with the antagonist, and wins.
  • Murder mystery:  There is a closed setting, a murder weapon, a body, detectives, we then find out the motive, the villain, and tie it up. We can even model it in  a computer (model-based machine learning).
  • Bildungsroman: A sensitive soul suffers a loss or tragedy, journeys to fill that vacuum with experiences,  gains maturity gradually, struggles then accepts values of society.
  • Love story: Two people meet, hit it off, something gets in their way, they are separated, and get back together at the end. Or don’t (tragedy).

There are many others: rags to riches, revenge, forbidden love, unrequited love, sacrifice, rivalry, disaster, recovery from grief, transformation, and so on.

Sometimes these patterns are combined into bigger patterns and in a different world created on another planet or fantasy land, or supernatural events occur. However, even if the landscape and events seems totally alien or paranormal, the emotions and behaviour of the characters are always human, always meaningful, and can always resonate.

If they don’t, we stop reading.

Formula or familiarity

It may seem formulaic but Christopher Vogler says in his book The Writer’s Journey: Unconventional art does not intersect with commonly held patterns of experience.

Rather like design, a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wider audience who will expect to enjoy it so long as it has something fresh going on within the constraints of the formula. Vogler says that film studios use story design principles to evaluate scripts because they do so many, and the stories which capture us as an audience, capture our shared experiences:

We are all looking for ourselves in a dark wood, in the mirror of others, in the stories of life...

Which is why when we pick up a book or watch a film, we want to connect to a story which has meaning for us or at least for the characters in it, and that meaning is found in structure.

Part 3: Archetypes

Maslow’s hierarchy of chakras

chakras pic
Source: montereybayholistic

You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny. – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which he proposed in 1943 is still a popular theory today for explaining human motivation, especially in management. At a first glance, it seems quite similar to the ancient Hindu Chakra system, especially when some of Maslow’s pyramid diagrams are colour coded using the rainbow, rather like the above picture. The chakras were first proposed in the sacred Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, which were orally transmitted since, what seems like, the beginning of time, and were first written down around 1900BC.

Maslow’s theory came from studying people he described as exemplary, or inspirational – people such as Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also studied exemplary people and found that these people regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow, or in meditation terms, they lose themselves in the gap which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. The gap is the place where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility.

Connecting to Shakti

The chakras are seven energy centres which run from the base of our spines to the top of our heads in our bodies. They are gateways connecting us to the world we live in and beyond to the universal life force known as Shakti, the most magnificent expression of flow, a place of infinite possibility.

We awaken Shakti energy and activate our chakras through meditation. Indeed, the ancient texts have described masters of Shakti being able to meditate during a storm, control nature, and command supernatural powers.

If this sounds rather far fetched, research in neuroscience has shown that meditation can help rewire the neural networks in our brain which in turn reduces the amygdala or lizard brain – the prehistoric part of our brain – where we register emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety, thus the end result makes us feel more at peace and at one with ourselves and the world around us – powerful stuff. We can calm our inner storm and be still when all is not.

And even less esoterically speaking, the chakras are where our nerve endings collect and our blood vessels are concentrated, which affect our hormones, our immune functions, and our vital energy. Focusing in on the chakras and awakening Shakti through meditation can make us feel emotionally balanced or even enlightened. The word enlightenment has many meanings, but one lovely definition from the Buddhist tradition is we become enlightened by knowing ourselves.

Who am I?

When we feel more self-aware and less emotionally agitated, when we sit quietly with ourselves and breathe deeply, it is easier to answer the question: Who am I? A difficult question to answer, perhaps. But, once we tolerate, love, and have compassion for our owndear selves, it is easier to extend tolerance, love, and compassion to others.

Inversely, when we are intolerant of ourselves, we are intolerant of others. Jesus knew this when he said: Love your neighbour as yourself. You cannot love someone if you do not know how to love yourself. You cannot give someone something you do not have, whether this is food and shelter, or love and compassion.

Maslow’s pyramid echoes a similar journey. At the most basic level, our needs are physiological – we need food and shelter, for without them we cannot function and their lack makes us fearful and anxious. Maslow called all four of the bottom needs deficiency needs. Along with food and shelter, we need safety, love, recognition and esteem from others, otherwise we feel deficient, and this makes us strive to find our place in the world. It is only when we are satisfied, and feeling fulfilled can we self-actualise and share that by deed or word.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

No striving only surrender

The main difference between Maslow’s theory and the Chakra system is that Maslow looks outside of us to satisfy needs, to work for our food and shelter, to work for our community and love, to strive. In contrast, the chakras encourage us to look inside to connect to Shakti or flow to meet our needs. There is no striving, only surrender.

When we are at one with all things, we respond and interact. When we are separate, we tend to react and contract. Mahatma Gandhi was aware of this when he said, Be the change you want to see in the world. You can literally change the vibration of your life and what and who goes on around you when you behave differently.

Aligning Maslow’s chakras

Maslow and the chakras contain many similarities, but we need to look inside ourselves, not outside to others to make us feel or be different:

  • Physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter which make humans think of little else are found in the Chakra system at the Root chakra represented as ruby red and the earth,  it is our foundation, it’s mantra is I am;  and the Sacral chakra which is orange and water, it is nourishment, purity, and protection, it’s mantra is I create.
  • Safety needs either personal or job security are found at the Solar plexus chakras represented as yellow and fire. It is our power centre where our emotional and physical fires burn bright with transformation, intention and desire, it’s mantra is I do.
  • Social needs such as belonging to a club or a family, to give and receive love are found in the Heart chakra which is green and air,  it is innocence and pure, a  connection to the infinite, the divine, it’s mantra is  I love.
  • Esteem needs to respect ourselves and have others respect them are at the Throat chakra which is blue and space, it is connection and communication, it’s mantra is I express.
  • Self-actualisation needs are when humans want to do realise their potential, and feel fulfilled, this is seen in the Third eye, or Brow chakra, it is purple and light, it represents clarity and judgment, it’s mantra is I see.
  • Transcendance needs were added by Maslow later on, and aren’t shown in the pyramid above. However, they correspond to the Crown chakra at the top of head, otherwise known as the thousand petal lotus, it is ultraviolet or white,  it is about connecting to source, to feel unity with the great consciousness, it’s mantra is I understand.

The secret of eternal youth

People who have awakened or connected to Shakti tend to be constantly evolving and expanding. They are energetic and are often described as young or youthful. It is easy to lose this expansion and delight with life, as we grow older and, I think this is why we are culturally obsessed with youth. Our young constantly evolve and expand, they are full of potential and promise, unlike the older members of our society who have had responsibility and routine creep in, making their potential and promise options seem fewer.

However, it is not too late. It is possible to reclaim that promise if we surrender to the flow, to that divine Shakti energy, and remember our desires,  which we are told in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad can lead to our destiny.

 You’re never too old, never too bad, never too late and never too sick to start from scratch once again. – Bikram Choudhury

Let’s dive deep and reconnect to our driving desires.

Designing story (1): The intimacy of the written word

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

It’s telling me what I’ve already done, accurately, and with a better vocabulary. – Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[ Part 1 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

E M Forster said that he wrote the last two chapters of a Passage to India whilst under the spell of T S Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which shows that whilst writing is a solitary process, and reading can be too, both are acts of intimacy, in the true sense of the word.

Intimacy is a lovely word. It means comfort and familiarity which is found in a shared space of connection.  It is much bigger than just a euphemism for sex. Intimacy (or connection) gives our lives meaning. We want to be seen and understood. Well told stories, fictitious or otherwise, can do this. They tell us we are not alone, that someone else understands the very experience that has bruised or filled up our hearts, and that someone know how we feel. Stories explore our hopes and fears. They teach and inspire us. And, they describes us, as Harold says above: accurately, and with a better vocabulary.

Sharing is caring

Imagined and real experiences are managed in the same way by the brain which means that stories create genuine emotions and a sense of being in a certain place or space, and we respond accordingly. Consequently, we fall in love with characters (even scary Heathcliff regularly makes it into the top 10 romantic heroes lists), or we feel bereft when a book ends. It has all felt so special, so intimate, we want to continue being there, in that space.

Fan fiction is one way of spending time in a shared space, though it receives a mixed press. Neil Gaiman is a fan fiction writer as is E L James.

For those who are readers rather than writers, then there is literary and film tourism. We have the studio versions like Harry Potter, or travel agents who take fans to the exact film locations for Lord of the Rings, the Sound of Music, or various places where Jane Austen lived in order to gain more understanding of her life and times, so we can feel closer.

The above examples are well known and extremely popular, but there are many books we put down because that connection hasn’t been made, and we don’t feel that we have anything in common with the writer or the space offered. What is it that entices readers into spending time in a fictional world that a writer has created?  What are the key ingredients?

Time for new stories?

Joseph Campbell said that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche, and I used to believe this. Nowadays, I am wondering if is it just that we have just heard the same stories (or patterns) over and over, that they are familiar and so we connect because we like the familiarity and comfort. But is this enough? For, as resonating as the hero’s quest is, it wasn’t designed for women even they make up 50% of the population. That said, James Patterson says that he writes for women because 70% of his readers are female and our favourite hero’s quest story Star Wars now has Rey.

Last week, I attended an agile management for women seminar where one of the presenters said that there are no archetypes for strong women in business which made me wonder if that is because there are not many in stories. The first question to ask is there should be? Should there be strong female archetypes specifically design to fit into a patriarchal norm? Or, is it time to write new stories and rewrite our business structures so we don’t have to adopt any persona/archetype – armour up – in order to fit in? Thankfully, we have lots of talented women working on the heroine’s quest, author of historical fiction Phillipa Gregory is rewriting history from a feminine perspective, and script writer Shonda Rimes is putting dazzlingly authentic dialogue into women’s mouths, on prime time TV, expressing exactly how society views and validates them only in relation to men. I literally cheer and clap all the way through Scandal.

Reflecting us

If a story is to have meaning for us, if a writer wants to connect to a reader, then it has to reflect the problems that the reader has, perhaps reflecting our day to day lives, or pondering the human condition and  the philosophical question: Why we are here, which is why I chose Stranger than Fiction (2006), at the top of this blog. It got mixed reviews but it is funny, clever and moving.

Harold Crick lives a lonely life until the day he starts hearing a female narrating his life and foreshadowing his imminent death. He enlists a professor of literature theory who gives Crick a quiz to figure out what his story is:

Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything? Gum? Money? A large wooden horse?
Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which you may or may not have been invited? …
Are you the king of anything? King of the lanes at the local bowling alley. King of the trolls?… A clandestine land found underneath your floorboards?
Now, was any part of you, at one time, part of something else? …

This (abridged here) quiz is hilarious, clever and recognisable, because we all do it, even though it can seem naive and silly to refer to literature as a guide, and that message is even enforced in literature: John the so called savage from Brave New World tragically struggles because he uses The Complete Works of Shakespeare as his guide to life. 

Affirming life

However, we do it subconsciously or otherwise because like Harold, we sometimes fret about whether we are living in a tragedy or in a comedy, which might cause us to ask how life should be lived and we might feel like we are living the wrong story.  In the end, Harold embraces his fate and the business of living, connecting and falling in love – all the lovely things we want in a story, and in life too.

It is the polarities of life and death which create action and tension, and, any story which explores death but embraces life, according to Christopher Vogler author of The Writer’s Journey, makes it one which is emotionally universal and intelligent.

But, that doesn’t answer the question of what makes a great story. Are polarities enough? Do we need a gestalt whole of time and place, plot and character? What about archetypes and blueprints for resonance? And shared emotions for that intimacy we crave? How do we go about designing story?

Let us tell some stories and see.

 Part 2: Structure