Good stories and what goes into making it good is something I recommend studying. Although some people put down the Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, as being the reason why films today are formulaic, this is anything but the truth. This book went a long way in de-mystifying what makes a good story and builds on the work of Robert McKee and Syd Field.
First off, you have to know how to hook the reader. After that, one of the elements in common to a good story is the importance of the three-act structure. This can be viewed as being archetypal, or universal. When applied to psychology is that it is structuring, informing and or resonating with the psyche which of course is what you want a story to do to. So, let’s dissect why the three-act structure is both archetypal and primal.
Three Act Structure
The three-act structure has traditionally been the best way to contain a story. This model divides a fictional narrative into three parts which can be simplified as follows: The setup, confrontation and resolution. While Aristotle has been credited with being the first to identify the three-act structure, in fact Aristotle never said anything about three acts. He said there needs to be a beginning, middle, and end to every story. Aristotle in his work Poetics was also writing about the art of drama, specifically tragedy from which he believed audiences derived a certain amount of pathos, catharsis and or emotional release.
While tragedy may have been popular in classical times, it is not one that plays well in a movie because it lacks the critical element of the character arc. The character arc is the payoff, the transformation that the main character or protagonist undergoes that highlights a psychically important value: you don’t always get what you want; you get what you need. A tragedy is a tragedy because there is no arc or growth. The three -act structure can be viewed as being the container or an essential requirement to what makes a narrative story, but certainly not the only one.
The Rite of Passage Model
The structure of an archetypal story is a movement through stages that resemble an initiation of sorts, a procession through different states and stages. This was outlined in the rite-of-passage model, signifying an initiation that was first identified by two cultural anthropologists, Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.
The critical factor in terms of its application to a story is that it implies a deepening process that emerges from challenges that can lead toward the greater wholeness or what they called an initiation. This is also what happens to the protagonist in an archetypally structured story, having the capacity to look at the experiences of your life a perfectly plotted story, as Schopenhauer once suggested. This is what creates a coherent narrative to the story. In other words, it’s about the perspective the protagonist gains as a result of the trials and tribulations of the story that leads to the character arc. This is speaking the psyche in the language it understands unconsciously as that is what life is about.
The Hero’s Journey
The rite of passage model also inspired Joseph Campbell’s (1949) popular hero’s-journey model that he outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I differentiate Campbell’s Hero, (upper case) from an everyday protagonist that you find in most stores, which I call the heroic ego or protagonist. The heroic ego was a term I borrowed from James Hillman who said the “heroic ego and hard problems require each other; they toughen each other in the coping game called reality.”
In other words, the shift from being just an ego to being heroic is when we can process and make meaning of the experiences of life as if they were unfolding perfectly. This definition of heroic ego implies the notion that the tension, battles and conflicts in life are potentially what ultimately facilitate growth, or as Campbell says, trials lead to revelations. C. G. Jung put it this way: “man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.”
Ultimately it is acceptance and transformation that makes stories that are structured archetypally structured stories so compelling because they provide the most important factor that stories serve which is to make meaning. At their heart or core, they touch on what Campbell called “the quest to find the inward thing that you basically are.” 1(p. 170).
This is the attainment of insight that arises from embracing events, not as the ego might have intended or wanted, but with an attitude of acceptance. In story terms, we call it the character ARC. Transformation also speaks to archetypal psychology’s notion of perspective—the trials, tribulations, and even breakdowns of life; they are not such bad things if they mark the beginning of an initiation, a significant event in a transitional period of someone’s life which of course is what the story is about.
1.. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, (New York, NY: Doubleday) 170.