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How Stories Save Lives

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Moving on to the fourth leaf of our Five Leaf Genre Clover, let’s begin with Archplot, the classic Story structure, sometimes referred to as the “quest” narrative.

In summary, it has the following qualities:

In a consistent and cause/effect reality like the one we all inhabit in our everyday lives, Archplots feature a single active protagonist. This lead character pursues an object of desire (a new job, the love of his life, a college education etc.) while confronting primarily external forces of antagonism (more qualified candidates, a better looking suitor, a high school teacher out to get him). The story ends “closed” with absolute and irreversible change in the life of the protagonist. There is no going back to the way things were at the beginning of the story. Novels like The Firm, Sense and Sensibility, Carrie, The Hobbit and movies like The Fugitive, Chinatown, Kramer vs. Kramer and plays like Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Importance of Being Ernest are all Archplots.

Archplot is human life Story, the one we all use to evaluate and direct our own lives. This is why Archplot has the greatest potential for the largest possible audience. Every person on the planet is a potential reader/viewer.

The Archplot is the narrative form made famous and delineated so well by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Having evolved over thousands of years, it has the structure that every single human being on earth can relate to. We see our own lives within the frame of Archplot. We all strive to fulfill our desires, be they material, romantic, or professional and believe that there are forces aligned against us to keep us from what we really want and deserve. It is only through active confrontation and defeat of these antagonistic forces do we believe we achieve anything of value.

Once we achieve or fail to achieve our desires however, we find that we can’t go back again. Once we’ve left our hometown and conquered the big city or fallen flat on our face, going back to the way things used to be is impossible. It is like Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge. At the end of a particular quest—getting into college, finding the right mate—we can’t reverse course and go back to the way we saw and felt before we successfully attained or unsuccessfully botched it.

Archplot is linear.  This is the way we view our own lives.

We love Archplots because they mirror the way we choose to privately examine ourselves. There is nothing more powerful in a Story than having a lead character desperately pursuing something. The reader or viewer cannot help but attach himself to that character because he has objects of desire too. If the lead character in a Story gets what he wants, our brains are wired to believe that we can too. Stories fuel our courage and offer the cautions that we believe will help guide our own paths.

Whether you know it or not, your desire to write comes from the urge to not just be “creative,” it’s a need (one every human being on earth has) to help others. A well-told Story is a gift to the reader/listener/viewer because it teaches them how to confront their own discomforts.

In his wonderful book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who worked on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She recalled that when the first plane hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001, a wave of hot air came through her glass windows as intense as opening a pizza oven.

Panigrosso did not hesitate. She didn’t even pick up her purse, make a phone call or turn off her computer. She walked quickly to the nearest emergency exit, pushed through the door and began the ninety-eight-stairway descent to the ground. What she found curious is that far more people chose to stay right where they were. They made outside calls and even an entire group of colleagues went into their previously scheduled meeting.

Why would they choose to stay in such a vulnerable place in such an extreme circumstance?

Because they were human beings and human beings find change to be extremely difficult, practically impossible. To leave without being instructed to leave was a risk. What were the chances of another plane hitting their tower, really? And if they did leave, wouldn’t their colleagues think that they were over-reacting, running in fear? They should stay calm and wait for help, they must have thought to themselves, maintain an even keel. And that’s what they did. I probably would have too.

Grosz suggests that the reason every single person in the South Tower didn’t immediately leave the building is that they did not have a familiar story in their minds to guide them. This from his book:

We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency. This is so, I hasten to add, whether we are patients or psychoanalysts. (Grosz, Stephen. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (p.123) W. W. Norton & Company)

Even among those people who chose to leave, there were some who went back to the floor to retrieve personal belongings they couldn’t bear to part with. One woman was walking down alongside Panigrosso when she stopped herself and went back upstairs to get the baby pictures of her children left on her desk. To lose them was too much for her to accept.

That decision was fatal.

When human beings are faced with chaotic circumstances, our impulse is to stay safe by doing what we’ve always done before. To change our course of action seems far riskier than to keep on keeping on. To change anything about our lives, even our choice of toothpaste, causes great anxiety.

How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed. Not some easy triumph, either. But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist’s inner fortitude. Because that’s what it takes in real life to leave a dysfunctional relationship, move to a new city, or quit your job.  It takes guts, moxie, inner fire, the stuff of heroes.

Change, no matter how small, requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately.

Stories give us scripts to follow. It’s no different than young boys hearing the story of how an orphan in Baltimore dedicated himself to the love of a game and ended up the greatest baseball player of all time. If George Herman Ruth could find his life’s work and succeed from such humble origins, then maybe they could became big league ball players too.

We need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance. Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.

So if your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will deeply care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten. We want characters in stories that take on the myriad challenges of changing their lives and somehow make it through, with invaluable experience. Stories give us the courage to act when we face confusing circumstances that require decisiveness.

These circumstances are called CONFLICTS. What we do or don’t do when we face conflict is the engine of storytelling.

What I’m describing is the Archplot’s inherent quest. It is the structural narrative of humanity and it’s irresistible.

Primal Archplot (from cave drawings to oral tradition) is all about external antagonism. There is little, if any internal struggle in the lead character. Which makes sense. When life’s concerns are all about finding water, food, and shelter, there is very little time to indulge one’s inner development. The equivalent Archplots today live inside the External Action Genre.

Pure action genre protagonists are not plagued by inner doubts or perversions or deeply seated anxieties. In these Stories, a heroic protagonist overcomes Arch Villains and/or Nature and ultimately sacrifices himself in order to save another human being or even the entire planet from annihilation. While often derided, the Action/Comic Book Story is one of the most difficult to write/innovate and thus is rife with cliché. It’s been with us since the first campfire story, so it ain’t easy to reinvent.

The commercial Story marketplace is Archplot central and is the stuff of 200 million dollar movie budgets from film studios and blockbuster novels from big publishing. Pure Archplot is all about external conflicts. And there is nothing wrong with a great fastball external-only Archplot story. When done well, they’re better than peanuts and popcorn.

But, Archplot can also be used to explore inner conflict. The way a writer can do so is to combine a big external content genre with a compelling internal content genre. This is exactly what Thomas Harris chose to do in The Silence of the Lambs. The result is an Archplot structure for his global external and internal content genres. The conventions and obligatory scenes of the serial killer thriller drives the external, while the internal hinges on the progression of the protagonist from blind belief to disillusionment. Much more on both the external and internal content genres to come.

But next up is the second structural genre, Miniplot.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.