So, what is a story from a neuroscience perspective? It’s an empathy machine. It’s a device that enables you to get into somebody else’s brain to experience their experiences, think their thoughts, and feel their feelings. It’s pretty cool, right? It’s pretty cool, right?! (Audience: Yeah!) So this is why stories are powerful, and we need to know how to use that to craft good stories.
If you ask Aristotle 2000 years ago, he would tell you about the three acts of a story: beginning, middle and end. But I never found that really super insightful. We need a bit more detail to be able craft stories. So this is a recipe that you could use. But I’m not going to tell you about it. I’m going to show you.
Two things before that: there’s going to be a few spoilers about the classics. If you haven’t watched them, you should feel bad and this is your punishment, right here. Number 2: it’s going to go pretty fast, OK? So grab your armchairs. Ready? All right let’s go!
(Song beginning The Lion King)
We start in the ordinary world. It’s the world of the main character. It’s the normal world. But there’s something weird about it. Something that doesn’t feel quite right. Until suddenly (Knock knock) The inciting incident happens.
It’s an event around the beginning of the story that changes the world of the main character but he doesn’t know how to handle that information. (Hagrid: “You’re a wizard, Harry.”)
That’s when the mentor arrives! He’s going to push the main character to face the inciting incident, stop escaping, and drag him out of the ordinary world to cross the threshold into the extraordinary world. A magical world… A new world, completely different from the ordinary world that he knew. And there, he will meet new allies, (Aliens: Oooooooohhhh) (Buzz: Greetings!) new enemies… and he will start facing new tests and challenges. Until suddenly… Boom! The “midpoint” happens.
It’s an event around the middle of the story that changes the story completely, because it changes how the main character sees the world.
He realizes he was wrong, but he doesn’t know how to cope with that new information! So he’s weak. He’s thinking about it, and the enemies are taking advantage of this weakness to close in. They’re threatening him! They’re surrounding him! And that when they strike! It’s the crisis! It’s the lowest point of the story. It’s a moment of death, of loss…
The main character is on his knees, and he realizes he needs to change something. It’s the return. He’s coming back, energized. And he’s going to face the enemy one last time.
But now he’s changed, so he’s able to rise to new heights. And now, he wins. Now we see the aftermath: he goes back to the ordinary world, where he came from. But he’s changed. Thanks to that, he won, and thanks to that, he gets his reward! So this is the structure of stories, right? We’re done.
No! It feels quite intuitively right, right? Not at all! You ask another storyteller and he’s going to tell you: “Forget about this recipe, this is the one that you should follow!
The other one has all these things wrong!” And then you ask another storyteller, and he’s going to tell you: “Wait, what? Stories don’t even have three acts. They have five… or six… or eight… or 22… or 31! In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of story recipes out there, and none of them agrees. That debate might be cool if you’re writing a book or a movie.
But for us, when we just need a recipe, an easy one to follow, to craft our stories for everyday use, we need something simpler. Something more fundamental. What if stories were not linear but circular? Circular in that the beginning and end are connected.
After going through the extraordinary world and the adventure we come back to the ordinary world. And thanks to the contrast, we can highlight the differences. We can see that, for example, in The Lion King. We start with the birth of Simba. And after going through the entire circle of life, we finish with the birth of his child.
We can see it in 12 years a slave, where we start with a group of black men who’re enslaved and we finish with a group of black men who’re free. We see it in Gravity where we start with a woman, alone, in space, looking at the Earth, and we finish with that woman, alone, on Earth, looking at space.
We can see it in Mad Men, where in the very first episode of the very first season, Don Draper is unhappy, but he solves a very difficult advertising campaign. And by the end, seven years later, in the very last episode, again he’s solving a very difficult advertising campaign but this time he’s happy…
Or in The Godfather, where we start with the wedding and we finish with the funeral. So you can see here this structure of the beginning and the end and the circle. And the same thing happens just after that, in the “problem” and “solution”, the inciting incident and the climax.
So for example, going back to The Godfather, at the beginning, Michael Corleone says: “My family are crooks, but I am not like them.” What he means is: “For me, honesty and civility are more important than family.”
By the end of the movie, he’s killed all of his family’s enemies and he’s lying to his wife’s face, therefore, putting family before honesty and civility. So you can see this mirror image there.
The same thing happens in Toy Story for example, where we start with Buzz: he lands and he challenges Woody’s leadership. And by the end of the story, they are friends and co-leaders.
This pattern that I’m telling you about happens throughout the entire story. The first half is about exploring the problem and the second half is about exploring the solution. That’s why in a story like The Matrix, we can see scene after scene after scene from the first half is mirrored in the second half. It’s crazy! It’s like they took the first half of the movie and then, every scene, they revisited in the second half, mirroring them.