When I first came to Hollywood as a young writer more than thirty years ago, I wanted to do something really significant with my talent. I wanted to create novels and films that had the quality of authors like Dostoyevski and Tolstoy. So after working as a writer in television for several years, I decided I was ready to put everything else aside and write my first novel. I figured it would take about six months.
Two years later, after working eight hours a day, seven days a weeks, I found myself on page 600 with no end in sight. And I had the uncomfortable feeling that despite an already acknowledged skill I possessed concerning character, structure, and suspense, it wasn’t going to work. Eventually, I had to admit there was much more to creating a great story than I thought. And the problem lay with an understanding of story itself. What was a story, really? And why hadn’t I asked myself that question before?
I began talking to some of the important writers in town about story and was surprised to discover that no one seemed to know what a story really was. It was just something that was taken for granted. It was a knack. Part of your gift. You either had it or you didn’t.
I asked Danny Arnold, an important writer-producer in television, what a story was, and he said: “You know, there are only seven basic plots: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and so on.” That sounded promising, so I asked him what the other six were. He gave me a disconcerted look and said: “I don’t know.”
Finally convinced that the answers to the questions I was asking about story weren’t out there, I began to study stories and films in earnest on my own and to monitor what worked.
The first thing I realized was that everything that “worked,” worked because of an emotional response that was triggered in the audience. Story communicated by feelings. And the accumulation of those emotional responses was the basis of both entertainment and meaning.
The second thing I discovered was that structure had power. You could intensify the emotional response by how you arranged the incidents. The more dynamic the arrangement, the more powerful the emotional effect.
“My God,” I thought, “there’s something very important going on here. A story really is a kind of magic.” I got very excited. I rushed back into the house from the office I had built in the garage and told my wife what I had discovered. She seemed to share my enthusiasm, and in a moment of great inspiration, I raised my fist and declared “I’m going to figure out what a story really is, if it takes me twenty years.”
Twenty years later, after countless hours of hard work, when things had finally begun to jell, I reminded my wife of that conversation. She looked at me and said: “I wish you had said ten.”
For years during and after that time, whenever I ran into Julie Epstein, who wrote Casablanca and a number of other great films, he always asked me the same question: “How is your long suffering wife?” And that mainly had to do with this very long and uncertain period of our lives.
Story and storymaking are the most important and misunderstood art forms in the world today. Important because there is a desperate need for real stories which isn’t being met, and misunderstood because no one seems to know what to do about it. What stories actually are, how and why they evolved, the purpose they serve, and the mechanics of their creation has been largely misunderstood. And, if it was ever known, that knowledge, like the meaning of dreams, was lost and is just now being rediscovered. The importance of story and the role it was meant to play in our lives is far greater than anyone has realized.
The goal of Astoria Filmwrights, the research project I founded, is to help rediscover and reveal this lost knowledge. The purpose of this book is to show the general reader and the professional storymaker how they can use this knowledge of story to dramatically transform their own and other people’s lives.
Among the stories analyzed in this book you will find many of the most important myths, legends, and fairy tales (The Iliad, The Odyssey, King Arthur, Amor and Psyche, Prometheus, Rumplestiltskin, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk). You will also find many of the most important plays and literary classics (Othello, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, Macbeth, A Christmas Carol, The Count of Monte Cristo, and A Thousand and One Nights); many of the most important classic and critically acclaimed films (Grapes of Wrath, Casablanca, On The Waterfront, Dracula, Shindler’s List, The Silence of the Lambs, All The President’s Men, The Pianist, The Verdict, Braveheart, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Ordinary People, Shakespeare in Love, The Sixth Sense, Groundhog Day, A Beautiful Mind, and The Lord of the Rings); and most of the all-time box-office hits (E. T., Star Wars, Titanic, Pretty Woman, The Godfather, Armageddon, Superman, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Mulan, Toy Story, Back To The Future, Ghost, Jaws, Gladiator, Shrek, and Harry Potter).
The one thing all of these old great stories, modern masterpieces, and all-time megahits have in common is the Golden Paradigm, the story model that was created from the secrets hidden in their flesh and bones.