A good story requires good writing. That’s a given. But even with good writing, some stories are amazing, and some are just okay. This means that there must be something else at play, but what? The answer lies in how writing transports us into other worlds, stimulating our imaginations to take us somewhere else so vividly that we can forget where we are.
When it comes to perception, our mental wires are tangled up in a messy web. Colors feel warm or cold. Musical tones feel like emotions. Shapes will make us wary or put us at ease. Everything we sense or experience is connected with all kinds of other things, most of which have no connection in the outside world. This is how metaphors work. If a writer says the sky is smooth as glass, it creates a picture in your mind of cloudless blue, even though the sky and glass have nothing in common.
|Can you guess which of these shapes is called a "kiki" and which is called a "bouba"? Around 90% of people choose the same thing, regardless of native language.|
The best stories are those that resonate with us, tickling these crossed wires so that we get to things that are deep and meaningful. It is one thing to talk about human nature analytically, and another entirely to learn about it through the guided experience of an artist’s hand.
Back in the early days of psychology, Sigmund Freud modeled the mind as three layers, the conscious, which is where our thinking and perceiving and everything that we are aware of takes place, the unconscious, a vast ocean of ideas, beliefs, and calculations we are completely unaware of, and the subconscious, which lies between the others, and takes things from the unconscious and brings them to the conscious.
Freud’s contemporary, Carl Jung, added to this with the idea of the collective unconscious, a commonality of the unconscious minds of all of humanity. He came to this idea by looking at mythical archetypes, characters, events, settings, etc., that appear in stories all over the world. For instance, there is the hero, who does grand and difficult things for the good of their community; the mentor, who helps the hero reach their potential; the trickster, who manipulates everyone for their own ends; and many more. It is a common misconception to think that Jung meant everyone’s minds are connected. What he really meant is that humans have a lot of the same stuff in our unconsciouses, just like we all have two hands and two eyes.
Influenced by Freud and Jung, mythologist Joseph Campbell came up with the idea of the monomyth, also called the Hero’s Journey, which is a structure that the most powerful stories in human history, the ancient myths from all over the world that have survived until today, adhere to. The monomyth has several stages, including the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, death of the mentor, figurative or literal death and rebirth of the hero, ultimate triumph, returning home with the prize, and others. Few stories have all of the monomyth’s elements, but most of the great ones have some. It is also worth mentioning that there are other story formats that resonate besides the monomyth.
|Star Wars: A New Hope is often hailed as the modern representation of the monomyth.|
The fact that tales from all over the world follow this structure suggests that the secret ingredient that makes stories great is when they resonate with the collective unconscious. You may have heard writers say that the story already exists, and they are just putting it to words. Back in the day, there was an idea of a personal genius, a spirit that gave creative people inspiration for their work. It turns out this is not merely superstition; the subconscious mind functions just like a personal genius, bringing forth the best ideas from the reservoir of the unconscious. When creators follow the guiding of their genius, it is an expression of the unconscious, and when this expression resonates with lots of people’s unconsciouses, it is a great story. True art appears when the artist looks inward and lets their heart guide them.