The Science of Story Structure

The Science

Humanity has long acknowledged its link to gorillas, monkeys, and other primates.  Since Darwin, we have observed these creatures in their natural habitats, and seen the similarities they have with us, from opposable thumbs to their caregiving groups.  According to DNA sequencing, there’s only a 4% difference in the genomes that make up our and their DNA.  Hundreds of in-depth studies around the world have been performed to try and tell the differences between primates and humans.  

One European study found that one of the key differences between primates and humans was our recognition of time. The study goes on to say: 

Note that the spatial location of the stimulus (angle) and the spatial location of the behavioral responses (angle) were expressed in time units (seconds)… Our data from the 6-choice task suggest that subjects were resetting their clocks after each individual time interval… A possible alternative explanation is that monkeys did not engage the visuo-spatial rhythm but relied instead only on an association between elapsed time and target position… We speculate that the spatial component of our visuospatial task was an important sensory element that helped the monkeys better perceive and maintain rhythms of different paces.

Did you understand that?  No? I don’t blame you.  Let me give you the short version.  

Primates witness patterns, but cannot think about time in the same abstract way as humans (hours, days, seasons, years, etc.).  This may seem like a small thing, but you have so many building blocks of storytelling in the abstract box of time: changes in the season; physical growth with changes in age; mental and emotional changes; and the very concept of cause and effect. Every story is about how one thing led to another, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and great epic stories often follow how small events translate into gigantic changes in self, in others, or in their surroundings.  

The thing that separates us from primates, the perception of time, is our ability to tell stories, by sharing what the cause and effect of certain actions are.

Why Does It Matter?

Our brain has been constructed through millions of years of evolution, and even though two random people plucked from anywhere around the world will have thousands of differences between them based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, culture, age, how big their eyebrows are, and other factors, there will be one similarity amongst all of them; our brains are structured the same way.

It’s this common structure that informs how we respond to stories. Most people believe we will be interested in a story if it is a good story. I argue that a story is good if it conforms to how our brain structures information.

Some Examples

Over the course of this book, we’re going to talk a lot about the Hero’s Journey.  It’s a story format derived from the research of Joseph Campbell on similarities in Eastern and Western religions and has influenced Star Wars, The Matrix, the Harry Potter series of novels, and countless other books, films, and video games.  At its simplest, it’s about a hero leaving their ordinary world, crossing the threshold by entering a new unfamiliar, and challenging world, learning a valuable lesson (or attaining a valuable treasure), and returning to their previous world forever changed for the experience.  

  • In Star Wars A New Hope, Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet of Tatooine, crosses into the new realm of exploring the galaxy, realizes he has to save Princess Leia, escapes the clutches of the Galactic Empire, takes on a new identity as a pilot for the Rebellion, and returns to save the day and destroy the Death Star.
  • In The Matrix, Mr. Anderson leaves his safe job to join Morpheus and the other rebels, chooses the red pill to venture into the new realm of the real world, realizes he has to save Morpheus, escapes the clutches of Agent Smith, dies, and resurrects to take on a new identity as Neo, and returns to master the world of the Matrix where he can now use his knowledge to fly.
  • In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry leaves his home at 4 Privet Drive, crosses into the new realm of the Wizarding World, realizes he has to prevent his parents’ murderer Lord Voldemort from attaining the Sorcerer’s Stone, passes the obstacles to get to the Stone, takes on a new identity as a wizard protected by his Mother’s love, and returns to 4 Privet Drive a changed boy.

According to Campbell (and similar earlier proto-structures like Otto Rank’s and Lord Raglan’s respective mythotypes) the hero of a story expands their known world (or known emotional state) by embarking on a great challenge, crossing the threshold into uncharted territory.  

This is important because the ‘crossing the threshold’ moment mimics child initiation rituals where a person is closing the door to an old way of life, a more naive way of life, and crossing the threshold into a new chapter; a metaphorical death and resurrection.  Depending on the school of thought, this can also be a major part of Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis.  Our brains repeat this pattern over and over again as we symbolically pass through different chapters in life: new schools; new cities; new jobs; new relationships; etc.  

If we follow this metaphor further, a mother goes through great pain and sacrifice during childbirth, and out of it comes a new baby.  Metaphorically, the mother’s life as an individual ends, and a new life begins as a caretaker.  In a literal sense, she is returning home with a new human, resurrected out of her own pain, suffering, and DNA that has forever changed her.  

Now, as someone who grew up Catholic, I also see some similarities in how these thresholds overlap with the 7 sacraments in Catholicism.  They include the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist), the Sacraments of Healing (Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick), and the Sacraments at the Service of Communion (Marriage, and Holy Orders).  Think I’m reading too much into it?  Well, Francis Ford Coppola used this same idea to juxtapose the sacraments with key moments in Michael’s emotional journey.  I’m primarily talking about The Godfather (the first one, the good one) but this imagery is littered throughout the entire trilogy.  The Godfather opens with a wedding, which is designed to unite two people together in matrimony: this setting introduces Michael and his partner Kay, showing us the world Michael is trying to leave behind in his attempted courtship and future marriage with Kay.  Later, Michael then visits his father in the hospital, during Christmas, which one could argue is an Anointing Of the Sick, showing us how Michael is compelled to return to this dark world in an effort to protect his family.  Later on, Michael has a wedding of his own with a woman who is not Kay, but that scene is quickly followed by the woman’s violent death, highlighting Michael’s commitment to the family and what it has done to him personally.  At the end of the film, we see Michael’s transformation into the Godfather via a series of violent executions of his enemies, while he is attending his nephew’s baptism, which is meant to be a sacrament/celebration of life.  Coppola chooses to juxtapose these key story moments with the seven sacraments from the character’s Catholic heritage to highlight key moments in Michael’s transformation.     

The hero’s journey is resonant with us because it mirrors our own life, and by using this structure, we can dive into any topic, any conflict, and any world, because we’ve given an audience a path they can recognize and latch onto.  It is a path that mimics their own lives and a path that will make them care about the characters.

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