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The Secret Language of Great Stories - Part Two

By James Bonnet

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In the early 70s, a friend and I were part of a huge anti-Vietnam War demonstration marching downtown in Los Angeles along Wilshire Boulevard. Just as we were approaching MacArthur Park, our march was attacked by a large contingent of anti-Castro demonstrators wielding clubs. Miraculously, forty or fifty police wielding night sticks appeared from nowhere and charged into the fray. My friend and I were standing right in the middle of the melee and were quickly surrounded by a mass of people who appeared to be indiscriminately bashing each other on the head. We were not acting aggressively, however, and no one was attacking us. Later, we realized that the more aggressive attackers were only attacking other people who were behaving violently – the more violent their behavior, the more violently they were being attacked. Violence was breeding more violence.

One of Hercules twelve labors (his path to immortality) is to destroy the Hydra, a serpent-like monster with seven heads. Hercules attacks the Hydra with his sword and starts cutting off its serpent heads. To his horror, however, two more highly venomous heads grow back in the place where each head was lopped off. This is a perfect visual metaphor that reveals how human aggression operates. If you confront an angry person with a greater anger or violence, that person will overreact and their anger will escalate. They will get twice as angry. They will grow a second head. Keep provoking them with more violence and anger and they will spin out of control – they will sprout twenty heads. Hercules and the Hydra are acting out in a visual story form how aggression behaves.

Of course, the point of the story of this particular labor has to do with learning how to control or tame the anger that is causing the aggression to escalate. Hercules accomplishes this when Iolaus, his charioteer, brings him some hot coals and he cauterizes the wounds left by the severed heads, and this heals the wound and prevents the two new heads from sprouting – i.e. the hot coals are a metaphor for the psychological mechanism that can heal the wound that accelerates the anger that triggers the heightened aggression.
We hear that the Bible stories were channeled through prophets and are, in fact, the word of God. I am saying something very similar. However, I am not calling this extraordinary storymaking phenomenon, God. I am calling it the creative unconscious self because I am trying to take this incredible storymaking experience, that could be accessible to everyone, away from the loaded vocabulary of religion and psychology so that we can take a fresh look at this super-conscious storymaking phenomenon which we all have inside us and which is patiently waiting to be reactivated.
In the beginning of the story of Adam and Eve, God (our higher spiritual self) is dwelling in the Garden of Eden with the first man and woman (our conscious selves.) We know that Adam and Eve are personifications of our conscious selves because they are naming things, and giving names to things is one of the functions of the conscious mind. Be that as it may, this part of the story tells us that the relationship between the conscious mind and the higher spiritual side of the creative unconscious self was at one time very close, and they were sharing a very high state of consciousness (that felt like Paradise.) Later, with the arrival of the serpent, the story tells us that our higher spiritual self (God) and our lower primordial, physical self (Satan), are in conflict with each other. They are both trying to influence the behavior of our conscious self (Adam and Eve). And finally the story tells us that if we fall too strongly under the spell of the lower self, we will be disconnected from the higher self (God,) we will be driven out of Paradise (the Fall -- i.e. we will lose that higher state of consciousness) which, according to Story (the collective wisdom of all great stories when taken together,) has been happening to our entire species for a very long time.
In John Milton's Paradise Lost, when Satan is on his way to Paradise to corrupt Adam and Eve, he passes through the gates of Hell, which are so huge that their hinges create thunder and lightning storms when they move. By artistically treating the components of this particular incident of the story – that is, by exaggerating the size of the gates and hinges, minimizing the size of the thunderstorm, and reversing their relative sizes a whole new world is created – a door between Heaven and Hell, a door between our higher and lower selves.
Another story that has a lot to tell us about the relationship of our conscious and creative unconscious minds is The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard in that story is a pretty good metaphor for the creative unconscious self, which operates behind the scenes, and Dorothy is a pretty good metaphor for our lost and disoriented conscious selves trying to find our way back home, to recover our lost potential. Dorothy, in this story, has, in fact, the same relationship to the wizard that the conscious mind has to the creative unconscious mind. And the yellow brick road is an excellent metaphor for the precarious, sometimes scary and dangerous path we have to follow to return home, to become whole again. One of the things this story pattern is telling us is that while the creative unconscious can inspire us and guide us, we have to make the journey back to who we were really meant to be on our own – and we may have to bring our hearts (the tinman), our minds (the scarecrow) and our courage (the lion) back to life and up to speed, and we may have to dissolve, or otherwise dispense with, a wicked witch or two along the way – the wicked witch being an excellent metaphor for the negative, sometimes ugly, aspects of our personalities, that benefit from the mess we’re in, and don’t want us to succeed.
The equations in this story make a significant psychological connection, which, of course, is why, in my opinion, the books and film were so successful and enduring. When a metaphor lines up with something in our psyches, you have a story that triggers a strong emotional response and has real power.
When you are waking up in the morning, have you ever gotten an insight into an unsolved problem you were worrying about the night before? That’s Rumpelstiltskin. The miraculous little helper, in the fairytale that bears his name, is an incredible metaphor, and the secret hidden in this marvelous tale has something important to tell us about the creative process and how our minds function. Namely, that inside our minds there is a creative unconscious problem solving mechanism (a Rumpelstiltskin) that continues to work and transform our serious problems (the straw) into precious insights (the gold), while our conscious minds are asleep. (See the interpretation of the Prometheus story in Part One to compare the minds ability to heal serious worries during the night.)
The Sixth Sense has a lot of important things to tell us about our shadow side and the positive physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual energies that are being repressed (the dead people), and are haunting us (filling us with anxiety and fear) and clamoring to be reintegrated into our personalities. The Bruce Willis character is a metaphor for the psychological function that is supposed to help us resolve that fear and open the channels of communication with these lost dimensions of ourselves, but is stymied by archaic psychological thinking. (See my analysis of The Sixth Sense in my earlier article The Hidden Structures in Great Stories and Their Enormous Power.)
The Lord of the Rings
and Harry Potter have a lot to tell us about the nature of the lower self (Sauron and Voldemort) and how it periodically loses its power and relentlessly tries to regain it.
In conclusion, the remarkable thing is that this process is accumulative. Each great story contributes a little bit more of the hidden truth. And if you bring enough great stories together, you begin to see the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual passages that were achieved in our evolutionary journey and, if reexperienced in the course of our lifetimes, can guide us to these higher states of being and a full realization of ourselves.
And why is this important to screenwriters, novelists and other storymakers? Because, as I've mentioned many times, these patterns and motifs have enormous power; and if you support the stories you really want to tell with these hidden structures, they will make a psychological connection and have universal appeal.
In the next story course article I will begin my introduction to The Golden Paradigm and The Storywheel, the two story models that were created by the hidden story structures that all of the great stories we are going to study have in common.

About James Bonnet

James Bonnet is an internationally known writer, teacher and story consultant. He has been a professional writer for more than 40 years. He started out as an actor in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello. He landed his first professional writing job when he was 23, writing for a television series called It’s A Man’s World. He was elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writer's Guild of America and has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. The important  new ideas about story in his book Stealing Fire from the Gods: The Complete Guide to Story For Writers And Filmmakers are having a major impact on writers in all media. In his forthcoming book, Cracking the Story Code: The Hidden Structures in Great Stories and What They Mean, he will thoroughly analyze fifty of the world’s greatest stories and the extraordinary secrets they reveal about ourselves and our evolutionary path.  Learn more at

Screenwriting Article by James Bonnet

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