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The Journey of the Antihero in Film: Exploring the Dark Side

You have, no doubt, heard of The Hero’s Journey. In this article, we will explore the lesser-known ANTI-hero’s journey and the uncharted dark side of the passage—the place where the dark forces live and hatch their nefarious schemes. In real life, it’s people like Hitler, Jack the Ripper and Saddam Hussein who personify these dark forces. In story, it’s great villains like Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vadar and Satan that embody the dark side.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Jodie Foster in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien’ are heroes. Their actions are motivated and influenced by a higher nature. Macbeth, Scarlett O’Hara and Michael Douglas in ‘Wall Street’ are anti-heroes. Their actions are motivated by a lower, primordial nature.

The higher nature links the hero to the creative energies that seek to overcome negative states and reach higher states of being. It inspires him/her to seize the day, to be creative and virtuous, courageous and just. It is a source of great power, and it motivates the hero to make sacrifices and to do great things.

The lower nature links the anti-hero to the physical, animal side of his nature. It is an earthbound self that pursues earthly things. Hidden in the matrix of its seductive energies are the libido and the id — the source of our most basic instincts, appetites and drives, the ones that control hunger, sex and aggression. They compete with the higher nature for influence over the hero and the anti-hero, and they are the principal resisters of all positive change.

The hallmark of heroes is personal sacrifice. They personify the positive unselfish side of the ego, and their journey reveals the upside of the passage. The m.o. of antiheroes is the antisocial act. They personify the negative selfish side of the ego, the side that has given the word ‘ego’ a bad name, and their journey reveals the dark or downside of the cycle.

Villains become antiheroes when the story is about them; when we see the process they undergo to become villains. That’s the only difference. They are both motivated by the same lower-self impulses. Darth Vadar is a villain in part IV of ‘Star Wars,’ but, no doubt, will be the central character and an anti-hero in Part III, when he is being drawn into the dark side.

On the upside of the passage, the hero resists temptation and goes up the ladder.

On the downside, the antihero gives in to temptation and goes down the ladder.

Whereas the hero represents that part of us that recognizes problems and accepts responsibility, the antihero is the will to power and insatiable greed, the materialistic, power hungry, tyrannical side of our natures; the side that wants to possess everything it desires, without limit, and control everything it needs. In real life, this is Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. In story, it is Little Caesar, Michael Corleone and Commodus in ‘Gladiator.’

The stages on the upside of the passage are: separation, initiation, integration and rebirth. The actions of the heroes in stories like ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘Armageddon,’ ‘Braveheart,’ ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘Mulan’ help to illuminate these steps.

The stages on the downside are: attachment, regression, alienation and death. The anti-heroes in such stories as ‘Oedipus,’ ‘Faust,’ ‘Dracula,’ ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘Citizen Kane’ and, more recently, ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘The Score’ help to outline this side of the path.

Stories focused on the upside focus on the character of the hero and revolve around getting the hero to join or return to the fight. These stories are about the transformation of the hero’s character and show the hero being brought back to a heroic frame of mind and returning to the fight.

Stories focused on the downside focus on the corruption rather than the rehabilitation of some anti-hero. ‘Othello,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Body Heat,’ ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘The Godfather’ are all focused on the downside. John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is all about Satan’s efforts to corrupt Adam and Eve (See image at right). ‘Macbeth,’ which begins on the upside after the climactic battle, is focused on the downside and is all about Macbeth’s corruption and guilt. ‘Othello’ is focused on jealousy and is all about the destruction of the Moor by his servant, Iago.

The goal of the hero is to liberate an entity like a family, a country or a galaxy from the tyranny and corruption that caused a state of misfortune and to create a new unified whole. The goal of the anti-hero is to take possession of an entity and redirect it toward goals that fulfill its own desires and needs, which is to accumulate, control and enjoy everything it needs to satisfy its insatiable cravings for sense objects, security, wealth and territory. In modern terms, we’re talking about money, sex, and power. Psychologically, these are the appetites and desires of the lower self taking possession of the conscious self and redirecting its goals.

After the hero completes the upside of the passage, he may, like Adam and Eve, King David or Robert DeNiro in ‘Raging Bull,’ be transformed into a new anti-hero and be drawn into the downside. When this happens, new dark forces are awakened, and the hero’s progress is reversed. And where there was initiation, there is now regression; where there was integration, there is now alienation; where there was strength, there is now weakness; where there was love, there is now lust; where there was unity, there is now polarity; where there was a superhero, there is now a tyrant; and where the hero’s humanity was being awakened, the antihero’s humanity is being shut down. His generosity has become uncontrolled greed; his compassion has become hatred and loathing. Where there were celebrations, there are now orgies; and where there was a paradise, there is now a living hell.

Sometimes the cycles are continuous. In the ‘Star Wars’ saga, Darth Vadar starts out on the upside as a Jedi, a young hero aligned with the Force, but then he defects to the Dark Side, becomes an anti-hero and helps bring about the state of tyranny. Later, with the dawning of a new upside, a new hero, Luke Skywalker, guided by the Force, emerges to oppose him. These alternating change-of-fortune cycles are the engines that drive this whole process.

You can tell which side of the cycle your main character is on by who is initiating the action. On the downside, evil is aggressive, and good is on the defensive. On the upside, it’s the reverse—good is aggressive and evil is on the defensive. Stories that end on the upside end happily. Stories that end on the downside invariably end tragically. The demise of the anti-hero is more often than not connected to his overreach, his uncontrolled passions. The misery the anti-hero creates finally becomes unbearable, and he/she has to be destroyed. A new hero with a vision has to take up the cause and go after them.

In truth, we owe a great debt to fictional villains and antiheroes. They create the problems the heroes have to solve and that creates the need for a story that reveals the inner workings of the dark side of our selves. Without Darth Vadar and the Evil Emperor, there would be no Evil Empire, and there would be no need to save the galaxy. Without Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill, there would be no problem for Clarice and the FBI to solve. And without those problems, there would be no revelations concerning the basic struggle between good and evil, and nothing to report in story. Without the actions of these negative forces, there would be very few stories to tell, and the forces that motivated Hitler and Jack the Ripper would remain forever a mystery to us. Coming to terms with the dark side in story helps us to come to terms with the dark side in ourselves.

Pinocchio – The Story of a Young, Wooden Boy on a Hero’s Journey

by James Bonnet

Walt Disney and his team, the creators of Pinocchio, knew how to tell a great story. They knew how to use the creative process to create metaphors that make a compelling psychological connection and bring powerful hidden truths to the surface. This is why their classic animated films were so successful – and this is why Pinocchio is considered one of the finest Disney features ever made, and the greatest animated film of all time.

Pinocchio, the central character of the story, is a personification of our conscious selves, which monitors the real world through our five senses, performs the conscious functions, and has the awesome responsibility for keeping us safe and making all of our choices and decisions.

In the beginning of the story, Geppetto, a spiritual father figure and a highly skilled toy and clock maker, has created a magnificent wooden puppet he names Pinocchio. Geppetto is, in fact, so delighted with his creation that he is inspired to make a wish that Pinocchio will become a real boy.

That night, while Geppetto sleeps, a beautiful Blue Fairy, like Athena in the epics of Homer, arrives like a figure in a dream from the other side of consciousness. She has heard Geppetto’s wish, and because of the extraordinary person he has been, and the happiness he has given to so many children with his wonderful toys, she has come to partially fulfill his wish and gives the gift of life to his new puppet. However, she doesn’t, as yet, transform him into a real boy because that is something the wooden boy will have to accomplish on his own.

And what is Geppetto’s wish but the wish all good parents make that their children will grow up to be happy, healthy, well-loved, fully-realized human beings. And what is the Blue Fairy’s judgment – that Pinocchio, at this stage, is a young child with a newly awakened consciousness who is seriously in need of guidance and experience.

The fact that Pinocchio is a wooden boy is a metaphor for the inauthentic state the hero and ourselves are in at the beginning of the adventure or journey. Psychologically, this metaphor is incredibly valid, indicating the incomplete condition of our conscious selves at this early age of our existence. Compared to what we could be, we are all like little boys that are yet undeveloped and the equivalent of wooden puppets. And going from where we are to where we could be will be like going from a puppet to a real boy.

The mind easily accepts this metaphor as our present condition and identifies with it. Then the story shows us how to become real people again, how to resolve these inauthentic states and become who we were really meant to be.  But in order to do that, we have to get involved in the problem and become part of the solution. The clear message of the Hero’s Journey is: if you want to reach your full potential, you have to learn how to transform these inauthentic states into higher states of being. It means living and acting like a hero. It means doing what a hero does. Even in the face of a seemingly impossible task.

The wisdom necessary to make these passages successfully is buried like a treasure deep in the unconscious. Great stories bring that wisdom to consciousness. The information contained in a great story, like Pinocchio, is all about these passages and how to accomplish them in such a way that you can achieve these higher states of being. And that is the essence of the Hero’s Journey – and that is what Pinocchio will have to achieve to become a real boy.

If we fail to make these passages successfully, there are serious consequences. We get stuck. We stop growing. We feel lost and unfulfilled. We end up like donkeys, pack animals, in a cold cruel, dog-eat-dog world. But if we succeed in making these passages, the rewards are tremendous – the full and happy life of a completely realized individual. How fortunate we are that Walt Disney created this extraordinary film to greet us at the beginning of our journey, when we are little more than wooden boys.

In short, we start life with a vast, unrealized potential. The Hero’s Journey, and there are many such journeys that we have to accomplish in a lifetime, are the cycles of change and growth that are necessary for us to pass through, at the different stages of our lives, to reach this vast potential.

The guidance the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio is to resist temptation (the terrible element – the thing without which the problem wouldn’t be created) and prove himself brave, truthful and unselfish (the marvelous elements – the things without which the problem can’t be solved or the wish of becoming a real boy fulfilled.)

The Blue Fairy then knights Jiminy Cricket with her wand and he becomes a personification of Pinocchio’s conscience, or as the Blue Fairy says during his inauguration: “The Lord High Keeper of the knowledge of right and wrong, councilor in moments of temptation, and guide along the straight and narrow path.”

Actually the upcoming adventure takes Pinocchio along both sides of the Hero’s Journey, the downside and the upside. On the downside, Pinocchio, acting as an antihero, gives in to temptation, is lured into the villain’s devilish schemes, and descends to a lower, less desirable state; which is to say, if he had resisted the temptations offered by Honest John, he would never have ended up in Stromboli’s birdcage or on the Coachman’s Pleasure Island, and he wouldn’t be walking around with two donkey ears and a donkey tail.

Honest John is a foxy lower self motivated con man who is tempting the little boy to take the shortcut to fame and fortune and good health, with the help of catchy tune “Hi Diddlee Dee, It’s An Actor’s Life For Me,” when he is really being kidnapped and sold to another serious criminal, Stromboli, an evil puppeteer, who plans to keep the boy imprisoned, and pay him nothing, while he exploits his talents and makes himself rich.

Pinocchio escapes, with the Blue Fairy’s help, but then is repropositioned by Honest John and sold to the Coachman of Pleasure Island, another sneering villain and human trafficker who will pay even larger sums of money for “stupid boys” who can be lured away from school and transported to Pleasure Island, where a cruel and tragic fate awaits them.

Lampwick, Pinocchio’s new wise guy tough talking friend, and a well-known figure in our real lives, is a willing victim of the deception and a very bad influence on Pinocchio, who is now eagerly participating in the self-destructive fun.

All of which is a perfect metaphor revealing the serious dangers that are out there, if we cannot recognize and resist them.

All of this is revealed in the story.

Pleasure Island, after all, is a place where uneducated “stupid boys,” come to the island seeking endless forbidden pleasures but are really being transformed by these dangerous pleasures into the equivalent of donkeys – a sad but perfect metaphor for young people who have been ruined by a lack of education, unrealistic dreams, and their addictions to pleasure seeking, and who are now being transformed into donkeys – an unskilled, minimum wage labor force who will spend the rest of their lives working for others as virtual slaves and pack animals.

The energies the lower self controls are extremely powerful and seductive, and, under the right circumstances, they can easily retake possession of our conscious selves. The Devil, as they say, has all the best tunes. Psychologically, these are the appetites and desires of the lower self taking possession of our conscious self and redirecting its goals toward activities that will profit the criminals, while it stunts our growth and stymies our progress toward full realization.

When the appetites and desires succeed in this, they pull the conscious element, the antihero, into their camp. That creates the downside of the cycle, and that creates serious problems for the entity as a whole – in this case, Pinocchio and his family.

Jiminy Cricket, who has finally given up on Pinocchio and is leaving the island, witnesses the “stupid boys” being transformed into donkeys. He realizes what is happening and rushes back to the pool hall to alert Pinocchio, and discovers Lampwick has already been transformed into a donkey and Pinocchio is just beginning to be. Escaping from the island stops the transformation process and Pinocchio ends up with only donkey ears and a donkey tail.

They return home and discover Geppetto is now the one who is missing. A note from the Blue Fairy magically appears and informs them that Geppetto searched for the missing Pinocchio everywhere, including a sea voyage in a small boat to search the nearby islands, and now his boat has been swallowed by a short-tempered giant whale named Monstro. Geppetto is alive but unable to escape and so is a prisoner, along with Figaro and Cleo, in the whale’s belly.

On the upside of the passage, the hero resists temptation and advances to a higher state. When the conscious element gives in to the temptations of the lower self, an alienation from the higher self occurs. This is illustrated as a separation between Pinocchio and Geppetto, the positive spiritual father figure and the creator of puppets, who can be turned into real boys. To overcome that separation Pinocchio has to rescue Geppetto playing according to the hero’s rules, enduring the psychological ordeal that is necessary to accomplish the impossible task and reunite with that vital part of his higher consciousness – which is to say. restore Geppetto, his father and creator, to his rightful place.

So, the time to be unselfish, truthful and courageous has finally arrived. And Pinocchio is ready. He leads, and Jiminy Cricket follows him back to the ocean. They tie Pinocchio’s donkey tail to a big rock, jump off a cliff into the deep ocean, and walk several miles across the ocean floor until they find the sleeping whale. Pinocchio gets inside the whale and is happily reunited with his father, Figaro and Cleo.

The now clever and resourceful Pinocchio builds a fire on the deck of Gippetto’s boat, and the smoke from the fire causes Monstro to release a gale force sneeze that blows Geppetto’s and Pinocchio’s raft out of the angry whale’s mouth at an accelerating speed.

Then there is a desperate chase in a stormy sea and a furious counterattack by Monstro that smashes their raft and drives Geppetto, Figaro, Cleo and Jiminy onto a small beach. They search for Pinocchio and discover him face down in a shallow pool of water and no longer alive.

Pinocchio’s body is brought home and is lying on Geppetto’s bed surrounded by his mourning father, Jiminy, Figaro, and Cleo, all of whom are weeping from a terrible sense of loss and sadness.

There’s a burst of light just above Pinocchio’s body reminiscent of the light given off by the Blue Fairy’s wand, and Pinocchio comes alive in the form of a real boy, and his donkey ears and tail have disappeared.

This is the symbolic death and rebirth of the hero, indicating that his old, unreliable and vulnerable self has perished and his new real true self has now emerged in the form of a fully realized real boy.

They celebrate with music and dance, and Jiminy steps onto the ledge outside the window where the invisible Blue Fairy presents him with his 18 karat gold badge.

The ultimate goal of these passages is the creation and expansion of consciousness. The unconscious, according to what we’re being told by the archetypal patterns in great stories, is a pool of potential consciousness. We start out life, as infants, completely unconscious. The fully realized, ultimate states of mind we hope to achieve reside in the unconscious as conscious potential. The hidden truth revealed by story is all about how these unconscious “potential” energies can be awakened and converted into energies and powers that can be consciously administered and controlled. To function properly, the conscious self has to be initiated and strengthened at every step. The purpose of story is to guide the conscious self through these passages so it can properly administer these powerful, formerly unconscious energies. The actions of the hero and the antihero in story show the conscious self the way through this initiation process.

And this is how we transform ourselves from wooden puppet-like boys and girls into fully realized human beings – by following this path. The great story uses its imagery to stimulate our imaginations and give us little tastes of paradise which trigger fantasies that lead us to desires for positive actions in the real world. Then as we pursue these goals, the stories guide us through the passages using meaningful connections; each story revealing a little bit more of the truth. And piece by piece, bit by bit, drop by drop, the whole truth is gradually revealed. And, despite ourselves, we find our selves, realize our dreams, and, like Pinocchio we reach our full potential. The creative unconscious self is the source of that wisdom and that power. The great story is the guardian of that wisdom and that power. And if you unravel their mysteries and fathom their secrets, you can participate in your own creation.

The Higher and Lower Self in Great Stories

I’ll begin with a description of our central characters. The lower self controls how we selfishly compete with each other to survive in a competitive, dog-eat-dog, big fish eat little fish world. The higher self controls how we live together in perfect harmony in groups that internally behave unselfishly and are guided by the collective wisdom of a non-competitive, highly co-operative society. So – obviously, these two irreconcilable forces are in serious conflict with each other.

In the last several story course articles, I talked about the conscious archetypes (the hero and the antihero) and the seven creative unconscious archetypes. In this article, I will describe the important role being played in great stories by the higher and the lower self.

As I’ve mentioned, the purpose of the passages (aka the Hero’s and the Antihero’s Journey) is to guide us through a reenactment of the evolutionary stages of our development from early childhood to fully realized human beings. The hero and the antihero are personifications of our conscious selves. The love interests help lure us into the adventure. The tricksters goad us forward when we get stuck. The threshold guardians confirm we are sufficiently prepared, and the four remaining archetypes – the physical, emotional (social), mental, and spiritual mentors and helpers give us special physical, emotional, mental and spiritual guidance and support.

Needless to say, you don’t have to have all of these characters in your story, just the ones necessary to reveal your particular story.

That said, these players, these archetypes are organized in a hierarchy – the physical, instinctual self has been superseded by the higher, spiritual self and they’re in conflict. There is a rivalry between them, a struggle for power. The higher spiritual dimension is above, the lower physical dimension is below, and the conscious element, which they are both trying to influence, is caught in the middle.

archangelIn John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is based on the Bible story about Adam and Eve, a great battle is fought between God and Satan for control of Heaven. Satan loses and is condemned to Hell (aka Hades and the underworld.) As part of Satan’s counterattack, he turns himself into a serpent and goes up to the Garden of Eden to corrupt God’s new favorites, Adam and Eve. He tempts them with an apple that can give them some of God’s great power. They break God’s law and are driven out of Paradise.

What does God represent in this story? What does he personify? The higher spiritual side of our nature. What does the serpent, Satan, represent? The lower, physical, instinctual, animal side of our nature. And in this story we see that Adam and Eve, who were once inspired by the higher self are now, with the arrival of the serpent, giving in to the temptations of the lower self, which results in their connection to the higher self being cut off.SF-21-Brain

It’s curious that Satan turns himself into a serpent because the snake is a perfect metaphor for the lower, primordial, physical self, which is, in fact, a reptile brain, the R-complex, the source of our most basic physical instincts, appetites and drives – which, like the three lower chakras, control survival, hunger, sex, anger, aggression, power, and greed.

It might interest you to observe that in Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, wherein God is about to touch the fingertip of Adam, God and his companions are framed by what looks to be a cross-section of the human brain.inspiration

Using Star Wars as another example, what does the Force represent? The same thing as God. It’s another term for God – but it means the same thing – the higher, spiritual side of our nature. What does the Evil Emperor represent? The same as Satan. The lower, physical, animal side of our nature. The villains are all personifications of these same lower, dark forces.

In real life, when people are taken over by these dark forces they become serious criminals, drug lords and tyrants. What makes some people murder, steal, and rape? This is the dark side of our nature. All of the villains and dark forces in story are inspired by this one source. They are all variations of the same theme – of which Satan or the Devil is the archetype.

So if God is our higher, spiritual self and the serpent is our lower, primordial, physical animal self, what is Adam and Eve? and Luke Skywalker? What do they personify? Our conscious self – that special part of our psyches which monitors the world through the five senses and makes choices and decisions. The hero is the unselfish, positive side of our conscious self, the part that accepts responsibility, resists temptation, and solves problems. The antihero is the selfish, negative side of the ego – the part that gives in to temptation, creates problems, and can be taken over by the dark side. This is William Hurt in Body Heat, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vader) and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct.

Another characteristic of the antihero is the will to power and insatiable greed. This is the materialistic, power hungry, tyrannical side of our nature, the side that wants to possess everything it desires, without limit, and control everything it needs. In story, this is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Silver (Javier Barden) in Skyfall, and Voldemort in Harry Potter. In real life, this is Kim Jong-il, Robert Mugabe, Than Shwe, Hitler, Stalin, Vladimir Putin, and countless others.

The higher, spiritual forces and the lower, instinctual forces are trying to influence the conscious forces, which are caught in the middle, in order to control the destiny of some larger entity that’s being transformed like North Korea, Germany or Russia. And because the groups that human beings form tend to organize themselves in similar ways as the psyche, the human group is an excellent metaphor for the human psyche. You can see this important pattern operating in many great stories and successful films.

In Star Wars, the larger entity being transformed is an entire galaxy. The galaxy has an archetypal structure (i.e. the forces inspired by the higher spiritual self are opposed by forces inspired by the lower primordial self and Luke Skywalker is caught in the middle) and it acts as a metaphor of the psyche. And, furthermore, the fate of the galaxy is linked to the destiny of the hero – i.e. in story the hero is part of a greater whole and acts on behalf of the whole entity, and the fate of the entity depends on the hero’s success. Psychologically, the conscious self is part of a greater whole and acts on behalf of the whole psyche, and the fate of the psyche depends on the ego’s success. By linking the hero and his destiny to the destiny of some group that has this archetypal structure, you create a metaphor of the psyche. And that means a story with extraordinary power.

In Armageddon and The Matrix, the entity that has this archetypal structure is the world, and it acts as a metaphor of the psyche. And the fate of the world is linked to the actions of the hero. In Gladiator, it’s the Roman Empire. In Harry Potter, it’s the Wizard World. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s Middle Earth. In Mulan and Braveheart, it’s a country. In A Christmas Carol, The Sixth Sense, Batman and Superman it’s a city. In all of these entities you can identify the archetypal structure – metaphors inspired by the higher self opposed by metaphors inspired by the lower self and the fate of the entity is linked to the destiny of the hero who is caught in the middle. This important metaphor exactly describes our own predicament – and if you study hundreds of great stories and films, you will see this phenomenon at work. It is one of the more important patterns.

Going Deeper: The Higher and Lower Self

About James Bonnet

The Ideal and Imperfect Parent Figures: The Emotional and Mental Story Archetypes

by James Bonnet

In previous story course articles, we saw the love interests who help lure the hero and the antihero (the conscious archetypes) into the adventure; the tricksters who goad the conscious archetypes forward when they get stuck; the threshold guardians who test their preparedness and resolve; the negative physical mentors who try to physically corrupt and addict us; the positive physical mentors who try to guide us to a physical well-being; the negative spiritual mentors who pressure us to participate in the selfish, competitive, dog-eat-dog world; and  the positive spiritual archetypes who are trying to guide us to the unselfish, cooperative world of our full potential and true destinies. In this article, we’ll look at the ideal and imperfect parent figures and their emotional and mental roles as antagonists, mentors, helpers and guides.

Following our evolutionary path from reptiles to human beings, the R-complex (reptile complex) was superseded by our emotional brain, the limbic system, and this gave rise to the emotional archetypes, which I call the positive and negative emotional father and mother figures. And by emotional, in this case, I mean our social selves and our social feelings – feelings that reference the special things we feel when we interact with other people (i.e. love, empathy, compassion, camaraderie, a sense of duty, jealousy, anger, prejudice, hatred and greed, etc.). The emotional parent figures are concerned with personal relationships and the roles we were really meant to play in society.

Unlike the spiritual and physical self, the emotional self does not have an agenda, other than to make the social entity, whatever its mores, function as a harmonious or effective whole. A social entity can be a family, a community, a corporation, an invading army, or a mob, and it can give its allegiance to either positive or negative ideals, to a Hitler or a Christ. The group’s character is determined by its objectives.

In real life, when people play the positive emotional father and mother figure roles, they are guided by the objectives of the higher self. They are the people who love us, who nurture and protect us and teach us our social responsibilities. They teach us how to get along with others, when to say please and thank you, how to be good parents, how to love, how to give and receive affection and how to cooperate with others and share. They give us advice concerning the professions we should choose. They encourage us to be good citizens and work for the common good, admonish us for being selfish, help us work out our social and emotional problems, and give us the social skills we need to achieve our emotional desires and goals. Psychologically, they are all of the feelings and other inner promptings that inspire and guide us in a similar fashion.

All of this is revealed in story. And, as in real life,  this parent figure can be played by any friend, colleague, relative, or stranger who fulfills that positive emotional role. In Toy Story 3, Woody, who is the hero trying to solve the problem and keep his family of toys together, is also an emotional mentor trying to guide his toy mates back to a sense of loyalty toward Andy, who they think put them in a trash bag, while packing to go to college, and threw them away. In Lincoln, President Lincoln’s henchmen and congressional allies are trying to persuade their bigoted colleagues to vote for the 13th Amendment , which will abolish slavery in the U. S. forever. In Shakespeare In Love, at a time when England is dominated by an inauthentic and dysfunctional system of social class and arranged marriage, Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) challenges Shakespeare to write a play that will reveal the very truth and nature of love. In Groundhog Day, Andy MacDowell inspires Bill Murray to transform himself into someone who is both capable and worthy of love. In The Dark Knight Rises, Michael Caine, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) loyal man Friday, reminds him of his parent’s emotional legacy and his true purpose. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Julia Roberts helps awaken Charlie Wilson’s (Tom Hanks) social conscience. In The Verdict, Jack Warden helps rehabilitate Paul Newman, an emotionally bankrupt ambulance chaser and alcoholic, into a lawyer of integrity who puts the needs of his client above his own personal needs.

The negative emotional father and mother figures are just the opposite. They are guided by the objectives of the lower self, and teach us prejudice and hatred and intolerance, and criticize all our efforts to develop a genuine social conscience. They believe human beings are basically evil and have to be dominated by a proper iron fist or they will run amok. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we have to accept that. We should be ambitious and ruthless and use any means to become king of the hill. If we fail to reach the top, we will be nothing. Psychologically, they are the impulses and promptings that give rise to the negative emotional archetypes that motivate us in this direction

In real life, they are the social forces that helped create Hitler and Stalin, and sociopaths like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. They are lower self motivated and teach us how to lie, how to coerce, how to take advantage of, and gain power over, others. Prior to World War II, this was Hitler’s speech-making coach who taught him how to make a powerful, crowd stirring speech that would emotionally arouse and control his audience.

In Batman Begins, it’s Liam Neeson’s brain-washing of Bruce Wayne, so he will do the unthinkable and obliterate Gotham City. In August: Osage County, Violet Weston (Meryll Streep) has nothing positive to say to or about any of her children and is responsible for an incredibly dysfunctional family. In Othello, it’s Iago, who is determined to destroy Othello’s perfect love for his wife, Desdemona, with jealousy.

The mental archetypes are the denizens of our thinking brain, the neo-cortex.  They are our knowledge, our intelligence, our understanding — our ability to reason, to judge, to think creatively or plot strategies.

Like the emotional self, the mental self doesn’t have an agenda.  It’s neutral, a tool that can serve the objectives of either the higher or the lower self.  If you want to save the world, the mind will help you do that, providing you with a strategy and a master plan. On the other hand, if you want to rob a bank or kill someone, it will help you do that as well. It’s a tool. Werner von Braun, the father of the German V-2 rocket that nearly destroyed London, became America’s leading rocket scientist for thirty years after World War II and was apparently just as comfortable working for the U. S. as he was for Hitler. He was neutral. All he really cared about was making rockets. So, the metaphors that reveal these archetypes can serve the interests of either the higher or the lower self.

In great stories, the metaphors that personify the positive male and female mental archetypes possess a special knowledge which can help the hero achieve his or her goal. This is Yoda in Star Wars, the psychiatrist in Ordinary People, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and the Olympian goddess, Athena, in The Iliad. In Shakespeare in Love, it’s Will’s shrink. But it could take the form of a wise child, as in the Hindu myth, Parade of Ants. In the legends of King Arthur, it’s the magician, Merlin. Without the power contained in the invincible sword, Excalibur, Arthur cannot unify England and create Camelot. And without Merlin’s help, Arthur cannot possess and control the sword. In fairy tales, it is frequently an animal. In Jungle Book, it’s the panther, Bagheera. In The Lion King, it’s the  shaman baboon, Rifiki.

In real life, it could be the mentors who influenced Jonas Salk and Albert Einstein, or the advisers who helped the allied leaders defeat Hitler and win World War II.Psychologically, again, it’s the inner promptings that influence us in this way.

The negative mental helpers, can also take the form of sorcerers, witches, traitors, evil geniuses, wizards, computers (Hal in 2001), or spies. They have the special knowledge and powers that can undermine the hero and guide him to his doom. This is Mephistopheles in Faust, who tempts the ill-fated antihero with the power that will bring about the corruption and damnation of his immortal soul.

In real life, it’s Machiavelli, Goebbels, or Adolf Eichmann playing those roles. They show the tyrant how to enslave their citizens or fight a Blitzkrieg war. They concoct the secret formulas, design the death camps and construct the doomsday machines that will give the tyrant the power to carry out his diabolical schemes. Psychologically, it’s the thoughts and ideas that drive us in this same direction.

Together, these seven creative unconscious archetypes make up a complete set of the archetypes necessary to help the conscious archetypes make the journey to higher stages of being. And this is what the great characters in extraordinary stories are designed to tell us about ourselves. Namely, that the creative unconscious self is potential consciousness and these same archetypes are the stewards that can guide us through the passages that will transform the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies we possess into the higher states of consciousness that were achieved by our ancient ancestors during our evolutionary progress from reptiles to human beings.

Why is this important to novelists and filmmakers? Because if you support your characters with these archetypal patterns and dimensions, your characters will become charismatic, make a significant psychological connection, and have universal appeal.

In the next story course article, I will talk more about the creative unconscious source of our creativity and how to use it to create powerful archetypal characters.

About the Author

The Physical and Spiritual Story Archetypes in Action

by James Bonnet

At the dawn of World War II and the catastrophic assault of Europe by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi German blitzkrieg, the Duke of York, who had a severe stuttering problem, would soon become King George VI of England, due to his older brother’s sudden abdication. Because of the coming war, the new king was expected to make inspiring speeches to help boost the morale of the beleaguered British people. After his many frustrating attempts and failures with other voice coaches, and against his wishes, the Duke’s wife, and soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth, seeks the assistance of a controversial Australian speech therapist living in London to help cure the future king’s very obstinate stuttering problem.

In the previous two story course articles, I talked about the love interests who help lure the hero and antihero (the conscious archetypes) into their adventures, the tricksters who goad them forward when they get stuck, and the threshold guardians who test their readiness and resolve. Now we’ll talk about the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual archetypes, who confront and surround the conscious archetypes and act as antagonists, mentors, helpers or guides.

Carl Jung called the primordial, instinctual archetypes of the lower self: the Terrible Mother and the Terrible Father. To me they are the negative, physical archetypes. Anatomically, this is the R-complex, the reptile brain that controls the lower, physical, animal side of our nature – the source of our most basic instincts, appetites and drives. They are associated with the three lower Chakras, the ones that control hunger, sex, aggression, and the will to power.

In great stories, the metaphors that describe these basic, instinctual energies take a variety of human and animal forms, depending on which aspects of the lower primordial, physical self they are personifying. And like the conscious archetypes, they can be either masculine or feminine, positive or negative. The ancient Greeks, who clearly understood that the gods of their myths were metaphors illuminating unconscious processes, personified our natural physical appetites as Eros, Aphrodite, Pluto, or Dionysus — the gods of amorous love, material wealth, good food and wine. And the negative, aggressive impulses of the lower self that urge us to seek revenge, seize territory, kill, or go to war are personified by Ares and Artemis, or in the Hindu pantheon, by the gods Shiva and Kali.

Geoffrey Rush, the Australian speech therapist in The King’s Speech, the story I alluded to at the beginning of this article, plays a positive physical mentor who is trying to help the Duke of York and future king (Colin Firth) overcome his very serious stuttering problem. In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat’s friend, Danny (Chris Tucker,) who periodically escapes from the mental institution to link up with Pat (Bradley Cooper), is also a physical teacher of sorts when he teaches Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) some really cool dance moves. In The Hunger Games, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is another positive physical mentor teaching Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) critically needed survival skills.

In Captain Phillips, the pirate chief, who goads and instructs the actual pirates from a remote location in another boat, is a negative physical commander. In Zero Dark Thirty, Dan (Jason Clarke) is a lower self motivated instructor teaching Maya (Jessica Chastain) the CIA’s most effective torture techniques. In the movie, Flight, John Goodman, the drug dealer, gives Whip (Denzel Washington) who’s about to face a legal inquiry into the crash of the airliner he piloted, a few blasts of cocaine to sober him up.

In real life, the positive, higher self motivated physical mentor might be a medical doctor who is trying to motivate and guide us toward a physical well-being by overcoming a disease or other physical problem. Or, if we are world-class Olympic swimmers, it might be a higher self motivated swimming coach who can guide us to a championship form. Psychologically, these are the thoughts and impulses that  motivate and influence us to accomplish the same results on our own. In real life, we experience these archetypes when we play these roles. The negative physical archetypes might be represented by lower self motivated drug dealers who are trying to corrupt us; or track and field coaches who encourage us to take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. Psychologically, these are the negative energies that can overwhelm us and take away our control. They are also the negative energies that inspire lust, hatred, anger and greed, acts of aggression, acts of violence and all of the other deadly sins that have been with us since the earliest stages of our evolution.  In real life, when people are completely taken over by these dark forces they become serious villains, drug lords and tyrants. Hitler is still, by far, the best example. But Stalin, Pol Pott, and Ide Amin are right up there, as are the myriad serial killers and psychopaths that plague our real lives.

All of the above mentioned personifications and manifestations of the physical archetypes are primarily concerned with problems, and other matters, that affect our primordial, physical selves. And, in a great story, this is what those archetypes are designed to reveal.

The spiritual archetypes, which I call the positive or negative spiritual father and mother figures, operate on another, more advanced, level of our existence, which they are also designed to reveal. They are the guiding spirits and hidden wisdom of the higher, unbounded, cosmic self. When the higher self motivated conscious hero is ready for his or her adventure, the energies of the spiritual self are the principal forces trying to bring about that positive change. They are the creative energies that give birth to the psychological impulses that seek to overcome the negative states, complete the passages, and achieve the higher states of being. They inspire us to seize the day, to be creative and virtuous, courageous and just, to make sacrifices and to do great things. They are the source of the power that can make or break our lives, and they want us to be liberated and free – to be at one with our selves, our loved ones, our country, our world, our God and the cosmos. They are the sum and substance of our souls and the guardians of our destiny.

In great stories, as metaphors, these spiritual energies can take many different male and female forms. They can personify all-seeing, all-powerful gods and goddesses like Hera and Zeus, Isis and Osiris, or they can take a mortal form like Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Gandolf in The Lord of the Rings, Marlon Brando in Superman I,  the wizard and the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Mufasa in The Lion King, and the mother in My Left Foot, who helps nurture the artistic talents of her paraplegic son. They can, in fact, be any positive father or mother figure whose main concerns are spiritual matters – i.e. they inspire and help the hero to reach his or her full potential, traverse the passages, and bring about higher, more desirable states of being. In real life, we experience these archetypes when we play these spiritual roles, when we inspire, challenge, and help others on the path to their true destiny, or when others inspire and guide us to do the same. Priests and gurus make a profession of it. Ideal parents and grandparents do it from a sense of love and duty. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, it is reported, put photographs of the world’s great architectural achievements on the walls of his nursery and told him he was going to be the greatest architect that ever lived.  Picasso’s mother told him he would be one of the greatest painters. They were that mother — the guardians of their children’s destinies.

The spiritual father and mother appear negative when their laws are broken and they show their wrath. This is the God in the Old Testament, Caleb’s father in East of Eden, or fire and brimstone preachers. When their charges give in to temptation, go stubbornly in the wrong direction, or are on the brink of real disaster, they withhold their powers, threaten them with hellfire or kick them out of Paradise. These are also the religious extremists, fanatics or zealots who deny the lower self any legitimate expression, insist on the repression of all sexual energy, and will kill in the name of their god.

The spiritual and physical archetypes do not have equal power. The powers controlled by the higher, spiritual self can easily dominate the powers controlled by the lower, physical self, if the conscious hero has been initiated and the higher powers are in force. We see this in Dracula. When the cross (a metaphor of spiritual power) appears, Dracula, despite his incredible physical strength, always shrinks back. In Raiders of the Lost Arc, when the spiritual powers locked in the Arc of the Covenant are suddenly unleashed, an evil army of Nazis is dissolved like melting wax.

The most frequent manifestation in story of the rivalry between the higher and lower, light and dark sides of our nature is the struggle between good and evil. And what this is intended to reveal is a basic struggle that’s happening inside each of us and in every human group all over the world. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is based on the Bible story about Adam and Eve, we see a perfect metaphor of this. A great battle is fought between God and Satan for control of Heaven. Satan loses and is condemned to Hades, the underworld – aka Hell. As part of Satan’s counterattack, he turns himself into a serpent and goes up to the Garden of Eden to corrupt God’s new favorites, Adam and Eve. He tempts them with an apple that can give them some of God’s great power. They break God’s law and are driven out of Paradise.

It’s interesting that Satan turns himself into a serpent because the snake is a perfect metaphor of the lower, primordial self, which is, in fact, the reptile part of our brain, the source of our most basic primitive instincts, appetites and drives.

Be that as it may, the superseded energies of the lower self are relentless. Their dog eat dog, big fish eats little fish M.O. has been the dominant survival mode among living things for over 3 ½ billion years. They never give up trying to regain their former dominance, and forever compete with the higher self for influence over our conscious selves. There hasn’t been a newly revised updated Bible lately, but if there were, it would probably be telling us what the great stories are telling us, that when our species entered warring states, and we began fighting and killing each other on every part of the globe, the lower self took control of the former domain of the higher self and transformed itself into a king and a war god offering glory, oil, gold, handy sexual partners, and choice pieces of real estate to their followers, if they slaughter their enemies, take their possessions, and make the proper sacrifices.

In the next story course article, we will look at two other important dimensions of our existence with: The Mental and Emotional Story Archetypes in Action, then we’ll review what the conscious and creative unconscious archetypes are telling us about ourselves, plus how to create great metaphors of all of these archetypes and transform them into memorable, charismatic characters.

The Novel vs. The Screenplay: A Practical Guide for Talented Writers

by James Bonnet

This bonus article can be appreciated by all writers and filmmakers but will be of special interest to writer-storymakers who are trying to decide where to best invest their creative energies and talents – the novel or the screenplay. I’ll begin with some general observations concerning the novelist and the filmwright, a film’s primary creative artist, and then I’ll describe the similarities and critical differences between the novel and the screenplay.

The novelist creates and describes everything that appears in the novel – the plot, the characters, their thoughts and emotions, their actions, the costumes, the atmosphere, the environments, etc. Many of the early filmmakers were like novelists in that they were the filmwrights who had the responsibility for creating everything that would become part of the film. But they couldn’t do everything themselves, so they had to hire others to do the costumes, design and build the sets, act the parts, operate the camera (i.e. create the visual images,) direct the action, write the scripts, create the special effects, and so on – all things which novelists would do on their own.

So the large and small production companies or studios were built around the filmwrights. Charlie Chaplain, Irving Thalberg, Steven Spielberg, and Walt Disney, among others are filmwrights. All of the other disciplines, including the writers and directors, come to them for approval. Today what we know of as the screenwriter became one of the many functions that served the interests and needs of the primary creative artist, the filmwright, the one who was really making the creative decisions.

The way I see it, the filmwright and the novelist are equivalent and have similar creative experiences, except that the novelist is a one man or woman band doing everything themselves, while the filmwright delegates many responsibilities to others, is generally more sociable, and can handle a great deal more stress.

Looked at realistically, a screenplay is one major facet of a multi-faceted, collaborative artistic endeavor which is governed by someone else and contains lots of dialogue, descriptions of the action (which is divided up into scenes and shots), sparse descriptions of the characters and their emotions, the locations, some camera angles, costumes, etc. Everything else is left to some other discipline. The end result is the visual experience of a theatrical motion picture.

Looked at in this way, the novelist is a primary creative artist who transforms imaginary or artistically treated true stories into a fictionalized form of varying lengths from the novella to the epic and beyond. The novel is, by the way, also a visual medium, except that the author uses words to help the readers reconstruct the visual images in their heads.

The novel and the screenplay do have one very important thing in common, however. They both have the same underlying story structure. The same story principles apply to both. And, in fact, the screenplay can be an excellent first draft for a novel. The screenplay generally takes a lot less time to create and you can use it to test the characters and the structure. If it works as a screenplay, you can then transform it into a novel by adding and describing everything else that would be added by the camera, the actors, costume and set designers, including your special artistry and the underlying psychology of the characters.

In any event, the screenwriter is not considered the primary creative artist on a film unless they also direct or produce. They are the storymaker and decide what goes on paper; the director is the storyteller and decides what goes on film, which gives him or her the advantage. But let’s not forget the producer because he decides who gets to direct. So the screenplay, no matter how good it is, is only a suggestion to higher-ups. The producer and then the director decide what parts of the script they will use and what parts they will throw away – and what parts they will let someone else rewrite. In other words, you can easily end up being the first of many writers and live to see your script completely changed and perhaps even totally ruined.

The novelist, on the other hand, who is a primary creative artist, doesn’t have these problems. Once you find a publisher and are working with an editor, you are much more likely to end up with something that is close to your original idea. Plus there are many more niche markets available to novelists. You don’t have to write to please a general audience or some studio executive who thinks you should be writing to please males between the ages of 18 to 25 or females between the ages 12 and 22.

In any case, when you, as the novelist, pick up pencil and paper or sit down to your computer to write a novel, you already have the money, so to speak. You have to pay the rent, of course, and find time to write – but you don’t need someone else to put up forty million dollars so you can actually create it, and you don’t need Brad Pitt to commit in order to get the studio to make the deal. And you don’t need a high powered agent to get the script to Brad Pitt. You are the head of the studio, the filmwright, the director, the primary creative artist. You make all of the creative decisions and conjure everything down to the last detail, including all the leads. And when you’re done, the finished novel is a finished work of art.

Having a finished novel under your arm looking for a publisher is the equivalent of having a finished film under your arm looking for a distributor. And there are very few middlemen between you and your book deal. Even some of the top Eastern agents will respond to your query letters and ask to look at the first two chapters. You can also approach many publishers on your own, even without an agent, if you can present yourself in a credible manner and write a good query letter.

On the other hand, if you’re a new screenwriter – i.e. not a professional working writer who already has good credits and an agent – it is very difficult to approach the studios or major independent companies on your own without having an agent or good contacts on the inside.

Then there is the question of self-expression. And, in truth, there is a much greater opportunity for self-expression in a novel than a screenplay. Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Balzac, Dickens, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, D. H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Dostoyevsky and countless other great authors all have a unique and recognizable style and are as distinguishable from one another as painters like Rembrandt and van Gogh or composers like Mozart and Beethoven. But if you try to guess who wrote the screenplay without looking at the credits, you will find that rather difficult.

Finally, there’s the question of money. The current WGA low budget minimum for a theatrical motion picture is $60,000, the high budget minimum is $113,000.  Occasionally, a screenwriter gets high six figures or even a million dollars for his spec screenplay or as a writer-for-hire. A few writers have gotten as much as three million.

Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code, has made over fifty million dollars in U.S. domestic royalties alone and God knows how much worldwide. That’s equal to 50 to 100 super lucrative movie deals. For one novel. Plus he gets all the benefits of a movie deal anyway with much more favorable terms than any spec scriptwriter could expect. And this is to say nothing of J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. I read recently that she was making a billion dollars a year from that extraordinary franchise.

In any case, if you are a screenwriter, the solution is to work yourself into the position of the filmwrights who can direct and produce their own films or choose who will write or direct for them – in which case you will become the primary creative artist with the same kind of creative control and financial reward as the novelist or Steven Spielberg, who is the most successful filmmaker of all time and can hold his own financially against any successful novelist.

Be that as it may, the most important thing the novel and screenplay have in common is story. The forms of both are different but the underlying principles and structures are the same. Story is at the heart of all the different media and all the different genres and if you plan to write novels or write, direct or produce story films, it is important that you learn as much about story as you can. There are six billion people in the world with a genuine need for real stories which isn’t being met, and if you take the trouble to learn what a story really is, it will give you a tremendous advantage in either media.

What’s Wrong With The Three Act Structure?


By James Bonnet

The three act structure, which is the most popular storymaking tool being used in Hollywood these days, it turns out, isn’t really a story structure at all. It’s a holdover from the theater and the arbitrary division of an action into three parts, and you can’t find it in the great stories and literary masterpieces of the past. Other popular structures like those that hinge on conflict and turning points are derived from Aristotle’s classical story structure – which is important because it’s a structure of action and will appear naturally in any problem solving action that encounters resistance. But there’s much more to a story than the action. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey which is also important and even more sophisticated because it is grounded in the initiation rites of primitive societies and has a lot to say about our psychological development. But taken together, the Classical Structure and The Hero’s Journey still add up to just a small part of what writers and filmmakers will need to know to actually master the art form. There are huge missing pieces to the puzzle.

In any event, neither Aristotle nor Campbell, who are the best known theorists concerning story, ever mention three acts. So why is it being applied to the screenplay or the story of a film?  It’s a good question because it makes no sense. And my very strong recommendation in this article will be that you avoid thinking in act structure terms when creating a story or story film.

The three (four, five, six, or seven) act structures are the arbitrary divisions of the central (or main) action of the story into a number of parts – the legacy from the theater and applicable today only to the theater or television shows that have commercial breaks. If you write a movie for television, it will have seven acts. Why? Because it has seven commercial breaks. And you will be asked to insert something intriguing at the end of each act to lure the audience back after the break. But that has nothing to do with story.

The Greeks had no act structure in their plays. They were one act plays. The Romans had five acts. It’s arbitrary. Act structure appeared in plays because of the need to have intermissions. People can’t sit for three hours in a theater listening to an auditory experience without taking a break or going to the restroom. It appears in television shows because they want to have commercial breaks so they can sell you something. None of which has anything to do with story.

A two hour feature film shown in a movie theater is a continuous action. There are no intermissions. It’s one continuous act-less event which revolves around a problem. A much better way to look at a story, when you are creating one, is not through any arbitrary division into acts but through the eyes of that problem, which is the central event and the heart of a great story’s structure.

In The Silence of the Lambs, a serial killer is on the loose, and that is the problem that has to be resolved. In Avatar, the Sky People are trying to take possession of a valuable mineral buried on Na’vi territory. In Gladiator, a tyrant has usurped the Roman Empire, preventing the restoration of the Republic. In The Sixth Sense, a murdered child psychologist is stuck in limbo and the spirits of dead people are haunting a little boy’s mind. In Star Wars, the Evil Empire has taken possession of the galaxy. In The Iliad, not to be mistaken for a movie called Troy, the Greek army is being decimated because their best warrior has dropped out of the fight. In King Arthur, the kingdom is in a state of anarchy and has to be reunified. In Harry Potter, Voldemort is trying to take possession of the Wizard World. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, a very similar dark force, is trying to take possession of Middle Earth. In Ordinary People, a young boy is suicidal. In Erin Brockovich it’s an environmental problem. Each of these stories and hundreds of others I could name all revolve around a problem that has to be resolved.

And what need is there to think of these events as having three acts? None.

What use would it be to think in terms of three parts (or acts) when creating a story like A Beautiful Mind – which, if you wanted to divide it into parts, clearly has five parts and not three. In the first part, Russell Crowe is a genius mathematician, in the second part, he is a spy; in the third part we discover the first two parts were a delusion and that he is really mentally ill (the problem); in the fourth part, a first effort is made to solve that problem which fails; and in the fifth part, a second effort is made to solve that problem which succeeds. How would it help to impose a three act structure? It wouldn’t.

What good would a three (four or five) act structure do if you were writing a novel – the DaVinci Code, for instance? If you really want to gauge how irrelevant act structure is to a story, try to apply it to a novel. It makes absolutely no sense.

You quickly realize the idea is absurd. It has nothing to do with story. But the screenplay which becomes a story film is a story in the same way that the novel is a story. The spine and structure of both are essentially the same. This is true of the great myths, legends, fairy tales, as well as the classics and modern blockbusters. They all have the same basic structure.

Story has adopted these problem-solving structures from real life. From real serial killers that have to be caught, real tyrants that have to be deposed, real terrible diseases that have to be cured, real lost or kidnapped children who have to be found, and real man-eating sharks that have to be destroyed. In fact, the principals of dramatic action are the laws of problem solving action in real life artistically treated – and the actions that solve these problems in real life don’t contain a three act structure.

So why impose that oddity on a novel or story which is destined to be filmed? Perhaps it’s happening because it makes story structure seem simple, which it is not. You can work with the three act structure for twenty years and still not make a story come out right.

What is the alternative? In my opinion, it makes much more sense when you’re creating a story to be thinking in terms of the natural structure of the problem which has two main parts: the action that creates the problem and the action that will solves it. The action that creates the problem is called the inciting action and the action that solves the problem is called the principal (or central) action. The threat, which is the driving force of the inciting action, be that a villain, an anti-hero, an asteroid, a shark, etc., is the cause the problem. The anti-threat, which is the driving force of the central action, be that a protagonist or a hero, is the one who opposes the threat and solves the problem. Either of these actions will acquire the components of the classical structure if there is resistance – which is to say if there is sufficient resistance, there will be complications, a crisis, the need for a climactic action to resolve the crisis, and a resolution.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort is the threat that is creating the problem. He is also the main source of resistance that is creating the complications and crises, and the need for climactic actions to resolve the crises whenever Harry attempts to solve the problems Voldemort is creating. In The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, is the threat that’s causing the problem and also the main source of resistance that is creating the classical structure when Jody Foster tries to track him down. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is the threat that is causing the problem and is also the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crises, etc. when Frodo and his Fellowship of the Ring try to solve that problem by destroying the Ring of Power.

Aristotle’s classical structure, which is the dominant feature of this structure, can stand alone. All of the structures you might find in the act are already built into the problem solving action that encounters resistance, namely: conflict, complications, crises (turning points) a climax and a resolution. It is, in fact, the structure of any problem solving action (real or fiction) that encounters resistance. From there, the natural thing to do is divide the principal, problem solving action into chapters or scenes, which are the ideal units of action to reveal these larger, essential actions.

After the story is created, of course, you can divide the action into any number of parts that you like, but it’s counterproductive to think in those terms at the story’s inception. In other words, it’s better not to be using act structure to lay out or create the story.

However, if you need to use the three act structure because you’re pitching an idea to someone who only speaks that language, then follow Aristotle and translate the idea of three acts into a beginning, a middle, and an end and you’ll be able to communicate with them. Then, if you’re asked: what is the first act? Tell them how the story begins (which is really what they want to know) and make it as intriguing as possible. If asked: what is the second act? Tell them what’s happening in the middle of the story (which includes the main crisis of the dominant plot) and make it as stressful as possible. If asked about the third act, tell them what the climax of the story is (and make that as exciting as possible) – and finally how the story is resolved – and make that as satisfying as possible.

To conclude, what I’m basically saying is this: when you’re creating a story, you should put aside the archaic notion of three acts and focus on the natural structures surrounding the problem, which is the central event and heart of your story.

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