Chapter 6: How The Great Story Does Its Work

by James Bonnet

The purpose of story, then, is to guide us to our full potential and the nature of story is to conceal that purpose in an enticing sugar coat that lures us into the experience. But if the purpose is concealed then how does it do its work?

The great story does its work in five important ways:

First, it stimulates our imaginations by provoking personal fantasies which lead to the desire for actions in the real world. Then it gives us a taste, by way of a special feeling, of what it might be like if we were actually to make one of these passages and accomplish some of these things.

When a young girl hears Sleeping Beauty for the first time, delicious feelings are awakened which that child has never felt before, and she begins to have fantasies about meeting a real Prince Charming of her own. And when the Prince kisses the Sleeping Beauty and she wakes up, the child feels a sensation which is like a taste of paradise — a taste of what it would feel like if this really happened to her. She wants that feeling again in real life. She longs for it and pursues it in life as a dream.

The same thing happens when we experience a story like Lost Horizons. Shangri-la, like paradise, Utopia, or any promised land, is another metaphor for the higher states of consciousness and bliss that can be realized. When we encounter these images in a story, we get chills and other special feelings which can convince us that such lofty places or spiritual states of mind actually exist and can be achieved. We long to experience those feelings and states again and pursue them in life as a goal.

Carl Jung explains it this way: “The auditor experiences some of the sensations but is not transformed. Their imaginations are stimulated: they go home and through personal fantasies begin the process of transformation for themselves.”

And all of this happens automatically. The story recipient need not be consciously aware that the story is intentionally trying to influence and guide them.

Having lured us into the adventure by fantasies and a taste, the great story then provides us with a road map or treasure map, which outlines all of the actions and tasks we have to accomplish in order to complete one of these passages, and a tool kit for solving all of the problems that have to be solved to accomplish the actions and tasks. Every great story will divulge a little more of this truth, and bit by bit each step of the passage is revealed. Again, all of this is going on without the story recipient’s conscious knowledge that it’s happening.

How does it do that? By meaningful connections. If it’s a great story, we will remember it, and, over time, we will make meaningful associations and connections with our real life situations.

A lawyer friend of mine was recently telling me about a difficult case in which he was involved, and how he had suddenly realized why it was so difficult. He was acting quixotically. He was fighting windmills. Acting quixotically and fighting windmills, of course, comes from Don Quixote. Without even realizing it, my lawyer friend had suddenly made a meaningful connection with his real life situation. And once making that connection and having that realization, he was able to resolve the difficulty. He wasn’t even aware that it was happening, that the metaphor in Don Quixote, which he hadn’t read since college, was there waiting for him when he needed it.

Another friend came to me after seeing Groundhog Day and confessed: “This is my life. I’m constantly reliving the same day.” A third friend confided he was like the beast in Beauty and the Beast. These are meaningful connections. And, if you will take the trouble to study them, you will find they are also providing you with the solutions to these very common problems. These lessons learned, we can transform ourselves back into princes and real human beings.

The more hidden truth the story contains, the more appealing it will be, the more relevant it will be to our lives and the more likely we are to remember it. We’ll cherish and work with it all of our lives, then we’ll pass it on to our children.

No one story, as I’ve said, contains the whole truth. The process is accumulative. Each story contributes a little bit of this vital information. We can be affected by many different stories at the same time. We relate them to our lives when and if we need them and make the necessary course corrections.

It was more than thirty years from the time I first heard Rumplestiltskin until I realized that the secrets hidden in that marvelous tale were about the creative process and how the mind is organized.

In Rumpelstiltskin, and many stories like it, some endangered young girl or princess has to perform some impossible task like transforming a pile of straw into gold by morning or she’ll lose her head. Then some miraculous helper like Rumplestiltskin comes to her rescue and accomplishes the task for her while she sleeps.

Being a writer, I would often fall asleep at night worrying about certain difficult story problems I hadn’t been able to solve during that work day. And just as often a marvelous solution to those problems would pop into my head as I was waking up the following morning. Naturally, I wondered who or what was solving those problems.

Suddenly, one day I made the connection. “My God,” I exclaimed, “It’s Rumplestiltskin!” The miraculous little helper was a metaphor, a personification in image form of some unconscious problem solving mechanism. The secret hidden in the marvelous story had something important to reveal about the creative process and how our minds function. Namely, that inside our minds there is an unconscious problem solving mechanism (a Rumplestiltskin) that continues to work, and transform our serious problems (the straw) into precious insights (the gold), while our conscious minds are asleep. Another little piece of the puzzle had been revealed.

And, finally, the great story guides this whole process with incredible insights and wisdom.

In A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Future is showing Scrooge his own tombstone, the kneeling, pathetic nearly repentant Scrooge asks him: “Are these things that will be or things that may be?” The answer to that question, and the point of the whole story, is that these are things that “will be,” if he does nothing, and things that “may be,” if he does something about it, if he repents and changes his character. If he changes his character, he will change his future. In other words, at any given moment we have a certain destiny. And, if we’re not content with that destiny, we can do something about it. We can transform our futures by transforming ourselves. If we change who we are, if we awaken our humanity, we can change our destiny. That’s good news.

Believe it or not there’s something similar and equally profound in the movie Back to the Future. Having seen Back to the Future, Part II, and having no desire to see Part III, I have concluded the profundity in Part I got there by accident, but nevertheless, it’s there.

At the beginning of the story, we meet Michael J. Fox and his family. They’re living in a hovel of mediocrity and despair. His mother is an alcoholic and his rather pathetic father a serious wimp and miserable failure.

When Michael J. Fox gets involved in his time machine adventure, he becomes entangled in the lives of his parents when they are still in high school, on the very day that they met. And they met in a curious way. His clumsy, painfully shy father was hit by a car in front of his mother’s house while lurking there, trying to catch a glimpse of her. She took him into her house to nurse him back to health and fell in love with him out of pity. When Michael J. Fox arrives on the scene a moment before his father, he is hit by the car, and his mother falls in love with him instead.

He now has a very big problem. He has to make his mother fall out of love with him and in love with his geeky, future father or he isn’t even going to exist. He accomplishes this one evening when his mother is being molested in the front seat of a car by the town bully. Fox goads his father into rescuing her, in the process of which, the father knocks out the bully with a lucky punch and his mother is saved. The mother immediately transfers her love from her future son to her new hero.

Now, that in itself is profound because it says that a love inspired by heroic deeds is stronger than a love brought on by pity. But there’s more. When Fox gets back to the present, everything about the lives of his family has miraculously changed. His mother is no longer an alcoholic, his father is a big success and a real dude, and they’re living in a magnificent, creatively appointed house — all because of that one change in the father’s character.

The important bit of wisdom has to do with the incredible difference one courageous act can make on our lives. Standing up to that bully had an extraordinary and profound effect far into the future. We encounter numerous such challenges and opportunities to show our courage every day. The phone call we’re afraid to make to ask for a date or a job. Little acts of courage that could be profoundly and irrevocably changing the rest of our lives. That’s also very useful to know.

One final example. In a fairy tale called Aga Baba, a young hero on an important adventure stops to rest at a witch’s house. The witch, in cahoots with his enemies, tries to delay him by asking him some intriguing but difficult questions, like: “What is truth?” “Does the universe ever end?” and so on. The wise young hero looks at her and says: “Shut up and get me something to eat.”

The wisdom in this story is simple enough: Beware of imponderables when action is necessary. Don’t wile away the time worrying about infinity or other unanswerable questions when you should be out looking for a job.

So there you have three important bits of advice: change yourself and you change your destiny; little acts of courage performed today can have exponential effects on the rest of your life; and beware of imponderables when action is necessary.

Here again it’s accumulative, each story contributing a little bit more of the hidden truth. When you’ve got a hundred such bits of wisdom working for you, it will give you a tremendous advantage.

So that’s how the great stories do their work. They stimulate our imaginations and give us little tastes of paradise. These trigger fantasies, which lead us to desires for 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 hidden truth.