The Marvelous and Terrible Elements

by James Bonnet

The terrible and marvelous elements are the things without which the problem could not, or would not, have been created and the things without which the problem could not have been solved. Understanding and utilizing these important story components can help you make the problem in your story both dramatic and powerful.

In real life, the terrible elements are the critical objects or circumstances the threat needs to succeed. In the world of organized crime, they are the clever schemes and perfect alibis necessary to get away with murder. They are the money necessary to corrupt a judge or the passwords necessary to hack bank accounts. In the case of Bernie Madoff, it’s the Ponzi Scheme, the thing without which sophisticated billionaire investors could not be swindled out of their fortunes. In the case of Osama Bin Laden, they are the suicide bombers, without whom he could not have carried out his plans.

In great stories, they are the metaphors that express the terrible elements without which the threats (the antihero, villain, asteroid, shark, etc.) could not achieve their goals and the problem would not have been created. It’s the addictive fangs of Dracula that can enslave its victims and transform them into the undead. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s the ring of power, the thing without which Sauron cannot become the absolute master of  Middle Earth. In Macbeth, it is the prophecy that predicts he will become king. In the case of an asteroid, it’s the exact trajectory necessary to collide with Earth. In The Iliad, it is the Golden Apple, inscribed “for the fairest,” that Eris, the uninvited goddess of strife, tosses among the guests at the wedding celebration of King Peleus and the sea goddess, Thetis. Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite lay claim to it, and their rivally sets in motion the events that lead to the Trojan War.

In real life, the marvelous elements are the things without which the problems cannot be solved. It’s the evidence necessary to prosecute criminals. It’s a witness with the courage to testify against the Mafia. It’s a real treasure map that can lead to the lost hordes of Inca gold. In the case of Alexander the Great, it’s the phalanx he created that could defeat the tyrant armies he opposed, even when his own army was outnumbered twenty to one.

In great stories, the metaphors that express these critical elements become fabulous treasures like King Solomon’s mines, the Fountain of Youth, supernatural powers like invisibility, flying, or x-ray vision, secret formulas, Ruby Slippers, a crystal ball, a time machine, Aladdin’s magic lamp, the Egyptian Book of Thoth, or the Holy Grail. In The Iliad, it’s the Trojan Horse which breaks the ten year stalemate in the war. InThe Odyssey, it’s a powerful bow that only Odysseus can bend and without which he can not kill the 120 suitors who have taken possession of his estate and are threatening his wife and son. In King Arthur, it’s the sword, Excalibur, the power without which King Arthur cannot unify the country. In Armageddon, it’s a nuclear device in an eight hundred foot shaft drilled into the surface of an asteroid hurtling toward the earth at 20,000 miles an hour. In A Thousand And One Nights, it’s a string of hundreds of great stories, each one of which is playing a role in King Shahryar’s transformation. In Argo, it’s a phony low budget Sci-Fi movie that helps six American Embassy hostages escape from Iran. In The Silence Of The Lambs, it’s a profile that can help Clarisse Starling identify and locate the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, before he kills and skins a senator’s daughter.

So, what are the terrible and marvelous elements in your story? – the things without which the problem wouldn’t have been created or the state of misfortune reversed? Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to show both sides of the passage – the downside (how the problem was created) and the upside (how the problem was resolved.) You can focus on one side or the other, as most stories do. A Beautiful Mind and Captain Phillips show both sides, but that’s unusual. In Jaws, how the problem was created is simply summarized in the opening scene – a young girl bather is devoured by a huge white shark. Everything after that (the entire central action) is focused on how that problem is confronted by the sheriff, Roy Scheider, and how it is eventually solved – the marvelous element being a revelation late in the film, in the midst of the crisis, that the shark will swallow anything. Without that insight, their sinking boat would’ve disappeared and there would have been no survivors. In All is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie, we know what the terrible element and the problem are within the first minute and a half.

Then once you know what the problem is, you try to figure out the most important thing that helped create the problem and the most important thing necessary to solve the problem. Trial and error and monitoring your feelings, as always, are the keys. In Harry Potter, it’s an encyclopedia of wholesome magic and dark arts – but ultimately it’s the Elder Wand, the thing without which Voldemort can’t succeed in taking over the Wizard World and the thing without which Harry cannot finally defeat Voldemort. Whoever ends up with this most powerful of wands, wins. In The Sixth Sense, the terrible element is the young boy’s fear of his gift, his ability to see dead people, that is creating the problems that are haunting his life. The marvelous element is the recording tape whereby Bruce Willis overhears the former patient who murdered him also talking to dead people. This gives him the understanding he needs to help the young boy solve his problem.

There are tremendous advantages to having such an element in your story, to have everything hinge on the hero achieving, discovering or retrieving some critical element or extraordinary power which is extremely difficult or dangerous to accomplish or obtain. Like the central action itself, it can help focus your objectives, unify the action, justify all of the resistance, make clear what everyone is doing and help bring about the transformation. So it’s obviously something worth knowing about and mastering.

In the next story course article, we will continue our journey into the center of the Golden Paradigm and take a closer look at each of the seven creative unconscious archetypes. They are the major players in great stories and act as the forces of assistance and resistance. In truth, they are  the stewards that guide the conscious archetypes (the antihero and the hero) through the two sides of the paradigm that can help us transform some of the potential physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies we possess into higher states of being.

About James Bonnet