The Real Cause of the Problem in a Great Story

by James Bonnet

In the previous story course article I talked about how to create a great threat and how to make that threat powerful, fascinating and unique.

In this new story course article, we will discuss the real cause of the problem and two important patterns that can help us set the stage for our exploration of the character archetypes – namely, the hidden structures that describe the relationship between our conscious and creative unconscious selves and how they communicate.

Commodus in Gladiator, the dead people in The Sixth Sense, Voldemort in Harry Potter, the serial killer, the asteroid, the shark, the disease are the cause of the problem, but now we want to discover the indirect, real cause of the problem.

In the recent Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, the cause of  the problem was the meltdown of the nuclear fuel and the venting of large amounts of deadly radiation into the atmosphere. But what was the real cause of that problem? Was it the earthquake and the tsunami triggered by that earthquake? These two events certainly did considerable structural damage to the reactors that sit near the water’s edge. But still, were they the real cause of the problem?  Because, in truth, this nuclear disaster need not have occurred – and, believe it or not, how to prevent this type of catastrophe was well known to the Japanese as early as the 1600’s. For all along the coast in that part of the country, at a certain elevation, there are hundreds of well-placed, four-foot-high “tsunami stones” with this carved message on their surfaces: “Do not build below this line.”

Tsunami Stone

So, why did the power company ignore those warnings and build nuclear reactors below that line and so close to the sea? Was it ignorance, incompetence, self-deception, something less excusable like arrogance, or something more sinister like greed? All of this is revealed in story.

In Argo, the angry mob attacking the U. S. embassy in Iran was the threat, the cause of the problem, but what was the real cause? What motivated the angry mob to attack the embassy? In Lincoln, the problem is slavery, but what motivated so many U. S. congressmen to resist voting for the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery? InPromised Land, fracking is the cause of the problem, but what motivated the drilling company to knowingly use an environmentally disastrous drilling technique like fracking? In Zero Dark Thirty, Osama Bin Laden was the cause of the 911 problem. But what was really motivating him? Likewise, the Boston Marathon Bombers are the cause of that terrible event, but what was the real cause? What was really motivating them? In short, where do the motivations and influences that caused these terrible problems come from? And that is what the character archetypes and major players in a great story are designed to reveal.

So, now we will venture inside our story model, the Golden Paradigm, to explore the structural dynamics and archetypal forces that are motivating and influencing the threats. The first pattern (or hidden structure) we will look at in this regard reveals the relationship between our conscious and creative unconscious minds. I illustrate that in our model as the small, conscious circle, which contains the Yin/ Yang symbol, surrounded by the larger creative unconscious circle, which contains the personal unconscious or shadow (the dark area surrounding the conscious self) and the collective, creative unconscious self we share with the rest of humanity.

(By the way, if you’re not comfortable working with the graphic, put it aside. The ideas will stand on their own. I find the model useful because it lets me see all of the archetypes at a glance.)

In great stories, we see the relationship of the conscious self and creative unconscious self revealed by the contrasting of two worlds – a familiar, known, everyday world that surrounds the male or female heroes and antiheroes with some unfamiliar, mysterious, or supernatural world. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s the known world of Kansas contrasted by the strange and fantastic world of Oz. In The Iliad, it’s the world of the Greek warriors and the world of the Olympian gods. In The Sixth Sense, it’s the world of the living and the world of the dead. InHarry Potter, it’s the world of the wizards and the world of the muggles. In A Beautiful Mind, it’s the world of reality contrasted by the world of delusion. In each of these stories, the central character(s) – Dorothy, Achilles, Bruce Willis and the little boy, Harry, and Russell Crowe – traverse, or have some contact with, both worlds – just as our conscious minds can traverse, or have contact with the real world, the world of our dreams, and other manifestations of our creative unconscious selves.

In the second hidden structure, we discover that the creative unconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind by means ofintuitive and archetypal feelings, insights, premonitions, mental images, ideas, revelations, visions, dreams, and so on. They are visitors to consciousness. So in story we see these communications expressed as visitors or messengers from the remote, unknown, or supernatural regions. In The Iliad, Zeus, the king of the gods, sends an enigmatic dream to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek armies, that influences his decision to continue the war against the Trojans; and the goddess, Athena, comes down from Mount Olympus to communicate with Achilles, the Greek’s greatest warrior, who has dropped out of the fight. Morgan Freeman, God in Bruce Almighty, comes from Heaven to give Bruce an important assignment. E.T. comes from Outer Space to give a little boy his first spiritual experience. The Devil in The Exorcist and the dark forces in Ghost come from the underworld.

The conscious mind can communicate with the creative unconscious mind as well. We do this when we use our imaginations, when we ask ourselves questions or say our prayers, when we meditate, create stories, experience fantasies, or when we daydream. In great stories, we see this as the hero venturing into the remote or supernatural realms. Jack climbs up the beanstalk to the giant’s house in the clouds. Alice tumbles into the rabbit hole and ends up in Wonderland. Dorothy rides the tornado into the land of the great and powerful Oz. Bruce Willis, in The Sixth Sense, treats a new, young, living patient, from the world of the dead. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is taken from the miserable world of subjugated humans to the fabulous game show-like world of the outrageous elite. Jack Nicholson in Chinatown eventually follows his investigation into L. A.’s even more mysterious and sinister San Fernando Valley.

And what are these important patterns telling us about ourselves?  We are of two minds – a conscious mind that monitors the real world through the five senses and an even greater, non-conscious or sub-conscious, creative unconscious mind that surrounds and supports the conscious mind and contains the wisdom that has been accumulating in our psyches since the beginning of evolution, if only we had the courage to collaborate with that source and tap into it. And furthermore, these patterns tell us that these two minds are designed to work very closely together, and information can and should pass easily between the two worlds.

And why is this important to writers and filmmakers? Because these two recurring structures, like the other hidden structures, will add power to your story and reinforce a significant, emotion-packed psychological connection with your readers and viewers.

Read the previous article

About James Bonnet

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In the next story course article, we will introduce the archetypal characters and major players who are motivating and influencing the threat to take the actions that create the problems.

All of this and much, much more will be covered in my Santa Monica Workshop, My Workshop Retreat in France, and my Los Angeles weekend Story Seminar.

Register: Santa Monica Seven Day Workshop  —  June 2 – 8

Register: Seven Day Workshop Retreat in France
August 18 – 24,
August 28 – Sept. 3,
September 7 – 13

Register: L. A. Weekend Story Seminar — October 26 – 27