The Golden Thread: The Subject of Your Story

by James Bonnet

In the two previous story course articles – The Creative Storymaking Process and Six Creative Storymaking Techniques – I discussed the fascination that inspires you to create a story and the creative techniques that can help you transform that fascination into a great story. In this article, I will begin exploring the story structures of the Golden Paradigm.

There’s no particular sequence in this creative process. You can weave the hidden structures into your story in any order that comes naturally, but one of the most important things you will want to discover in the fascination is the subject of your story – which is what your story is really about, and which has a surprising and enormous, potential power.

Real life, on the surface, appears to be very complex and difficult to analyze and understand. To help us deal with this complexity, the human mind has the ability to isolate any dimension of ourselves or the life around us and examine that one aspect in great detail. We can take a subject like espionage, a problem like tyranny, a profession like detective, or a dominant character trait likecompassion and study that subject in as much detail as we like. The great stories, with their isolated subjects, are showing us how this is done. And if you explore your subject in depth, it will become like a golden thread and be an ultimate source of unity and add great clarity, meaning and power to your story and your work.

The ultimate source of unity and the subject of Homer’s The Iliad is Achilles’ anger, his dominant character trait. More than anything else, the story is about his anger. The Iliad is, in fact, everything you ever wanted to know about anger – how it is created, its destructive power, how it is transferred and how it is ultimately resolved. It is this clarity and singleness of purpose that has kept this story alive and relevant for over 3000 years. Anger is anger. If you isolated that one subject and described it perfectly 3000 years ago, that description would be relevant today. In that respect we haven’t changed. And this is where that story gets its enormous power, from its singleness of purpose.

You can do the same with the subject of your story, which, it turns out, is usually one of the hidden story structures of the Golden Paradigm – the problem, the marvelous element, or the dominant trait of the central character, for instance. And if you explore that subject in great detail, you will not only increase the power of your story and make a powerful artistic statement, you will be exploring those dimensions in yourself and using the creative process to bring forth the truth about those dimensions, which are hidden inside you, waiting to be expressed.

The subject and ultimate source of unity in The Lord of the Rings is the terrible element, the Ring of Power. Everyone in that story has their “will to power” tested by that ring. In Harry Potter, the subject and ultimate source of unity is the marvelous element, magic. In The Exorcist, the subject and ultimate source of unity is the problem, demonic possession. In Milk, it’s also the problem, discrimination. In Charlie Wilson’s War, it’s the threat, tyranny. In Toy Story 3, it’s Woody’s dominant character trait, loyalty. In The King’s Speech, it’s the problem, the physical handicap, stuttering, which prevents the new king from properly carrying out his royal speech-making duties. If you study these films, while keeping their subjects in mind, you will see how much power is being generated by the purity of those subjects.

One way to find the subject of your story is to probe the feelings associated with the fascination that’s motivating you, seeking the source or essence of that fascination. The fascinating subject is the source of those feelings. I’ll give you an obvious example. If the fascination involves two people in an intimate relationship, you probe the feelings surrounding that fascination and discover it’s about love, sex or romance. If you probe the feelings related to the fascination, you’ll discover what is making it fascinating to you.

So what kind of feelings are being aroused by your fascination? Does it involve justice or power? A feeling of wonder, a sense of intrigue? A longing for tenderness and love or for excitement and adventure? Does it provoke anger or outrage? The fascination that led to the making of Erin Brockovich or The Insider might do that. Is your story about ghosts, honor, courage, infidelity, greed, injustice, freedom, a conspiracy, an unsolved mystery, a magic lamp? The feelings associated with the fascination can lead you to the subject.

Then if you want to make that subject more fascinating, take it to the quintessential, which is the ultimate best or worst example of something – the most perfect manifestation or embodiment of a quality or thing. Hitler is the quintessential megalomaniac. Einstein is the essence of genius. He is symbolic of genius. Hannibal Lector is the quintessential serial killer. Scrooge is a perfect embodiment of greed. So, you make the subject of your story the best or worst example of something. You evolve it, like The Lord of the Rings, The Iliad, or The Exorcist into the quintessence of your particular subject. You make Harry Potter about the most extraordinary magic the world has ever seen, and Harry, the most powerful young wizard that has ever lived. You make your spy story the quintessential revelation of espionage, your 911story, the definitive last word on terrorism.

To me, secret chambers are fascinating in themselves. But you could make it even more fascinating by making your secret chamber the most intriguing secret chamber of all time. How do you do that?  By conjuring, which is the fourth creative technique. You research the current most intriguing secret chambers; you fathom their secrets; you become determined to go beyond these existing ideas and slowly evolve your emerging ideas, by trial and error, into a more and more powerful and ideal secret chamber. And this is true of all of the dimensions of your story, not just the subject, you take the emerging metaphors and evolve them into more and more powerful examples of the archetypes. Which is another way of saying that you take the characters, actions and events (the metaphors) that represent the archetypes to the quintessential.

If you make of something the most extraordinary example, you will make that idea more intriguing. Instead of an ordinary prison, make your prison even more terrible than Harry Potter’s Azkaban, where the Dementor guards suck the life out of your soul. Instead of an ordinary murder you make it a perfect  murder. The perfect murder is more fascinating than an ordinary murder and the most perfect murder of all time is more fascinating than your run-of-the-mill perfect murder. And somewhere in that process “The Perfect Murder” has popped out as a great title. The fascinating subject is a good place to look for a great title. You probe the fascination of the subject looking for words, phrases, names, or events (i.e. RoswellTitanic, The Wolfman, The Black Widow, Atlantis, or Armageddon) that, like The Perfect Murder, reveal both the subject and the genre.

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The next story course article will be about another potentially very powerful dimension of the Golden Paradigm – the problem of your story.

For a full description of the quintessential send for my free article: Great Characters: Their Best kept Secret and learn how to use the quintessential to create truly memorable and charismatic characters.