I’d like to propose to you that you live in a story. In fact, you are the main character and you experience your story from a first-person perspective rested upon your shoulders. But your story has been largely written by others and if you’re like most of us, you feel somewhat lost in your story. I think this is part of the reason why rational thinking people, like you and I, are so willing to suspend our disbelief and spend hours watching fictional movies about flying superheroes and evil monsters. More than simply watch, we are taken-in by these movies and we regard them as experientially real. We laugh, feel excitement, and sometimes we even cry. I think it’s because we’re all yearning to be part of a better story, one that can remove us from our regular lives and take us on a journey that is imbued with meaning; even if it’s just for a few hours, and even if its fiction, for fiction lies to us in the most truthful manner.
In this post, I hope to convince you that the way we behave in the world is highly influenced by the psychological impact of the stories we are told. The crisis of meaning many of us face in our lives is the direct result of the stories that have been told to us and interpreted for us by influential institutions and corporations in our societies.
I also hope to convince you that you, as an individual, can help us rewrite and re-interpret our stories and regain the lost meaning in our lives. Let me tell you how, starting with a small chapter from my own story.
What I Learned Writing My Own Story
In 2012, I dared to enter the exclusive world of storytelling for film and television. A leading international network based in Dubai signed an agreement to produce a “pilot” episode I wrote about a series that takes place amidst the Arab Spring. Although the show wasn’t produced, the experience was enough to thrust me on a journey that would change my life.
I pursued my screenwriting passion further and acquired the film rights to an all-time best selling Canadian novel which I had studied in grade eight called “The Black Donnellys” by Thomas P. Kelly. I read the most well-known screenwriting textbooks, took a screenwriting course in Los Angeles and even had a professional screenwriter mentor me for a year and a half. I wrote four drafts, each reviewed by a professional, and I was ready to release my screenplay to the world – so I thought.
In reality, there were no next steps. It turns out finding an agent to represent you is harder than writing the screenplays itself. Hollywood is a walled-garden surrounded by gatekeepers. As the statistic goes, in spite of 50,000 screenplays submitted to the Writers Guild of America every year, only 150 are actually made by Hollywood. Who decides which screenplays get made?
It felt like society was telling me something: your screenplay will never be produced and your story will never be told. I hit a very low point. They win. I was foolish to even try, I told myself. But my passion towards storytelling wouldn’t go away, as if there was a calling I couldn’t put to rest. After all, I’m the son of Palestinian refugees and I grew up on stories of how my parents recovered from dire circumstances to make themselves from nothing. The message behind most of their stories was “we don’t give up easily”.
So, I dug into my fifth draft, but this time I went deep; deep into the structure and origin of stories themselves. What I uncovered was nothing less than astonishing. My story lead me to a discovery even more important perhaps than getting my screenplay produced, and I’ve been working day and night for the last two years to share my discovery with the world.
Stories Are Part of Our Evolution
I have to start from the beginning, so bear with me. The information I’m about to tell you changed the way I think. And I’m going to get a little scientific, mainly because I’m a nerd and I need to justify my engineering degree.
All stories have a beginning and our collective story as humans begins around 30,000 years ago at a time when many human species roamed our earth. Yes, you read that right. If you paid attention in that Anthropology 101 elective you took in university, you’ll remember names such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, and Homo soloensis. These species were very similar to ours. We know because we uncovered their fossils. Why did our species, Home Sapiens, only survive?
An evolutionary anthropologist by the name of Robin Dunbar determined that we survived because our minds were the first to evolve the ability to imagine. Dunbar demonstrated that all primates, including chimpanzees and us, can only intimately know up to around 150 other people. Beyond that number, we lose track of who’s who. This limit applied to all human species in the past, yet our species found a way to overcome this critical threshold and form groups far larger than 150.
The ability to imagine allowed us to think of ideas that can’t be seen or touched; it allowed us to tell stories which enabled us to form a common identity with other people we have never met. For example, nationalism, which is essentially a belief in a common story about a national identity, enables us to form armies made of hundreds of thousands of other people we have never met and fight wars together.
Stories communicate vast amounts of information, including beliefs and how to behave towards each other, enabling us to rally behind a common cause, organize in large numbers and ultimately survive.
Our Ancestors Told Stories For A Reason
Our early ancestors lived in a chaotic world. Everything around them was foreign and unknown; a potential threat to their existence. Starvation, conflict, and predators were constantly around the corner. Their main goal was survival, and if lucky, to establish enough habitable order and live long enough to have children.
Our ancestors survived by observing patterns of behavior that lead to successful encounters with unknowns they didn’t understand, which taught them something they could use to bring order to the chaos around them. In other words, our ancestors mainly cared about a mode of behavior that resulted in gaining new information that served to update culture and help them survive. Such behavior was deemed heroic.
Heroic behavior needed to be passed down to new generations to ensure our survival. Thus, over vast spans of time, as our minds evolved the ability to imagine, our ancestors abstracted such heroic behavior and formalized it into acted-out drama and finally into narrative story that crystalized into myth.
It was Plato who said “all knowledge is remembering.” He was referring to the plethora of wisdom eloquently woven into the oldest stories that were passed down from generation to generation across time. Incredibly enough, our oldest stories describe the world our ancestors experienced: one made up of chaos and order. The stories also inform us of what to expect when we encounter the “unknown.”
The oldest story we know is the Sumerian creation myth of Mesopotamia called the Enuma Eliesh. The story features a god who voluntarily confronts and defeats a terrifying dragon-like monster and, as a consequence, brings order to a chaotic world.
Terrifying dragons appear in many of our oldest stories hoarding mountains of gold. What on earth were our ancestors talking about? Dragons do not exist, let alone hoard gold.
Our ancestors represented chaos in their stories as they perceived it: in the form of the great threat brought on by murderous reptilian predators with destructive powers. And they told stories about the heroes who voluntarily confronted them, reaped the hidden treasure, and restored order onto the world.
Voluntarily confronting a destructive dragon is a common metaphor used by our ancestors to convey the heroic behavior of facing one’s greatest fears, whether physical or psychological, and reaping the “gold” as a consequence. If you cannot face your fears, our ancestors warned that the dragon will swallow you and you will die or become one with the dragon, hoarding gold that is of no real value to you.
Although I’m a skeptic with an open mind, I can attest that the creation stories of the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians, Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, and The Flood, when interpreted psychologically, are imbued with so much meaning that they’ll knock your socks off. Not only are such stories ancient, but they have structures that pre-date monotheism itself.
Ancient stories were used by our ancestors to convey meaning about human consciousness, emotions, motivations, and interactions. Why pass down such information in stories and not in fact or scientific theory? Because stories have an identifiable structure, a narrative grammar that follows the mode of behavior of a main character like you and I. When we hear stories about a main character behaving in a specific manner, we relate to that character and begin to emulate their behavior. Such a narrative structure makes information embedded in stories not just understandable but unforgettable – so unforgettable that it stands the test of time, influencing the behavior of generations.
Writing Your Story Can Influence Others
In 1599 Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” Centuries later in 1996, a psychologist by the name of John Bragh proved Shakespeare right in an experiment that became an instant classic.
Bragh had one group of university students assemble sentences using words associated with the elderly and another group assemble sentences using words associated with youth. He then timed each group of students as they walked down the hallway towards another room. Those who assembled sentences using words associated with the elderly walked slower.
Bragh’s experiment, which was replicated many times, demonstrated that interaction with mere words and sentences can actually impact our physical behavior. Now imagine what full stories can do. They can influence our mode of behavior completely without us even knowing. We are unbelievably sensitive to the stories we’re told, because like Shakespeare said, we are merely players in them.
To paraphrase the renowned psychologist, Carl Jung, you’re in a story whether you know it or not. If it’s someone else’s story, you’re going to get a small part and it might not be the one you want. If it’s a story you don’t know, it may be one with a very bad ending. You are the main character of your story. You experience your journey from a first-person perspective – a point of view rested upon your shoulders. This is the nature of our conscious experience and it’s why our ancestors used storytelling as the most effective way to communicate a message designed to influence behavior.
Writing With Structure Makes Readers Relate
The narrative structure used by our ancestors applies to all stories which are the basis of theater, television shows, and movies that range from The Avengers to Oscar winning titles such as The Godfather. What were our ancestors trying to tell us by using such a structure? They were trying to tell us how to behave in the world and what pitfalls to avoid.
Each one of us is on a journey from point “a” to point “b”. From “what is,” a place that is insufficient in some manner, to “what should be,” a place that is somehow better. But on our way, we will inevitably encounter the unexpected “unknown.” What do we do when we encounter the unexpected?
The answers lie in the structure of the stories passed down by our ancestors, who for centuries constantly encountered the unknown and, through their collective wisdom as human beings, represented the different ways to encounter the unexpected – in their stories.
I learned that story structure, when broken down and understood, can have a significant psychological impact on us as it can help us take hold of our own stories and live more meaningful lives as we move forward in a complex world.
In the most common story structure, also known as the hero myth, you have a flawed protagonist that is in pursuit of a goal. Standing in their way lies a formidable opponent – an antagonist. The antagonist lays unexpected obstacles in the path of the protagonist. When the protagonist attempts to overcome the obstacles, they fail and plunge into chaos. At their lowest point, the protagonist is usually assisted by an influencing character that helps them recognize and transcend their character flaw. Reborn, the protagonist voluntarily faces the antagonist in the final battle and climax. In their resolution, the protagonist has emerged from chaos to re-assert “order” onto their world and update their culture.
We Need Your Story
Yuval Harari, the bestselling historian-author of Sapiens, said: “homo sapiens are a storytelling animal. We think in stories. We expect reality to be a story and we expect the meaning of life to be a story […] some huge cosmic drama, with a beginning, middle, and end and heroes and villains […] and most important, a role for me…” So, what’s your story? What’s your goal? What are your character flaws? If you don’t know, you may be in trouble, because like all protagonists in a story, you will encounter the unexpected, and when you do, you will descend into chaos. Will you face your “dragon”? After all, it’s what you do when you’re at your lowest point that matters most.
Our ancestors tell us that we must voluntarily approach our greatest fears and only then do we embark on a journey imbued with meaning and move forward in life. And in that journey we learn the lessons of life; we gain the new information that can help us update our culture. The great British philosopher Alan Watts called this “the wisdom of insecurity”.
I believe your life experiences can make you a powerful storyteller. But the ability to share your unique story – the lessons you’ve learned in narrative form – and help us update our culture, has been hindered by Hollywood’s monopoly on the most powerful and influential storytelling medium for far too long.
History has taught us that great stories can teach us valuable lessons and can last for thousands of years. I think it’s time to release story-structure to the world to help you tell your story. This is why I’ve created Open Screenplay: a platform that breaks down story structure and makes it easier for you to write compelling stories and screenplays with the option of collaborating with storytellers from around the world. To further democratize storytelling, I’ve made Open Screenplay free, so everyone can join. The writers of screenplays that receive the best reviews will get paid and their screenplays will be produced. Their stories will be shown to the world.
I genuinely believe that technology should be used to disrupt industries that have inhibited the emergence of new artists. By using technology to help people learn the craft of storytelling, I hope to bring out the artist in all of us. For art, as Shakespeare said, is a “mirror held up to nature;” art pushes the boundaries and makes us think about ourselves.
I have ventured into the unknown world of screenwriting and I have come back with the lessons I’ve learned to launch Open Screenplay because I genuinely believe that the world we see depicted in television and film should be as diverse and amazing as the world we live in. The more diverse the stories, the more meaning extracted. And we all seek meaning in our lives. One way to help us find it is to write your story.