The Science of Storytelling

When it comes to creative writing, people are sceptical about formulas. But there’s a reason formulaic stories have stood the test of time.

Like a blueprint, a formula offers structure, guidance and can even enhance innovative storytelling. Our Copy Lead Emily shares her favourite formulas for writing a satisfying narrative.

The screen versus the page

As long as we’ve had cinema, people have debated the benefits of books and movies. Books are for intellectuals. Movies are superficial.Or: Books are long and pretentious. Movies bring stories to life.

I’ve never understood why we have to be either or. Books, movies and television all have the ability to transport us to new and exciting places. They have the power to move us, to thrill us, to inspire us, to challenge us, to change us. More than that, they all hold a mirror up to society — repeating themes we’ve grown to recognise and love.

At university I majored in screenwriting and direction. When we compare a screenplay to a novel, there are notable formulaic differences. Screenwriting offers no insight into thoughts. There are no long pages detailing a character’s internal monologue. The goal is to show, not tell. But when it comes to writing a satisfying narrative, the process is much the same.

By applying the word formula to writing, we might be inclined to think ‘rigid’, ‘uncreative’ or ‘unoriginal’. But like chemistry and physics, there’s a science to rewarding storytelling. When we understand the conventions, archetypes, themes and beats that drive the world’s most enduring stories, we can use them to our advantage. In learning how to write good stories, structure is a help — not a hindrance.

Lose the plot

An archetype is a statement, pattern, behaviour, event or motif that recurs across the human experience. Archetypes represent important symbols in our consciousness that challenge and influence our beliefs about ourselves and the roles we play.

In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker identifies seven storytelling archetypes that are repeated across history. (Booker’s own work is loosely based on The Hero’s Journey, which was popularised by Joseph Campbell in his critical analysis, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)

These plots appear all over the world, in all kinds of mediums, including novels, shows, movies, plays, musicals and operas. The following table includes a brief summary of each plot, as well as a few famous works that follow that storyline. Once you recognise it, it’s hard to unsee.

Basic plot Plot summary Where you’ve seen it
Overcoming the Monster The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) that threatens the protagonist or their homeland.
  • Star Wars
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • James Bond
  • Harry Potter
Rags to Riches The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.
  • Cinderella
  • Pretty Woman
  • Great Expectations
  • Aladdin
The Quest The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or get to a location. They face temptations and obstacles along the way.
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Iliad
  • Indiana Jones
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Voyage and Return The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons, returns with experience.
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Doctor Who
  • Rick and Morty
  • Back to the Future
Comedy A dramatic work in which the central motif is the protagonist’s triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.
  • The Big Lebowski
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • I Love Lucy
Tragedy The protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity and the fall of a fundamentally good character.
  • Breaking Bad
  • Citizen Kane
  • Othello
  • Hamilton
Rebirth An event forces the protagonist to change their ways and (often) become a better individual.
  • Liar Liar
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Groundhog Day
  • Beauty and the Beast

You’d think we’d get sick of hearing the same stories, but that’s not true. They actually bring us comfort. We’ve repeated the same basic narratives throughout history, because these plots demystify the otherwise random human experience. They give our lives meaning.

We don’t really like media with unresolved or ambiguous endings, because that’s too close to reality. So we fall into patterns. We may fill them with new characters and events, but we’re all making sense of the same mythology. We all want clarity about fear, love, growth, journeys, mystery, life, and death. We need stories to make sense of our world.

The three-act structure

Once you pick a plot, you need to shape your story.

The three-act structure is a model used in narrative fiction to divide a story into three parts — set-up, confrontation and resolution. Popularised by Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, it’s taught in basically every film course you can take. Why? It works.

But trace Field’s concept back further and we end up in 335 B.C. with a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics. The foundation for all storytelling? A beginning, a middle and an end.

The escalation of the three-act structure looks something like this.

Act 1: We meet the characters and their world. Some kind of ‘inciting incident’ happens, propelling us into act 2.

Act 2: We raise the stakes to keep our audience engaged. This is the main chunk of the story and often leads to the worst possible thing that could happen to our character.

Act 3: We close out with some kind of catharsis. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad, as long as there’s a resolution.

While some writers are more detailed in the requirements of the structure, the most important take-away is that one event must lead to another — then another. This unifies action and meaning. You need a connected beginning, middle and end to form a narrative. Without it, it’s just… things that happened. That’s not a story; it’s a shopping list.

Here’s a basic example:

I went to the store and my cousin adopted a cat.

Plain statement of facts — two disconnected events.

Here’s an adjustment:

I was out of milk, again. On my walk to the store, I noticed a small, grey bag by the side of the road. When I got closer, I realised it wasn’t a bag — it was a frail, frightened, abandoned kitten. I thought immediately of my cousin, Herb, who had just lost his cat to old age. I picked up the kitten, gently, and phoned Herb. Later that night, I gave Herb the kitten… and the milk. I could go back to the store tomorrow.

OK, it’s not Shakespeare. But narratively speaking, the bones are better than the first story. That’s because it uses linking events to create meaning. (It even includes foreshadowing!)

Get in character

You’ve got plot. You’ve got structure. Now you need someone to tell your story about.

It’s generally accepted that there are two different story drivers, but both feature characters at their core.

  1. Plot-driven stories focus on a series of choices a character must make.
  2. Character-driven stories focus on relationships between characters.

You could tell a wild tale, filled with unexpected twists and turns — but if the things that happen aren’t felt by your characters, I can guarantee they won’t resonate with readers or viewers.

To write a ‘good’ character, you need to know what makes one interesting. Fortunately, there’s one key theme that fuels interesting stories. Change.

Audiences are much more invested in dynamic characters (those who undergo transformation) than static characters (those who don’t). We want to know what someone will do when they confront something new, or when they pursue their dream, or when they hit their limit, or when they get everything they thought they wanted.

So, who are your characters? How do they act? What do they want? What barriers stand in their way?

Write down as many details as you can; likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, relationships, aspirations. These will form your characters’ comfort zones. Then you get to the fun part — taking them out of those zones.

Come full circle

A character arc is the inner journey of a character over the course of a story.

In narratology, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is a broad category of lore that involves a hero, who goes on an adventure, enters a decisive crisis, wins a victory, then comes home — changed. Dan Harmon, creator of Community and co-creator of Rick and Morty, adapted this monomyth into the Story Circle — a simple writing formula that can help you write dynamic character arcs.

The Story Circle is divided into eight distinct parts that follow a protagonist’s journey — though it doesn’t have to be limited to one character. You can apply the Circle to multiple characters, or to entire narrative arcs. Characters can even experience the Circle again and again.

The simplified steps in the Story Circle are:

  1. You: A character is in a zone of comfort.
  2. Need: But they want something.
  3. Go: They enter an unfamiliar situation.
  4. Search: Adapt to it.
  5. Find: Get what they wanted.
  6. Take: Pay a heavy price for it.
  7. Return: Then return to their familiar situation.
  8. Change: Having changed.

It’s interesting to note that the most drama happens in the bottom of the Circle, when the character is at their lowest point. This is where the most meaning can be derived; what was the cost of attaining their desire?

If your goal is to create engaging and relatable characters, keep them in a constant state of diving and emerging. They must always be learning and transforming — whether for better or worse.

An original story doesn’t have to follow an original format. Just because something is avant-garde, doesn’t mean it’s automatically good.

It’s not wrong to follow a structure. Like there are rules in place for design, or chemistry, or maths, or grammar, a solid writing formula can guide you to consider why things are happening, and how meaning can enhance your story.

Next time you sit down to write, try a more scientific approach. It might take you on a journey.

Emily Newberry is the Copy Lead at The Being Group. Outside of work, she enjoys all things theatrical, including dancing, musical theatre and costume design.

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