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27 Essential Principles of Story

27 Essential Principles of Story: Master the Secrets of Great Storytelling, from Shakespeare to South Park

by Daniel Joshua Rubin

read in Nov 2021

book info on goodreads

Storytelling seems to be one of those tiny skills that offers tremendous potential. Many academic fields including neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary biology seem to converge on the theory that humans develop stories to make sense of the abundance of information that their senses produce every second. The theory goes that as humans we would not be able to survive without the ability to tell stories of what is going on around us. Harari in his book Sapiens also argues that homo sapiens are the only species on earth that develops stories or what he refers to as religions, nations, laws, corporations, ideologies. Only because of this ability were humans able to build civilisations.

Daniel Joshua Rubin in his book "27 Essential Principles of Story" offers a simple but effective template with which one can develop stories. Rubin's fundamental storytelling structure mirrors the classic three-act structure with its three climactic moments of theatre, film and television. He refers to the three acts as the beginning with the central dramatic question, the middle with a clash of expectations and the ending with the answer to the central dramatic question.

"When someone tells you a story, the first thing you wonder is "Does this have a point?" The end of your story answers that question—it expresses your theme, or main idea, the one the entire narrative is crafted to convey."

This structure already reveals another central building block of story. The central dramatic question.

Every story starts with a hook that draws the reader in. The hook comes as an event that drops like a hammer and radically alters the protagonist's life. As a result of the hammer coming down, a need to acquire an object of desire arises for the protagonist. The central dramatic question of the story then becomes: "Can the protagonist acquire the object of desire?" The entire narrative of the story develops to answer the central dramatic question. Thus, the basic structure of every story fuelled by a dramatic question then starts with setting up the protagonist's mental state, asking the question, building tensions around it, and ultimately answering it.

The story is driven from the question to its answer through logical cause and effect relationships. These "cause and effect" actions lead the protagonist to take greater and greater risks. Stories give insight into the meaning of life by clashing expectations with reality. The clash needs to be both believable and surprising. The clash reveals the character of the protagonist. The ending of a story starts with a critical decision that will decide how the central dramatic question will be answered and whether the protagonist will obtain the object of desire.

A great story needs an active protagonist that makes deliberate decisions, because these actions reveal the true character of the protagonist. Actions fill the story with meaning through causal chains. Actions are most revealing when they entail difficult decisions and dilemmas. Great stories are full of such conflicts; conflict with oneself, personal relationships, society at large, and ultimately the physical world. Conflicts are often layered meaning they unfold at multiple levels. Ideally in building momentum these layers are revealed from the outside in until the core character of the protagonist is revealed. In showing actions and conflict, one of the most famous principles of story telling "show, don't tell" comes to the fore.

"If your character is intelligent, show them solving a problem. If they're a good person, show them taking care of someone else, or doing the right thing when no one's watching. If they care deeply about their appearance, show them spending two hours meticulously attending to every last detail of their outfit."

Other important elements of story according to Rubin's book are that protagonists need to act intelligently, they wear masks, are transformed, and face evil in the form of their antagonist. Every decision the protagonist makes needs to make sense, even if they are wrong or stupid. Stories are about change and transformation of the protagonist, if nothing changes, nothing substantive happened. The transformation manifests through the protagonist's quest for obtaining the object of desire. It must be convincing to the reader how and why the transformation came about. The antagonist tries to prevent the protagonist from obtaining the object of desire. The more motivated the antagonist is, the harder the protagonist has to work to obtain the object of desire and the more compelling the story will be.

The setting is another important element of a story. It provides the situatedness that makes all actions appear as meaningful.

"Linking inextricably to your setting means that you evoke such a strong sense of place and time that the characters could not come from anywhere else at any other time."

Setting is approached from different levels: the high level that includes history, culture, and landscape as well as the in-depth situations such as spaces, moments, and interactions. In telling the story, you get to the universal through the specific.

"You'll know you have it when it's impossible to imagine changing the setting without changing something fundamental about the characters."

Finally, dialogue in story is the means by which characters try to get others to do things. Because these influencing acts are strategic, the meaning of what is said in dialogue is often hidden.

"There's only one way to say what you mean. You just say what you mean. But there's an infinite number of ways to hide what you mean."

The 27 principles in Rubin's book are coherent and clearly developed. They offer an effective scaffold to think about, analyse, and write stories. Yet I fear this effectiveness comes as a double-edged sword. The book brings the danger of thinking exclusively in terms of Rubin's template whenever one encounters stories be it in books, movies, or theatre. It imposes a template onto one's mind that makes it difficult to fully appreciate the art of good storytelling. It turns a virtuous craft into an all to formulaic procedure. I guess, as with all books, the advice should be to take the few most useful principles, but not blindly apply all 27.

Julian Prester © 2023