You might wonder why so many people love to tell stories. Yes, some of it is to become famous in Hollywood or to be the next Stephen King, but potential authors with motivations disconnected from the writing process itself will hardly ever stick with it. They really don’t have anything to say, or at least the fire isn’t burning so hot that they can’t quit writing. True storytellers have to tell their stories. It’s a compulsion.
What’s behind the compulsion?
Without a doubt this is a problem for the super-sleuth psychologist, and sure enough, Carl Jung knew all about this. Although, he didn’t actually address the subject within our context. So let me expand a little upon what he said.
Life has its problems. Most of us, in addition to living a cordial life among friends, are in rather constant conflict with those around us. But we make compromises for this cordiality. Rarely do we have a conflict that is resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, so that one party or the other is left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Some of this dissatisfaction is traumatic, particularly that we experienced with our parents, the conflicts with whom can be resolved with the parent putting his/her foot down and imposing a dissatisfactory solution. It can produce trauma. This can and does happen at work, where the boss imposes a resolution that is unsatisfactory to the worker. It happens everywhere, all the time. These unresolved conflicts are suppressed, eventually forgotten, and fall into what Jung termed the Personal Unconscious or the Shadow. The discontent of the Shadow has the potential of being activated by future real world events, and when it is, the person can respond with an unrelated and inappropriate intensity. But we’re not here to address this emotional problem relative to the real world. Elements of the Shadow seek expression, and their main purpose in doing so is the quest for resolution. The Teller of Tales can dip into this cauldron of discontent to build her/his story.
But this isn’t the full situation, or perhaps even the bigger part of the situation.
These “real world” conflicts that involve our conscious living state also can resonate with another type of conflict that comes from a deeper psychological state: the Collective Unconscious. These are the inherited conflicts that come down to us as unresolved through the millennia of human existence. This is the collective psyche that we all share. Jung termed them archetypes. It’s the world of mythology. When you tap into some of this material, it’s as if the entire human race speaks through you. As I discuss in Chapter 5 of Story Alchemy, Mary Shelley did this when writing Frankenstein, and her little story has never gone out of print.
Here’s the thing.
All these fragments of conflict from both the Shadow and the Collective Unconscious seek resolution in the worst way. They latch onto the author’s psyche and will not let go. They want resolution at any cost. They will come to you in your dreams. They will cause insomnia. And they will weasel their way into your stories. What they want is process, one that leads to resolution. For that resolution to be satisfactory, it must be fully explored since it was not when it originated. Conflict doesn’t have some amorphous form. It is a specific entity and has specific requirements for resolution. It also seems that it must be resolved both ways, i.e., one time the conflict must be resolved in the protagonist’s favor and the other time in the antagonist’s favor. Two separate stories, as it turns out. I believe that’s why in modern times up until the later part of the 20th century, stories were mostly about heroes. But since then we’ve come to tell more and more stories about antiheroes, and some of them are really dark, as in the television series Dexter, where the “protagonist” is a serial killer.
As another example, consider that most of the stories in our time and also that of the past have been about men. But within the last few decades, stories about women are coming to the surface. We’ve heard all the stories concerning men before. Those situations have been explored ad nauseum. We’re experiencing a time of women heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the two sisters in the Disney animated feature Frozen. We have female police officers like Detective Becket in the series Castle. Where we at one time had doctor shows like Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare now we have Nurse Jackie. Yes, I know, House, and we’ll always have men centered programs, but shows about women are really coming forward.
All these psychic forces are working on the author to produce a story that resolves their conflicts. To do that, the conflict must be put through the processes of the plot pentagon below, which comes from Chapter 4 of Story Alchemy.
In providing such a structure for our story, we explore the conflict fully and provide a satisfactory resolution. Anything less results in an unsatisfactory story. This helps provide a satisfactory experience for our readers, but it also satisfies the deep-rooted conflict buried in the Shadow and/or the collective human psyche and hopefully leads to a more promising future.
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