How Stories Save Lives

Moving on to the fourth leaf of our Five Leaf Genre Clover, let’s begin with Archplot, the classic Story structure, sometimes referred to as the “quest” narrative.

In summary, it has the following qualities:

In a consistent and cause/effect reality like the one we all inhabit in our everyday lives, Archplots feature a single active protagonist. This lead character pursues an object of desire (a new job, the love of his life, a college education etc.) while confronting primarily external forces of antagonism (more qualified candidates, a better looking suitor, a high school teacher out to get him). The story ends “closed” with absolute and irreversible change in the life of the protagonist. There is no going back to the way things were at the beginning of the story. Novels like The Firm, Sense and Sensibility, Carrie, The Hobbit and movies like The Fugitive, Chinatown, Kramer vs. Kramer and plays like Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Importance of Being Ernest are all Archplots.

Archplot is human life Story, the one we all use to evaluate and direct our own lives. This is why Archplot has the greatest potential for the largest possible audience. Every person on the planet is a potential reader/viewer.

The Archplot is the narrative form made famous and delineated so well by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Having evolved over thousands of years, it has the structure that every single human being on earth can relate to. We see our own lives within the frame of Archplot. We all strive to fulfill our desires, be they material, romantic, or professional and believe that there are forces aligned against us to keep us from what we really want and deserve. It is only through active confrontation and defeat of these antagonistic forces do we believe we achieve anything of value.

Once we achieve or fail to achieve our desires however, we find that we can’t go back again. Once we’ve left our hometown and conquered the big city or fallen flat on our face, going back to the way things used to be is impossible. It is like Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge. At the end of a particular quest—getting into college, finding the right mate—we can’t reverse course and go back to the way we saw and felt before we successfully attained or unsuccessfully botched it.

Archplot is linear.  This is the way we view our own lives.

We love Archplots because they mirror the way we choose to privately examine ourselves. There is nothing more powerful in a Story than having a lead character desperately pursuing something. The reader or viewer cannot help but attach himself to that character because he has objects of desire too. If the lead character in a Story gets what he wants, our brains are wired to believe that we can too. Stories fuel our courage and offer the cautions that we believe will help guide our own paths.

Whether you know it or not, your desire to write comes from the urge to not just be “creative,” it’s a need (one every human being on earth has) to help others. A well-told Story is a gift to the reader/listener/viewer because it teaches them how to confront their own discomforts.

In his wonderful book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who worked on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She recalled that when the first plane hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001, a wave of hot air came through her glass windows as intense as opening a pizza oven.

Panigrosso did not hesitate. She didn’t even pick up her purse, make a phone call or turn off her computer. She walked quickly to the nearest emergency exit, pushed through the door and began the ninety-eight-stairway descent to the ground. What she found curious is that far more people chose to stay right where they were. They made outside calls and even an entire group of colleagues went into their previously scheduled meeting.

Why would they choose to stay in such a vulnerable place in such an extreme circumstance?

Because they were human beings and human beings find change to be extremely difficult, practically impossible. To leave without being instructed to leave was a risk. What were the chances of another plane hitting their tower, really? And if they did leave, wouldn’t their colleagues think that they were over-reacting, running in fear? They should stay calm and wait for help, they must have thought to themselves, maintain an even keel. And that’s what they did. I probably would have too.

Grosz suggests that the reason every single person in the South Tower didn’t immediately leave the building is that they did not have a familiar story in their minds to guide them. This from his book:

We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency. This is so, I hasten to add, whether we are patients or psychoanalysts. (Grosz, Stephen. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (p.123) W. W. Norton & Company)

Even among those people who chose to leave, there were some who went back to the floor to retrieve personal belongings they couldn’t bear to part with. One woman was walking down alongside Panigrosso when she stopped herself and went back upstairs to get the baby pictures of her children left on her desk. To lose them was too much for her to accept.

That decision was fatal.

When human beings are faced with chaotic circumstances, our impulse is to stay safe by doing what we’ve always done before. To change our course of action seems far riskier than to keep on keeping on. To change anything about our lives, even our choice of toothpaste, causes great anxiety.

How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed. Not some easy triumph, either. But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist’s inner fortitude. Because that’s what it takes in real life to leave a dysfunctional relationship, move to a new city, or quit your job.  It takes guts, moxie, inner fire, the stuff of heroes.

Change, no matter how small, requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately.

Stories give us scripts to follow. It’s no different than young boys hearing the story of how an orphan in Baltimore dedicated himself to the love of a game and ended up the greatest baseball player of all time. If George Herman Ruth could find his life’s work and succeed from such humble origins, then maybe they could became big league ball players too.

We need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance. Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.

So if your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will deeply care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten. We want characters in stories that take on the myriad challenges of changing their lives and somehow make it through, with invaluable experience. Stories give us the courage to act when we face confusing circumstances that require decisiveness.

These circumstances are called CONFLICTS. What we do or don’t do when we face conflict is the engine of storytelling.

What I’m describing is the Archplot’s inherent quest. It is the structural narrative of humanity and it’s irresistible.

Primal Archplot (from cave drawings to oral tradition) is all about external antagonism. There is little, if any internal struggle in the lead character. Which makes sense. When life’s concerns are all about finding water, food, and shelter, there is very little time to indulge one’s inner development. The equivalent Archplots today live inside the External Action Genre.

Pure action genre protagonists are not plagued by inner doubts or perversions or deeply seated anxieties. In these Stories, a heroic protagonist overcomes Arch Villains and/or Nature and ultimately sacrifices himself in order to save another human being or even the entire planet from annihilation. While often derided, the Action/Comic Book Story is one of the most difficult to write/innovate and thus is rife with cliché. It’s been with us since the first campfire story, so it ain’t easy to reinvent.

The commercial Story marketplace is Archplot central and is the stuff of 200 million dollar movie budgets from film studios and blockbuster novels from big publishing. Pure Archplot is all about external conflicts. And there is nothing wrong with a great fastball external-only Archplot story. When done well, they’re better than peanuts and popcorn.

But, Archplot can also be used to explore inner conflict. The way a writer can do so is to combine a big external content genre with a compelling internal content genre. This is exactly what Thomas Harris chose to do in The Silence of the Lambs. The result is an Archplot structure for his global external and internal content genres. The conventions and obligatory scenes of the serial killer thriller drives the external, while the internal hinges on the progression of the protagonist from blind belief to disillusionment. Much more on both the external and internal content genres to come.

But next up is the second structural genre, Miniplot.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

34 comments on “How Stories Save Lives

  1. Joe Fusco says:

    Wonderful. And so generous of you.

  2. Joel D Canfield says:

    And this is why I write: to pass on the gift of hope given to me when I was a child.

    Action/Comic Book Story: though bastardized beyond recognition in film, the first 3 of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books are some of the greatest action writing in the English language. (And I’m terrified to see what film has done to John Carter of Mars.)

  3. Love this:

    “Once we achieve or fail to achieve our desires however, we find that we can’t go back again. Once we’ve left our hometown and conquered the big city or fallen flat on our face, going back to the way things used to be is impossible. It is like Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge. At the end of a particular quest—getting into college, finding the right mate—we can’t reverse course and go back to the way we saw and felt before we successfully attained or unsuccessfully botched it.”

    This is where art and life can’t be distinguished from one another, which is why I love this kind of story.

    I think there’s an inherent danger in committing the narrative fallacy in our lives when we do this, though.

    Before I read The War of Art I found myself looking for big meaningful events everyday of life, without putting in the work in the right way.

    The arch plot unfolds when we do the work, no need to add the narrative.

    Thanks as always, Shawn.

    I’m loving this series.

  4. Suzyn says:

    I really wish I had a highlighter that would work on the internet – I would highlight all over this!

    I remember in college, trying to decide on my major (I ended up in the theater dept) and thinking that the arts had given me so much, so that a career in the arts would be my best chance to give those experiences/gifts to others… THANK YOU for validating that perspective! And not just validating it but EXPLAINING it.

    I’ve often struggled with plot in my writing – I can nail an atmosphere, I’ve got an ear for dialog and the telling detail… but my fiction would quickly peter out. I think I’ve gone to such lengths to avoid drama in my real life that I was trying to create something without drama, without conflict, and this series is making me realize why that doesn’t work!

    THANK YOU – can’t wait to read more.

    1. Antryg Revok says:

      2 books give huge help, then…

      “Stein on Writing” ( Sol Stein )
      this gives tools of understanding…

      “Writing Fiction Step By Step” ( Josip Novakovich )
      this develops “muscle”

      as for “Death of a Salesman”
      i would replace it from schools with Nabokov’s “The Eye”.

      Namaste, y’all!

      ( :

  5. PJ Reece says:

    Absolutely one of the best posts I’ve read in the writer-blogosphere. Thanks, Shawn. I’m going to sleep with this under my pillow. If I may be allowed one comment, however. You write: “If the lead character in a Story gets what he wants, our brains are wired to believe that we can too.” I would argue that we are nourished more by the protagonist failing to get what he/she wants. Stories whose plots deliver the protagonist only what he/she wants… leaves me vaguely dissatisfied. It’s the life-changing consequence of failure that renders a person unable to return to the old status quo. With no return possible, only now does the protagonist open eyes to solutions lying in heretofore unimaginable realms. (pardon all those fancy syllables). Any thoughts?

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      I think whether they win or not is immaterial; I think it’s how they win or lose.

      From a pure psychological perspective, we are more inspired by wins than losses, more motivated by achievable goals than shooting for the moon.

      But storytelling ain’t always pure psychology.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi PJ,
      This is where irony comes in. This is why I separate the content genres into external and internal. I love it when the writer lets his protagonist win one of these objects of desire (perhaps the external one where the protagonist is a cop who gets the killer) while losing his object of desire in the counter narrative (perhaps the internal object of desire is to hold true to moral principles, which he jettisons in order to win his external battle).
      This kind of dynamic, winning and losing at the same time, is what we all experience when we face change. I may be my own man now with my own company and way of doing things, but I lost the esprit de corps of all of my friends back at the big publishing houses. I can’t be inside and outside the big publishing industry at the same time. Choosing one means I can’t have the other. Such is life. And when a Story unravels and resolves like life, we find it compelling.
      All the best,

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        Internal/external. Of course.

        In my first mystery this year, he solves the case but loses the girl.

  6. Jessica says:

    Thank you!!! This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. How synchronistic this life is and the timing of your material. This is the story I’m writing. What I know and love about looking in the mirror. A human being, being human. Dissecting the subtleties of that life altering experience. Love it!

  7. Mary Doyle says:

    This is fabulous — you’re giving us an entire education here. Can’t thank you enough, and can’t wait for the next post!

  8. Doug says:


    Quick Question: Why is the type of story the most difficult to pull off?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Doug,
      The one you’ve been thinking about all your life and just haven’t gotten the time to get it down on paper…
      All the best,

  9. Can’t wait for the next. This series has been an enriching experience. I might go through all the posts again to get a better perspective.

  10. This reminds me what I’ve often thought about journals, Shawn. They save lives, too.

    I’ve often wondered how my life will have been different for having kept one since I was nine. We’re all writing our life stories, of course — even those of us who don’t keep journals — but keeping one reminds me the pen is in my hands, as they say.

    Digging into it often, to relive so much fun, forces me to be honest if I’ve veered off into boring — and challenges me to do something about that.

    I was accidentally following the advice given in Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, before I heard about it…

  11. Jule Kucera says:

    “It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately. Stories give us scripts to follow.” I have been looking to this site for guidance on the craft, the science and art of telling stories. But here also is inspiration for why doing so matters. And if archplot changes the protagonist, does it not also change the writer?

  12. Joe says:

    The lines that grabbed PJ grabbed me: “There is nothing more powerful in a Story than having a lead character desperately pursuing something… If the lead character in a Story gets what he wants, our brains are wired to believe that we can too.”

    In McKee’s book, he speaks to “Tender Mercies,” noting that the film was originally released in only three theaters, due in part to poor test screenings, which caused studio executives to lose faith in the film. It went on, of course, to win screenwriter Horton Foote the 1984 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

    In the forward to “The Killer Angels,” author Michael Shaara’s son Jeff writes that the book was rejected by the first 15 publishers who read it. When it was picked up by a small independent press in 1973, it was released in small quantities, the publisher made no effort to promote it, and the few critics who bothered to read it gave it lukewarm reviews. In 1975, “The Killer Angels” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

    James Lee Burke’s “The Lost Get-Back Boogie” was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, got picked up by Louisiana State University Press and was nominated for a Pulitzer the following year. Examples abound.

    I mean to say, there’s something to be learned not only from the story, but from the stories of the storytellers.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joe,
      I had the pleasure to work with James Lee Burke when I was at Doubleday when we published PURPLE CANE ROAD. His wonderful editor, Pat Mulcahy, had left the company and the book was passed to me. The man was as gracious and open as anyone I’ve ever met. A truly inspiring artist, the sort that withstands 111 nos and still keeps chugging. His agent Philip Spitzer (he also represents another great guy Michael Connelly) is another gem in the business, a truly warm person who cares about every single project he takes on.

      1. Joe says:

        Is that right? What a great experience that must have been. I enjoyed the 7-min profile they did on Burke last year on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. The two things I took away were his comments that “themes of redemption and salvation are at the core of western literature.”

        The other was his quote about finding the story: “It’s an incremental discovery. That’s what I believe. The right line is there. You got to wait, and you got to hear it, got to hear it. It is all in the unconscious. You just have to listen to it, listen for it. It’s there.”

        If they ever make another Dave Robicheaux movie, they better cast Will Patton or I’m not going. (Okay, I’ll go… but I’ll be hearing Will’s voice regardless of whose mug is up there.)

        1. PJ Reece says:

          Finding the story is “an incremental discovery…” etc. Great quote, Joe, thank you. I’ll track down that interview. By the way, just read Damon Galgut’s new novel about E.M. Forster, which is largely about how he came to find the story in A Passage to India. Incremental, indeed. It took him eleven years.

        2. Jule Kucera says:

          Joe, thank you for the quote and the link. Wonderful.

          1. Joe says:

            Hey Jule… I was glad to stumble into it last year and glad to be able to pass it along here. He looks like a guy you’d want to call Jim and have a cup of coffee with.

          2. Joe says:

            I like Yoda, too.

  13. Patrick Nelson says:

    I spoke to my mother (82 and a journalist for many years) about the rough draft I just finished. She asked if it was a “good story” and seemed to be pleased with my response of, “Some of them get what they want and some get what they deserve.”

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      Great description of what I wanna see in any story.

    2. Joe says:

      Sounds like the question a pro would ask.

      1. Jule Kucera says:

        Related to the above, where there is no ‘reply’ button, he does seem like the kind of guy you’d want to have coffee with, or just watch him at the speed bag.

  14. DC Harrell says:

    I’ve been working through the archives from the beginning, taking copious notes. Being a thorough, meticulous editor myself, I appreciate your approach almost as much as your experience. This post, however, gives the writer side of me fodder for thought regarding one of my recent short stories. Thanks.

  15. Doug Walsh says:

    Thank you Shawn for this wonderful series of posts. Despite 13 years of writing merch books for licensed properties, I feel absolutely clueless concerning the art of crafting a novel. Stumbling upon a mention of The Story Grid was pure serendipity. I’m so glad I clicked that link!

  16. Talmage says:

    I’m trying to discover what the obligate scenes are for science fiction. Maybe that’s too broad a category. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. No master list exists, and most folks are just becoming aware of the concepts of OS&Cs Shawn talks about. As a result, you probably won’t find a preexisting set.

      The solution is to find 3-5 books which are exactly the subgenre you want to write. Go through them, scene by scene, and make notes of what happens and why.

      Then go back and gather up all the scenes that appear in each book, or at least most of them (but if they’re great examples, it will be universal.)

      Those are your obligatory scenes. Look through the ideas of these books, the characters, particular types of scenes, type of ending (ironic, happy, confusing) and you’ll come up with a list of conventions used in the subgenre you want to write in.

      Yes, it’s a lot of work. But any writer who does this goes right to the head of the class when readers are looking for a new writer to love, because everything you write will feel fresh but familiar.

      1. Shawn Coyne says:

        Joel nailed it! Thank you for the shout out at your site today too. Sorry I haven’t responded as well as I’d hoped, but I’m just one man! All the best,

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