How Great Stories are Built—From Gladiator to 2016’s Best Super Bowl Ad

“Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we naturally do”. — Dan Harmon; writer, producer, Emmy award winner.

Storytellers work like statisticians; they take raw data and find a pattern (story) that we can derive meaning from.

Your mind is constantly searching for meaning. Stories take complex experiences and translate them into structures that you can absorb and learn from.

Structure is the foundation of stories. Here are the 8 steps in a story’s structure:

  1. There is order.
  2. Change creates a need.
  3. Begins search to meet the need.
  4. An obstacle emerges.
  5. The obstacle is overcome.  
  6. Success creates unexpected suffering.
  7. Suffering produces a solution that fills the need.
  8. An improved order emerges.

Great stories follow this structure. For example, take the film Gladiator:

 

1.There is order.
 
Maximus, a Roman general, conquers an opposing army as his emperor Marcus Aurelius watches on.

 

2. Change creates a need.

Marcus Aurelius is nearing his death and tells both Maximus and his own son, Commodus, that he is passing his power as emperor to Maximus. Before Aurelius can make his decision public, Commodus kills him. Through birthright Commodus has the power of Rome. Commodus then orders his men to kill Maximus. But they fail to kill Maximus and keep it a secret from Commodus.

 

3. Begins search to meet the need.

Maximus becomes enslaved as a gladiator. He is fighting to survive, fighting to avenge Marcus Aurelius, and fighting to free Rome from a tyrant.

 

4. An obstacle emerges.

Maximus wins many fights and is summoned to fight at the Colosseum where Commodus is watching. Commodus discovers Maximus is alive and having ordered Maximus’s death once already, sets out to kill him.

 

5. The obstacle is overcome.

Commodus sets up Maximus to fight a legendary gladiator named Tigris, and has tigers primed to attack Maximus. But Maximus defeats Tigris and avoids the tigers.

 

6. Success creates unexpected suffering.

Maximus’s fame as a gladiator alerts Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, that he lives. She meets with Maximus. With the assistance of Roman senators, they make a plan for Maximus to escape the city, rejoin his army and capture Rome from Commodus. But Commodus captures them before Maximus can escape the city.

 

7. Suffering produces a solution that fills the need.

As the plan could have easily succeeded, Commodus recognises how vulnerable he is while Maximus lives. Yet as Maximus has become a beloved gladiator, Commodus knows he cannot assassinate Maximus without then suffering a revolt from the people of Rome.
To avoid a revolt, Commodus knows he must destroy Maximus’s name before killing him. So Commodus fights Maximus in the middle of the Colosseum. But Maximus kills Commodus. Maximus has the power of Rome.

 

8. An improved order emerges.

Maximus turns Rome over to the Senate leaving a better, freer Rome. Having created a more democratic empire as Marcus Aurelius envisioned, Maximus lays down and dies.  

 

The Microstructure Makes Up the Macrostructure

Stories are made up of small sections (microstructure) that make up larger sections (macrostructure). The eight steps above (micro) fit into the larger macrostructure of order, an obstacle and a new order (macro).

Gladiator’s macrostructure took us from the sound leadership of Marcus Aurelius, to the tyranny of Commodus’s rule, and finally to an improved order of a free Roman empire ruled by a democratic senate.

 

You Don’t Need a Hollywood Blockbuster to Tell a Great Story

Toyota made the most successful Super Bowl ad of 2016. You can click this link to watch it now.

You can see how it fits the classic story structure:

Act 1: Order

1. There is order.
 
There is a normal bank.

 

2. Change creates a need.

Bank robbers emerge to find their getaway car has been towed.

 

Act 2: Obstacle

3. Begins search to meet the need.

They search for a new getaway car.

 

4. An obstacle emerges.

They find a Prius. But they fear the hybrid electric engine will be too slow to escape the police.  

 

5. The obstacle is overcome.

The police can’t catch them.

 

6. Success creates unexpected suffering.

They outrun the police for so long that the driver falls asleep at the wheel.

 

Act 3: New Order

7. Suffering produces a solution that fills the need.

The police have a road block, but like the Prius’s driver, they are sleeping. The Prius uses its auto-braking to stop. The bank robbers wake up and quietly drive by, still with fuel, and escape at speed on the open road.

 

8. An improved order emerges.

They get away with the money, but also a fuel efficient and high-performance Prius.

 

Add Flesh to the Skeleton

Without a skeleton, people would be an unrecognisable pile of mush. Structure is a story’s skeleton.

And like a skeleton, structure alone has no life. For every Gladiator that packs 3,355 cinemas on opening weekend, there are enough movies screened to vacant cinemas that it would take 27 years to watch them back-to-back. In short, it’s difficult to make a great story.

A clear well thought out structure is only the foundation. You build on the foundation by overcoming a complex, difficult, dangerous obstacle. When Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space, 12.6 million people watched live. When your friend posted a Facebook video of him skydiving, only his Mum watched.

Why? Our dopamine driven brains are wired to search for progress, aka, find meaning. So the greater the obstacle to overcome, the more there is to learn, and the more it fascinates us.

In conclusion, great stories analyse how an extreme obstacle was overcome and then use structure as a skeleton on which to build a meaningful story.

 

 

If you want to learn more about story structure, check o Story Structure 101 by Dan Harmon. It is the basis for this post.