Why we need stories (in 3 words or less)

by Allen Palmer on May 25, 2014

in Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Life is hard - hands grasp desperately to the top of a cliff face

I wandered in the wilderness for a long time as a writer because almost all of the screenwriting bibles fail to address the most fundamental question: Why do we need stories?

I’ve read all the screenwriting manuals … why am I still lost?

When I started out as a screenwriter, I didn’t want my head clouded by screenwriting theories so I didn’t read any of the manuals. And it worked. My head wasn’t clouded with rules. It was shrouded in ignorance.

So my next strategy was to read everything. Syd Field. Michael Hauge. Robert McKee. To name but the most familiar. So I knew what an Inciting Incident was. And a Turning Point. And a Character Arc. But, I still felt like I was missing a big piece of the puzzle.

Then I finally read something that absolutely transformed my understanding of screenwriting – and changed the direction of my life.

What was the book? I’ll tell you later*.

But it wasn’t written by a screenwriter. Or anyone in the film business for that matter.

Why was it so revelatory?

Because it was the first book I’d read that made me really think about why we, as human beings, need stories. It wasn’t trying to tell me what should happen on page 30. Or give me some neat tips on how to make for a snappy Act 3. It forced me to take a step back and think about why we’re desperate to tell stories, why we crave to hear them, and what they’re doing for us at a primal, emotional and spiritual level. Once I started getting a handle on that, it fundamentally altered my approach to writing.

So over the next two posts, I’m going to share with you a bunch of stuff that typically isn’t addressed in most screenwriting manuals, but which I think is vital if you’re going to write screen stories that audiences can connect with and be moved by.

In this post, I’m going to share with you why I believe we need stories.

And in the next, we’ll look at what this means in terms of what audiences want from stories.

So let’s get cracking …

Why do we need stories? (in 3 words or less)

After a great deal of research, analysis and personal reflection, I have come to the conclusion that we need stories because …


That’s it.

We have a voracious, insatiable, inalienable desire for narrative because being human is just plain tough.

Ask Hobbes, who observed, “Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Listen to the Buddhists, whose four Noble Truths kick off with, “Life is suffering”.

Consult any T-shirt and they’ll tell you as well: “Life sucks”.

Sure, human existence has its pleasures. But, I don’t care who you are, where you are, or what you do, life is an almost relentless struggle. Why?

Life is hard because there is almost always something we want that we can’t readily get.

In case, you doubt me, let’s review the entire experience of being human, from nappied start to incontinent finish …

You think this bit sucks? Just you wait ...

You think this bit sucks? Just you wait …

When you’re a babe-in-arms, life is hard because there are things you desperately want but, in the absence of speech, you can’t specifically communicate those desires.

You want the breast? What do you say?
You need some shut-eye?
You’ve done a kakka. Hey, Ma, how can you possibly not smell that?!?!?

Needless to say, this is more than a little frustrating.

If only you could talk …

Alas, when you are acquire the power of speech, you realise for the first time – though you will get constant reminders for the rest of your life – that having the ability to communicate your desires does not necessarily mean that they will be met.

You want that toy in the window. The big one.
You want chocolate. For breakfast.
You want to kill your big sister. And the little one, too, while you’re at.
Not going to happen.

Which part of  "no" don't I understand?  Pretty much all of it.

Which part of “no” don’t I understand?
Pretty much all of it.

Clearly the problem is parents. If only you could get to school like your big sister, and be away from their tyranny for six hours a day, life would be a whole lot better …

Unfortunately, when you progress to school, a whole new world of frustration opens up.

You want a friend.
Any friend will do.
Actually, no, Ruth, I take that back.
You want a cool friend.
A cool friend who isn’t smarter than you.
A cool friend who isn’t prettier than you.
A cool friend who isn’t more popular than you.
A cool friend who isn’t mean to you.
A cool friend who likes you way better than all of her other cool friends and tells you so constantly (but not in a cloying, needy kind of way)
Hey, Ruth, remember me?

My party invitation will be arriving any time now ...

My party invitation will be arriving any time now …

If you’re lucky enough to get that whole BFF thing sorted, you face the other no-less daunting challenge of discovering the special talent your parents are convinced that you possess …
You’re a genius apparently.
But, it’s not in mathematics. (Despite the after-school coaching).
Or ballet.
Or tending goal in soccer.
Or ceramics.
Or Girl Guides.
And your efforts at the school concert suggest you’re not the obvious reincarnation of Miles Davis.

I was wrong … violin is not "the worst"

I was wrong … violin is not “the worst”

Once your parents have confirmed, beyond any question, that you are categorically NOT gifted in any way – and have possibly shifted their attention onto proving that this is also tragically true of your kid sister – a fresh humiliation awaits.


Wow, he is so cute. Like Justin Beiber used to be. But without the dufus hair.
But he likes Piper.
Not because Piper is prettier than you. Or funnier than you. Or cooler than you.
Just because she has breasts. They’re just lumps of fat, for goodness sake.
When will you get lumps of fat? If only you had breasts …

Mum, I think I need to step it up to a B cup. Why's that? I think they're like shrubs.  You put them in a bigger pot, they grow better.

Mum, I think I need to step it up to a B cup.
Why’s that?
I think they’re like shrubs.
You put them in a bigger pot, they grow better.

In time, breasts arrive. Or they don’t.

Either way, once you are a fully-fledged adult, with a drawer full of brassieres of indeterminate cup size, life tends to play out like this …

You’re typically not entirely thrilled with where you’re at, but you soldier on because you think that things will be so different and life will be utterly complete …

… if you could just …
… get a boyfriend
… get a boyfriend who is cute like Ruth’s boyfriend (boy, was she the late bloomer)
… get a boyfriend who doesn’t just want to get into your knickers
… get a boyfriend who showed some interest in getting into your knickers
… get your driving licence
… get your own car
… get your own car that isn’t a total shitcan
… graduate from high school
… graduate from high school and accept that you didn’t get into Acting School (like Ruth did)
… get into Architecture
… get into Fashion Design
… accept that Accounting mightn’t be exciting but you’ll always find employment (unlike Ruth)

Maybe he hasn't texted me because he's waiting for me to text him ...

Maybe he hasn’t texted me because he’s waiting for me to text him …

You would want for nothing if you could just …
… get a job
… get a better job
… move out of home
… find better roommates
… convince Ruth that you wouldn’t be a pain in the ass to live with
… get Ruth to keep it down in the bedroom (Is she acting in there? Boy, that is some act)
… lose 2kg
… lose 5kg
… have sex
… have great sex
… have regular great sex
… have a sound night’s sleep that wasn’t, for once, interrupted by this endless great sex
… vacation in London
… vacation in a less clichéd travel destination than London
… get a really well paid job
… get a really well paid job with a boss who isn’t a total asshole
… buy a two bedroom apartment with ocean views
… buy a one bedroom apartment with city views
… buy a studio apartment that overlooks the lane where the junkies shoot up

This sounded a whole lot more exciting in the brochure ...

This sounded a whole lot more exciting in the brochure …

You would be happy beyond measure if you could just …
… give up dairy
… give up gluten
… give up sugar
… give up your debilitating obsession with food
… take up Russian
… take up soft sand running to mitigate the tedium of listening to Russian
… take a creative writing class
… take a creative writing class with a tutor who could recognize talent if it bit him on the ass
… take up ceramics again (without the pressure of feeling like you need to be a genius)
… accept that you’re a lesbian (that’s why it’s never worked out with guys)
… accept that you are the problem and not every man you’ve ever dated
… accept that you are part of the problem but those guys still have a lot to answer for
… get a husband who is everything you’ve always dreamed of
… get a husband who is some of the things you’ve always dreamed of
… get a husband who has at least one quality you could in time come to tolerate
… sell the apartment
… convince the junkies to shoot up elsewhere until you sell the apartment
… buy a house
… move into the house
… renovate the house
… get pregnant
… push out this watermelon
… get a handle on this breast-feeding thing
… get Amy into daycare
… get Amy into a good school
… get Amy into a good school that is more sensitive to her special needs
… stop comparing Amy to Ruth’s Scarlett (but, anyone can see she’s smarter and almost as pretty)

All those boring meetings, all those internal politics, all those impossible clients … how I miss them ...

All those interminable meetings, all those impossible clients, all those back-stabbing, narcissistic colleagues … how I miss them …

You would experience joy unconfined if you could just …
… accept that Dave and his work colleague are just good friends
… forgive Dave because everyone deserves a second chance
… finalise the divorce settlement and screw Dave for every last cent
… find love again
… let Roger down gently
… get Roger to give you a second chance
… accept that Roger is the real deal and stop tarring him with Dave’s failings
… accept that you and Roger will never conceive

When life gives you lemons, try to find some idiot who'll swap them for oranges.

When life gives you lemons, try to find some idiot who’ll swap them for oranges.

You would never ask for another thing if you could just …
… get Amy into a good university (ie not where you went) …
… get Amy into a rewarding profession (ie not what you did)
… get Amy a good husband (ie “less Dave, more Roger”)
… help Amy become a great parent (ie good luck with that)

I'm not telling you how to run your life. I've booked you into see someone who is going to do that for me.

I’m not telling you how to run your life. I’m telling you to see a therapist – and I happen to know a great one – who can do that for me.

You would experience pleasure beyond measure if you could just …
… open a pottery school with Ruth (She’s such a visionary!)
… get Ruth to pull her weight in the pottery school (blue sky doesn’t pay the rent)
… get Ruth to return your calls

I made this myself … I made this crazy decision to open a pottery school all by myself.

I made this myself … I made this crazy decision to open a pottery school all by myself.

You would swear allegiance to a deity – of whatever flavour – if you could just …
… get Roger to see a Specialist
… get Roger to get a second opinion
… come to terms with Roger’s passing
… come to terms with Ruth’s passing

Coming Mum?  No, I'll just wait here for the next one.

Coming, Mum?No, thanks. I’ll just wait here for the next one.

You’d stop being a grumpy old woman if you could just …
… downsize to a smaller home that doesn’t take so much looking after
… upsize to a bigger place that isn’t so cramped
… age gracefully
… age disgracefully (who were you trying to kid?)
… die in your sleep and bring an end to all this pain
… hold onto life for just a little longer because it’s all been fabulous and you wouldn’t change a thing.

Just when I was getting the hang of it ...

Just when I was getting the hang of it …

Yes, indeed, as Woody Allen once so memorably put it, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”

That’s it. That is what your audience is dealing with. And that is why they need stories. To help them cope with the fact that life is like that: a never-ending but cruelly concise pain-in-the-ass.

Which brings us to the second basic question that most screenwriting books overlook:

What do audiences want from their stories? How can your stories help them deal with the pain of being human?

But let’s deal with that in the next post …

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Other posts that might interest you:
10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago
Radical Solution to Hollywood-Indie stand-off: Character and Story in Same Screenplay
How to win audiences and Oscars – Introducing the Transcendent Story
Transcendent Story Pt2: 5 qualities that lift the great above the good
A new Character-driven Hero’s Journey
10 Steps to a great movie ending

* The book that was such an epiphany for me? The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Don’t walk to the book store. Run.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column]

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