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What's the One Key Ingredient Every Great Story Needs?

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"You complete me," says the Joker to Batman in The Dark Knight, displaying not just an uncanny grasp of cinema knowledge (he's quoting Jerry Maguire), but an uncharacteristically shrewd grasp of story structure too. Something is confronted by its opposite; Batman meets the Joker, and together both form one.

Screenwriting books tend to focus on simplistic formula -- "What's the one key feature every great story needs?" But it's arguably more interesting to reverse engineer -- "What's the one key ingredient every story HAS?" And the answer is opposites.

Storytelling appears arbitrary and its form seems at the whim of its creators, but look closely and every archetypal narrative -- not just film, but theatre, short stories, novels, reality television, even journalism -- is built around a structural grid. It happens unconsciously, it happens without thinking, and it's why writers who've never studied structure can write it perfectly. Something meets its opposite, and that something is changed.

Really? In The King's Speech, a British Monarch is thrown together with a colonial upstart; in The Social Network, the geek outsider finds himself doing battle with the embodiment of WASP privilege; and in The Queen, another Monarch deficient in empathy meets the need for empathy full on when Princess Diana dies and the British public cry out for change. Screenwriters talk about the need for inciting incidents -- an explosion that throws a character's life off balance and kick-starts any film. These events -- the death of Diana, the meeting with Logue, Zuckerberg's split with the Harvard elite -- are explosions of direct opposition. Narrative structure is not arbitrary; it's built on the laws of physics.

You will often hear talk of the three-act structure -- and you will be told it was first codified by Aristotle who noted all stories have a beginning, middle, and end or set up, confrontation, and resolution. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. It's a familiar pattern, but where does it come from? And why? Try approaching it from a different angle: you exist, you read this article, and you change. You may not agree with what I write (that's fine), but the very act of perceiving -- of engaging, evaluating, and reaching a conclusion -- is a process of three acts: I exist, I perceive the outside world, I change. Baby sees gas fire, baby burns finger, baby learns not to touch gas fire again. The same shape occurs, because it HAS to.

So narrative structure isn't just a screenwriting trope. From Iago and Othello, to Beatrice and Benedict, Prospero and Caliban, and Hotspur and Hal, all narrative is built on opposites. But so too is American Idol and Undercover Boss. At the beginning of The Apprentice, candidates are given a task, they perform it, then they are judged - act one, act two, act three. All are codifications of the same basic process: we exist, we perceive, we change. We cannot escape it. Even screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who grandly proclaims of three-act structure, "It doesn't really interest me," writes it unknowingly. What better illustration of the creative shape than Being John Malkovich, where characters go on a journey into somebody else's head to find something lacking within themselves?

This doesn't just work on a macro, but on a micro level as well. Think of Elle in Legally Blonde, the dizzy airhead who finds a brilliant legal brain germinating within. As the film starts she is all pink with a loud hairdo; ninety-six minutes later her coiffure is immaculate and there's a small splash of pink on her collar. Think of Michael Corleone in The Godfather -- a war hero as the film opens, a monster as it ends. Each follows a clear and classic dramatic arc, but each follows it according to exactly the same step-by-step pattern. Significantly, both make their irrevocable change (Elle begins her internship, Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey) exactly half way through their stories. It's not just in movies - it's bang in the middle of the storm on the heath that King Lear learns his true state; it's here that Richard II discovers Bolingbroke has usurped his kingdom. It's here they encounter their direct, total, and symmetrical opposite -- the truth that has eluded them, the knowledge hidden from themselves. From that point in any story the subject of the tale is the protagonist's struggle to process the truth encountered here.

The same structure that forges this narrative underpins all reportage, all journalism too. Think of how we follow a protagonist through a story. When we read a journalist we are effectively doing the same thing -- we go with them on a journey into the unknown to discover and then finally fully comprehend something outside ourselves. Just as Sherlock Holmes solves a mystery or House cures a patient, the journalist (and thus we when we read them) processes a stream of arbitrary, conflicting, irrational, and complicated stimuli and turns it into order. All embark on the journey from ignorance to knowledge and its final assimilation, and all, as we reconcile those opposites, give birth to story. For we cannot help but render all experience into narrative -- one that always follows the same underlying form.