As a child, I grew up in the ancient kingdom of Elmet on the edge of the Peak District in South Yorkshire, where I walked in the green hills and through stone-walled fields. I fell in love with fiction then, and invented many stories and characters of my own. Then at the age of 8, I travelled with my family but against my will to the empty, hot deserts of Australia.
I was heartbroken and inconsolable.
But I found a window onto my lost world through the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. I eventually went to university to discover their secrets, and was on the edge of completing a seven-year study into them when Life interrupted me. Right on the brink of a major epiphany, I was pulled in an entirely different direction.
The universe of stories went spinning out of my hands as I had to concentrate on the workaday world. I had to figure out a way of getting back to my quest but was torn away from it for years, having to confront all kinds of things about Life and people and what made them tick while working as a counsellor and executive in a job which was all-consuming.
Miraculously, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise - though the disguise was pretty heavy at times!
I went through a great many hassles but learned all about heart-felt goals in others. What motivated people? What did it feel like to not be connected to the things you truly loved? This is where I started to get a grasp on the central factors which lie behind story-telling.
It was nearly 10 years, though, before I was able fully to resume my quest to understand stories. Returning to England, I found myself teaching literature to teenagers in a small private school on the fringes of a royal forest. I had been on a long journey, made breakthroughs in studying what lay beneath the surface of stories, and had developed my first theories about them. I thought what I had discovered was earth-shattering. But what would anyone else think?
Imagine how I felt as I entered my first class. Many pairs of eyes were fixed on me. I wondered if they could hear me swallowing nervously. The students knew me, they knew one another, but they didn’t know anything about the secret language I was about to show them. In first mentioning it, they would probably tense up and prepare to be critical, like most students. I needed to make the class fun, to help them to relax. We were going to talk about icebergs and I needed an icebreaker.
The problem was that what I was going to tell them was almost entirely new. If they didn’t have any way of understanding it, it would be much like trying to teach a foreign language.
I started off by saying, ‘Tell me what story am I talking about. Imagine a young boy, growing up as a social inferior, who meets an old man with a stick, who points him in the direction of a quest he must accomplish. On the quest, the boy meets a funny friend, a female companion and an older warrior figure. They have many adventures and discover that their enemy is somehow connected to the boy. There is a war going on in the background. Soon the boy and his enemy meet and the boy wins the confrontation, with great sacrifice, during which he suffers a wound of some kind…’
Of course, that was easy. Hands shot up; answers poured forth. ‘The Lord of the Rings!’ said one. ‘Star Wars!’ shouted another. ‘Harry Potter!’ yelled someone else. And so on. It was really no surprise that these stories had something in common. The surprise came when I drew a circle on the board and pointed out even more similarities. Then, adding note after note to the circle, I told them how certain stories took this pattern and changed it in very precise ways so that it became tragic, or ironic, or comic. Then I fitted in a few more stories, and a few more: not straightforward fantasies or science fiction tales now, but classics of literature from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Then I added in a few modern films, and a few plays, and a few more novels, all the time pointing out the exact similarities between each. The pattern widened out into a tapestry of similarities, like a mathematical formula coming to life.
Some tried to protest, tried to find exceptions. But then they too fell silent as they realise that their ‘exceptions’ also fitted the pattern.
Eventually the room was filled with an awed silence. Someone asked if I had written all this down somewhere. I had, in a tattered notebook, much-thumbed and full of expanded theories. But the students demanded that I write a book about it. They called it ‘The Circle Theory’.
I wrote the book, just for them. It was called ‘The Master Authors’ Secret Handbook’ and it’s still available. But it was later revised to become How Stories Really Work. I had to add in another whole dimension of later discoveries, you see.
‘The Circle Theory’ described at length in the book is one of the greatest secrets about stories and will open your eyes to what is going on in every book you read and in every film or play you see. Students all over the world fall silent in amazement when I do the same exercise with them as above and they slowly realise what I am showing them.
However, as time went on, I sensed that I was on the brink of an even more fundamental breakthrough about stories.
It was several years and many studied novels, plays, poems, films and stories later before I found the powerful, hidden thing which all great authors have used to compose stories through the centuries, the one fundamental tool which, in its many forms, makes up the building blocks of fiction in the same way that particles make up the world around us. In fact, in many ways, this was physics’ ‘Higgs Boson’ particle - but it was to do with fictional worlds rather than our physical universe. I had tapped into the thing which gives stories power. Before, I had only glimpsed that part of the iceberg of fiction that was visible above the surface: now, I knew what lay beneath. I knew the hidden structures and patterns that make stories work.
Those four decades of study and these discoveries turned me into a ‘story guru’, a kind of ‘Jedi master’ of fiction: I can unravel and rebuild any story, no matter what its genre or length; I can reconstruct any character to make him or her more appealing and more fitting for any tale; I can guide and point and direct others towards the tools used by fiction which have changed the world and been immensely successful.
You can use these secrets! Gone will be any shadow of thought that your writing ‘isn’t good enough’ or ‘isn’t ready’. Re-invigorated about your ability to tell stories, you will re-look at your timetable and MAKE more time to write.