Creating a Story with Three Levels of Storytelling

Watch “Wish” and you’ll see the first level of storytelling that focuses solely on a hero trying to achieve a goal. While this is necessary in every story, “Wish” stops right there. That makes “Wish” a superficial story that’s mildly entertaining but completely forgettable.

The first level of every story is nothing more than an interesting plot. Watch a bad James Bond movie and it’s nothing more than James Bond fighting an army of bad guys and eventually defeating the villain. Superficial stories rely on special effects, car crashes, and gunfire to grab and hold the audience’s attention, but all that action eventually means nothing if we don’t care about the hero.

That’s exactly why “Wish” is such a disappointment because the second level of storytelling relies on a hero who not only pursues a physical goal (first level of storytelling) but also changes in a meaningful way to become a better person as a result. When a hero becomes a better person as a result of their actions, the story becomes more emotionally engaging.

“Most people think “Die Hard” is nothing more than one guy fighting an army of terrorists by himself in a skyscraper, but it’s really a story about how the hero realizes his own arrogance is what broke up his marriage. Only when he recognizes this character flaw and fixes it can he achieve his physical goal (defeat the terrorists) and reunite with his wife (the emotional goal).

So the second level of storytelling involves the hero pursuing and achieving an emotional goal of some kind. In “Wish,” the hero fails to achieve any kind of emotional goal. In far better movies like “Tangled” or “Frozen ,” the hero does learn something about themselves and become a stronger, better person in the end.

Most good stories create an interesting physical goal (first level storytelling) that achieves a crucial emotional goal (second level storytelling). However, what makes a great story is the third level storytelling.

In second level storytelling, the hero is emotionally changed. In third level storytelling, the audience is emotionally changed.

That’s why people love watching certain movies over and over again so they can re-experience the feeling of being emotionally changed. In third level storytelling, the story isn’t just about the hero but about a universal emotion.

In “The Shawshank Redemption,” we learn the power of hope. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we learn how our lives affect others. In “Titanic,” we learn the importance of choosing your own life. In “Harold and Maude,” we learn the importance of living life to the fullest.

So the three levels of storytelling are this:

  • What happens in the story? (First level storytelling)
  • How does this story change the hero? (Second level storytelling)
  • How does this story change the audience? (Third level storytelling)

If you simply strive for superficial action, you’ll wind up creating a disappointment like “Wish”. If you strive to make your hero change emotionally in addition to creating a compelling physical plot, you can create a memorable movie like “Die Hard.” If you create an emotional story that answers a universal question, you can create a great movie like “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Titanic.”

Stories should be more than a hero who simply pursues a goal but fails to change emotionally or affect the audience in any way (like “Wish”). Strive to write great stories because that’s what everyone really wants in the long run.

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