IN A PREVIOUS ARTICLE, I delved into the construction of Star Wars and other stories to illustrate the how of writing.

Now let’s look at why the Star Wars story endures, why some Broadway shows are hits, why we beg our drama teachers to do the shows we love, why we binge-watch television ― and how to draw on those answers to create brilliant stories of your own.

In 1977, after seeing Star Wars tons of times, I asked everyone, “What’s it about?” Sure, I knew: Rebels, Death Star, Luke Skywalker. But I pleaded to know: “What was the base of the story?” As I grew and learned as a writer, I discovered what “base” means: a story’s core beyond its specifics.

When we tell and retell age-old base narratives, we reflect our very survival as a species.

When you strip away X-wings and Kessel Runs, Star Wars reveals every young person’s journey into maturity, triumphing in a world larger than themselves. When you strip away Oz, Wicked explores the unlikely friendship and conflict of the privileged and the outcast. Look underneath Albuquerque’s criminal underworld in Breaking Bad, and you find our desire for legacy and recognition.

Stories examine four components of species survival:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Protection
  • Advancement

Within each, you will find a wealth of base stories to employ as you hone your writing.

Hunger

We have essential human needs: nourishment, shelter, connection.

When you write a hunger story, your main character wants to fill a tangible lack of sustenance. Quest stories are based on this instinct, like the hunter-gatherers’ need to feed their families, Jean Valjean’s stealing a loaf of bread in Les Misérables, or the Joad family’s trek in The Grapes of Wrath.

Consider stories about down-on-their-luck characters who need a job. A Chorus Line, one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals, centers on a dance audition. At the heart of the show is its opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” in which those auditioning sing about the universal need for a job, a change, an opportunity to grow by digging right down to the bottom of their souls. It’s not just dancers ― everyone hungers.

Hunger is about escaping hardship, whether economic station (Annie, Oliver), an abusive home (well, again, Annie, Oliver, and let’s add Cinderella ― though more about that shortly), or the threat of death itself as in many horror tales, especially the slasher genre. You can find all these motivations in a certain young adult series with Hunger in the title, though the later Games books fall into other categories discussed below.

Like hunger, these stories reside in our collective gut. Is your main character recovering from the pain of grief or loss? Are they an Ugly Duckling craving true belonging? Are they like Dorothy, far from home, desperate to return? Or is your character like Liam Neeson’s in Taken, using a very “particular set of skills” to rescue someone and, in turn, themselves?

In a story based on “thirst,” Fun Home’s Alison searches her memory for a moment of connection with her father. Photo of Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris by Joan Marcus.

Thirst

While hunger is about necessity, thirst is about passion, ambition, and quenching a seemingly endless pit of desire. We have a drive to succeed, to obtain the unobtainable, like Avatar’s “Unobtanium.” (Yup, that’s what it’s called.)

One of the greatest passions is love. In hunger stories, romance is often framed in terms of rescue, as in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Rapunzel, or in partners surviving the odds together, like Jack and Rose in Titanic.

Thirst romances are more about the ineffable lure of the other person. While the Star Wars prequels certainly have flaws, they center on the downfall of a couple in a deep, almost irrational love story.

Another facet of thirst is ambition. Back to Star Wars: For Anakin Skywalker, Episode I is about hunger. He wants to escape slavery (and sand), but in II and III he thirsts for a higher destiny than the Jedi Council allows him. His resentment makes him the perfect pawn for Palpatine, a character who embodies thirst for power.

Anakin’s thirst expands when he becomes Darth Vader. His persistent search for his son in The Empire Strikes Back drives so many events in that story, all for ambition. If he finds Luke, then they can rule the galaxy together.

Revenge is a powerful thirst. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” declares “to seek revenge may lead to hell,” while Moby Dick dramatizes Captain Ahab’s infernal battle with the white whale responsible for the loss of his leg. Or, thirst can involve a hazardous “deal with the devil,” whether the actual one in Faust or a man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

On the positive side, we all thirst for fulfillment, often with family. Geppetto wants a son (his motivation is a bit kinder than Vader’s), while Pinocchio yearns to be a real boy. Fun Home’s Alison searches her memory for a coveted moment of connection with her father. Beyond family, think of underdogs like the diminutive Rudy emerging victorious in football or the original Rocky winning by going the distance.

Hunger and thirst are often about individual needs and wants; let’s expand our look to stories about societal survival.

Frankenstein exposes the perils of advancement. Photo of Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch by Catherine Ashmore.

Protection

As a species, we form communities, alliances, and social structures. Protection stories render conflicts between groups of opposing opinions. The kids who want to dance in Footloose grapple with the same eternal dilemma as the students whose Spring Awakening petrifies their parents.

Protection can also be about a way of life under threat: In the Heights and Fiddler on the Roof both show villages facing extinction, where families must contend with an ever-changing world.

Stories here also fall into a category I like to call “Stranger Changer,” about an outsider (be it a Pied Piper, a force of nature, or even a high school musical) that pierces a close-knit community, forever transforming its core. Stephen King masters these stories. Vampires invade Salem’s Lot, the Needful Things curio shop wreaks havoc, and Pennywise the clown emerges every 27 years in It.

Conversely, the “stranger” can be the fish out of water who grows in this foreign new land: Lightning McQueen in Cars, The Music Man’s Harold Hill, the once-wealthy Rose family stuck in the small town of Schitt’s Creek.

Then there are unlikely protectors and saviors: David fights Goliath, as do fictional Buffy (The Vampire Slayer) Summers, lone Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men, and real-life people whose lives have been dramatized, including Erin Brockovich or Rosa Parks.

Other characters are Chicken Littles or Those Who Cry Wolf, exposing our fears and doubts about inconvenient truths, from the ancient Cassandra to the modern day “that scientist” in every disaster movie ever made.

In family stories about protection, often it’s a case of “you and me against each other” (again, Spring Awakening comes to mind), but sometimes it’s “you and me against the world,” when the family must overcome internal differences to prevail. If you look beyond the superhero conceit of The Incredibles, you find a once-omnipotent father who feels weak, a mother who over-stretches herself to keep the family together, a teenager who feels invisible yet projects a forcefield around herself, a hyper-restless kid, and a baby who can sometimes be monstrous. When they save the world, they protect both it and their family unit.

ADVANCEMENT

Stories about divisive ideologies permeate our stages, pages, screens, and social media feeds. The need to protect is often in conflict with the need to advance.

Advancement, though, is about the betterment of our species.

In the recent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the story base changed from hunger to advancement: Cinderella goes to the ball not for her own rescue but rather to convince Prince Topher to help her downtrodden fellow citizens. In interpersonal stories of advancement, characters come together to change each other “For Good,” like Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked.

Advancement stories can also highlight the ways individuals strive for ideals, as in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Some stories expose the perils of advancement, such as discoveries gone awry or creations rebelling (hello, Dr. Frankenstein). Frankenstein was called “The Modern Prometheus,” and the movie Prometheus is aptly titled. While the Prometheus crew’s story is more about hunger, dodging alien hostility ― the overarching theme of the Alien saga ― confronts the Weyland-Yutani corporation’s desire for advancement in its plan to weaponize the aliens.

Advancement can have personal costs: In Hamilton, the title character’s dogged innovation to build the new nation contrasts the sacrifice of his domestic life. Back to Star Wars, the sequel trilogy shows how Luke’s ideals went sour, turning him into a green milk-squeezing hermit. Rey, however, finds the will to carry the legacy of Skywalker optimism and fight for justice.

Advancement stories strive for ideals, boldly going where no one has gone before (thanks, Star Trek) or discovering kindness in the worst of times, as the Gander folk and plane people portray in Come From Away.

As you advance in your writing, protecting your vision, thirsting to tell your story, and hungering for expression, investigate these bases. There is a rabbit hole of a website called tvtropes.org that delves into hundreds of them. Embrace the ones that speak to you. If some feel outdated, subvert them. Better yet, create new ones.

Tell stories from your base perspective, stories we have yet to hear ― stories that will help us survive.

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