At its best, storytelling of relocates us. 

Whether we are reading a novel, watching a film or listening to a relative botch an account of their office christmas party, stories are the next best thing to real life experience.  

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of cinema.

Images, projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second, carry us through innumerable experiences almost as if a dream projected inside our own mind.

Meanwhile our brain chemicals are bubbling with each scene.  They fizz and spill over—sloshing about our craniums like beer at a baseball game—all under the spell of this thing we call a movie. 

What are these chemicals? What is happening in our brain when we watch a good movie, or witness an engaging story?

Surprisingly, there are only three principal emotions with which we need concern ourselves.

  • Dopamine
  • Oxytocin
  • Serotonin

These are the cornerstones of our emotions.  They are at work during a well-told story.

We have words to describe these emotions: sorrow, happiness, disdain, love, etc.  But all of these emotions are extensions of chemical processes in the brain. 

These feelings take place in the limbic system—a part of the brain we share with all our mammalian relatives.  This section of the brain is older than human history.  


The Limbic System – Highlighted in Purple

Only in the latest stages of our evolution did we develop the Neo-cortex, where we are capable of higher functions like language, mathematics and reasoning.

The Neo-cortex

The Neo-cortex – Highlighted in Blue

And because the brain chemicals we are discussing are quintessentially primal, so are mainstream movies.

Everyone is a storyteller.  Some albeit, are better than others.  And the perceived ability to tell a good story rests on ones ability to engage the 3 primary chemicals of the limbic system:

  • Dopamine: produces happiness when you find things like food, shelter, water, a partner, etc.  All things that meet your needs for survival.  It also activates from the “chase” of love.  A marathon runner gets a surge of dopamine when she sees the finish line.
  • Oxytocin: creates a feeling of safety and trust with others.  This is what connects you and your pet when you snuggle, offer food, or create any other sort of basic connection.  When you hug a loved one, oxytocin releases in the brain.
  • Serotonin: releases when you feel a sense of societal respect or pride.  When you have accomplished something and you are recognized for it.  Think “status”. 

Here is an example:


In Gladiator (Directed by Ridley Scott, Story By David Franzoni, Screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson), each one of these chemicals is touched upon. 

The protagonist, Maximus, is a respected Roman General who the ruling Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, loves as if he were his own son.  Aurelius, aged and preparing for deaths embrace, privately grants Maximus the highest power in Rome over his own son, Commodus.  When he learns he will not be emperor, Commodus swiftly murders his father to take the thrown. 

Knowing that Maximus is still a threat, Commodus strips him of his rank and sentences him to death, along with his family, who he has not seen since battle.  Though Maximus is able to escape his impending doom, he is too late to save his family.  They’ve been murdered as Commodus commanded. 

Maximus traverses the desert and nearly dies of exhaustion, until he is discovered by slave traders and relegated to fight to the death in Gladiator arenas.  He proves a dominant force in the arena, with crowds violently cheering his name after every battle.  Even the other Gladiators with whom he fights admire him for his skill and strength of character. 

Fueled by the desire for revenge, he meets Commodus in front of 50,000 Romans in an epic final scene.


The standard blockbuster plot-structure

With the combination of effective structure and a primal desire, this movie has grossed over $187,000,000.

Without reciting each scene of the film verbatim, we can observe pivotal scenes that interact with the three chemicals:

Dopamine:  Any instance where Maximus wins a battle.  Any instance where his survival is threatened and yet he finds a way out.

Oxytocin:  Maximus has a relationship with Marcus Aurelius, he develops alliances with the other gladiators, slave traders, even the emperors own sister.  We also witness Maximus’ flashbacks to his son and wife.

Serotonin:  Maximus must accomplish gain back respect after he is stripped of rank.  With each victory, the crowd cheers for him and he gains more power.

This is an example where, put plainly… simplicity sells.

Better yet, we can observe three rules for storytelling from coming to grips with our primal brains.

The story must have each of these 3 elements if it is to be a success:

  1. A hunt (vengeance, love, survival, success)
  2. Relationships (familial, platonic, romantic)
  3. Status (societal, familial, self-status)

The point here, is to stop thinking of emotions in terms of language.  Do not let the vague concepts cloud your judgement.  

The words we use to describe our feelings are merely semantic. 

If you want your story to be a success, make sure it touches on the 3 chemicals of the limbic system.  Make it so simple, even a Gladiator gets it.