Category: Film

3 Chemicals For Effective Storytelling

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.

What’s The Big Idea?

Too often, people are in search of an epiphany.  Magical inspiration.

They wait for their muse. 

Like a wishful widow watching for her sailor from the top of a lonely light house overlooking the sea, the truth is…

“He’s not coming.”

This is the unpopular truth of Big Ideas:

Big ideas do not come like a surge of main-lined heroine and reveal themselves at once in an explosion of ecstasy.

While the legend of a naked Archimedes jumping from his bathtub, running into the streets and  screaming “Eureka” might have us believe in grand moments of inspiration, that’s not how things work. 

I agree with what David Lynch says about ideas here:

While they percolate, ferment, and develop, small ideas seem arbitrary.  

Come to think of it, they look like what I imagine a caterpillar in the midst of metamorphosis– an awkward, wormy, would-be butterfly– looks like.

If you were to read through the notes in my Banknote wallet (which I carry everywhere), you would think maybe my pen was stolen by a chimpanzee.

Nothing is intelligible beyond small phrases.  These idea-fragments collect in my notebook like bugs on a windshield. 

Finally, I wake up and there are too many small ideas.  They sit there, begging for a commonality.  Their randomness becomes infuriating.  They need order.  

As Jazz Musician Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

This is where the elbow grease of creativity comes into play. 

The job is to make these small ideas, and countless hours of work appear as if they are a big idea that came down on angels wings in one fell swoop.

To discover Big Ideas, simply connect small ideas.  (It’s easier said than done).

This is a process Tim Ferris, New York Times Best Selling author of The 4 Hour Series, calls, “Meta Learning”.

Meta-Learning is exactly what is sounds like.  A practice of learning how to learn.  And in his book The 4 Hour Chef, Ferris identifies “deconstruction” as the first essential of meta-learning.

To paraphrase, deconstruction is a process of understanding the minimal learnable units of a skill.

In this case, deconstruction is about understanding the building blocks of a big idea or a work of art.

There is a fascinating article on music and information theory that supports this idea.

Music Made Simple

Music like Beethoven’s 3rd symphony is still talked about today because while it seems complex at first listen, it is easy for the human brain to compress it into simple patterns. 

The same way a computer is able to compress music into a smaller file-size, our brains compress music to unlock the basic patterns.  From this, the brain derives a great sense of satisfaction.  A feeling of accomplishment.

Even contemporary pop songs on the radio, which appear simple upon first listen, are actually less compressible for the human brain than the work of classical composers. 

Pink noise (representing random noise) is highly information-rich.  It is compressible to only 85.8% of the original sound by a computer algorithm.

Yet, when you look at music with identifiable patterns… the story changes.

“… Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was strongly compressible to only 40.6% of the original file size, whereas the Techno piece “Theme from Bubbleman” by Andy Van, the Pop piece “I should be so Lucky” by Kylie Minogue and the Rock piece “White Wedding” by Billy Idol were considerably less compressible, compressing to 68.5%, 69.5% and 57.5% of original file size respectively. Therefore, Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony is a better example of low Kolmogorov complexity Art [2] than Kylie Minogue’s “I should be so Lucky.””

Over time, the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach become more enjoyable while the works of Kylie Minogue and Brittney Spears begin to sour.  One is like a fine wine that gets better through time, the other is like milk left outside on a hot summer day. 

This is how the brain processes information. 

This is how we respond to art.

And this is key to how “The Big Idea” works in advertising (or for whatever else you use ideas).

It comes from how the brain recognizes patterns.  It is in our nature to recognize “Big Ideas” at first glance and subconsciously recognize the small ideas that comprise it.  (Numerous studies have shown creativity is a subconscious phenomenon).

The brain constantly seeks connections.  The process of simplifying ideas, and identifying cause/effect relationships is what led us down the path of nature-worship when we did rain-dances and held animal sacrifice to in hopes a few crops of corn might grow. 

It is why little kids under their first spell of puppy-love sit on the playground pulling flower pedals saying, “he loves me, he loves me not…”

The brain is addicted to patterns in all forms of storytelling, art, music and life.  Whether it is in an actual, exterior narration or in the internal story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Small Stories

It is why storytelling is hands-down the most powerful means of persuasion.

“Movies are the most powerful influence ever created!”

—J. Parnell Thomas (portrayed by James Dumont) In Trumbo.

Movies as a means of storytelling are a great example of this simplicity phenomenon.

In American cinema in particular, there is a formula for storytelling that has successfully enthralled audiences since the turn of the 20th century.  This formula fits on a set of two 3×5 index cards if you have small handwriting.


These patterns are not limited to narrative art forms.  The Big Idea flows effortlessly through too many art forms to list here.

Simplicity In Art

The Fibonacci sequence, or the Golden Ratio, is famous for its elegant simplicity and its prevalence in nature, art and mathematics. 

It is yet another example of a simple concept that compounds with elements of color, line, and theory in order to create something that appears more complex:

440px-SimilarGoldenRectangles.svg 440px-Golden_ratio_line.svg last-supper-phi-golden-ratio

These small patterns exist everywhere.

They are the lines that complete a painting.  The sounds that make up a song.  They are the thoughts that remain with us the morning after a dream.

While ideas occlude iterative processes—even the small ones—that doesn’t mean they’re not waiting for you, the same way you are waiting for them. 

Small ideas compound over time.  

The simplest, most infinitesimal realization can be catalyst to carry you from a collection of seemingly haphazard, hair-brained notions to a work of art with the vast potential to appear as if it came down on a golden lightening bolt.  

But once it is there, whether complex or simple in its delivery, it will be time for you to get to work.

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