December 26, 2017

Storytelling: It’s about Going Primal — Guest: Elizabeth Randolph

Primitive handprint on cave wall with text: Should We Write Like a Caveman?

When we first start writing, we often have to learn new skills to improve our writing craft. We hear lots of new “rules” to do this and don’t do that. And that knowledge is all good and necessary—even if we later decide to ignore those rules.

However, that close-up focus often means that we, as writers, can get lost in the “trees” of writing craft nitpickiness and lose sight of the “forest” of good storytelling. The best constructed sentences won’t hold our readers’ attention if we’re not telling a good story.

So how do we step back and see that larger storytelling picture? I’m excited to introduce Elizabeth Randolph (writing as E J Randolph), who’s here today to share her insights on how to regain that storytelling mindset by identifying our primal story.

Please welcome Elizabeth Randolph! *smile*


Writing Like a Caveman

by E J Randolph

Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat writes about the need for primal stories with stakes a caveman can understand. He uses the example of the movie Jaws as being so primal one can watch it with the sound off and understand what is going on.

But what does primal mean? What does it mean to write like a caveman?

Our Brain Thinks Primally

The evolutionary imperative at the level of our genes is to “eat, survive, and procreate.” Our brains evolved to solve the obstacles to these goals, and the same basic brain functioning operates today in every sphere of our lives—including writing.

That means our brains learn to prioritize what we see and hear and create patterns, and that is how we make sense of our surroundings. We are never cameras or tape recorders. We are constantly interpreting and simplifying so we can pick out or identify threats and opportunities.

Are those little round red things in that green patch edible berries?

A bush rustles nearby. Is that a tiger? Or a gazelle we should kill and eat?

Something streaks by in our peripheral vision. We immediately swing around and look. Movement captures our attention and could be a threat or an opportunity.

We hear a loud roar. RUN!

How Can Writing Be Primal?

The same skill sets influence how we write stories:

  • The plot of a story requires a structure or pattern: a beginning, middle, and end. All the templates and heroes’ journeys are variations and expansions on this basic structure.
  • We are told to limit how many characters, places, and points of view we put in our novel or short story. The brain just doesn’t like bouncing all around or being distracted in too many different directions and needs to simplify.
  • Stories have a main character – human, animal, alien with whom we can identify, a place to focus.
  • We tend to use more detail in scenes where we want the reader to pay attention, places we show instead of tell, the result of first interpreting and deciding what is important.
  • Interestingly, the advice to use action words as much as possible fits with how the brain zooms in on action or movement.

Keep Readers’ Attention with Problems

For a story to ensnare our attention though, we need a big problem to solve. We are interested in how others solve problems in different situations.

We may need that knowledge. It is imperative we remember or are told which berries are poisonous, which plants are edible, where the best places to hunt are.

(Side note: Unfortunately, because survival requires we remember the bad, when we break up with someone, we tend to remember the bad.) Bad times, bad things, bad problems loom large in our lives and in our minds.

We are riveted by big problems. The bigger the problem, the better the story.

How Do We Describe Stories?

But what is a story? When a granddaughter asks her grandpa for a story, she means the entire creative product. But writers tend to differentiate between a plot and a story.

How can we describe our story with universal or primal appeal? Click To TweetSome say the story is the internal arc and the plot is the external arc. Others say the story is the broad overview including internal and external problems and how the main character overcomes or solves them, and the plot is the detailed chain of events.

Because there are many levels of abstraction and usually both an internal and an external arc, any novel can be described in a variety of ways.

I read several books that used The Hunger Games as an example of the template they recommended, and each one identified the story as something different.

  • One book said the story was a love story.
  • Another said something else.
  • Each one also picked a different spot in the story as the inciting incident or the midpoint.

All this disagreement was illuminating.

(Nail Your Story by Monica Leonelle; Powerful Premise: Writing the Irresistible by William Bernhardt; Fix Your Damn Book!: How to painlessly self-edit Your Novels & Stories by James Osiris Baldwin; Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell; Put the cat in the Oven before You describe the Kitchen by Jake Vander Ark; Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maas)

Blake Snyder’s 10 Types of Primal/Universal Stories

Blake Snyder in his book, Save the Cat, lists out ten categories of stories in movies. His ideas are useful for describing one’s book and ensuring thematic consistency.

I think they are better than saying there are only four stories: man vs self, man vs man, man vs nature, man vs man’s creation.

Snyder constantly reiterates the need to stay primal and have survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death as the stakes. He also recommends using primary-relation characters such as mother, father, wife, husband, or child.

#1: Monster in the House

A scary something in an enclosed or defined space with the imperative: don’t get eaten or killed.

This category includes Jaws, every horror story, The Exorcist, and Alien.

#2: The Golden Fleece

He means quests or on-the-road stories where the heroes find themselves. The theme is internal growth.

Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Dirty Dozen, and includes every heist story.

#3: Out of the Bottle

He means genie out of the bottle. These are wish-fulfillment stories.

They have to have someone so put upon we root for them to get a break. Sometimes they get something magical. In the end, they have to come back to being like the rest of us.

Or they have the opposite situation. Someone who needs a good kick in the ass. The person has to show some redeeming quality at first, and they triumph in the end.

The Love Bug or Liar, Liar.

#4: Dude with a Problem

An ordinary guy or gal who finds themselves in extraordinary circumstances. The problems have to be BIG! And the triumph comes from using one’s individuality to outsmart the far more powerful forces aligned against oneself.

Titanic, Terminator, and Die Hard.

#5: Rites of Passage

Growing pain stories that touch us because we have all gone through these most sensitive times of our lives. Tales of pain and torment from life. When we successfully come through, we can smile. Puberty, mid-life crises, old age, romantic breakup, grieving. The end is always accepting our humanity.

That’s Life!, 10, and Days of Wind and Roses.

#6: Buddy Love

Snyder puts all love and friendship stories together. The structure is always the same. The characters get together, something tears them apart, they end up together.

Romances, Don Quixote, Thelma and Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rain Man, and Lethal Weapon.

#7: Whydunit

The mystery or detective story. He says the real deal is we want to look inside at the human heart and discover something dark within. The detective is our surrogate as we ask, “Are we this evil?”

Chinatown, JFK, and Mystic River.

#8: The Fool Triumphant

The village idiot who is the wisest among us. The set-up is someone so incompetent and such an underdog we root for them.

Often there is an accomplice who can’t believe the fool is getting away with things. For instance, Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump. There is usually an institution or culture that we are sure the fool can’t beat.

The appeal is the outsider being triumphant. We all feel like an outsider sometimes.

Keaton, Chaplin, and Forrest Gump.

#9: Institutionalized

He means groups, and he is discussing the pull between identity and belonging to the group. Often the group dynamic is crazy, yet we put the group ahead of ourselves even when it is counter to survival. And we have through time. This category deals with the pros and cons of the herd mentality.

M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and The Godfather.

#10: Superhero

Opposite of Dude with a Problem. This is an extraordinary guy or gal in ordinary circumstances.

The point is to humanize the character and show their pain. It is told from the point of view of being different and how people of small minds can be cruel. The universal is the plight of being misunderstood. The stories give flight to our fantasies but have a dose of reality.

All Marvel comics, Frankenstein, Dracula, and X-Men.

How Do These Categories Help Us See the Universal Story?

Snyder says you can also see Jaws as just a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur or even the dragon-slayer of the Middle Ages. Superman is just a modern Hercules. Road Trip is just an update of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

All these categories seem neat and tidy until we look at Snyder’s examples.

Take one. Star Wars is not just a quest or on-the-road story as he asserts. It is clearly a rite of passage story about a teenager growing into a man. Or a story about good versus evil. On Tameri Guide for Writers, I read that “Star Wars is not about Luke versus Darth Vader — it’s about a fallen republic versus a dictatorship, good versus evil on a grand scale.”

Should we throw out all these categories? No. We each bring our whole selves to reading and writing.

Multiple Story Elements = Multiple Appeals to Readers

A story usually has more than one theme or universal. We resonate to different ones, and that’s OK.

Good story telling is based on our brains, the realities of living together, and the need to eat, survive, and procreate. That means going primal, going to the universals, going to what we all know. We touch those, we touch our readers.

The universals that interest me are being loved, having a purpose in life, belonging, righting the wrongs, growing up, growing old, getting through the hard times, learning to laugh, and what happens when two very different groups of people meet up.

All story telling goes back to the days of cavemen and cave women sitting around a fire. What rivets our attention? Life and death survival and finding love and acceptance.

But what we really want to know is: How did you – or someone else – solve problems to achieve love and survival? Can you tell me?

If you can, you have a story to tell.


EJ Randolph headshotE J Randolph writes science fiction stories about a rule-bending Federation of planets diplomat who goes to planets troubled with internal unrest or war, and she brings about peace through unusual but historically derived methods.

She also writes children’s books about a purple dragon who saves the town when the chili roaster breaks by roasting the chilies in the field and melts snow when skiers are caught in an avalanche.

She draws on her five years of experience as a history writing tutor in her A Very Short Writing Manual for the Utterly Clueless. By asking questions, anyone can learn to write at least passably.

Website | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon


Retrograde: Some Principles Are Timeless

Retrograde coverThe cold steel of the assassin’s blade bites into her neck, and Kate Stevens, Federation diplomat, freezes. She has cured the king. Is that the problem? Or, does the knife wielder have something against the Federation?

She needs allies and she needs them fast. Coups plots are springing up like mushrooms after a rain, and the lord chancellor wants her out of the way or dead. Illustrations.

Available now on Amazon!


Thank you, Elizabeth! I love how you point out that we’re not using these categories to turn our story into a formula. Instead, it’s about identifying what makes our story universal, how it might appeal to readers on a primal level.

As Elizabeth pointed out, there aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers. Any story could include multiple elements with universal appeal, such as the Star Wars example she shared. So we might come up with several angles for our story’s primal aspects.

However, once we understand the core of our story’s emotional appeal, we might be able to use that knowledge when revising, ensuring we’re keeping that aspect as strong as possible. Or we might build our story’s blurb around one of those primal aspects to engage readers (and their emotions) even with that short description.

As with most things writing, we can improve what we’re conscious of, whether that’s our word choice, theme, or primal aspects. So here’s hoping we can build on our story’s universal appeal and attract more readers. *smile*

Have you ever felt that trees vs. forest issue when it comes to writing? What stories feel most primal or universal to you? Do you tend to enjoy some categories more than others? Have you thought about what’s universally relatable in your story? Do you have any questions for Elizabeth?

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Thank you for this post.

Nancy Pearcey
Nancy Pearcey

Thanks for this inspiring piece. It’s always helpful to get past the details and be reminded of the Big Themes in writing.


Good point. I also find it helpful when rewriting to be conscious of my themes.

Kate Rauner

I sometimes find myself examining the bark on those trees – good reminder of how to see the forest 🙂


You and me both.:)

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

I think it’s an important point that different readers will see (and resonate with) different universal themes in your story. 🙂 Sometimes, the author doesn’t even realize some great themes in their book, until a reader or a friend points them out! As an example, an acquaintance was writing her first novel. She didn’t have much confidence as a writer, even though I thought she wrote quite well for a beginner. She also felt there wasn’t anything “deep” or “significant” in her story, so I told her that I can see themes of friendship throughout her work. (E.g. Love and self-sacrifice for your friends, sincerely caring about your friends’ welfare and being willing to do anything for them, etc.) The author was thrilled because she never saw these friendship themes before. Ha, I’m pretty attentive to friendship-related themes in stories, so. ^^


That’s wonderful!

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

…or Cavewoman.
Thanks for the story/ film examples, I was having fun picking a few extras. For Fool Triumphant, Footloose. Genie out of bottle, Cinderella. Superhero in ordinary circumstances, The Student Prince. To past generations, royalty might as well have been superheroes.
Happy 2018!


Good point.


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