This quirky detail in nearly every movie can help you tap into your full power.
In screenwriting, movies are almost always broken up into three acts. This narrative arc was developed by Aristotle 2,400 years ago, and we still use it today.
The fact that this three-act narrative structure has persisted for thousands of years reveals the power of stories in our lives.
Stories teach us who we are in relation to the world around us, to each other, and to ourselves.
Our movies are our modern-day myths. We see characters play out dramas onscreen, and unconsciously we internalize these themes, desires, and character tropes in terms of what we value, despise, and love.
That’s how narrative works: every story is your story.
You’re the lead character of your own life story — and you can use a quirky, key detail in the narrative arc to tap into your full power.
Ultimately, this movie framework offers us insight into the powerful process of Shadow Work, which helps you become more self-actualized, whole, and at peace within yourself. Shadow Work integrates your conscious mind with your unconscious mind, or your light with your shadow (the shadow was coined by famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung).
To do this, we’ll take a look at the three act structure and how it relate to your life:
We discover the characters and the conflict. Let’s face it, most good stories need some obstacle — either in the external world or within the characters themselves. This make things interesting (have you watched a movie where people just, you know, go to the grocery store and go to their 9-5 and just live their daily lives?). There must be something to overcome. Some risk. Something at stake.
In order for our heroine to embark on her journey, she needs to leave the familiar world of Act 1.
In movies this is often symbolized as a literal journey: the aerial shot of the heroine’s car zooming down the highway toward an unknown future in a new city.
Or the soldiers suiting up for war.
Or the young protagonist starting a new school.
Or the spaceship soaring across the galaxy.**
Act 1 often ends with this image of leaving one world for a whole new one.
**Carolyn Elliot (a brilliant teacher, writer, and modern-day witch) points out that throughout the long history of storytelling across humanity, when a woman is cast in this narrative structure she is often not the agent of her own journey (and therefore she isn’t the author of her own story).
Basically, she doesn’t actively get to choose to go out on her mission and slay the dragon (historically we see male characters getting to have all the fun with the dragon slaying). Instead, she is stolen, kidnapped, made victim by outside forces — and usually some guy has to save her. AKA, the “damsel in distress” trope.
What movies come to your mind?
Taken, Kiss the Girls, Stolen, Snow White…the list goes on.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Eberdeen breaks this movie cliche by actively offering herself as tribute to save her sister and embark on her perilous journey. Oh, and Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, but I’ll get to her in just a moment.
However, the immense lack of female protagonists who are not swept away by villainous men is a CRITICAL POINT in how we ultimately are conditioned.
Women’s stories are mostly limited — in film and real life. Think about it: how often are women culturally expected to be wives and mothers? And if they’re not, how often are they the judged, pitied, or ostracized?
I know this cultural narrative is changing, but there’s still a lot more work to do — and I firmly believe that this type of examination and inner work can create giant steps forward for our collective unconscious conditioning…which brings us to Act 2:
The main character is faced with a set of obstacles on her journey toward the conflict: here the stakes are raised, the tension is heightened, and we’re sitting on the edge of our seats to see if our heroine can make it through.
She doesn’t often do this alone. Along the way, she often gets help: usually from a mentor and a sidekick (whom also provides a little comic relief). The late great Joseph Campbell, of course, has broken down these narrative archetypes brilliantly throughout his work.
Act 2 ends with the climax of the story, when the character faces her ultimate test. The battle, whether inward or outward, takes place.
Falling action. Now that she has or hasn’t succeeded in her goal, Act 3 is the fallout from those actions.
Does Katniss return home alive with glory and the spark of revolution?
Here’s the thing: in order for the main character to overcome her conflict, she must bring forth the strength, quirky wisdom, and unique genius she possessed all along…and this brings me to our girl Elle Woods.
Now you might consider Legally Blonde to be some vapid comedy, but when I studied screenwriting my professor used this movie as the template. It has stuck with me ever since. Check it out:
Act 1: Elle Woods is living it up as the Queen Bee (Beefore the real Queen B, Beyonce) of her sorority. She’s ‘got it all’ — looks, a wealthy family, popularity (I can feel the gears of social conditioning within me crack and groan at writing that cliche). She fully expects her handsome beau to propose to her at dinner one night. Instead, of course, he breaks up with her, because he’s going to law school and needs a “Jackie, not a Marilyn” as he tells her.
AHA! Now the inciting incident has occurred: the spark that sets the plot in motion.
Elle decides to get into the same prestigious law school to win him back. She studies for the LSATs and gets into Harvard Law — already, she has overcome odds and proven herself.
Act 2: There’s that classic aerial shot of her driving away from sunny California to the buttoned-up northeast, where she’s a classic fish-out-of-water in her new world. Many tests ensue, to once again prove her intelligence, and therefore her worth — tests which include denying the sexual advances of one of her professors.
Act 3: The plot boils up to a big murder trial, in which Elle and other students are part of the legal counsel. Here’s where our protagonist brings forth her unique genius to save the day: because she gets her hair and nails done a lot (as a former vapid sorority girl) she knows that you wouldn’t shower after getting a perm. She uses this bizarre bit of knowledge to interrogate a witness, who proves to be the murderer. Elle finally proves to everyone that she actually is a smart cookie.
At the end, she’s a whole lot wiser and stronger than when she first left California, but she also hasn’t denied her original nature. Instead, she uses her own history and qualities to bring her story to fruition.
This concept of refusing to deny our inherent qualities is paramount to the spiritual journey, and to Shadow Work in particular.
In fact, nearly all the world’s schools of philosophy, theology, and wisdom traditions wrestle with this concept:
What do we do with our animal nature?
or, put another way:
How do we wrestle with the parts of ourselves that we don’t like?
Do we judge, hide, and shame our anger, our malice, our untidy thoughts?
Or do we actually EMBRACE the full spectrum of what it means to be human?
In other words, can we actually fully embrace ourselves for who we are?
Can we acknowledge our anger, malice, and untidy thoughts without being consumed or fully identified with them?
Can we, therefore, be in a state of unconditional compassion for ourselves (which, as we all know, is the only path toward unconditional compassion toward others)?
As a yoga teacher and reiki master, for years I tangled with this concept. I wasn’t all Love & Light all the time — in fact, many times I could be Despair & Anguish, Ego & Insecurity, Anger & Fury.
There was so much darkness within me, which I thought made me a fraud. I thought it made me a ‘bad yoga teacher.’
Who else has ever had a case of imposter syndrome, especially if you’re a creative soul, an entrepreneur, or a spiritual teacher?
As Legally Blonde ends, Elle graduates at the top of her class and turns down the guy she originally wanted to win back in the first place.
Oh how my feminist heart would be so happy if that were it. Of course, she still connects with another romantic interest (Luke Wilson, so I don’t blame her), and the tale ends with their cliched kiss — further reinforcing the notion that there must also be some love affair to keep the audience satisfied (which gets internalized in the viewers as needing some love affair to keep ourselves satisfied in our own lives — that’s how narrative works).
In dream interpretation, you are every character.
The same is true with the way we are unconsciously conditioned by movies.
Remember, every story is your story.
That’s why you emotionally connect to stories, even ones with fantastic creatures and far-away galaxies — the undergirding human qualities of love, redemption, worthiness, and connection are universal.
The stories just provide intriguing details to express these deeper emotional states.
So, now the question is: what’s your story?
Which really is: how are you telling your story to yourself?
To discover the stories you’re playing out in your own daily life (ones that, ahem, may have been conditioned into you by societal norms), I’ve created a free download filled to the brim with mantras, journaling prompts, & fascinating insight into how these narratives get deeply conditioned into our belief systems, influencing how we live & how we love.
Access your FREE guide: "Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Rewrite Your Shadow Stories with Money, Love & Time."