How the 5 Stages of Grief Apply to Storytelling

The other day I noticed the 5 Stages of Grief applied not to only losing loved ones, but to coming to terms with harsh truths. When something shakes one of our bedrock principles, we cling onto it like it’s a cherished friend, suffer for a bit, and eventually pick ourselves up and move on. Since storytelling is just an entertaining, digestible way of illustrating personal growth, I began wondering whether the Stages of Grief applied to story structure.
Denial: The hero is confronted about their flaw. At first they deny it, convince themselves it’s the way things have to be, or can’t even see how it effects their current situation.
Anger: The hero can’t deny it anymore, and enters an uncomfortable, frustrating new reality where they have to face it.
  • STC: Break Into 2
  • DH: 3. Hero enters an unfamiliar situation,
Bargaining: The hero tries to balance their newer, healthier way of living with their old, outdated model of the world, which isn’t possible. (Fun and Games, B-Story, Midpoint)
  • STC: Fun and Games, B-Story, Midpoint
  • DH: 4. Hero adapts to it 5. The hero gets what they want
Depression: The hero’s inability to fully let go of their old ways leads to them losing touch with what/who they’d made a connection with in act 2. They hit rock bottom.
  • STC: Bad Guys Close in, All is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul
  • DH: 6. They pay a heavy price for it
Acceptance: The hero can’t keep moping around forever, and rises up to use what they’ve learned/gained to solve their own problems, moving on to a healthier way of living.
  • STC: Break into 3, Finale/Dig Deep Down, Final Image
  • DH: 7. They return, 8. Having changed
Story structure can seem so dry and formulaic, but this could be a pretty intuitive way to focus on the emotional side of a character’s arc. Whether you’re using Save the Cat, or The Hero’s Journey, or the Story Circle, it’s important to remember that every storytelling method is another ruler to measure the same messy thing. Just like the 5 (or 7) Stages of Grief.

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