Caveman Theory

A solid story is portable, you can put it in any universe or time period and it will still make sense.  I call this my “Caveman theory,” you should always endeavor to have a story with goals so simple you could explain them to a caveman assuming you had a universal translator.

A simple example: THE MATRIX is a story about a tribesman who discovers that he can walk in dreams.  When the demons who live in the dream world threaten to kill humanity, he must learn how to be a great warrior to stop them.

The overall point of the caveman exercise is to identify what’s truly motivating the story. Stories usually need something primal at the core, like love, family, power, or survival.

INCEPTION: Cobb was a thief who stole treasures from people’s dreams. One day, the gods caught him and made him steal from the chief of the flint people. Cobb recruited six of his friends and they went to steal the flint chief’s dream. In the dream they met a dreamer. They went deeper. And deeper. And deeper. Until Cobb found himself alone in the frozen place where bad souls go… he eventually made peace with the ghost of his wife and returned to the real world (or did he?)

PRIMER: Once there was a tribesman who found a magic sweat lodge. For every day he sat in the sweat lodge, he could go back in time one day. This gave him power. But when others found similar sweatlodges, he had to sacrifice everything to go back further than anyone to control the magic. In the process he gave up his family.

In primer, say I’m not able to use time travel. The story still functionally works if every day in the sweat lodge guarantees him a good hunt. When others use sweat lodges to gain power, caveman Aaron has to go into his sweat lodge for a week to get the power to destroy the others (this is now becoming oddly like the Korean myth about the tiger and the bear who had to fast in a cave to become humans).

Cavemen might not understand retcons, grandfather paradoxes and multiverse theory, but they would probably understand the metaphor of guys out hustling each other to get stronger/hunt better/invent better weapons. And that’s what Primer is. The cool, mindbending time travel stuff is the selling point, but at the core of it, it’s about a man who’d do anything for more power.


I drop this chestnut on clients all the time.  Today, though, a client asked me how we could specifically use caveman theory to vet her story.  The conversation went something like this (details changed to protect his or her confidentiality):

HER: So it’s about a documentarian…
ME: Whoa, I’m a caveman, I don’t know what that is.
HER: Um, a storyteller…
ME: Oh, yes, we have those.
HER: A storyteller tells stories about child slaves.  But one of her stories gets a child killed.
ME: Oh, she must feel terribly guilty.
HER: Yes.  So she takes care of a girl who worked with the the dead girl.
ME: I’m a caveman.  Sister might be simpler.
HER: Oh, that’s better.  Yeah.  Anyway, she tries to place the girl with the Red Cross… I mean a kindly tribe with plenty of food.  But the girl runs away.
ME: Why?
HER: Because… the girl wants to be a storyteller too.

We continued this vein for some time.  What emerged was simplicity and truth.  She had a great story, but it was lost in a tangle of research and a potpourri of ideas that were interesting but not central to the plot.  By stripping away the story to its universal truths the following things emerged:

  • We were missing a key scene where the girl finally accepts why the “storyteller” is rejecting her.
  • We could have more fun with the girl running away by homaging classic folktale tropes, three attempts, kindly archetypes, etc.
  • The girl was disconnected from the high concept the author wanted to tell.  By connecting her backstory to the main idea of the script, everything became simplified and streamlined.
  • We learned that the documentarian’s goal was not to win an award (cavemen don’t understand Peabodies), but rather achieve in an attempt to end war and make peace with the ghosts of the past.

The cavemen exercise keeps stories from being about their worlds, their research or clever gimmicks.  It keeps things primal, simple and most importantly human.

We emerged from the exercise with two dynamite scenes and a rewrite plan that would carve a 140 page first draft into something manageable and moving.  All from pretending to be cavemen.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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