The Hero’s Journey: For Writing & Life

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You are probably on a journey; I know I am. For me, it’s a writer’s journey, but it’s a hero’s journey, too. Writers have our own battles, allies, and enemies to navigate. Whether we realize it or not, the characters we write about, and ourselves, have embarked upon The Hero’s Journey. Cinch down your cloak, replenish the ink in your sharpest quill, and let’s talk about it.

hero with a thousand faces 1.jpgThe Hero’s Journey is a concept I first read about in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell explains that there are reoccurring themes that run through almost all stories, myths, and even religious texts. The theme is The Hero’s Journey. Once it’s broken down into pieces, you can’t help but noticing it in most of the books, movies, and mediums you see everyday. Even aspects of our own lives conform to the structure.

While Campbell introduced the idea of The Hero’s Journey, Christopher Vogler does an amazing job of breaking it down into component pieces in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Campbell basically said, “There be dragons ahead,” and Vogler took that statement and wrote a book on how to slay those winged beasts.

Vogler’s step-by-step model of writing stories has been adopted by many writers working in different mediums. You’ll have a hard time finding a Pixar or Disney movie that doesn’t adopt this structure outright. The reason? Well, for one, it works. Two, this plotting method is relatable to most people, because our life experience seems to tie into the myth of the story.

Vogler explains, “The Hero’s Journey, I discovered, is more than just a description of the hidden patterns of mythology. It is a useful guide to life, especially the writer’s life. In the perilous adventure of my own writing, I found the stages of the Hero’s Journey showing up just as reliably and usefully as they did in books, myths, and movies” (p. 5).

With Vogler and Campbell’s twin stars on the horizon as our guide, lets learn about the journey. Also, let’s uncover how it applies to our writing and our lives.

hobbit holeThe Ordinary World. This is where the writer introduces the hero/heroine in their normal environment. Of course, they aren’t a hero yet. They are a street rat (Aladdin), hairy-footed Hobbit in a hole (LOTR), or girl living in the coal district (Hunger Games).

For the writer, this may be the time before you started writing. Maybe you thought about writing. There was a nagging feeling, but you ignored it. You stayed in the comfort of your Ordinary World.

The Call to Adventure.  This is when an external influence causes the hero/heroine to consider abandoning the Ordinary World.  This call to action is often times them learning of a threat to the safety of their Ordinary World.

For writers, this is the moment of inspiration.  Maybe a book, friend, teacher, movie, flash of clarity, or all of these combined, turns the nagging feeling into something more.  The words are calling to you.

refusing the call.jpgRefusal of the Call. This is the moment of doubt. The budding hero doesn’t want to leave the comfort of the Ordinary World. Family, doubt in ability, lack of incentive, and fear are often played upon refusals.

These are those first doubts you feel as a writer. “I can’t do this.  I don’t have a story to tell. I don’t even know how to write well.  Is writing worth it?”

Mentor Pops Up. Aladdin had a genie, the hobbits had Gandalf, and Katniss had Haymitch. These are their guides to push them along.  Some act as a moral compass, some simply push the hero, and some are there to meddle.

A mentor doesn’t have to be a person when it comes to writers. It can be, sure, but it can also be a book/idea/dream that inspires you. Something to guide you along your path and help you step outside of your comfort zone.

door to a new world.jpgCrossing the First Threshold. This is when the story starts getting interesting. The hero puts his/her head down and embarks on the quest.  They accept the adventure, leaving the Ordinary World and entering a special one.

For you wordsmiths, this is when you say, “Screw it – lets do this thing.” You sit down and begin the process. You exit the real world and enter the creative whirlpool. I see many authors quitting their jobs and taking up writing full-time. No doubt, they are crossing toward the First Threshold.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies.  Here we start getting elements sprinkled in. The hero/heroine meets friends, learn of and encounter enemies, and begin facing minor trials. They battle threshold guardians and sometimes, almost always, they come up short. The hero/heroine haven’t yet honed their skills. Or perhaps they haven’t built a strong enough connection with their allies to be effective.

hercules.jpgFor us scribblers, this is the beginning of the process. We seek out others like us. We deal with writers block and creativity issues. We learn that the initial fire, that spark, won’t sustain us. We need something more: dedication and habit. We often fail, but in the process, we begin to get better at the craft.

Approach to the Inmost  Cave. At this point, the hero/heroine (and allies if applicable) have honed their skills, and are preparing to face the enemy.  They stand at the gates, swords/wands/pens in hand with a determined look on their faces. Their scars, whether metaphorical or very real, are a testament to the journey they have taken to this point.

For writers, this when you start getting deeper into the work. You’ve knocked out a couple hundred pages, maybe told a few people what you are up to, and now the pressure is mounting. The end is in very near, but you still have work to do. You hope your resolve and skill will carry you to the end.

The Supreme Ordeal. This is the, “oh crap,” moment when the hero stares death in the face. For the reader/audience, you wonder if they will survive. The hero/heroine does survive the conflict, often barely, and realize they are more powerful/resourceful than they thought.

For the writer, this is the moment when you almost lose the writing battle. You step away for a few days, weeks, or months — sometimes longer.  You reappraise what you are doing. If you are the writing hero I know you are, you’ll return to the desk and finish.

flying carpet.jpgReward. For the hero, they seize the reward after beating the boss; the battle is won. Many times, they gain a boon, trophy, or magic item. The reward may simply be the realization of power they didn’t know existed within themselves.

My friend M.L.S. Weech always says, the more times you type, “The End,” the more confident you will be in your skill. He also says the more of them you type, the easier and quicker the next one is to get to.  This is sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many of the writers I work with, or consider to be mentors in my own journey. Needles to say, for a writer, typing The End is a major reward.  It is also the realization of hidden potential.

The Road Back. The hero begins the return journey back to the Ordinary World with the reward in hand, or inside them.

For the writer, I equate this to the real world versus fantasy world we live in while we write. You improved your skills while you wrote, you finished the work, now you must come back to the Ordinary World and edit/promote/sell it.

TheKnightAtTheCrossroads.jpgResurrection. The hero may have slain the dragon and seized the magic sword that heals the land, but now the dragon’s mother is in pursuit. Often times, the hero must deal with the consequences of their Supreme Ordeal. When power is found, unlocked, or a magic item is gained, there is often the issue of wielding this power responsibly. Sometimes, those around you become wary of what you have become, or what you are capable of.

For the writer, this is the realization that writing The End is just another beginning. There are edits, rewrites, book covers, email lists, agents, publishers, and critics to contend with now.  More ordeals spring up like weeds.

potion.jpgReturn with the Elixir. It’s all meaningless for the hero if they don’t return to the Ordinary World clutching their spoils. These spoils can by physical: an item to cleanse the blighted land, or powerful weapon to protect it. The spoils can be mental: they now have a story to share, become a mentor themselves, or offer insights to protect and enhance their Ordinary World.

For us writers, these are the moments of impact after the book, or work, is out there. The email from an appreciative reader, the five star review, the kind words from friends and family. Maybe your elixir is to compile a book to illuminate the way, much like Campbell and Vogler did for me.

That’s The Hero’s Journey.  This was a longer post, if you made it this far you’ve completed a reader’s journey.  In the future, I want to elaborate on each step, but we needed a point to jump off from – hence the length.

I hope you found this helpful. Do aspects of your life (writing life/life in general) fit The Hero’s Journey? Do you feel like steps are missing or are incorrect? I’d love to talk about it.


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What are Plots? Understanding Episodic, Dramatic, Parallel, and Flashback

No Plot.jpg“What’s it all about?” “What’s the point?” If you’re a writer or reader, these are usually questions of plot. They could be the things we whisper in the dark before we sleep, too.

Anyways, moving along.

Let’s start this shindig with a basic definition. I pulled this one from The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante (it’s one gigantic book, but a really great one). “So plot, as we will define it, is that series of events, arranged in a particular order, which brings about the desired final effect of a short story or novel” (p. 377).

Highfalutin folks People who have taken some creative writing courses (or read a few textbooks on the subject) will mutter about The Major Dramatic Question. To put it simply, the major dramatic question is the problem the author presents for their characters to deal with; it’s the same problem the reader is confronted with as they go through the story. After the story is finished, the reader should feel they have an answer, or solution, to this problem (even if the reader’s solution wasn’t the same as what you wrote, at least you got them thinking).

While the journey to answering this question is why readers read, as the writer, it’s often important to take a moment to ask yourself: “Just where the heck am I going with this? What issue am I presenting in this story? Does my ending solve this issue? Should it?”

Ignoring the plot is like foreplay without We don’t want to take our readers on an awesome journey and not give them a payoff of some kind. The plot ensures we stay on track. I’ve read/heard many different techniques for ensuring you achieve this goal. I’m sticking with the shortest and quickest ones I’ve found.

Crying Boy No Plot.jpgDon’t plot. Doesn’t get any quicker than doing nothing. Not what I would recommend, but enough people have read Steven King’s book, On Writing, to cherry-pick passages that indicate plotting goes against creativity (as if every writer is creative in the same way and one person’s recipe for success fits all). According to King, this sort of pre-planning ruins the organic process.

The reason I don’t recommend this is because it’s hard to overhaul a plotless book. These novels/stories stretch on forever, largely because the writer is simply writing without a goal of any kind. They rock back and forth and whisper, “The ending will come, the ending will come…” Bad news, sometimes, it’s not coming. Sometimes, you must have a somewhat realized concept of what the plot was to effectively close it out.

Side note. The lack of any sort of plotting and blind writing is not something I advocate or dissuade people from, generically. Every writer is different. Some can power through to a conclusion that makes perfect sense. Some will get lost in the middle and never find the end. Some advice shouldn’t be stone, it should be sand. So, shift your style to fit your person, even if your person shifts year-by-year.

Plot points. Unlike an in-depth plotting project where you write pages of discovery material, this is a page or two where you numerically number the major plot points in chronological order and cross them off as you move along. This gives you the freedom to connect those dots however you want, and even change them along the way. This provides the writer an endgame, even if the conclusion is in flux and changes as you close on it.

Mission Statement. One of the best and least time-sucky methods I’ve seen comes from the book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. He states you should take the time to draft a mission statement for your work. The mission statement, according to Clark, is a list of “I want” statements.

Examples. I want the hero to to lose his hero-status and die. I want to show space pirates have a heart of gold. I want to turn (insert trope) on its head. I want to show that kittens are superior to puppies.

These “I want” statements highlight what your goals are for the characters and conflicts in the story. They also can quickly become dramatic questions. Just replace I want with how do I. Suddenly you have a series of questions to answer with your writing. This allows you to be run wild with organic story telling, but also creates a loose set of guidelines to reel you back in.

Moving on.

There are four “main” types of plots out there. Honestly, there are more than four, but these seem to be the most common in current literature: dramatic, parallel, episodic, and flashback.

 

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An example of a dramatic plot. 

Dramatic Plots. This follows one main rising action to a climax, then tapers down to the end. Most of the book is spent establishing settings, characters, and conflicts. One main conflict reigns supreme, and the characters ride this action to a crescendo. There is a period of lull after this climax (called the denouement) where the reader gets to take a breather, then the writer closes the story.

 

Episodic Plots. These follow many actions or events chapter-by-chapter. The events stack, and are typically related by a character or theme. The goal with this sort of plot is to show a larger event, place, time, or idea from many different angles. Much like the namesake, many television shows are set up with an episodic plot. There are central characters and themes to drive the show, but “filler” episodes could be shuffled around without impacting the series much.

Serving Up Plots.jpgSome military fiction uses this style. Each chapter highlights a different member in the military, tackling a different aspect of the battle or war. Ultimately, these vignettes join to paint a much larger understanding of the conflict.

Parallel Plots. This form allows you to take multiple dramatic plots, usually two or three, and run them at the same time. Remember how the dramatic plot has a rising action that leads to a climax in the story? With parallel plots, the multiple arcs usually all crash together at the climax. Because the reader has followed multiple rising actions, they might be more emotionally involved in the climactic moment.

Flashback, flashback, flashback… This plotting device allows the author to start the story in the middle of a high-action point, and flash backwards to lead back up to it. Giving the reader all the backstory and moving them back to the high-action moment. The clichéd version of this is certainly the, this is how I died, intro. Of course, I should eat my words as one of the most talked about and controversial shows on Netflix right now is 13 Reasons Why. A show about a girl who commits suicide, and each episode it basically a flashback to events leading up to it.

thanksThat’s a wrap for today, thanks for reading! No matter what plot you go with, or if you’re going into the work plotless, you owe your readers that moment at the end of the book where they sigh, look up at the skies, and say, “I feel…something.” Let’s just hope that something is a positive connection, one that will keep them coming back for more. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Writing: A Report vs a Story

DINFOS_Seal.pngThe core of my training and experience comes from my time as a military journalist.  At the Defense Information School, we were taught the “Five Ws and H,” way of approaching a news story. We were also taught something called the “Inverted Pyramid” style of structuring our stories. I now often find myself applying these methodologies to my fiction, and sometimes encourage writers I collaborate with to do the same.

First, let’s break it down a bit.  The five Ws and the H are broken down into: who, what, where, when, why, and how.  In journalism—especially military journalism—the focus seemed to be mostly on the first four.  If you could add the why and how, and still remain objective, you win the prize (M.L.S. Weech can correct me here as he teaches this stuff).

This way of thinking ensures the journalist, before they ever leave to cover the story, would remember to gather all the elements they needed to write a complete piece.  If the journalist could gather quotes from people talking about the why and how, even better.  This way of thinking organizes the journalists way of thinking.  Unlike fiction, the journalist may never get a second chance to ask the right questions to clarify their story.

Inverted Pyramid.jpgThe inverted pyramid is a means of organizing a story in order of importance.  I attached an image to illustrate this concept.  This does two things.  First, it ensures the most vital elements of the story are written first.  Secondly, it allows whoever is placing the news article into a newspaper, magazine, or periodical to have the flexibility to chop parts of the article away to fit it into the layout.  In essence, if they chop off the back-end of the news story it still delivers all of the pertinent information.

Transitioning this way of thinking to fiction isn’t too far-fetched.  Let’s start with the first concept.  We have to think of the “Five Ws and H,” in a different way.  Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writerwrote about this concept in an intuitive way.  The following excerpt is from this book on page 125.

Who becomes Character.
What becomes Action. (What happened.)
Where becomes Setting.
When become Chronology.
Why becomes Cause or Motive.
How becomes Process. (How it happened.)

Seeing it written out in this manner reveals the parallels in process between news and fiction writing.  Just like the journalist, the fiction writer must organize their piece and ensure they address most of the elements on this list.  When I do my first pass of a new manuscript, I mentally make notes of these elements as I see them.  If one element is missing, then the scene, chapter, or book will likely need some slight revision (not always).

newsboy

A newsboy circa 1912. Pulled from the NY Digital Libraries.

The inverted pyramid, transitioned to fiction, is a way of quickly organizing the content of a chapter in order of importance.  Yes, some of the information is specific to news, but it can be easily adapted to fiction. Each chapter should be written, not just as a bridge to advance the story, but as a means of revealing information about the characters, conflicts, and world.  Horizon gazing (focusing on the end) in fiction betrays one of the most important elements to the reader: the journey.

I like that background information is listed at the bottom of the pyramid.  Over reliance on background information (information dumping) and world building (when it becomes a disease and not a tool) can cause readers to feel disconnected from the characters.  If this tool is used as a plotting device, the writer can pull elements of background and world building up and into the chapter and sprinkle them in as beats.  Seeing the chapter outlined in this way ensures the author hits all of the major points.

For those of you who are meticulous outliners, this is yet another tool for you to track and plot out your story.  For those renegade maverick, seat-of-the-pants types, you will save yourselves hours of revision by simply ensuring you are covering the Five Ws and H chapter by chapter (when applicable).  Sometimes pantsers hit the wall and all it takes is for them to quickly plot a chapter for them to regain momentum.  This method of plotting may be a solution.

question-markThat’s it for today!  I hope you found some useful information here.  What method of plotting do you all use?  Do you have a pregenerated template you work from, or do you simply scribble notes? I know many of you will be taking part in NaNoWriMo here in Novemeber; have you all started the process of outlining?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing the Origin: The Ordinary World

batman.pngOrigin stories run through most popular works: religious texts, comics, ancient mythology, fiction, sports, and the list goes on. Pretty much everything and everyone has a state of beginning, and many of us want to know the details. It’s human nature to want to know where things come from.

When it comes to stories, the origin story is often the account of the Ordinary World. If you’ve been following the blog, I talked about the The Hero’s Journey a while back. Today we will examine the first step in the journey: the Ordinary World.

hobbit holeThe Ordinary World is where it all begins.

In Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, it’s explained that, “If you’re going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that Ordinary World to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world he is about to enter” (p. 19).

When you shape the Ordinary World, and the character who lives in it, you are creating the very first dot of their character arc.  This first dot is the point from which they will grow and change through the duration of your epic masterpiece.

flying carpet

Everyone has a magic carpet here…sigh…I wish I could go to a place where they are used for wiping feet.

You are also introducing the reader to the world they are slipping into. Depending on the genre you write in, this introduction to the Ordinary World can be breathtaking or it can be very average. Whatever it is, it tends to be business as usual for the character who dwells there.

newspaper.jpgWhen we consider examples of the Ordinary World, and the origins of the characters who live there, it reads like a dating ad in the newspaper.

  • Strapping farm boy wants to shake off the sand and explore the galaxy. Those blue eyes will Force you to fall in love all over again. (Star Wars)
  • Girl with the voice of an angel, and equally angelic heart, dreams of leaving the farm and going somewhere beyond the rainbow. Likes long walks on the yellow brick road and ruby red slippers. (Wizard of Oz)
    [I’m noticing a farm theme going on here…]
  • Don’t let the hairy feet and lack of height bother you, this bachelor is looking to put the “one ring” on your finger. If you like a cozy homebody, and a pantry always brimming with food, then look no further. (The Hobbit)

These examples may be silly, but there is a point: a story becomes all the more interesting when we know where the characters come from. What I like about these three different examples is they show three very different worlds: Kansas, Tattooine, and the Shire. Despite the differences, it’s just an Ordinary World to the characters living there.

wizard of oz.jpgThe Ordinary World provides you some important opportunities. Beyond the scenic descriptions, we begin to grasp what makes the hero/heroine tick. We get a taste of their maturity, motivations, fears, real/perceived conflicts, and a host of other items. I mentioned character arcs before, this is the first plotted point. Unless you do some kind of extended flashback (potential red flag), the character will likely begin their arc of growth once introduced in the book.

Does the story need to start with the Ordinary World? Do you have to take a chapter to describe the lilies in the field, setting suns, and introduce a complex sprawling scene? That’s completely up to you. Your book may start with your character in the thick of a chaotic situation. You went for shock and awe. However you start, the Ordinary World will be gradually revealed through action, dialogue, and setting information.

No-Blueprint.jpgIt’s worth noting. Your story doesn’t have to follow the blueprint of The Hero’s Journey. It doesn’t have to follow any blueprint. I’m sharing the steps of The Hero’s Journey with you because it’s a great tool. For me, the beauty of writing is that you have hundreds of options and tools available to solve problems and capture readers. The Hero’s Journey is just another tool you can break apart, sharpen, and use to carve out your story.

That’s it for today. What’s your take on the Ordinary World? Do you want to love it, leave it, or salvage it for parts? Is this a concept you’ve used yourself? Do you have some examples that worked for you? I’d be happy to talk about it. Thanks for reading and happy writing!


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The Originality of a Beginning

guide to literary agentsSome of us spend a countless amount of time thinking about those first few lines.  We are told over and over again, by countless sources, those first words are absolutely essential.  In the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents it is explained that, “Writing a compelling first page is very difficult.  It’s a balancing act of action, description, and dialogue, and somehow – no matter what it is you are writing about – you’ve got to make it interesting and employ a unique voice” (p. 42).

While the above example is talking about the first page, others talk about the first sentence or sentences.  This article, 7 Keys to Write the Perfect First Line of a Novel, written by Joe Bunting, offers a bunch of famous beginnings you can sort through.  You’ll see all the usual suspects – Melville, Dickens, Rowling, Tolkien, and a few unexpected ones.

Nice Intro.jpgWhat this article offers, and the book I listed above allude to, is the idea that you need to find a unique twist to somehow blow the readers mind to pieces.  The underlying concept is that you must be original.

I don’t know if I agree with this sentiment of originality.  Not entirely.

When I think of beginnings I think of one I say almost everyday to my son, “Once upon a time.”  When you hear those words, what do you think of?  I think of magic beans, talking animals, witches, heroes, and princesses.  For many of us, those stories are the first stories we ever hear.  They are the building blocks of our own lexicon of stories and mythology.  It is stamped into our brains.  Hardwired.  When we see that line, it opens a door.  A door encouraging us to believe in the unbelievable, to dream, to hope, and to imagine.

once upon a time.jpgIs it any surprise when George Lucas penned, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” it became such a classic line?  When you see that line (assuming you are familiar with Star Wars) you think of Jedi, lightsabers, The Force, and a host of other Star Wars related concepts.  But at the core of, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” is, “Once upon a time.”  His first line tapped into the power of those countless childhood stories, and he wielded it wisely.

For me, when I saw that line for the first time I was a just a kid.  My dad said, “You’ll love these movies Corey.”  I shoved the tape into a VCR, smashed the tracking button until the image was clear, and carefully read the scrolling prompt.  That first line hooked me.  It threw the door open to imagination.

This door became harder to open the older I got.

The door became harder to open because the more I learned about writing, the more rules were shoved down my throat.  Teachers, instructors, and experts, tell us, “No, no, no, not like that – like this!” or, “It’s a good first line, but it seems pretty similar to [insert story].”

portal.jpgIn the struggle for originality, many authors stray from one of the core concepts of storytelling.  This concept is that the line should work to transport someone into your world.  It’s a cue, overt or covert, that opens the forgotten door and encourages them to once again – believe in the unbelievable.  It doesn’t have to be some crazy twist of phrase.  It doesn’t have to be packed with hidden metaphors and symbolism.  It can be, but it doesn’t HAVE to be.

I would encourage you to look at children’s books for inspiration.  This article, 100 Best Opening Lines From Children’s Books, is a great compilation of those works.  Despite the primary audience of these books being children, the opening lines have great impact.

They have great impact because all of us were children at one point.  It is a universal concept uniting each and everyone one of us.  All of us, at some point in time, dared to believe in the unbelievable.  We didn’t care how crazy it seemed.

For me, I spent hours of my childhood trying to use The Force to move things around in my room.  I believed, beyond reason, if I just tried hard enough, it might just happen.  I could be a Jedi.  I just had to believe.

It never happened for me.  I never did move something with my mind.  And here I am now with a child of my own.  Despite my childhood being long gone, sometimes, when no one is looking, I still try to move things with my mind.  I part of me still believes.

That’s the power of a story.  That’s the power of a beginning.  Don’t stress originality, tell your story.  If the story is yours, the beginning will be too.

That’s it for today!  Do you have a story from your childhood that impacts you to this day?  Do you have an opening line that really rocked your socks off?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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