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Heroic Journeys

Joseph Campbell said that all of our great stories are Hero Journeys, where the protagonist goes out from normal experience, learns something, and then comes back to share the discovery with the rest of us. The yardsticks of script coverage are whether there is a real conflict being resolved and whether the protagonist is changed by that resolution (the character’s arc). The second oldest saw in the writers’ workshop is that conflict is what is stopping the protagonist from getting what he/she wants. And the oldest saw is that a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Putting these four pillars of storytelling together gives us a pretty good framework from which to hang the details of just about any story you care to tell.

But notice how flexible all of these “definitions” really are. The conflict that must be resolved can be anything that is getting between the protagonist and his/her goal, including even not knowing what that goal is. And of course one convention is to have the desired goal turn out to be exactly what the protagonist initially thinks he/she does not need. But even with such journeys of discovery stories, at some point the protagonist will make the discovery, or make a decision about the discovery, and it is the bringing back of that decision to the rest of the world that completes the heroic journey.

So one might be tempted to think that with such flexible guidelines, literary criticism and deconstruction would be child’s play. In some stories, finding these key elements is easier than in others. But to see how this process is not at all trivial, you need go no farther than a writer who has run out of gas from the initial brave start and is now wondering whether the story is coming together as it should. The magic questions are the key. Is there a beginning, a middle and an end? What is the real conflict? How does resolving that conflict change the protagonist? And how is that learning brought back into normal life? Answering these questions honestly can reveal that a story is not worth telling. And as painful as that conclusion might be, it will save the writer a lot of self-inflicted forehead bruising. Most usefully, these questions can focus a writer on the things that need fixing.

I can tell you from my own experience, that the longer a piece is, the more likely you will have to stop and ask yourself these magic questions. With a twenty page short story, it is pretty clear if the protagonist’s goals are being properly impeded. With a 400 page manuscript, it is frustratingly easy to wander off track and give more emphasis over the course of the book to interesting subplots and supporting characters, and loose the momentum of the central conflict/resolution/journey/growth/arc.

Agents who get approached in hotel corridors at writing conventions ask to hear a two or three sentence pitch. This is sometimes called the “elevator pitch” because you might have to deliver it in an elevator and win the agent’s interest by the time the doors open. It may seem an exercise in cruelty to make an author distill a book that took years to write down to a couple of sentences. But in fact, the agent is doing two things. One is what you expect, seeing if the story is interesting. But the other thing is a favor to the writer. It is a test to see if you know what your book is about. And you can tell someone what your book is about by answering the magic questions.
As anyone operating in a vacuum, I have my moments of self doubt. You will see writers fling out a hand on Facebook hoping another writer friend will grab it and assure them that it will be all right. Weeks after I am objectively satisfied that I really have said everything I ever wanted to say in a story, I will break out in an irrational cold sweat wondering if I have made the protagonist’s arc accessible enough for the reader. I never write the same kind of story more than once. So I can’t look back on previous ventures to see if I have run off the tracks. It means I have to look with chilling honesty at each story and ferret out the one main thread that everything else in the story simply supports. But once I have made my corrections and satisfied myself that I really can answer the magic questions with good strong answers, I not only get to sleep soundly, I also have my elevator pitch ready.

Maybe that’s the writer’s heroic journey. Our normal process is picking up where we left off the night before and continuing to tell the stories we envision. But then things get messy, and questions pop up, and doubt creeps in, and the goal gets impeded. The writer then needs to leave the comfortable normal world, and journey out to confront the doubts and to find the answers. And having found the answers, the writer then comes back with renewed confidence. And that confidence empowers the writer to finish the story, which the rest of us then benefit from.

So don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. They might mean you’re in for a longer journey than you had planned. But you will arrive knowing what your story is about.

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