I recently posted some of my fiction, and I was so pleased by people’s reaction that it got me thinking about sharing more of my writing and my writing process. I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process and, as a writer in general and a fiction writer specifically, by the process that goes into crafting stories. Dialogue and setting and plot and characterization, and, just like my fiction, though I am using it daily, I now see that I haven’t shared a lot of it. Let’s rectify that, shall we?
One of the many things that has always fascinated me about fiction is that it often feels less like I’m making it up as I go and more like I’m discovering something that was there all along. It’s the same when you talk about the process. All these elements feel less like things we have come to associate with story and more like the way stories have always been meant to be. None, perhaps more so, than the Hero’s Journey.
A lot. A LOT has been written on the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell’s work with Monomyth is certainly the most well-known. In his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, he maps out the basic narrative pattern of just about every story out there and actually boils it down into seventeen stages in three phases. Others have made similar patterns or further condensed Campbell’s into a dozen or so steps, but Campbell’s work is generally considered to be the most significant. (If you are not altogether interested in reading a 400-page treatise on the nature of Story, don’t worry, you can learn a lot from the Wikipedia page.)
But what’s interesting about monomyth is that it wasn’t solely the product of Campbell. He didn’t sit down and think up what would be a really good structure for a hero’s story. Instead, he looked at just about every story out there and picked out the similarities. Stories from different eras and cultures and languages, all of which seemed to follow a similar structure.
This is what I mean that writing often feels more like discovering than creating, like this is what it’s supposed to look like. That’s why, as a writer, it is so beneficial to reference these story structures. Because as much as I’d like to think I’m innovative and unique, chances are I haven’t reinvented the wheel, and why should I?
That’s why whenever I’m seriously considering a story, or more often whenever I hit a wall while writing one, I’ll check my hero’s journey. Am I hitting the right points? Does the shape of the story make sense? Is the reason I can’t go on because I’ve missed a step or I’ve been trying to take the wrong one?
I can’t enumerate the number of times this has saved my story. In fact it recently helped me on the book I posted about, Fatales.
While Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and it’s related summaries are the go-to for story structure, there are others out there, and I find myself coming back to one in particular that I got from J.R.R. Tolkien in a lecture he gave on Beowulf. (Yeah, we’re going to get academic, so, strap in, kids!)
In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, Tolkien comes to the defense of the Old English poem Beowulf, which some of you may have had to read back in high school and some of you probably don’t have pleasant memories about it. I, for one, could write an entire essay on Tolkien’s essay, but I’m willing to bet you’re not interested. Unless you are, in which case, we should talk. But seriously don’t get me started. We will be here all day.
In short, many of the academics of Tolkien’s day criticized Beowulf’s story structure, pointing to, among other things, it’s villains. In the story, Beowulf fights the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and then a dragon. The criticism was that the build from one to the other doesn’t make sense, but the point Tolkien makes is that the monsters are what make the story, and I have to agree. Beowulf is what it is because of who the hero fights, and the build from one to the other not only makes sense for the story but for all hero stories.
It’s no stretch to say that hero stories are defined by their villains, but the real truth is that hero stories are defined by the conflict the hero faces in fighting the villains. Heroes don’t fight dragons because they need to. Dragons don’t exist, therefore dragons or what happens when we fight dragons must mean something else. Stories are metaphors, in one degree or another. Therefore the choice of monster teaches as much as, if not more than, the choice of hero. And it’s this that I often find myself coming back to. When I’m having difficulty with a story, the answer could easily be that I haven’t chosen my monster correctly.
Again, I could go on, and should, and will, but I find myself running out of room. So, that’ll have to wait for part. But, so you don’t feel robbed, and as a little food for thought, in short, the structure of any hero story, or the really good ones at least, can be boiled down to three steps:
- You fight monsters.
- You fight bigger monsters
- You fight yourself.
Stay tuned next week as I dive deeper into this. Don't worry, I have examples.