*This is also posted on the Liars Club blog, as part of an on-going series on writing advice…
When I think about the heart of any great novel, it goes back to the root of storytelling. To folks saying to eager listeners, “Gather around the fire, while I tell you the tale of…” And then drawing in the audience with a story so gripping, so essential, that the audience forgets the storyteller completely and enters the fictional world, becoming the main character, and embarking on an amazing adventure.
That’s why the one book I’d recommend to authors is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. This exceptional text draws on the work of folklorist Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime analyzing the world’s mythic tales, their structures, their archetypes, and who distilled all this into an amazing volume called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And then there was the riveting series of talks between Campbell and Moyers, resulting in a mind-blowing book called The Power of Myth. Yeah, you’d better get that one too.
But back to writing. The Writer’s Journey follows mythic structure in storytelling, and can guide you on a psyche-based format for laying out any novel or screenplay. The format includes a cast of roles that accompany the hero, including the mentor, the threshold guardian, the shapeshifter. And stages of the hero’s journey, including call to adventure, meeting the mentor, approach to the innermost cave, etc. He mainly uses examples of this structure from movies, but the wisdom is based on archetypes. And as Carl Jung would tell you if he could, archetypes are deeply rooted in all human brains. You can’t get much more universal than that. Apply these archetypes to, say, a modern novel set in an edgy metropolis, and you’ve got something shaking.
I’d like to add that studying folklore and reading fairy tales – the real, gritty ones minus the Disney princesses – should be required in any author’s training as much as the classics are…Tales passed down orally reveal primal fears and desires. Scary and revealing as hell. The stuff of legends.
We writers are all lowly storytellers, really. Beckoning our listeners to come to the fire circle and hear a tale. If we want that tale to actually mean something, to hold our listeners spellbound, then I say listen to the tales of the past and pay attention to what they are telling writers. The Writer’s Journey can take you there.