It’s a Myth

*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.

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…