I’ve been reading a lot about writing of late.
It’s not procrastination, honestly, it’s education, and boy do I need educating.
To be honest, this isn’t anything new. I’ve mentioned before that my Kindle library is packed with books on the craft of writing. I skimmed most of them and learnt little.
That’s because of my past poor non-fiction reading practice. I didn’t discriminate between reading for entertainment and reading for education.
Anyway, sometime back I’d tried to read Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’. It was hard going, and I gave up. But not before I’d extracted enough to get the gist.
I’m currently reading (and taking notes from) John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods’. The subtitle of the book is ‘A Five Act Journey into Story’. As with Mr Campbell’s book, it’s difficult to read as the author attempts to analyse varying methods of fiction plotting and screenwriting. But I need to learn as much as I can if my writing is to improve.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that pretty much every successful story, play, book and film ever written follows a kind of template. That template is what’s known as the ‘Hero’s Journey’.
As an aside, is ‘hero’ an acceptable term these days? We used to have heros and heroines but I guess that’s considered sexist today. Is the hero multi-gender now? What about folks who want to identify as transgender, gender neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and all, none or a combination of these? To be clear, I fully respect an individual’s right to label themselves any way they wish, but damn, it’s confusing!
Anyway, I’m going to use ‘hero’ for the rest of this blog post. Please feel free to change it to whatever you like.
Back to my hero – There are as many versions of this journey as there are books, plays and films, but there’s always a similar progression.
- 1. The Hero starts out in their ‘Ordinary’ world – the day-to-day, nothing much happens, boring existence that, let’s be honest, we all know all too well.
- 2. Then something or someone comes along that throws things into confusion. Suddenly our Hero is challenged to do something way out of his comfort zone.
- 3. His immediate reaction is to say “no way”. I’m happy as I am thanks.
- 4. Then someone (a mentor) convinces them they really have no choice. They must do whatever it is or suffer the consequences. He tells the Hero he has a mission. (Sometimes the Hero may have to self-mentor)
- 5. So they walk out of their front door, albeit reluctantly, and start an adventure. This is a key point in any good story and it’s called ‘Crossing the Threshold’, think Bilbo Baggins closing the door on ‘Bag End’. And here’s the thing. From that point on, nothing will ever be the same. Specifically, our hero will never be the same.
- 6. Obviously things don’t go well after that, all the hero’s worst fears come true. Trials and tribulations don’t cover it.
- 7. But our hero keeps fighting and, usually, he’ll prevail. He’ll complete the mission – He’ll triumph.
- 8. After that, he gets to go home. The Return – but he’ll do so a changed man, he’ll have grown.
That’s the Hero’s Journey.
What’s interesting is that this isn’t some abstract theory, it reflects what happens in real life.
Think back over some events in your own life. I’m betting you’ll quickly identify a few occasions where you’ve been the Hero on just such a journey.
That’s certainly true for me, and I guess the most obvious example is the one I wrote about in my first book ‘A Foolish Voyage’.
If you’re reading this, then it’s probable that you’ve read it. If not – Spoiler Alert!
Let’s run through it.
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD – That’s easy. I was working in a garage 8-5 and hating it.
2. CALL TO ADVENTURE (Inciting Incident) – they made me redundant (unfairly dismissed). I’d read the book ‘Shrimpy’, about a guy who’d been on an amazing adventure – he’d sailed round the world in an 18ft boat. I got the idea in my head that maybe I could do the same.
3. THE REFUSAL – Normal, sensible me said the idea was crazy. No way could I do it.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD – I decided to do it anyway and used the money from my unfair dismissal payout to buy a boat similar to ‘Shrimpy’ and took her to sea.
6. THE MENTOR – Clive, the delivery skipper I ended up working for. He taught me loads, and he didn’t think I was crazy.
6. THE ORDEAL – Getting caught in a Biscay storm and having to abandon my boat.
7. THE TRIUMPH – There wasn’t one – I failed. (turns out that heroes don’t always win)
8. THE RETURN – Initially, it felt like another ordeal. I was back in the ordinary world, having lost everything.
But I was different. A changed man, a better man. Before long, I came to see my survival as a triumph. Later still I realised that if I hadn’t done what I’d done, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did later. I wouldn’t have been able to make another Hero’s Journey.
There are two other elements that virtually all stories need.
The protagonist – the main character, the hero.
The antagonist – The enemy, the baddie, the villain, someone determined to stop you from reaching your goal, someone determined to kill you.
And here’s something important – In the story of your life, you can be both.
Starting the outlining phase of my project this week made me realise I was starting something significant.
I’m starting another hero’s journey
The outline looks like this:
Life was boring (ORDINARY WORLD)
Then an idea popped into my head – “Why not write a fiction book?” (CALL TO ACTION)
Immediately I saw the downside, what a daunting task it would be, how high the risk of failure was (REFUSAL)
But I put the idea out there, asked what people thought. Everyone said “Do it”. I also realised that refusal meant never knowing. Refusal meant chickening out. (MENTORS)
So I’ve committed, I’ve begun – I’VE CROSSED THE THRESHOLD
No prizes for remembering that the ordeals come next.
And no prizes either for figuring out that I’m playing two parts in this story.
Because there’s only one person who can stop me from getting these books written, and he’s typing these very words.