The archetypal story you’ll end up telling, whatever you set out to write

I’ve been working like a mad thing on my second novel (title tbc) over the last couple of months. The second draft is now done, so I thought I’d take advantage of the respite to write about a book that I discovered thanks to the poet Ian Pindar, my other half, who has a knack for unearthing interesting things.

This particular find is called The Writer’s Journey, and it’s by Christopher Vogler. It’s primarily aimed at screenwriters (it discusses various films, from Star Wars to Pulp Fiction) but would probably be interesting for anyone who aspires to tell stories, because it looks at the mechanics of how stories work.

It does this in two ways: it discusses a number of archetypal characters, and then it sets out the different stages of the archetypal journey that any hero (even an anti-hero) goes on. If that sounds reductive, it isn’t – the book makes it very clear that it’s all in the telling. Part of what creativity is about, after all, is putting together elements that are familiar and shared (and what is more familiar and shared than language?) in new and unexpected ways.

I won’t set out to précis the whole book, because the edition we have runs to more than 400 pages… and if you’re keen to explore what it’s all about in depth, you’d probably be better off getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. But here’s a selective taster.

Heroes: not always heroic, especially to begin with

The hero is usually confronted with an initial call to adventure, and to start off with, often resists or refuses the call. The hero(ine) of my work-in-progress does a fair bit of this – it really takes a lot to get her over the threshold and into the next stage. It’s as if there’s a force acting to keep the hero in place, to preserve things as they are, and it takes extra impetus to get them to go forward and to begin to change.

At this point the hero may encounter a herald, who announces the call to adventure; a threshold guardian, who makes the barrier between the hero and the next stage – the special world of the adventure – even harder to get through; and/or a mentor, who is there to help the hero on her way. All these roles are fluid, so the same character might take on more than one function in the story at the same or at different times; they are like costumes or masks that may be put on or discarded.

The mentor: the quasi-parental figure who disappears when no longer needed

The mentor can be a teacher, protector or guardian, serving a quasi-parental role; they are there to give the hero whatever insight is needed for the next stage of the action. The mentor’s part in the story may come to an end as soon the hero has taken sufficient information on board.

So, for example, in Game of Thrones, Sylvio Forel teaches Arya how to fight. His last piece of advice to Arya is to run, and she does, as he holds off the soldiers who have come to capture her. We don’t actually see him die (I don’t know whether any more detail emerges about his fate later on); we assume that he has been killed, but Arya thinks back to all the advice he gave her about how to be stealthy, alert and brave throughout her time on the run, so it is almost as if he is still with her.

Arya’s not the only character on a heroic path in Game of Thrones, mind you, not by a long chalk – it’s an epic spaghetti junction of individual journeys, at least some of which end in death. I’m only on the second book, and that goes for two of the heroes already.

Sometimes whole stories turn on the hero-mentor relationship – the film The King’s Speech is a good example. And sometimes the mentor function’s of imparting knowledge is partly accomplished by the hero spending a couple of hours on the internet, as in the sequence in the film of Twilight when Bella does her research and figures out what Edward really is.

Mentors aren’t always lovely and kind and inclined to do the best for their charges, either – they may not even want to let them go. Jeremy, Tina’s blunt and rather appalling boss in Stop the Clock, is a mentor of sorts, as is her married lover, but they are not exactly straightforward role models, and the lessons she learns from them are ambiguous and uncomfortable. Perhaps they both include a tinge of shadow (of which more later).

The special world: different to the ordinary world, not always in a good way

On to the next stage: the hero’s arrival in the special world. I love this concept: the special world is the world of the story, the place where change is possible, but it isn’t necessarily magical – it’s just different to where the heroine started out.

So, for example, Sara in A Little Princess starts off rich, and finds herself reduced to poverty and servitude, from which she eventually emerges having learned, among other things, how differently some people will treat you when you’re well-off compared to when you’re not (in the words of the song, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.)

Jane Eyre goes through more than one special world: Lowood, Thornfield Hall, the moors after her flight from marriage to Rochester, and St John Rivers’ house. For Thelma and Louise, the special world is the road trip; for the king and the therapist in The King’s Speech, it’s the treatment room.

Once you’re through to the special world, you’re particularly likely to encounter allies, tests and enemies, and the shadow may make a particularly forceful appearance. Jane Eyre’s already had Mrs Reed and John, her horrible cousin, to deal with: in Lowood there’s Mr Brocklehurst, shadow par excellence, whose hypocrisy and cruelty represent a kind of false goodness – false Christianity, even – that Jane will set herself against as she learns to trust her own heart and instincts.

Bella has James, the tracker, on her trail – and he finds her at the conclusion of a sequence which confirms her (sometimes unstable) alliance with the Cullen vampire family (when they go out to play baseball – what an all-American ally scene that is! – showing that they’re on the way to becoming a team.)

Here’s an interesting point about something that often happens at this stage: the visit to the watering hole – often, literally, a bar, as in the fantastic alien space bar sequence in Star Wars, which is probably one of my favourite film moments ever. The watering hole is a place where characters can clash (or flirt) and the truth may be revealed, like the cafe scenes in Stop the Clock when Natalie finds out more about Adele. (Allies – the pack of friends – have a huge role to play in my work-in-progress, and it has a lot of watering hole scenes.)

The shapeshifter: doubt, suspense, romance

Adele in Stop the Clock is a shapeshifter – Natalie is never really clear about what she wants, or intends (but then, Natalie is uncertain about her own desires too). Shapeshifters often crop up in romance: Mr Rochester even goes so far as to dress up as an old gypsy woman. They may be lethal (the femme fatale type). They bring doubt and suspense and are a catalyst for change (Adele is most certainly that).

The Twilight saga is full of shapeshifters, obv. I guess Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades books fits the bill, too, with a bit of mentor and shadow thrown in – is he a lover, or a horrible controlling sadist? He’s certainly in charge of an occasionally alarming special world.

The shadow: depending on your point of view

So… what about the shadow? Shadows aren’t necessarily all bad, and, indeed, in their own eyes, they may be perfectly reasonable (I’m sure Mr Brocklehurst thought of himself as a good man, a hero even, and regarded Helen Burns as a repository of villainous tendencies). Their function is to challenge and oppose the hero… and the hero may behave in a shadowy way himself at times.

The shadow’s story may be the inverse of the hero’s, with moments of triumph when the hero is at his lowest. I’ve just seen the film of Les Misérables, and was struck by how the relationship between the implacable policeman Javert and the former convict Jean Valjean follows this pattern.

Valjean goes on to forge a new identity, but Javert cannot bear to let him go. Valjean’s freedom torments him just as the prospect of a return to captivity torments Valjean. They represent wholly different and incompatible views of the law – Valjean believes in forgiveness, mercy and redemption, Javer only accepts the rule of right and wrong, and cannot contemplate the possibility that someone could be capable of change. Ultimately, one of them will have to be extinguished in order for the other to survive.

Shadows may come in unexpected (shapeshifting) forms; Cordelia in Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye is a monstrous shadow whose activities very nearly lead to the destruction of the heroine.

Ordeal and climax: life and death – twice over

Stop the Clock has a crisis scene that draws together the major characters about two-thirds of the way through. But that is not the end of the story, the final unravelling of the knots; for each character, there’s still a further confrontation to come, some more unfinished business to be dealt with.

The Writer’s Journey makes an interesting distinction between crisis or ordeal and climax. It quotes Webster’s definition of a crisis: ‘the point in a story or drama in which hostile forces are in the tensest state of opposition’. The ordeal effects a brutal and irrevocable transformation in the hero, and is a scene of death and resurrection. This is subtly different from the climax, a final confrontation, showdown or test which shows how the hero has changed and been reborn.

In Les Misérables, the crisis of the battle at the barricades puts Valjean and Javer on opposite sides of the uprising. It is followed by an astonishing sequence in which Valjean carries the injured Marius – his adoptive daughter Cosette’s hope of future love – through the sewers of Paris, emerging into the light to find Javer waiting for him.

There is a further climax to follow: Valjean must overcome his shame and tell Cosette who he really is. In doing so, he brings back not only Cosette’s mother Fantine – as if they have actually been a family all this time, separated only by death – but also the wider family of the comrades on the barricades. It’s like the sequence at the end of Titanic in which Rose returns the jewel to the sea and reclaims not only her long-lost love, but everybody else who was on board.

It may be that the point of the crisis is that it resurrects the hero, while the power of the climax is that it brings life back to everybody – even the reader (or viewer), creating a strange emotional rush that will send you on your way conscious that you’ve been somewhere else, and are now back in your ordinary world, but subtly changed. 

2 thoughts on “The archetypal story you’ll end up telling, whatever you set out to write

    • Thank you! It is fascinating stuff, well worth a read – you may well find yourself spotting the patterns all over the place!

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