Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Hero's Journey

More story structure! Today, we'll be looking at the figurative bible of all stories everywhere*: The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Archetypal is the word of the day when it comes to talking about Joseph Campbell. His book examines broad swathes of mythology, finding and establishing recurring themes and common core motifs. The result, of course, is what has come to be known as the Hero's Journey.

For those who haven't ready THWATF (yeesh even the acronym is a pain to type, how about Hero from now on...), you may want to take a deep breath before you do. And maybe a course on Jungian psychology. And maybe get a few master's degrees in ancient mythology. Because to get the most out of Hero, that's the least of what you'll need. Campbell is a smart dude; he knows his stuff, and there's no dumbing-down, no condescension to the layman in Hero; the prose is just as dense as the subject matter.

But don't worry, there's hope--if a schmuck like me can glean the general meaning from Hero, you probably can, too. (And, even if you can't, there's always Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which is basically the CliffsNotes for Hero. But more on that later.)

So what are the common themes Campbell finds in the myths of the world? He narrows it down to the following cycle:

Excuse the blurriness.
Yay, another circle! Although this one goes bafflingly counter-clockwise; Dan Harmon's clockwise circle makes much more sense to me. I mean, counterclockwise, Campbell? Come on, man, you're better than that.

To be clear, Joseph Campbell's Hero isn't only for story-makers; it's more of a mythological exegesis--Campbell excavates the mythos and stories of dozens, if not hundreds, of cultures--the intent of which is to make us think about general truths of life. Campbell quotes Sigmund Freud in the preface to the 1949 edition of Hero:
The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth. [...] We have become convinced that it is better to avoid such symbolic disguisings of the truth in what we tell children and not to withhold from them a knowledge of the true state of affairs commensurate with their intellectual level. (Campbell xii)
Commenting on Freud, Campbell goes on to state that
It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religions and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. [...] My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding. (Campbell xii-xiii)
Basically, Campbell is looking for general truths that can be agreed upon by essentially anyone willing to see them. A lofty goal, if you ask me, and Campbell does a surprisingly good job of it. But Hero really is more of an examination of life in general rather than simple story structure.

The appeal to me, of course, is that the two happen to be inseparably connected. If you recall from my previous post on story structure, I quoted Dan Harmon exhorting us to
Realize that [story structure is] hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that, in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern. ("Story Structure 101")
So Hero, by aiming at general truth (with or without a capitol "T," I would say), becomes a great textbook on story structure, even if it wasn't exactly intended to be so in the first place.

That said, some adaptation is helpful, and that's where Christopher Vogler enters the picture again. His book The Writer's Journey essentially takes Campbell's work and applies it strictly to writing and telling stories. The following is my own interpretation of "the Hero's Journey," mostly straight from Campbell with one or two items from Vogler**:

Departure:

1. Ordinary World - The hero begins, of course, in a world largely without conflict. Things are great; there is no need for change.

2. Call to Adventure - Suddenly: conflict! The hero finds or is given a reason to change something (whether it's him/herself or an outside circumstance).

3. Refusal of Call - But that reason may not yet be enough; the hero can be reluctant to take action because of cowardice, false duty, self-doubt, or laziness (just to name a few potential reason).

4. Supernatural Aid - Sometimes an external force, often divine or supernatural, gives the hero that final push to take action and get out the door and onto the Journey (which may be an external or internal journey, btw).

5. Crossing of Threshold - The point of no return; once the hero crosses this line, s/he is committed, and there's no going back to the ordinary world as it was.

Initiation:

6. The Road of Trials - The "training montage;" the hero goes through a series of trials, meetings, and conflicts that forge him/her into what s/he needs to be to triumph.

7. Meeting with Goddess - An encounter with another being or idea (often a woman, and often romantic in nature, but not necessarily either of those things) where the hero finds that last essential phlebotinum needed to finish the journey. Campbell says that "the meeting with the goddess [...] is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity" (Campbell 99). It's heavy stuff, guys. This is where stuffs get real.

8. Atonement with Father - "The father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world" (115). Don't be fooled, though--the "father" (often but not necessarily a specific male being) isn't always sympathetic to the hero or his cause; this atonement can be a climactic battle, a fight scene, an argument, or even a monolog that helps the hero realize the final call to adventure, as it were, or what needs to happen to achieve what s/he has been working towards all along. "The hero transcends life [...] and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands--and the two are atoned" (125).***

9. Apotheosis - Exactly what the term means: the hero becomes, for all intents and purposes, divine in his/her ability to perceive, interpret, and shape the world.

10. Ultimate Boon - Sometimes, even more phlebotinum is needed to finish the Journey. The Hero receives/finds that here.

Return:

11. Refusal of Return - Sometimes, (like the refusal of the call--see any parallels, here) being deified and all, the hero doesn't want to return to the ordinary world. S/he needs an extra impetus.

12. Magic Flight/13. Rescue from Without - Again with the parallelism: If the hero has no desire or power to return on his/her own world, external forces often step in.

14. Crossing of Return Threshold - The hero returns to the ordinary world, although that world is no longer ordinary given the hero's new and improved presence.

15. Master of Two Worlds/16. Freedom to Live - The hero becomes the ultimate mover and shaker of the world: the romantic interest and the hero get together, the war is won, the goal accomplished, and people around the hero contribute to such changes simply because the hero has the magnetism to draw people to his/her cause.

So that's the short of it (for more, seriously, go read the book). Campbell's hero journey is certainly more complicated and detailed than Dan Harmon's, but I still feel the general implications of each step are broad enough to allow for interpretation; again, just like Harmon's formula, the idea behind the hero's journey isn't "follow these principles to make your story," but rather "if you have a story worth anything, it'll follow these principles." Which, now that I write it out, sounds completely like a chicken-and-egg scenario. But still, that's how I see it.

Also, you'll notice there's a general three-act structure to Campbell's theory: Departure being Act I, Initiation (meaning something closer to the ritualistic definition of the term rather than the "commencement" version) is Act II, and Return being Act III. I'll talk more about this in a later post, but it's important.

Either way, Harmon's structure is clearly established upon Cambell's theory. Just read this article and see how often he refers to Campbell directly, or at least uses Campbellian terminology. Essentially,

Ordinary World = YOU
Call to Adventure = NEED
Crossing the Threshold = GO
The Road of Trials = SEARCH
Meeting with Goddess = FIND
Atonement with Father = TAKE
Crossing of Return Threshold = RETURN
Master of Two Worlds = CHANGE

Other parts of the Campbellian process fit into Harmon's structure (which I believe I'll elaborate upon later), but that's the basic 1-for-1 conversion.

Anyway, that's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in a nutshell. I will say one thing, though: Campbell's theory isn't perfect, as exhaustive as it is. My chief concern with Hero is the lack of a female perspective as the hero--and some sections, "Woman as Temptress" in particular--feel downright misogynistic (whether that's because Campbell himself felt that way or because 99% of the cultures he studied were patriarchal at best, misogynistic at worst, or both, is unclear)****. But that gets me into the Virgin's Promise...which I'll talk about next time!




* Hero can be just as controversial and just as widely interpreted as the Bible itself, so the informal title is vaguely appropriate.

** The first item, "Ordinary World," is the only strictly Vogelian term. All the rest are Campbell's; although I left out two other sections in Campbell's order that I found redundant or unnecessary: "Belly of the Whale" and "Woman as Temptress," in that order (to find out what those sections discuss, go read the book!).

*** You'll notice I'm particularly interested in what happens in the "Meeting with Goddess" and "Atonement with Father" sections. What happens there and how the hero changes fascinates me, and may become the subject of a future blog post in and of itself.

**** I've tried to keep my explanation of things gender-neutral, although Campbell makes no such attempt (give him a break, though, it was like 70 years ago...).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Crude Hilarity, in All It's Glory:

Check this out.

The first item "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed"? Plan B One-Step Emergency Contraceptive...1 Tablet. (There's a story here, a hilarious one I'm guessing...what situation(s?!) could possibly call for a 55-gallon drum of lubricant AND a SINGLE morning-after pill, I just...I can't even...)

Also, the reviews of the product are golden.

With that, Happy Monday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

#TBT and SLC Comic Con

I'm at SLC Comic Con FanXperience today, tomorrow, and Saturday. Today was great but exhausting. Some great panels, lots of creative costumes, and James Marsters. Yes, that's right, I spent just a wee bit of time with Spike today, and that was awesome.

The costumes got me thinking, though. I didn't plan on dressing up for this Comic Con because I wanted to present at least a vaguely professional front, but it did remind me of some fun times Raych and I have had dressing up for random stuff. So, while I have never done a #TBT before (throwback thursday, it's a thing), I'll try one now. Check it out:

The Joker. I can be creepy when I have a mind to be.

BRAINS NOM NOM

Raych and some friends as Trelawney, Rita Skeeter, and Bellatrix LeStrange, at the HP 7.2 premier.

Final Fantasy! Black Mage, Moogle, Aeris, Tifa, Cloud.

Making this Buster Sword may be one of the greatest things I've ever done.

The Avengers - Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Thor.

Comic Con has def made me miss this hair....
So, there you have it. Proof I'm a complete nerd, and I don't care who knows it. Who am I kidding, you all knew that already.

So, yeah. I'm going to enjoy Comic Con. You may or may not hear from me in the next few days; if not, I've fallen into the black hole of conventions.........

Some Site Updates

Updated the following:

Changed my bio a bit.

Reorganized my Formative Influences page and explained #FIF.

Updated my Current Projects page, detailing the Blood Queen series and the currently existing projects in that universe.

Check 'em out, yo!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Story Structure (and Dan Harmon is Awesome)

So a couple weeks ago, before I dove into Dark Immolation, I was researching plot structure. My agent, when he first gave me notes on Duskfall, pointed me towards Dan Harmon's ideas of story structure, and reading his stuff got me thinking. Then I got to more reading. And suddenly I'd read a bunch of books and websites on story structure. So, I think it's safe to say that I'll be writing a series of posts on story structure in the next month or two.

But today I want to focus on Dan Harmon's method, which is pretty much the lens through which I'll be looking at the other forms because, let's be honest, it's the best. Or at least it's the best one for me. I've studied story structure in the past--most notably Dan Wells' 7-point structure, as well as Lou Anders' "hollywood formula at Worldcon last year--but nothing cemented in my brainbox quite like Dan Harmon's. I'll briefly cover it here, but he's a lot better at explaining it than I am, so if you're interested I suggest checking out the following:

Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit
Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory
Story Structure 103: Let's Simplify Before Moving On
Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details (this one is by far the most comprehensive, and what motivated me to go out and actually read things like Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I suggest at least starting with 101 and 102 to get the basics down first)
Story Structure 105: How TV is Different
Story Structure 106: Five Minute Pilots

This is from my white-board wall, btw. Have I mentioned I have a
white-board wall? It's awesome.
So Harmon's basic idea is that you draw a circle, as demonstrated, with the following eight points around it:

  1. You
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Return
  8. Change

Ignore the stuff written in the middle of the circle; I may or may not go into more detail on that later (but Harmon does, so again, if you're interested, check out those websites above). For now I'm just going to focus on the eight plot points.

The story begins with you, a character who either is you (metaphorically or otherwise) or with which you can empathize, sympathize, or to which you can relate in just about any way. Said character then discovers they need (/want) something. S/he then goes to a location, condition, or set of circumstances that is unfamiliar to them (hence the shaded lower half of the circle--it represents the unknown, the un/subconscious, the dark basement where chaos reigns) and searches for the thing s/he needs, often by/through adapting to the new circumstances. S/he finds what was needed, and takes control of his/her destiny and pays the price for it. Then the character returns to the comfortable/familiar situation, having changed in significant, life-altering ways, after such a fashion that s/he now has mastery over the world in which s/he lives.

It's simple, it's elegant, and what perhaps hits home most of all for me is how much Harmon emphasizes the every-day-ness of it all--this basic journey is reflected in all narratives. The circular pattern of descent into chaos and return to order drives all stories; Harmon says to
Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern, [...] diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it's hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern. ("Story Structure 101")
That, more than anything else, draws me to this method of structuring stories. Other methods, to me, seem a bit too focused on plot points and what-happens-where and get a little too specific for me. This, instead, simply teaches me what a story is, and then gives me the freedom to make what I want with it.

So, in the next couple weeks (months?), I'll be examining at least two (perhaps more) significant methods of story structure, but I'll use Harmon's formula as the lens through which to view them. I think it'll be interesting. If you do, too, come on back and check it out.



Sidenote: By the way, right now I'm watching Community (written by Dan Harmon). For the first time. So many friends have insisted I watch the show, and I've finally gotten a hold of the first few seasons. And okay folks, this show is DELIGHTFUL. It is brilliant and hilarious and uses all sorts of TV and film tropes in wonderfully curious ways. It's a little early to say for sure (I'm only a few episodes into season 2), but it may have already usurped my co-favorite sitcoms, Arrested Development and Seinfeld. It's that good. So, yeah, I might talk more about that one day, too.

Monday, April 14, 2014

So Apparently...

...I missed a really cool thing, like a month and a half ago. For those of you who don't know, I have an agent over at JABberwocky these days. But a funny thing: when I was waiting for Sam to get back to me, before it was official, I would check the JABberwocky website like a dozen times a day just to see if there was any information, the slightest hint, of something official in the works for me (which, in retrospect, is totally crazy, because of course they would contact me with anything official before they posted it online...but my mind is crazy like that).

Once I signed with them, though, I was so flabbergasted and excited I forgot to scour their website for anything related to me. I lost track of my ego for a while, basically, which is kind of awesome, but always a temporary thing for me.

Anyway, my ego recently crept back up on me, and I found this page on their website. It's not much, but in some ways it kind of is. It is for me, anyway. Check out the fifth paragraph on the page, the last largish paragraph. The paragraph with my name in it.

It's these parts of the process that make me love what I'm doing, and, honestly, love where I am right now. Don't get me wrong--I can't wait to write more books, I can't wait to see my books in print, I can't wait to do all sorts of things. But seeing this makes me happy.

I don't know. It's kind of a cool thing. Sometimes an ego boost is necessary.

Friday, April 11, 2014

#FIF: The Things They Carried

I've already told you about what might be my favorite novel of all time. Now, let me tell you about what might be my favorite short story collection.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is brilliant. For me, it is the pinnacle combination of sharp, beautiful prose, and engaging, meaningful stories. Characters are vivid--helped by the fact that TTTC could also be read as a novel, as many of the same characters are recurring with there own vague character arcs, and there are some definite recurring themes.

But I prefer to think of it as a set of short stories. Each piece feels more powerful to me that way; they enhance each other but do not depend on one another.

I normally rate stories in collections I read on a 5-star system. Most collections, even by my favorite authors, have two, maybe three stories if they're incredibly saturated with talent, that merit five stars. The Things They Carried has nine*. Nine five-star stories, on my admittedly subjective scale, and not a single story with less than three (which is also a common occurrence--at least two or three stories are below three stars--in single-author collections). In fact, TTTC was the first collection I read where I had to modify my 5-star system simply because a few stories stood out even more than the nine that already achieved 5-star status. While the titular story is phenomenal, and many others are beautifully told, my three favorites in the collection are "On the Rainy River" (filled with brutal honesty, I feel like I'm genuinely in the narrator's shoes, in his head, experiencing things as he experienced them), "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" (fascinating character study, a change in structure, and perhaps one of the most haunting stories in the collection), and "The Lives of the Dead" (a non-war story that is still very much a war story, a story that manages to display real, tangible, genuine emotions, a story that deals with death, coping, and stories themselves).

But I'm not doing the collection justice. There is so much to say about it that I don't know how to say.

Here's maybe the general thing I'm getting at: Tim O'Brien is a brilliant writer. If I could aspire to write like anyone, O'Brien just might be at the top of my list. (Fortunately, as I writer, I've decided not to aspire to "write like" anyone, mainly because I honestly don't think it can be done, so there isn't much pressure where that is concerned.)

I'm particularly fascinated by his treatment of the concept of writing stories in the stories he's written (Tim O'Brien was meta before it was cool). He'll say things like
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened [...], and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain. ("Notes")
Or
For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams. ("On the Rainy River")

And
Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening truth. ("Good Form" - actually, I could quote this entire story [it's only two pages long], because it gets at the heart of why his stories are so meaningful to me.)
Each one of those ideas cuts to the heart of me, of why I write in the first place. I tell stories to separate the truth of what I've experienced from what I've experienced--because, in my mind, there is a difference. I tell stories to "relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams," because if I don't, they begin to overwhelm me. I tell stories because they are emotionally more true than the factual world I see around me. That doesn't mean I tell stories for the happy endings; sort of the opposite, actually. I tell stories for the true endings. The one's that are meaningful, that have been worked for, that the story deserves.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried speaks to me because almost every single one of the stories penetrates deep down to the very reason I write in the first place. And I love that, because stories are meaningful. Stories are beautiful, and they are true, even (and sometimes especially) when they're not. And, most of all, because
This too is true: stories can save us. ("The Lives of the Dead")



* Those nine stories, in the order they appear in my collection, are as follows: "The Things They Carried," "On the Rainy River," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "Stockings," "The Man I Killed," "Notes," "Good Form," and "The Lives of the Dead." Each one is amazing.