Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Deep and Plotty Thoughts

Ok, plot: step two! At least, that's what I was planning to write about this week. I kind of ended up with something different. Or not. Never mind, just keep reading - you'll see what I mean.

So, it's ironic: I chose to talk about plot last week using Chuck Wendig's excellent definition, which says (in essence) that plot comes directly from the characters. And I meant that. I really did. It's just that when it was time for me to figure out what the hell was actually going to happen in Cloudland, I got a little bit lost.

Ok, fine. I got a lot lost. Like, wandering aimlessly around the woods on a cloudy, moonless night with no compass or map, lost (and I should point out here that I am really terrible at directions, even when I DO have a map. I'm the person who has to turn maps around so that they face the way I'm heading, because otherwise I can't read them.)

Yeah, I knew who my characters were, and I knew what they wanted, but I didn't know how to turn that into real, actual events. So, my plot didn't so much come from my least not directly. As I said last week, I asked for help from a dead guy. And it was the best thing I could have done.

No, I didn't learn how to commune with ghosts (although that would have been a lot cooler); I started re-reading Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth.

For those who aren't familiar with his work, Joseph Campbell was "an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion" (thanks, Wikipedia). He developed the theory that myths from all around the world share the same basic structure, which he called the monomyth, or the Hero's Journey. In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell lays out the structure of this monomyth, and illustrates how a vast majority of ancient and modern stories fit this structure. It's way too much to lay out in this post, but suffice it to say that if you were to look at Campbell's structure, and compare it to a hell of a lot of books, movies, and myths, you'd be able to see that they pretty much follow it, with a few changes here and there. The most commonly cited example of this is Star Wars, but there are a ton more.

Before I continue, I should note that there are some people out there who don't like Joseph Campbell or his theories very much. Since I'm not writing a blog about comparative mythology or Mr. Campbell, I'm not going to delve too much into the criticism; if you're interested, you can check out a summary of it here. Essentially, the critiques say that making myths 'universal' destroys the uniqueness and the intended lessons of each myth; that defining and following a specified structure leads to way too many predictable, cookie-cutter books and movies (see: all blockbuster Hollywood movies and the three-act structure); and so on.

I don't disagree with any of this. I just think it all misses the central message and value of Campbell's work, which is why I ignored the criticism and used the Hero's Journey as a jumping-off point when I was trying to come up with a structure for Cloudland.

Yep, I used it, because I love it. I'll just admit that outright. I love Joseph Campbell, and I'm inspired by him, because he lays bare this essential commonality in the human unconscious: for reasons we don't know, and can't explain, there are motifs, symbols, and metaphors that appear over and over again in myths from all over the world. The people creating these myths didn't collaborate with each other, or read up on each other's Creation Myths, before making their own. They stumbled, seemingly by chance, on themes that are universal, that access something buried deeply within all of us. And that's freaking amazing. I love that. So I wanted to think about and find and access those common unconscious associations - I was writing a book about death, after all, and what is more universally human than the struggle to comprehend death?

Notice that I said I used his theories "as a jumping-off point". I was lost in the woods without a map (see? Human metaphors from the collective unconscious. Oh yeah, that's how I roll), and I needed a refresher on basic story structures, so I re-read some of Campbell's work and took off from there. Am I indebted to and inspired by his work? Absolutely. Did I follow the structure of the Hero's Journey to the letter, and use it as the exact skeleton for my book? Nope, not at all.

I studied the structure - which you can see all laid out and summed up here - and I thought about what it was accomplishing, and why it was used, and then I took the bits I liked and got rid of the ones I didn't, or that I didn't think would serve my story, and made up my own version of it. And then bam, just like that, I had the skeleton for my book.

The problem with skeletons, of course, is that they're made of bones. No muscle, no nerve, no skin; nothing meaty to sink your teeth into, and enjoy (unless you like bones without anything on them, in which case, have at it. I'll be over by the deli and salad bars, trying to find some real food).

What I'm saying is that plot isn't just structure; it's also the all of the details of that structure. Adding flesh to the skeleton, if you will.

Which I'll talk about.... next week.

Also next week - a few brief notes on what it means to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, and why those writers probably think I'm completely out of my mind (which I might be).


  1. "Essentially, the critiques say that making myths 'universal' destroys the uniqueness and the intended lessons of each myth; that defining and following a specified structure leads to way too many predictable, cookie-cutter books and movies..."

    I disagree with this critique of Campbell's work wholeheartedly because I think you can make anything unique. After all, supposedly there only a small number of plots and yet authors somehow keep coming up with new and interesting ways of telling stories so I say three cheers for Campbell and the hero's journey!

    1. Amen! I think there are ways to destroy uniqueness, but those ways usually include the use of a formula, which the Hero's Journey is definitely not. It can be MADE into a formula, of course, which is maybe where the critiques come from. But it can also be the foundation for great new stories, as you say :)