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Excerpt: Writer's Companion - The Nuts & Bolts (part five)

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In the preface to their recently published writing guide, Writer's Companion, Carlos J Cortés and Renée Miller state, “we set out to compile everything a creative writer needs to write well into a single reference volume.” Over the next two months, Open Book will be posting the first chapter of the guide, “The Nuts & Bolts.”

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Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of "The Nuts and Bolts."

1.4.5 The Monomyth

Before you skip these pages, please consider that even before humans invented the alphabet, storytellers built their stories, narrations, and plays around the conceptual steps outlined below.

From books of religious significance like The New Testament or the trials of Buddha and Mohammed to fantasies like Lord of the Ring; science fiction like Star Wars, The Matrix, Ender’s Game, and Avatar; cartoons like The Lion King; and adventures like Indiana Jones, there’s a solid thread that can be traced back to the mythic steps.

Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton used these stages — however intuitively — and so have Conrad, King, and Lehane. Superman? Dr. Jekyll? Mary Poppins? Odysseus? Shapeshifters? Ben-Hur? The Sound of Music? The mythic steps are all there.

In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler posits that most stories can be reduced to well-defined narrative structures and character archetypes. Vogler’s work stems from the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell.

In his search for a unifying theory, Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces shone a blinding light on Jung and Freud’s debate over the collective unconscious. He believed the world religions, rituals, deities, heroes, and legends to be “masks” of the same concept. Most authorities agree.

Regardless of genre or theme, plots can be boiled down to a series of structural phases, necessarily recurring, like a finite series of nails on a board. The writer threads the storyline using the available pegs in no fixed order, and sometimes wrapping the tale several times around a particular nail and skipping others. But a careful study of the base structure, the character’s roles, and the underlying forces that pull a plot in one direction or another, will reveal that the stages are limited. There’s nothing new under the sun. Mythos is our heritage of dreams and the stuff from which we craft fiction.

Scriptwriters have followed these steps or stages for decades, to structure not only mythological or legendary screenplays, but also many other genres. Likewise, writers have used these steps or variations of the same since time immemorial, sometimes unawares. Halfway through creating the Star Wars structure, George Lucas came across Campbell’s work and was dumbfounded to discover he’d followed the mythic structural steps without knowing them.

We are not suggesting writers should approach plots from a mythic-step perspective, but rather that they can use them as guide posts, in particular when drawing a blank (one of those instances when we stare at an empty screen and don’t know what to do next). In studying mythos from a conceptual standpoint, the writer will discover similar patterns in his own work. This will expose where the story wants to go next.

The following authors have each arranged the steps differently, according to their views or interpretation of mythos.

The Campbell & Vogler’s Mythic 12-step lists the stages thus:

1. Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. Ordeal
9. Reward
10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection
Return with the Elixir

Phil Cousineau, in The Hero’s Journey, lists eight steps:

1. The Call to Adventure
2. The Road of Trials
3. The Vision Quest
4. The Meeting with the Goddess
5. The Boon
6. The Magic Flight
7. The Return Threshold
The Master of Two Worlds

David Adams Leeming, in Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, suggests another eight-step formulation:

1. Miraculous conception and birth
2. Initiation of the hero-child
3. Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
4. Trial and Quest
5. Death
6. Descent into the underworld
7. Resurrection and rebirth
8. Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement

We find Campbell’s Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth, from his 1949 masterpiece The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to be unsurpassed, and we’ve used his concepts to illustrate this structural tool.

The heroic Monomyth — also known as the Hero’s Journey — describes the common stages of a hero’s trials and adventures found in many stories. The terms and description of each step may sound fantastic or mythological. They are. But these are only labels. “Hero” is also a label we may attach to men, women, children, animals, or even constructs. Hitler and Bugs Bunny are heroes in this loose definition, even if their humanity is absent.

We’ll call our hero Gladys. She’s twenty-five and a mousy, shy, primary-school teacher, much prettier than she thinks, with a gorgeous mind and lousy luck with men. No pets or live-ins, only a lemon geranium struggling to survive on the window ledge of her tenement flat.

The Monomyth is structured in three acts, books, or phases: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each of these acts is subdivided into five or six steps. Act One, Departure

Step One: Call to Adventure

This step, also termed separation, is the moment of change. Gladys awakens from a life of drudgery, from a mundane situation of normality or despair, to pursue a calling. Perhaps she suspects there’s a world beyond her hometown.

The Call to Adventure is a point in Gladys’s life when she first notices things are about to change. It’s a turn away from the well-trodden path and into the unknown. We all remember turning points. They are the decisions, moves, and choices that have changed our lives.

The moment of call may present itself at any time, as Campbell notes:

“The adventure may begin as a mere blunder... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man.”

Something happens, either from external agencies or from something rising within, and Gladys must face change. Her job stinks. Josh left two months ago, taking with him her dreams of normalcy and her I-Pad. The postman delivered a postcard from La Havana into her letterbox, when it should have gone to number 345 instead of 543. A lawyer phones her. Uncle Tom died in the Andes and left her in his will a key to a bank’s safe deposit box. Whatever the call, Gladys heeds it and heads off into the unknown.

In some instances a herald will appear. The herald, a harbinger of change, might be a friend or acquaintance who provides directions, acts as a sounding board, or causes Gladys to re-examine her concept of life. The herald might even join Gladys to act as a guide or companion.

Step Two: Refusal of the Call

Of course, there are crossroads where we cling to our familiar path, fearful of taking the wrong turn, perhaps to live with a burden many of us will carry to the grave: what if?

In Refusal of the Call, Gladys rejects the initial pull. She fears change. Gladys may resolve to justify her refusal from a sense of duty, from inadequacy, insecurity, or any of the rationalizations we adduce to retain our current circumstances. Humans are adept at self-delusion and reticent to move beyond the status quo.

There can be other variations of this stage. Another character might warn of the dangers ahead or sow uncertainty in Gladys’s mind. A real event, such as an illness or disgrace might dampen the original impulse. But this stage is an interlude and could open intriguing plot possibilities. In Campbell’s words:

“Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.”

This “need of salvation” could be the prompt the herald requires to step forward. Motive moves our characters and the herald also needs its fair share of motivation to read true. Nothing weakens a plot more than characters acting without stimulus. For example, on her way to the grocery store for coffee and sugar, Gladys delivers by hand the wrongly addressed postcard and meets the recipient, an ageing Jewish trapeze artist. Zvi befriends her. He warns her about her sudden wanderlust. Gladys returns to her flat sans coffee or sugar.

Gladys will eventually go on her journey. A supernatural power may come into play, or an event will force Gladys to move. The little handwritten diary in dear Uncle Tom’s safe-deposit box, next to a key tagged with “33 Willow Lane, Topeka,” causes her to reconsider.

By one means or another, Gladys overcomes her doubts and marches ahead into uncharted lands.

Step Three: Supernatural Aid

This step has been referred to in other compilations as “Meeting with the Mentor.” Like every other one, the title is a loose metaphor to be interpreted even more loosely. The term “supernatural” is often understood as describing something belonging to a different realm or dimension, when nothing could be further from the truth. Supernatural is everything we can’t explain through our understanding of natural law.

Thus, “supernatural” aid may come as a source of courage and wisdom Gladys summons from within. The “aid” may mean training, equipment, or advice. In the classical explanation there’s a guide, a magical helper or mentor who will present the heroine with amulets, talismans, or artifacts that will aid in the quest.

Magic is required to plunge Gladys into the unknown. As in “Refusal of the Call,” Gladys’s natural inertia and Zvi’s counsel both suggest staying put, where she would suffer predictability as payment for security.

As Gladys travels on her journey, she may meet with a messenger or a god/goddess who gives her weapons or magical powers. Of course, there is a great deal of variety in this apparent formula. The god might pose as a gas-station attendant and the magic manifest itself as a snatch of song.

In our plot, Gladys takes a day off and drives her rattletrap Volkswagen down a country road outside Atlanta in to organize her thoughts. Soon, the car starts making strange noises. At an old gas station on a secondary road, a kind old man points out that besides gas, Gladys’s heap of metal and rust needs oil and water. As she fumbles in the car’s glove compartment, Gladys discovers a card signed by Zvi with an address in La Havana and a U.S. telephone number. Outside her car, the old man tops the tank while singing Ludo’s “I found God in a catalytic converter in Topeka on a Monday night.”


Zvi, the herald, guessed she would set off and has given Gladys a talisman. The god points out the way: Topeka. And, after her initial Refusal of the Call, Gladys heeds it, with the inestimable help of a little magic.

Step Four: Crossing the First Threshold

Nearing the end of Act One, Gladys commits to leaving the familiar and enters a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values. A portal or threshold marks the transition into a different realm. There must be danger as well as opportunity. This threshold is the point of no return; Gladys must cross an imaginary gate, the line separating the home comforts and the predictable from a new world fraught with mystery and danger.

So Gladys reaches Topeka to find that the address on the tag of the key she found at Uncle Tom’s safe-deposit box — a residential trailer-park — no longer exists. In its place there’s an unkempt public park frequented by the local bliss-dispensers and their clients. Feeling a little silly, she reaches for Zvi’s card and keys the number. A local number. How did Zvi know she would end up in Topeka? Coincidence? On the other end of the line, a soothing female voice tells her to come to a house by the local synagogue after eight.

Sometimes a gatekeeper guards the threshold, a man or beast the hero must defeat.
Campbell writes:

“With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian’ at the entrance to the zone of magnified power.”

Like everything else in the Monomyth, “gatekeeper” is a concept not to be taken too literally. Cerberus, the three-headed dog, guarded the gates of Hades. But any student of mythology knows that if faced with such a beast, Gladys would only have to wait for Heracles to finish his labors and clear the road.

Having determined the trailer’s address on the key fob is no more, Gladys can return home defeated — even before starting her adventure — or pluck enough courage to attend the mysterious date. The given address is a cathouse. The Madame takes Gladys to a room where an ageing rabbi sits shelling peanuts with gnarled hands. Unknown to her he’s the gatekeeper.

He likes what he sees. The rabbi tells Gladys the story of the trailer-park owner: a Nazi war criminal. One day he disappeared. The local bank sold the trailers to recover an unpaid loan. The trailers ended up in Cuba.

When Gladys was a little girl, Uncle Tom would compose riddles, and give her a coin if she guessed the correct answer. The little book Gladys recovered from Uncle Tom’s safe deposit is packed with riddles she has never seen before. The first riddle is fiendish, “FARTED IN HITLER.” Gladys guesses it’s an anagram but she’s shocked to discover its meaning: “FIND THE TRAILER.”

At the threshold, Gladys must decide. Should she cross over? In this instance, the gatekeeper, besides testing her worth, will help with money and a companion: Ben is a trusted friend of the rabbi — early thirties, tall, athletic, and debonair, if unimpaired by a high IQ.

Step Five: Belly of the Whale

The decision made, and having crossed the threshold, Gladys finds herself alone. Nothing is familiar anymore. Ahead lies the unknown.

It’s important to notice that the herald, and every other step in these stages, is interchangeable and repeatable, as is the order of the stages. In Avatar, for instance, James Cameron recreates each of the seventeen Monomyth themes, though not in their original order.

In this instance, Zvi was the herald in Step Two. Now Ben, her companion, replays the herald’s role.

Ben goes to arrange false passports. They will cross into Mexico from where a bunch of friendly gunrunners will spirit them into Cuba in a creaky single-engine Cessna. In the darkness of a room in the synagogue’s basement, Gladys faces herself. There, she must test her resolution to emerge from the “Belly of the Whale,” as a new person.

Both the Bible and the Qur’an recount Jonah’s trial: three days in the belly of a fish. When the whale vomits Jonah out, he emerges renewed, ready for Nineveh to prophesy doom to its inhabitants.

In taking this step, the heroine shows her willingness to undergo a metamorphosis. She could still leave, but her choice is a mirage; she burned her ships by accepting. At this stage, her job and tenement flat must appear remote, even though only a few hours separate the old life from the new. Having crossed the threshold &mdash ;and fallen into an unknown abyss — she awaits rebirth or release from her purgatorial state. This is a recurring theme in much fiction, the protagonist’s inner fight between mediocrity and a chance at significance. In a soul-wrenching stage of reckoning and self-doubt, everything is tenuous and surreal. The new world is strange — a world of hookers, peanut-wolfing rabbis, gunrunners, disappearing Nazi criminals, peripatetic trailers and dishy assistants. A foreign world, an alien planet in Topeka.

Nothing can be the same after Gladys’s endless night. In the morning, when Ben knocks on the door, Gladys will be reborn. After pinching her cheeks to add a touch of color, she will step into the light.

"1.4 Structure" will continue next week.

"The Nuts & Bolts" is an excerpt from Writer's Companion (2011) by Carlos J Cortés and Renée Miller. Reprinted with permission.

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