Create great plots by harnessing the power of myth

In our culture, because we have broken our conscious connection with myth, we tend to see our lives as separate and unique.

But every individual life follows paths and patterns which are universal. Each life story is built on a template of all human stories.

Through mythology, we can connect with the essence of our own life experience, and walk with greater consciousness the mythic pathways where we all are one.

Being aware of the archetypal dimension of experience can be particularly useful for writers. You can use mythic templates quite deliberately to help you construct stories which will have resonance with your readers.

I like to use the Hero’s Journey, the master-myth explored at length in Joseph Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’

In this story

  • the hero hears the call to adventure, which he at first refuses
  • something helps him to engage with the adventure and he sets out into the unfamiliar world
  • he meets allies and enemies
  • he’s tested
  • he has to muster all his inner resources to face his supreme ordeal
  • he finally claims his reward and takes it back to his community

This is a master myth because it isn’t limited to one area of human experience, such as becoming a mother or making the transition between middle and older age.

The Hero’s Journey explored through mythology and in the lives of women and writers – it is capable of endless applications

The Hero’s Journey describes every challenge we may have to face, however small or large; from the daily challenge of getting out of bed or learning something new to a greater challenge such as finding a new job or coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Life continuously presents us with challenges, which we at first refuse, because we don’t want the effort and disruption of change. If we refuse, we get a nudge. We may seek the help and support of friends or strangers, books or teachers, and we may encounter unhelpful people who stand in the way.

Every time we engage with a challenge, we win a reward – new strength, new insight, new effectiveness in our world, which we can then ‘bring home’ and incorporate in our life.

You can use mythic templates in a deliberate way to construct strong stories, but simply being aware of the universal dimension in your characters’ stories will give them depth and new dimensions. As Dorothea Brande says, ninety percent of writing happens unconsciously, with us often finding things in our writing we did not consciously put there.

If you want to explore the Hero’s Journey in more depth, I’d recommend ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler, where he looks at various Hollywood blockbusters as versions of the hero myth.

August is all about archetypes here in the House of Dreams – next week, I’ll be telling you how I first encountered the archetypes in my dreams

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17 thoughts on “Create great plots by harnessing the power of myth”

  1. Fantastic post, Jenny. There’s a lot about mythic structure in my favourite writing book, Robert McKee’s STORY, and my stories all seem to follow a Hero’s Journey/Quest type of structure. I agree with what Dorothea Brande says, too!

  2. Thank you, Emma, for such a lovely comment and for your book recommendation – it’s one I haven’t heard of, and I’m off to amazon to order it right now!

  3. I had heard of it – it was in my save-for-later, waiting for a better price! How interesting that this book, like the Writer’s Journey, is by a screenwriter/about screenwriting

    1. I think you can learn so much about storytelling from film! My problem was always that the words got in the way of the story – I was so focused on them, I neglected the structure underneath. With film (good films, anyway!) it’s *all* about the story. Hope you find the book useful!

  4. Once you get the whole hero journey, you see it in everything – soaps, dramas, life events – I think it even helps drive narrative non-fiction and memoir. Enjoy!

  5. I am intrigued, Jenny. I can see how this applies to lots of flim scripts and books – the Harry Potter books come to mind straight away, and I, unknowingly, followed a similar path when I was writing my YA. As you say, a lot of our writing is in the subconscious and we don’t always overtly try to follow these patterns. What I also think is interesting though, is how many books deviate from this – I like that too! I like to see structure played with and contorted into something else. For me, that’s where the real surprises are!

  6. Hi Abi – how interesting that you’ve followed this pattern unconsciously in your YA book. There are various books which look at the 7/5/12/whatever ‘basic plots’, suggesting that although stories don’t always follow the Hero Journey pattern, they do appear generally to be built on one of a very few mythic templates, which presumably we all slot into in a quite unconscious way. Of course, as you say, what makes them interesting is the individual writer’s variation on the basic structure. Having said that, I’m not an academic – just bandying some ideas about – and thanks so much for joining in!

  7. Thanks for this excellent post! Vogler also has a terrific audio–“Using Myth To Power Your Story”–where he explains how he consulted on several movies and identified the “missed step” from the journey and then they corrected it. The audio is taped from his key-note speech at a writing conference, and he answers audience question.

  8. Good heavens – I’ve done it again! I not only know Maureen Murdock’s books, I’ve got her Heroine’s Journey on my shelf. I remember the substance, but don’t seem to retain names and titles at all 😦

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