Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver

A great story opening arouses, delays and rewards. Constructing a compelling beginning—often called a hook—is a common challenge for even established writers, and one of the most important parts of a story.

The opening of a story should sweep the reader into the story like a tidal wave. It doesn’t need to be wild action. It just needs to compel the reader to want to know more. This is accomplished by engaging the reader with “intrigue”. In his article “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked” in the April 2001 issue of Writer’s Digest, Joe Cardillo suggested that the three elements of hooking a reader resemble the steps he uses to train his Samoyed puppy: 1) arouse interest; 2) delay, then 3) reward.

The writer arouses interest in the reader by providing enough detail to get the reader to ask questions. Now they want something. You tease them with the delay; that keeps them reading and turning the pages. It also gives them the chance to try to come up with the answers themselves. The reward comes in stages. Don’t answer all their questions at once. That’s what the book—the story—is for. The reward, parceled out in stages, lets the reader know that you can deliver and will ultimately provide them with a fulfilling story at the end. The beginning of your book sets up a covenant between you and the reader, a covenant for a journey you will take together toward resolution.

There is no beginning without an end. In her book The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit (Revised Edition, Perigee Trade, 2002) Elizabeth Lyon suggested that the beginning of a novel should “reflect the entire book. There should be a tie-in [between] the beginning and the end”. This is sometimes called “framing” a story, where the principal thematic problem is given in the beginning and then resolved in the end. In his book, A Story is a Promise (Blue Heron Publishing, 2000) Bill Johnson describes it as a promise to the reader.

“Dramatic story-issues revolve around issues of human need,” says Johnson. “The need to be loved. To have control of one’s fate. To feel a sense of purpose. To be able to overcome obstacles. To be able to grow and heal from life’s wounds. To understand and make sense of the events of life.” He warns that “if you can’t name the issue at the heart of your story [the theme], it risks being unclear to your audience.” And this needs to be identified, at least intuitively for the reader, at the beginning of the story. You do this through intrigue in the beginning and pointing out through scene what is at stake or at issue in your story.

Additional things to consider in openings include:

• Avoid starting your story at “the beginning”: instead, start mid-way, when something is already happening—preferably to someone important in your story and at the pivotal point when you provide the “story promise” pertinent to the theme.

• Quell the urge to put in a lot of information about setting, character and situation: get things in motion first, then reveal here and there. Let the details unfold with the story like a flowing piece of artwork.

• Trust your reader: novice writers have not yet gained the confidence to trust that they won’t lose the reader in the beginning if they don’t tell them everything right away. The key is to choose just enough to whet their appetite for more. And, yes, it is critical what you choose. What you choose should relate to your story’s theme and its story promise: the problem.

A great opening is a seductive tease, deliciously delivered; it promises an exotic ride that only you can fulfill.

Recommended Reading:

Cardillo, Joe. 2001. “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked”. Writer’s Digest, April, 2001, volume 81, no. 4.

Johnson, Bill. 2000. A Story Is a Promise. Blue Heron Publishing. Portland, Oregon. 187pp.

Lyon, Elizabeth. 2002. The Sell Your Novel Took Kit. Revised Edition. Perigee Trade. 320pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Chapter B) Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 264pp.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Hero’s Journey: Part 2, Heroes and Other Archetypes

The world of fairy tales and myth is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts” or motive, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who “block” the quest, tricksters who confuse things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero and her quest.

Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. An archetype models a personality or behavior; a mother-figure is an archetype. This is what makes archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Archetypes are found in nearly all forms of literature, with their motifs mostly rooted in folklore.

Assigning an archetype to a character lets the writer clarify that character’s role in the story. Archetypes are an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell). Joseph Campbell went so far as to describe the archetype as something that is expressed biologically and is wired into every human being.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, lists the seven most useful archetypes for the writer.

The Hero

The hero sacrifices his own needs on behalf of others. He provides a character for us to identify with and is usually the principal POV character in a story, with qualities most readers can (or want to) identify with. The hero “transforms” through her journey as she encounters other archetypes on her journey, whether it is a physical journey or a psychological journey toward “home” (salvation or redemption) through sacrifice. The true mark of the hero, says Vogler, is in the act of sacrifice: “the hero’s willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even her own life, on behalf of an ideal or a group,” and ultimately for the greater good.

Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Anti-heroes are notably flawed characters that must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off more like a villain, like Tom Cruise’s character in Rainman. The wounded anti-hero may be a “heroic knight in tarnished armor, a loner who has rejected society or been rejected by it,” says Vogler: Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The catalyst hero shows less of a character arc, but precipitates significant change or transformation in other protagonists. A good example is David Adams, in Ben Bova’s Colony.

The Mentor

The mentor often possesses divine wisdom and has faith in the hero. He often gives the hero a “gift”, which is usually something important for the quest; either a weapon to destroy a “monster” or a “talisman” to enlighten the hero. A good example is in Star Wars, when Luke’s mentor, Obi Wan, provides him with his father’s lightsaber (Luke’s magic talisman).

The Herald

Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually they don’t). They deliver the call to adventure. The herald is a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. Existing in the form of a person, an event, or just information, they shift the hero’s balance and change her world.

In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes to her as a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.

The Threshold Guardian

This archetype guards the threshold of “Separation from the Ordinary World” on the hero’s quest to achieve his destiny. Threshold guardians spice up the story by providing obstacles the hero must overcome. Threshold guardians are usually not the main antagonist. In the Harry Potter series, this role is fulfilled by Malfoy, Snape or Filch, even. They help round-out the hero’s journey and develop his character arc. The threshold guardian can be a “friend” who doesn’t believe in the hero or her quest. Ultimately, this is the role of the threshold guardian: to test the hero’s resolve in her quest.

The Shape shifter

The shape shifter adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. They can seem one thing and in fact be another. They bring doubt and suspense to the story and test the hero’s abilities to discern her path. Yoda in Star Wars is a bit of a shape shifter, initially masking his ancient wisdom with a foolish childlike appearance when Luke first encounters him.

The Shadow

The monster under the bed, repressed feelings, deep trauma, a festering guilt: these all possess the dark energy of the shadow. This is the dark force of the unexpressed, unrealized, rejected, feared aspects of the hero and represented by the main antagonist or villain.

Voldermort in the Harry Potter series; Darth Vader in Star Wars. These are shadows and worthy opponents for the hero, bringing out the best in her and usually demanding the ultimate in self-sacrifice (the hero’s destiny).The shadow force, if internalized by the hero, may serve as a threshold guardian, to overcome; ultimately challenging the hero to overcome her greatest weakness and prevail.

The Trickster

Practically every Shakespearian play contains a jester or fool, who not only serves as comic relief but as commentator. This is because tricksters are usually witty and clever, even when ridiculous. The comedy of most successful comedians touches upon the pulse of a culture by offering commentary that is truism (often in the form of entertaining sarcasm).

Recommended Reading:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.

Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.

Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.

Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Hero’s Journey: Part One, the Hero & the Journey

All stories consist of … common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey — Christopher Vogler, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers”

“The Hero’s Journey” myth follows the three-act structure of the ancient Greek play, handed down to us thousands of years ago. Drawn from the depth psychology of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and the scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it duplicates the steps of the “Rite of Passage” and is a process of self-discovery and self-integration.

The Power of Myth & Archetype

Campbell recognized that myths weren’t just abstract theories or quaint ancient beliefs but practical models for understanding how to live. Ultimately, the Hero’s Journey is the soul’s search for “home”. It is a journey of transformation we all take, in some form. This is why the Hero’s Journey model for writing is so relevant and why it appeals to all readers.

Jung proposed that symbols appear to us when there is a need to express what thought cannot think or what is only divined or felt. Jung discovered reoccurring symbols among differing peoples and cultures, unaffected by time and space. He described these shared symbols as archetypes: irrepressible, unconscious, pre-existing forms of the psyche. Joseph Campbell suggested that these mythic images lay at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind of humankind. Where we are all the same.

The Hero’s Journey in Storytelling

Compelling stories resonate with the universal truths of metaphor within the consciousness of humanity. According to Joseph Campbell this involves an open mind and a certain amount of humility; and giving oneself to the story...not unlike the hero who gives her life to something larger than herself: "Anyone writing a creative work knows that you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds become the carrier of something that is given to you from … the Muses or God. This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” I call this tapping into the universal truth where metaphor lives. A story comes alive when these two resonate.

Vogler suggested that using the principles of myth, helps “create a masterful story that is dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true.”

The Hero and the Journey

Heroes are agents of change on a quest. The hero is the ultimate altruist, sacrificing her life for the greater good. She is warrior and lover who slays the dragon of the status quo, so to speak. She enacts the ultimate in sacrifice in her quest to change the world (and/or herself). The hero’s task has always been to bring new life to an ailing culture, says Carol S. Pearson, author of The Hero Within. Julia Cameron reiterates this in her book, The Artist’s Way, when she describes the concept of art as a healing journey (not just for the individual but for a culture). This is because the writer/artist changes society by changing themselves.

Campbell describes a 12-step journey of the hero within 3-acts and influenced by five major archetypes (herald, mentor, threshold guardian, trickster, shadow and shapeshifter). Our hero starts her journey in Act 1 — in the Ordinary World — and will eventually separate from the Ordinary World in Act 2— entering the Special World, where she will transform through her many challenges. In Act 3, she re-enters the Ordinary World, changed, with her gift to the world. I’ll go into more detail about how you integrate other archetypes and the steps of the journey in “storytelling” in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

For now, let’s concentrate on our hero and what her journey means to her. She begins her quest with one giant step. How does she do it? How does she muster up the courage and resolution to proceed (often against all odds) on a journey that promises only challenge and hardship. She does so because our hero, whether she realizes it or not, has faith in her quest (even if she may not have faith in herself).

In some versions of the Holy Grail quest, relates Pearson, the hero reaches a huge chasm with no apparent way to get across to the Grail castle. The space is too great for him to jump across. Then he remembers the Grail teaching that instructs him to step out in faith. As he puts one foot out into the abyss, a bridge magically appears and he is saved. Anyone who has left a job, school, one’s home town, or a relationship has stepped out into that abyss, separating them from the familiar world they’ve known.

Just as “the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table set off to seek the Holy Grail,” says Mary Henderson, author of StarWars: The Magic of Myth, “the great figures of every major religion have each gone on a ‘vision quest’, from Moses’ journey to the mountain, to Jesus’ time in the desert, Muhammad’s mediations in the mountain cave, and Buddha’s search for enlightenment that ended under the Bodhi tree.” The journey, and the abyss, is often not a physical adventure, adds Henderson, but a spiritual one, “as the hero moves from ignorance and innocence to experience and enlightenment.”

Here are the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey:

ACT ONE: Separation

• Ordinary World
• Call to Adventure
• Refusal of the Call
• Meeting with the Mentor
• Crossing the Threshold

ACT TWO: Initiation & Transformation

• Tests, Allies, Enemies
• Approach to the Innermost Cave
• Ordeal (Abyss)
• Reward/Seizing the Sword (Transformation and Revelation)

ACT THREE: the Return

• The Road Block
• Resurrection / Atonement
• Return with the Elixor

I’ll talk about these in more detail and show you some examples in Part Three of my Hero’s Journey series. Stay tuned for “The Hero’s Journey—Part Two, Archetypes” next week.

I teach an online course in “The Hero’s Journey” through my educational website,

Recommended Reading:

• Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
• Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
• Campbell, Joseph. 1988. The Power of Myth.
• Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
• Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
• Pearson, Carol S. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Harper. San Francisco. 3rd Edition.
• Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.