Meet the Monomyth

Strap on your seatbelts and hold on tight, because I am about to take you through the plot of every story ever told.

It is all laid out in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Published in 1949, this book dives into the pattern that all stories follow in some way. I was first introduced to the Hero’s Journey (or the monomyth, depending on who you ask) in the lead up to my first ever NaNoWriMo. The Hero’s Journey is broken into 12 main stages set in the Ordinary (1-2, 10-12) and the Special World (3-9). Picture it like a clock.

Once you know this basic structure, you will never be able to unsee it. You are welcome.

1: The Ordinary World

This is where you introduce the main character and begin setting up the main conflict. The hero wakes up, eats breakfast, and goes about their day to day life. This is where you get to meet the hero’s friends and family and see what their ‘normal’ is. You watch them go through the motions of a regular day while longing for something more, something better (because rarely is a hero 100% happy with where they are in the beginning). There might be some hints of the coming conflict, but nothing that really catches the hero’s attention.

Everything is perfectly normal. Everyone is happy. Everything is about to change.

2: The Call to Adventure

A mysterious messenger arrives to inform the hero that, for one reason or another, they are needed to save the world. It doesn’t matter how familiar they are with the conflict or what their opinion is on the subject. All that matters is that they have been chosen. It is time for them to rise to the task of saving the world.

3: The Refusal of the Call

By the time it hits 2, the hero has point blank refused the call. Whether they are unqualified or just uninterested, they have absolutely no intention of answering the call to adventure. They are perfectly happy in their ordinary world, thank you very much (even though they were just complaining about how much they wanted something more not even five minutes ago).

4: The Meeting with the Mentor

The mentor arrives at 3 to tell the hero that they need to talk. Somehow they heard about the call that the hero refused. They have known the hero for some time or have been in the hero’s shoes at some point. They are more familiar with the conflict than the hero does and often have a greater understanding of the role the hero will play in the coming battles. They are the one who talks the hero into accepting the challenge.

5: Crossing the First Threshold

4 o’clock rolls around and the hero is finally ready to cross the first threshold. Reluctant or not, they have accepted the challenge and are answering the call to adventure. This can be a really challenging time for the hero. They are leaving behind everything they know and love. Sometimes they leave because the conflict has already destroyed the one thing they were staying for, other times it is because their home is threatened. Either way, they have accepted the call and there is no going back. Once they reach the point where they cannot return, they have crossed the threshold. The adventure is on and there is no going back.

6: Tests, Allies, Enemies

The 5 o’clock hour is divided into three things. First off, the tests. How well does the hero know the world they live in? Do they have the skills they need to survive? Are they worthy of being called a ‘hero’? Some of these tests are given by enemies who seek to impede the hero. Others are given by potential allies who are trying to decide if the hero is worth following/aiding.

7: Approach to the Innermost Cave

The approach to the innermost cave begins around 6. This is when things are starting to get dark. The hero must be prepared to face the great unknown that they have been fighting against the whole time. Think of this as the dark night of the soul. They have never faced a challenge like this before and they are going to have to use everything they have learned so far to survive this.

8: The Ordeal

The real ordeal starts at 7. This is the final test where everything is on the line. Everything they have learned over the course of the journey will be tested. This is where everything changes, including the hero. Some part of them will break. Something is going to die, whether it be a hope, a dream, or a person. It may even be the hero.

Let’s just say it isn’t called the ‘ordeal’ for nothing.

9: Seizing the Sword

At 8, the transformation begins. They have survived incredible odds and have come out even stronger (mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually). They also obtained some sort of prize. The prize is the thing that the hero has been searching for this whole time, whether they realize it or not. It might be an object, it might be a secret. It might be knowledge or insight into a problem. It could even be a reconnection with a loved one. Either way, there is no time to celebrate. The clock marches onward and it is time to return home.

10: The Road Back

The clock strikes 9 and it is time to return home. This is a reversal of the call to action and crossing the first threshold, a final push back to the Ordinary World. They may revisit some of the same places (which is a great way to showcase just how much the world and the hero have changed since the ordeal). Ultimately, the hero will have to choose between their own personal objectives and a higher cause. Not an easy decision for anyone.

11: Resurrection

From 10-11 the hero has one final, incredibly dangerous encounter with death. The implications of this fight stretch far beyond the hero’s existence. The outcome of this battle determines the future of the Ordinary World. All of their knowledge and all of their experiences come to fruition in this final fight. This is a chance for the hero to prove that they have truly changed.

12: Return with the Elixir

Things have finally come full circle as the hero returns home to the Ordinary World. The conflict is gone, the threat has been vanquished, and there is finally some sort of peace in the world. Yet everything is not as it once was. The hero has changed.  They have grown. They have brought what they learned on their journey home with them to help make their world a better place.

 

If you pay attention you can see this pattern unfold in all of the stories that have ever been told. We have this natural inclination to telling stories like this and I find it fascinating. I could go on about the psychology behind it all as well as all of the different variations of this journey, the different character types, motivations, etc for hours.  And I probably will at some point.

For now, I have a strong desire to watch Star Wars.

Until next time!

How to not Retcon

I think we can all agree that retconning is bad. We have been there, covered that. Time to move on.

Now, how do we avoid retconning?

I have been putting some thought into this recently. As a writer, I understand how easy it can be to let details slip or lose track of where a particular plot thread was going. As the story grows and morphs, and you move beyond the first draft, things can get lost.

The one I am currently working on has gone through some drastic changes, and it includes possible character name changes part of the way through the book. I’ve trimmed down my cast of characters quite a bit, but there is still a lot to keep track of.

So here are a few things I am going to do to keep my story straight.

Note: there are wonderful programs, such as Scrivner, that help with this but as I do not have any such program, my suggestions will reflect this.

Plot, plot, plot

You may be thinking “duh, we all know how to plot.” Hear me out.

I’ve mentioned before that my current project has gone through a lot of changes. When starting on the most recent draft/iteration, I created a detailed plot outline detailing my idea. Then I talked through the plot with my friend, resulting in some of those points being changed.

I then went back and reworked the plot outline. Its a goal of mine to always have an up-to-date plot outline. The practice may seem like a waste of time, but as your story changes adjusting your outline can help you easier keep track of the current plot.

Also, by intentionally plotting things out ahead of time and throughout the process, this could help you create a smoother, more coherent plot.

It is easy enough to do and will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

When in doubt, leave it out

Perhaps “keep it vague” is a better way to phrase it.

Picture this:
A writer decides far into the story that they want to do something with a character or the plot that differs from their original plan. They have not built up to this in any way, and chances are they have already hinted that things were going to go differently.

I know I have seen it before and I am pretty sure you have too, at least once. It is super annoying and has a nasty habit of ruining whatever impact that moment might have had.

My solution?

If you aren’t sure where you want to go with something, keep it vague. Don’t give any direct answer as to which way it could go. Even better, leave hints that it could go either way. By leaving it vague or uncertain as to which way something could go, you make the reveal of the truth that much more rewarding.

It can also give you time to consider why you are thinking about doing whatever it is. If it is important to the plot, great. If it is for shock value, maybe reconsider. But that is a topic for another time.

Make a cheat sheet

This relates back to the first point about keeping an up-to-date plot outline.

Odd names for people and places. Important objects that exchange ownership. Convoluted plot threads. If there is a chance you could forget or lose track of things in your story, consider creating a cheat sheet.

Keep records of your characters, how to spell their names, their backstories, how they are related to the others. Write down what they look like and make notes of when that might have changed.

Trace the ownership of important items and note what was going on when they changed hands.

Use the highlighter to visually mark important events and add them to your cheat sheet.

Yes, tools like Scrivener make this much easier, but there are ways to function without them. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to keep your story straight.

Get more eyes

Lastly, it helps a lot to have a second pair of eyes. Get a friend or someone you trust to read over your work.

I know you have spent hours upon hours pouring over your work. That is part of the problem. You are so familiar with every single word that you are bound to miss things. By having someone who has never seen it before (that may or may not already know the story), you are increasing the likelihood of catching any slip-ups.

I have done this for friends before and helped catch some name mix-ups as well as things that were not made clear. It can be hugely beneficial and, by giving it to a friend, you know you can trust their advice. Also, they are less likely to tear your work into tiny little pieces.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to hire an editor. Those are needed too.

Hopefully, you will find these tips and tricks useful when tackling your next literary adventure.

Next week we are going to be tackling one of my favorite questions and the uncertainty it can cause.

As always if you have any questions or comments, leave them down below. I am always looking for new topics to cover!

Until then!

Think Before You Retcon

If there is one thing readers can’t stand, it is a retcon. Whether you are changing an inconsequential detail or something big, they will notice and they will not be happy.

Now, there are lots of reasons that a writer retcons. Stories can change a lot as they are being told. Sometimes this results in the writer wanting to go back and change something. If the work is unpublished, this can be easy. When the work is published, though, it can be tricky.

It can be very easy to do, especially if you are writing a series. It can be detrimental, though, to your reputation and your story. Here are a few reasons you should think hard before you retcon.

It irritates the reader

When you go back and change something that is already established in the story, it annoys the reader. If it is a small thing, then they might be able to overlook it, but if it is bigger…it’s not going to be good. At the very least you are going to throw your reader for a loop, and they are not going to like that.

You want your readers to be focused on the story, to become engrossed, attached to it. The last thing you want is to have them raging against your retconning.

Sometimes a retcon can undo the significance of an event, or damage a character arch. This can tank your story. Retcon something your audience loves, they will not soon forget it. If it messes with the arc of their favorite character…let’s just say you don’t want to go there.

You also run the risk of confusing the reader. The plot should have twists and turns, yes, but it should be solid. Steady. It should not sneakily rewrite itself (unless you are doing this intentionally, but that is another conversation).

It makes your writing look weak

When you retcon, it reflects poorly on your skills as a writer. Even if it is something small, such as a character’s hair color, your readers will not be impressed.

Retconning something small makes you look like you are forgetful, neglectful. Now, I know how much planning and crafting goes into telling a good story. It takes even more to write that story. So I get that it can be easy to miss the little details. There are some details, though, that you need to keep straight. Otherwise, the readers might think you don’t care.

Drastically changing your plot, despite things you set up earlier in the series, makes you come across like someone who has no idea what they are doing. We have all seen this happen in shows and movies. It either leaves you confused or frustrated, and wondering why the writer couldn’t pick a plot. They look like they either did not plan ahead, have no idea what they are doing, or both. Probably both.

There are a few other, smaller things that can cause a big impact. Changing how a character’s name is spelled, either partway through the story or every so often. Switching up how the characters are related. The first one is easy to do and, depending on how odd the name is, can be forgiven by the reader. Heck, they may not even notice. But with the second one, they are a lot more likely to catch on. This will not end well for you.

 

The moral of the story is don’t retcon. It can be annoying for the readers and it makes you look like a bad writer.

Next week I am going to share some tips on how to avoid retconning. As always, feel free to leave a comment if there is anything you would like to add or if you have any questions.

Until next time!