The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, by James Frey.

The KeyThe universal elements of myth can be used to write good fiction. The same elements can be observed in the everyday stories of our lives too.

Myth-based fiction is patterned after what Joseph Campbell has called the monomyth … a reenactment of the same mythological hero’s journey; it is prevalent in all cultures, in every era … ‘a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (1).

Myths are core story telling patterns which writers can draw upon in the fashioning of their own stories. It is not the only type of story, but it a powerful one. If nothing more, myths are like old familiar songs that people love to hear, a trustworthy source of entertainment. More deeply, myths express fundamental patterns of human experience — archetypes in the collective unconscious. As such, myths tell the handful of stories repeated in the ordinary lives of humans of all ages, informing us how to be heroic when we need to act, gradually molding our culture. The telling of mythical fiction blurs the distinction between the personal and collective unconscious – between present and past, self and others – offering the reader a passage from the personal to the universal and perhaps the divine, a moment of transcendence.

The structures of the monomyth can be sorted into two types: traits and characters, and regions and motifs. Certainly never mistake the structures as requirements. Nearly all are optional and subject to wide variation, doubling up, or absence. The structures are merely story telling ingredients. Heroes and villains have some consistent traits. Both are capable and set apart by a special talent or some other condition. The hero tends to have noble qualities such as loyalty while the villain may be cruel.

Campbell identified three “regions” or phases of the monomyth: Separation, Initiation and Return. Each region has standard motifs. Each motif is associated with a change in the Hero. Separation motifs include

  • Hero exists in common, Ordinary World, dealing with ordinary scale conflicts.
  • The Herald delivers the Call to Adventure. If the hero resists the call, he is an anti-hero. He degenerates, turns into a victim, and faces increasing external pressure until he heeds the Call.
  • The Hero may be warned not to go by a Threshold Guardian.
  • He may seek advice from a Wise One.
  • He may seek weapons from an Armorer.
  • He may obtain magic from a Magic Helper.
  • He may have a tearful good-bye with a Loved One.
  • The Hero crosses the Threshold.

Initiation motifs:

  • Frey calls this region the “Mythological Woods”. It does not need to be fantastical, just different and strange for the Hero.
  • The Hero is in new territory, and must Learn New Rules. He will obey some of the rules he learns, and ignore others.
  • The Hero is Tested, often by the Evil One, and often fails some or many of these tests. The tests may take the form of physical challenges such a heights or a long journey, or inner struggles. The tests ready the hero for transformation.
  • Death and Re-Birth. The Transformation. The Hero becomes a new person. Affects self and external perception of Hero. Not always a change for the better – the Hero may become savage and destructive, perhaps experiencing a second re-birth later. The Re-Birth may be in spirit only.
  • Confrontation with the Evil One, usually in the lair of the Evil One. Hero may lose this confrontation, narrowly escaping, perhaps facing the Evil One again later.
  • May obtain a Prize of Value, if the Evil One has been defeated. The prize could be an item, e.g., grail, or knowledge.

Return motifs:

  • Two parts: Journey Home and Arrival.
  • Modern stories often shorten this phase, focusing instead on the individual achievement over the community. This is the fulfillment phase, and very poignant – use it!
  • On the Return Journey, the Evil One may try to reclaim the prize, causing another Confrontation, e.g., Saruman in the Shire. If the Hero was bested by the Evil One, he gets a second chance to defeat him.
  • Hero crosses the Threshold back into his community, the Ordinary world.
  • The Hero uses the prize to Bestow Boons on his Fellows.
  • Hero is hailed as a Hero.