The Author as Hero

So many analogies, so little time. 

Here on Storyfix I liberally offer analogies about the writing process in an attempt to clarify the critical and often-misunderstood relationships between certain mind-sets and the writing of publishable novels and marketable screenplays. 

Misunderstood, as in… gee, I’ve read a lot of novels in my day, seen a lot of movies… think I’ll sit down and write one. 

That simple statement defines the tragic writing journey of many.  Because while the majority of us may have launched our dream with that perspective – which equates to the love of stories – too many of us never get beyond it.

And getting beyond it is absolutely required if your wish is to publish your work.

The analogies I often use are about how builders rely on architectural blueprints, even though they understand the principles of structural dynamics like the back of their 401K statement.  About surgeons who must endure years of schooling and residency before slicing into a patient, even when the procedure is exploratory in nature.  About pilots who, even without a flight plan, must have a firm handle on the physics and principles of aviation to land safely.

And how, at a professional level – and make no mistake, writing fiction for money is the very definition of a professional level – builders always have a blueprint, doctors always have a protocol, and pilots always have a flight plan.

Anything less, at least for builders and pilots, is just recreation.

Anything less for a doctor — or a writer — is a dead patient.

Nobody has ever published a novel from a recreational mindset.

If we are to succeed as writers, we must eventually base everything we do on a profound knowledge of the underlying principles of storytelling and story architecture.  That much is non-negotiable.

Knowledge is the key word here.  It unlocks everything we seek to achieve as writers.  Not talent, not luck, not even practice and sweat equity.  Valued as they are, knowledge trumps them all.

Even if we eschew planning our stories before we write them (as many do), we come to understand, through years of rejection slips, that we are still subject to the accepted principles of storytelling – knowledge – as we explore our ideas and unleash them onto the blank page.

Because for the professional, the page is never really blank.   

Those pesky storytelling principles are always there, telling us what needs to go where within a story, and why.

Whether you plan your stories or write them organically, you will never publish a word until you get that.

There’s aother analogy that bears repeating here.

In recent posts, and in my new ebook on story structure, I describe a four-part sequence of contextually-unique segments of a successful story: set-up… response… attack… resolution.  I didn’t make it up, I’ve just packaged it in a way that makes it clear and accessible to novelists and screenwriters. 

I’ve also described those same four sequential parts from the perspective of character: orphanwandererwarrior and hero/martyr.   

Didn’t make that up, either.  It’s something I learned early in my writing career that made a huge difference in my understanding of storytelling.

These four terms not only describe how your hero behaves in relation to plot, they also define the very essence of character depth and arc, which is one of the six essential core competencies of successful storytelling.

Recently it occurred to me: this orphan-wanderer-warrior-hero model is the same exact journey we writers take as we labor to understand and internalize the principles of storytelling.

In other words… we are the heroes of our own writing story.

Think about it.  We begin our writing journey with nothing in the knowledge bank other than the stories we love, just as an orphan begins life with nothing other than what they observe in others.  They learn, they grow, and eventually the orphan evolves into something else, something more complex.

Just as we do if we keep at this long enough. 

Then something happens to an orphan that changes their life (the equivalent to a first plot point).  They get adopted, they become part of a new family and environment, they go to college, they get a job, they fall in love, they encounter life itself. 

And from that point on everything is different.

All successful writers encounter something that changes them.  Especially when it comes to their writing process.  Because where they began – knowing nothing – wasn’t enough.  Simply trying to copy the form and function of the stories we love never is.

For writers that something is the discovery of the craft of writing stories.  We become enlightened.  We learn what dramatic narrative really means, what it involves, and eventually, how to execute it. 

We begin to sense the power and necessity of story architecture, even if we have no notion what it even means.

And then, the orphan writer becomes a wanderer.

We begin to explore a new world of structure and character arc.  We see it within other work as never before.  We recognize its power.  We study, we learn, we practice, we become subordinated to it.

A wanderer/writer is simply aware of the principles of storytelling.  A warrior/writer discovers how to use them.

When we finally get it, when we stop fighting it off in the mistaken belief we can just make up our stories any way we please, we finally become a warrior.

Warrior/writers attack stories from an enlightened perspective. 

We get it now.  Our ideas are more compelling.  Our characters and their quests are more empathetic and meaningful.  Our themes carry sudden weight. 

And the structure of our stories align with the principles of proper pacing and exposition that will finally elevate us to that professional level, where actually publishing what we write becomes possible.

We bleed from our foreheads, drive our friends and family crazy.  We lose yourself in our stories, because finally we have let go of the very thing that has been holding us back – our belief that there is no such thing as story architecture, or our unwillingness to embrace it.

You are the hero of your own evolution as a writer. 

And then, once you are a warrior/writer, you eventually triumph.  You become a hero, a martyr that sacrifices all that you were in favor of all you wish to become.

Only you know where you are in this cycle.  And it’s important that you do.

Because just as your story cannot end successfully until your hero has evolved through each of these four phases, your writing dream – the story of your career – must evolve along a similar path. 

You must leave the orphan/writer behind… you must wander and learn until you are empowered… you must attack your stories from an enlightened perspective, waging war with forces that would block your path… and then, using all that you have learned, you eventually summon the hero/writer within you.

11 Comments

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11 Responses to The Author as Hero

  1. Great post!

    I think the incidental (yet implicit) analogy with the work of Joseph Campbell is very relevant, as we writers have a “Hero Journey” every time we decide to sit down and write a story.

    I would like to use (with your permission, of course) some excerpts of your text in a speech about writing that I’ll be ministering later this month.

    Thanks for the great job.

  2. Definitely a journey. I went over your ebook and gave a brief trial fit of my four novels into the structure. Yeh, right. All 4 are probably way too long — and structure? Fugettaboutit.
    I’m now in the Wanderer stage — I wander if I should re-write to the structure…
    Yep, that’s what I’ll end up doing. What I’ve got now is a pantsed draft — yet those 6″ of lulu.com-published books feel really good on my bookshelf.
    Keep up the excellent work.

  3. I’m starting to leave the wander behind and becoming the warrior. Not sure how I’ll look in that Amazon get-up though….

  4. Mary E. Ulrich

    Inspiring post Larry.

    Guess I finally made it into the warrior phase. Geez, I guess that is good, but a long journey is still ahead.

    Alexandre is right, it also reminds me of Joseph Campbell. I just pulled “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Campbell off my shelf. The back jacket quotes Jung, “Each individual carries a seed of destiny within him or herself, and is thus endowed with a mission–which may be only dimly perceived–to grow, to struggle free and assert his or her own unique existence.”

    So we are the writers with a thousand faces, carrying that seed of destiny trying to find our unique voice and story.

  5. the most inspiring post i’ve read from you yet, and that is saying something…

    i’d never have thought about the hero’s journey applying to me as an author, but your analogy makes sense. i’d have to say i’m just starting the wanderer phase, still soaking up knowledge about the writing craft and publishing industry. the first three years of working on this project was my orphan stage, and finding story structure a few months ago really showed me the things i needed to learn before i could proceed on my journey.

    looking forward to more of your insights into the craft, and i’d love to hear any suggestions of yours on where to get a good grasp of writing fundamentals. i’ve got my old composition textbook from college, and a couple of screenwriting textbooks from a friend that i’ve looked through, but i’d like to have a solid idea of books or sites that focus on the grammar/editing side of things. any suggestions?

    Thanks

  6. I always thought I knew everything about writing fiction…until I read your eBook and realized, I’ve been an orphan all this time. Now, I am wandering around, playing with ‘what ifs’ and really digging down into story structure. It’s exciting stuff!

  7. @Adam — as far as grammar/editing resources go, I’m sure they’re all over the internet. Trouble is, I don’t use them myself, so I can’t really point you toward anything.

    What I can do, however, is suggest that grammar is a function of writing voice, and should not be driven or governed by rules and english-teacher principles. Today’s commercial fiction is written in a flowing, casual, hip voice that — especially within dialogue — breaks every rule out there.

    The very best way I can think of to immerse yourself in style and editing is to read the work of others and pay attention. As readers we really don’t engage on that level, but if you do you’ll see how liberal the playing field is. Rather than find grammar and editing skills, I think you should find your “voice” first. The grammar, right or wrong, will flow from there.

    As far as editing goes, there are two kinds: story-level editing and copy-editing. Again, this is very much like voice, in that it’s subjective, always an opinion at best. With “less is more” driving your sensibilities for story-editing, the best way to “edit” is to avoid the need to edit… by writing in alignment with solid storytelling principles.

    As for copy editing — catching typos and repeats, etc. — I suck at it. I try to have another set of eyes read my work (hard to do with almost daily blogs here), and if that can’t happen, I just read and read and read until I felt I’ve caught everything.

    It’s like a singer looking for a resource to make them a better singer. Sure, you can be coached… but ultimately it’s about honing your pipes, your talent, and your style. What we lack in god-given ability can be more than made up for with a unique stylistic approach. In music and in writing.

    Hope this helps. At the end of the day there isn’t a final say on how a story or a sentence should play… the best you can do is become familiar with the current standards and continually work to master your voice and your storytelling skills. Hope this helps, at least a little.

  8. Debbie Burke

    Great post! In learning, I have never dealt well with abstract concepts. I need examples I can touch, see, taste. Your concrete examples make my understanding much easier and deeper. Keep up the wonderful analogies and examples. Thank you, Larry!

  9. Kathy Golitko White

    This is my favorite post of yours because you equate the story structure to the roles of the hero. Christopher Vogler in his THE WRITER’S JOURNEY (Mythic Structure for Writers), examines these concepts and more and also relates the hero’s journey to the writer’s own journey. He uses Joseph Campbell’s work for the basis of his own. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to write. Between it and your emphasis on structure I am creating better story. Thank you for “forcing” me to look at things I have avoided. I’m still a “pantser” but I know better where I’m going and how.

  10. I was delighted to run across the writings of Larry Brooks. Thank you so much Sir, for your helpful insights and straight forward advice. My husband ordered Mr. Brook’s e-book for me and I absolutely relished the first few chapters, the one, he wrote, that many writers want to skip. WHY? We need to read those chapters, we need to hear what he wrote. Once again, know, Mr. Brooks, you have made a difference in a fledgling writer’s life.

    • @Alpana — thanks for the nice note, I’m delighted that my work is helping you. Make it worth the effort. Lots more good stuff on the way, too. Thanks again, I won’t let you down.