Fiction, Plotting

The Disciplined Imagination (And Why You Need One)

Anton Chekhov famously remarked that if a pistol is hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, by the time the curtain falls, it should be used. The remark advises an economy of storytelling that helps to create a sense of unity and to avoid confusing the audience with irrelevancies. Unfortunately many new writers fail to follow this sound advice, for no better reason that “it’s cool” or “it’s fantasy, so anything goes.” But in doing so, they often miss details that might enrich their stories.

For instance, in a soon to be released novel, one writer decided to throw dinosaurs into the story. Despite a reasonably advanced level of technology, they have characters being pulled about in carriages by velociraptors. In tweets, the author says they made this decision so they could have sweeping outsized staircases and have them easily navigated. The trouble is, the decision seems incompatible with the level of technology. Nor are velociraptors large enough for the stated purpose of climbing steep staircases. More importantly, no attempt is made to consider how having vicious predators on the streets might shape the culture. Worse still, neither the velociraptors nor the steep staircases play any role whatsoever in the plot — although, having started on that downhill slope, the author accelerates their descent by adding the even less purposeful dire wolfs as draft animals as well. No attempt to consider these details is made, and the only result is a meaningless and clumsy distraction.

Early on in writing my first novel, I made the same mistake repeatedly. In my case, I added atmospheric references and never stopped to consider how they might be used in the plot. For instance, my main character’s last name was Ravenpiper. It’s Gothicly evocative, at least to my ear, and I was proud of it. I even gave the family a rhyme that made a riddle of the family name. It took a while for me to realize that the origin of the name could become a major plot element, and help me tell a more interesting story (which I won’t tell, because spoilers). Since the story is all about family, especially the Ravenpipers, I found that making the surname part of the story gave a richer, more unified story.

Similarly, I imagined a mountain pass that is a nexus of gateways to other worlds. Paths can take travelers to other worlds, and can change their direction and destination. At times, the inhabitants of other worlds follow the paths to the mountain pass. Originally, it was a poetic effect — a spooky one, I hoped. Then it occurred to me that people who kept track of the changing paths might earn a living guiding merchants safely over the mountain. Then, with more thought, I decided that families would claim the right to certain paths, and jealously control the safe ones. Eventually, this background influenced the story. At one point, for example, the main characters enter one of the otherworldly paths to escape pursuit, and find themselves in a world of ghosts and forest spirits. What was originally a line tossed off for atmosphere grew to shape major elements of the story.

In both cases, my disciplined extrapolations meant I no longer had to strain for plot development. As a plot should, it began to unfold in light of what had been planted before. I soon understood what elements I wanted in the story, and, conversely what did not and what — sometimes regretfully, I had to omit, and perhaps leave for another story. I concluded that inspiration is not enough. In the end, I learned that even the most inspiring idea was only as good as its development.


A Hero’s Journey for Women

When I was a sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University, I taught children’s literature based on the concept of the Hero’s journey. After the course explored the concept with books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, in its second half it explored attempts to make the Hero’s journey fit women’s lives. The second half included Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, a classic Hero’s journey with a female protagonist and her The Hero and the Crown, a more innovative novel. It ended with Le Guin’s Tehanu, an exploration of uniquely female narrative that attempts to do away with traditional ideas of plot structure altogether. Since then, the question of whether women’s lives fit the pattern of the Hero’s journey continues to be debated. One of my favorite reframings of the Hero’s journey is Jody Gentian Bower’s Jane Eyre’s Sisters, which rewrites the classic pattern and introduces several new archetypes.

If you have studied narrative structures, you have probably come across the Hero’s journey. Based heavily on Jungian psychology, the Hero’s journey is an attempt by Joseph Campbell to describe the universal form of narrative – especially as a metaphor for maturation and develop. This “monomyth,” as Campbell calls it, is detailed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It begins with a call to adventure, in which the hero is faced with a task or a goal. The hero sets off on an actual or metaphorical road to adventure, facing trials and meeting helpful companions. After reaching a low point, the hero reaches initial maturity, but rallies to accomplish the task and goal. In the end, the hero returns home and gives it the benefit of all that he has learned.

Originally, the archetypes that the hero meets along the way, like the Wise Old Man or the Trickster were said to be part of the collective unconscious, the symbolic world that humans share by being human. However, modern Jungians sometimes suggest that some archetypes might be culturally based, and from this possibility the idea comes the concept of the heroine’s journey, a model of a woman’s life just as the original hero’s journey is a model of a man’s life. Several versions of the heroine’s journey have been proposed, among them Bower’s.

Bower’s concept centers on a wandering woman archetype called the Aletis, which she views as quite different from a male Hero. Often, the Aletis story spends considerable time at the start of the story describing a restricted home, so that the motivation for her journey is understood. Both the Aletis and the Hero undertake a journey, but while the Hero does something important, the Aletis’ journey is about gaining self-knowledge and the freedom to be herself. While the Hero is isolated on his journey, the Aletis is surrounded by friends and makeshift families. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Hero’s journey is circular, while the Aletis moves away from an unsatisfactory home to find at the end a new one where she can be herself.

These different journeys result in a different array of archetypes on the Aletis’ journey. Right at the start there is a Mother or Father figure who is cruel, indifferent, or inadequate. The original home might also include a Best Friend, a Mean Girl, and a Mentor. When the Aletis is thrust out of her original home, she may meet figures like The Wrong Husband and The Knight in Shining Armor, who at first appear to rescue her, but who are later rejected as the Aletis learns to take care of herself. In fact, much of the first stages of the Aletis’ journey consists of refusing various ties and expectations in order to be herself.

Leaving home and the temptations of other archetypes, the Aletis ventures out into a real or symbolic wilderness, sometimes in disguise. She may meet a female Teacher, sometimes one with sinister qualities, and perhaps an animal helper. Eventually, she returns to society, but on her own terms. She may find a new home, creativity, a true lover, and have children, having carved out a space where she can live on her own terms. She is less likely to transform society on a large scale, the way the Hero does, but that may also be part of what she has learned.

Such attempts to find a woman’s version of the Hero’s journey do show one thing: despite claims to universality, the pattern outlined by Campbell is primarily a male pattern. With numerous examples, taken from life and predominantly from 19th century novels by women, Bower makes that limitation obvious.

Yet I cannot help wondering whether some women might find efforts like Bower’s unsatisfactory. Granted that the word “Hero” is a term heavy with associations, does that imply that a woman cannot be as easily influential in society as a man? That a woman’s life is not as directed as a man’s? If either of these possibilities is true, does telling such stories simply perpetuate the idea that women have a limited life compared to men? Does it mean that women cannot be, in the accepted sense, heroes? What about other genders? I am reluctant to accept any of these conclusions outright because teaching has taught me that women’s brains do not differ from men’s to any extent. As a storyteller, I want to be relevant, but, at the same time, I do not want to perpetuate crippling perspectives.

Still, writers with female lead characters might want to consider efforts like Bower’s as they plan their stories. Just maybe, there are better ways to tell women’s stories than the Hero’s journey.