Becoming a Storyteller: The 15, er, 10 Commandments

I’ve discussed rules for writing on this blog in the past–you can check out that post here–but in piecing together my last post, I came across my old creative writing notebook from my days at Florida International University. While most of my days at FIU were forgettable, many of the classes I took as part of the creative writing program are indelibly etched on my memory. So, flipping through the book I found my notes from a Narrative Techniques class I took with John Dufresne.

In his book called The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, Dufresne presents his Ten Writing Commandments. The book was published in August of 2004, and since I took the class the Spring semester 2001 I was privy to the working draft of Dufresne’s guide to writing. I can see how the scribbles in my notebook morphed into what’s presented in the publication–and that’s awesome.

Here’s Dufresne’s list of Commandments from The Lie

  1. Sit your ass in the chair.
  2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.
  3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.
  4. Honor the lives of your characters.
  5. Thou shalt not be obscure.
  6. Thou shalt show and not tell.
  7. Thou shalt steal.
  8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.
  9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.
  10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.

Sitting my ass in the chair has always been difficult, but I’ve resolved myself to do just that more often. As I’m sure many of you know, it’s harder than it seems. There are any number of excuses I can find to not sit in the chair, but, as the saying goes, novels don’t write themselves. Dufresne and others say Writer’s Block is nothing more than an excuse that gets a writer off the hook, and I tend to agree. In an interview with Southern Scribe, Dufresne goes on to explain his first commandment:

First Commandment–sit your butt in the chair. I’m not sure there’s a secret to this except loving what you do and wanting to do it so badly you miss it if you’re not in the chair. This means being patient and tenacious and trusting in the writing process.  Nothing good happens in a single draft. Writing a story wasn’t built in a day. You need to get to know your characters before you can care about them. Once you care about them, you won’t have any trouble getting back to the writing desk. You need to make writing a priority in your life if you’re serious about it. You need to sacrifice something. Writing takes time most of all. And you have to want to write as badly as you want to watch TV or go to the movies. You manage to get those done. And you can probably manage all three.

I think the concepts in play there are invaluable, but also difficult to come to grips with–at least for me. I may be passionate about my dream–my goal, but I struggle with making it manifest. When he discussed the writing process, Dufresne quoted Blaise Pascal, who said: “most of the evils of life come from man’s inability to sit still in a room.” He continued by saying that, in the crafting of a story, time leads to place, and place leads to character, and character leads to destiny.

Regarding destiny, he said: “Destiny is making a choice to seize the opportunity of chance.”

Here’s the list of commandments as John Dufresne presented them to that Narrative Techniques class waaay back on January 17th, 2001.

  • Sit your ass in the chair
  • don’t bore the reader
  • don’t be obscure
  • don’t create passive central characters
  • surprise the reader/yourself
  • don’t confuse the reader with audience
  • be accurate, get the details right, be particular
  • don’t write the unimportant
  • go for the precise gesture
  • revelations lurk in the details

I see how many of the notes I took in 2001 became part of the manuscript published in 2004. I understand the economy of words in the published version, and the polish of them. I get the implementation of theme.

But I love my notebook.

The very first line from my notebook reads as follows:

That’s what we are: thieves, writers are thieves.

Since he said that, I guess he won’t mind that I’m stealing all this shit from him.

Becoming a Storyteller: The Hero’s Journey

Cover of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces ...

Once upon a time, I was in college and finally part of a program that interested me. Studying at FIU was never my first choice, and it was a swift kick to the nuts that the Creative Writing department was based out of their north campus–basically an hour and a half way in South Florida traffic. I’ll never forget those classes, though, and it was one moment in particular that sticks with me.

I had presented a half-baked fantasy short story titled “The Guardian” and after having it savaged by the peer review process, I felt not unlike my son’s new Socker Bopper, wobbly and already leaking air. I couldn’t say a word during the process and absorbed every negative comment like the body-blow that it was. At the end of the torture session, the instructor John Dufresne (a successful writer best known for his novel Louisiana Power and Light) shuffled his notes as he considered the circle of students before him.

“The thing is,” he said as he brushed back a stray strand of his gray hair, “with a story like this…have you read Joseph Campbell?”

“No,” I said.

“With a story like this, you need to read The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” 

The rest of the class was a blur–really the rest of the semester. I can’t remember if my story was the first or the last of the peer review sessions, but I can remember the blood that pulsed in my ears. It became very clear to me during my traffic-clogged trek home that I wasn’t ready to be a storyteller just yet.

So, I consulted Joseph Campbell.

That was about twelve years ago, and with every story I’ve tried to craft since that day, I’ve used Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as a guide. I’ve structured my novel-draft to mimic the Hero’s Journey. As Campbell said in his seminal work, “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.”

When I think about it, becoming a storyteller seems to mimic those ideas as well.

As a would-be writer, I’m a plotter. I am not a pantser. I need to plot out my course, outline–I can’t just go by the seat of my pants. I need to plan. That’s where the Hero’s Journey helped craft my idea of storytelling so much. It provides the blueprint for a story that works. I could give you a million reasons why I love Star Wars, but Campbell would say there can be only one. (He may or may not be channeling his inner-Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod).

The idea of archetypes is something I became familiar with thanks to my English teacher senior year at LaSalle high school, Ana Garcia. The concept is fascinating and the basis for Campbell’s work. I enjoyed learning about archetypes and later the Hero’s Journey so much that I teach it to my students now. There are many interpretations of Campbell’s monomyth, most notably Christopher Volger’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. While it may be overly simplistic, here’s my quick breakdown of the Hero’s Journey.

  1. The Hero is his Ordinary World– This is where we meet the Hero for the first time and we see what his (or her) life is like before the adventure.
  2. The Call to Adventure– Here, our hero meets the Herald and is presented with a problem, challenge and/or adventure.
  3. Refusal of the Call– During this stage, we see that our Hero is not quite ready to take on the problem, challenge, and/or adventure.
  4. Supernatural Aid– At this stage of the journey, our Hero meets and receives assistance from the Sage. This Sage will be our hero’s mentor during the journey. The Sage character shows the hero the path, but they cannot walk it for them. Eventually, the hero must face the challenge alone.
  5. Crossing the Threshold– Here, our Hero truly starts the journey. They need to “move” from their “Ordinary” world to the world of their adventure. Here the hero meets the Threshold Guardians, who control this passage between worlds. Many times, the Threshold Guardians try to stop the Hero from embarking on the quest.
  6. The Belly of the Whale– This is where our Hero is in real trouble for the first time right at the start of the journey. The symbolism here involves the character reentering a “womb” of sorts, so that they can be re-born as the Hero. Often times, the Hero doesn’t realize the significance of this until much later in the journey.
  7. The Road of Trials– In order of our hero to truly become a Hero, they need to be trained and tested. The Sage and possibly the Sidekicks usually provide this training.
  8. Meeting the Goddess– This stage involves our Hero finally meeting his or her Love Interest (if they haven’t done so already). It’s possible that the Hero has already met this character, so it’s during this stage that the Love develops.
  9. Temptation– Every Hero ends up being tempted away from their journey somehow. During this stage, one that is closely tied to the Road of Trials, our Hero encounters that Temptation. The temptation might come in the form of a person, a situation, or an idea.
  10. Atonement with the Father– In this stage of the journey, our Hero is almost ready to be “the Hero”. Here, they learn or encounter something about their past that is the final piece to the puzzle of becoming a Hero.
  11. Apotheosis– Finally, our Hero is ready to be The Hero! During this stage, the Hero fully understands that they are the Hero, and they understand everything that needs to be done to fulfill the journey.
  12. The Ultimate Boon– This is usually the Climax of our Hero’s journey. Here, using everything they’ve learned along the way, and using all of the tools and special weapons they have obtained, the Hero defeats the Devil. (Traditionally.)
  13. The Magic Flight– Our Hero isn’t out of the woods quite yet. Even though they’ve defeated the Devil, during this stage, they need to escape one final danger.
  14. Rescue from Without– During that final escape, our Hero usually needs help. Here, the Sidekick or Sage swoops in to save our hero right at the end.
  15. The Master of Two Worlds– Here, the Hero is now powerful in both his Ordinary world and the world of his adventure.

This post will be the beginning of a series I’m calling, Becoming a Storyteller. I’m going to present the different techniques and exercises I’ve come across that have helped me along my writer’s journey. While it will most certainly help me, I hope it helps anyone else who might be walking along this path with me.

And just like Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.”