Introduction to Story and Myth—Essays in Story Development

© 2010 By Jack Remick and Robert J. Ray.

Mythic Dynamo Diagram

A good story somehow gets inside your brain. A good story tells you something you already know, but more than telling you what you already know, a good story also makes you feel. If you, the writer, don’t feel the story, your reader won’t feel it.

This then is an introduction to working the story from the inside.

As we move from consumers (readers, viewers) of stories to producers (writers, dramatists), we need to know how to make the reader feel. To make the reader feel, we have to use the tricks storytellers have known for centuries. One of the tricks storytellers use is the mythic dynamo.

The Mythic Dynamo (see figure)

The mythic dynamo lets you, the writer, grab onto a myth and pull it into your own time and dress it up in the clothes of your own time, and turn it into something meaningful for your readers in that time.

The mythic dynamo lets you develop a metaphoric treatment of a very old tale that lasts and lasts.

There are four thousand versions (and counting) of Cinderella. Cinderella is built on an obvious archetypal pattern of Death (she starts most versions in the ashes) and Resurrection (she ends up with the Prince and a fabulous new ball gown).

By contrast, there is only one version (so far) of Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel which is built on a less obvious archetypal pattern. Why?

Cinderella, in each of her versions, tells us what we already know about life, death, and resurrection. It’s a tale of hope and climbing the socio-economic ladder to a new life. In Malone Dies, we have to dig to find the story. Making the reader dig (short hand for WORK!!!!) is the bane of the writer who wants to reach inside the reader’s mind. (We pick Malone Dies to illustrate this point because this novel is seen as a model of the difficult, modern literary novel that exercised an immense influence at a critical moment in the history of Western writing in much the same way Ulysses by James Joyce and Proust’s Remembrance of Time Past have shaped Western writing.)

For the writer looking for story, the mythic dynamo is the power source that lets  you move from myth into modern idiom. How did we develop the mythic dynamo? It is based on the Vegetation Cycle of Life, Death, and Resurrection. The Vegetation Cycle is your modern entry point into story.

From Archetype to Metaphor: Changes in Literary Context

© 2010 By Jack Remick and Robert J. Ray

In his controversial book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) Julian Jaynes wrote that “the first poets were gods.” Jaynes’ theory is that the unconscious mind of the poet spoke directly to the conscious mind, gave dictation so to speak. But because, according to Jaynes, human beings were not fully conscious the poet believed the gods, those inner voices, were speaking to him. The unconscious was an unnameable, unidentifiable life force. In our contemporary context, this once unidentifiable life force can be seen as the raw power of the creative mind taking dictation. It is pure, it is real, it is awesome. But what do you do with it?

Contemporary research into brain hemispheres has clarified this notion: The Right Side of the brain is intuitive, the artistic side, while the Left Side of the brain is the cognitive, analytical side. You, the modern writer, need access to both.

The European Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome, social and cultural upheavals were mitigated by the imposition of Christianity in the Western World. As a result of the hegemony of the church, most Medieval writers were constrained to use a common set of references based in the Bible and Biblical or Hagiographic texts. Writers used such allusions as The Fall from Eden, the Flood, Chariots of Fire, Beasts from Revelation, etc. to build their writings on. All taken from the Major Literary, Cultural and Social  Document–The Bible.

At this point the culture shared a common set of metaphors that allowed for a kind of shorthand. Readers (the few that there were)  knew what the writers meant while the listeners and the viewers (it was after all not a literate culture) understood the shorthand as well. Moral lessons were drawn from the allusions – don’t mess with snakes or you go to hell. The Fall was very real.

The European Renaissance

With the Rediscovery of Ancient Rome and Greece, writers used neo-classical allusions based on re-introduction of classical myth (itself a metaphor): Actaeon, the Minotaur, 12 Labors of Hercules, Voyage of Odysseus, Medusa, Leda and the Swan.

In the stories drawn from Classical Antiquity, European writers discovered an alternative set of allusions and metaphors to Biblical metaphors that were understandable to all educated readers of their work. Everyone who read knew what Shakespeare meant when he wrote about Troilus and Cressida. At the same time, the vigorous use of biblical metaphor continued.

The Writing World Since Darwin (1859), Freud, Jung, et al

Writers follow archetypal patterns without metaphoric allusions – because there is no common literary document or body of metaphors, writers have to build the thing they refer to. The construction site is subtext. Lacking a common set of metaphors leaves the writer to discover structure in order to temporalize the metaphor. Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars is, for example a retelling of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, while Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear. But, the writer doesn’t write the way  Shakespeare did preferring instead to write in the language of our day.

The Vegetation Cycle—The Deep Roots of Story

As you write, we urge you go go deep into the past, into the essential elements of story telling, back to the archetypal patterns that underpin all good stories. You start with the basis: Death and Resurrection as the primal structure.

Note: The storyteller doesn’t have to tell it all all the time at the same time.

The narrative present is the time of the story. In the Death and Resurrection cycle, the writer can stop time at any point so that a story might be simply the Death part of the cycle as in Malone Dies.

We use the Mythic Journey Diagram or the Mythic Dynamo to show this as a circle because the story isn’t linear, it is cyclical.

Method Writing

You have to become all the characters. Develop all the characters to make them thick. Dress like your character to get depth and to feel what it’s like.

Develop all the characters alike. There might be a character in the background who you don’t think will amount to anything, but that character might become the central character in the sequel or in the next book you write.

Look at Lawrence Durrell’s  Alexandria Quartet. In these four novels, the protagonists change. Minor or secondary characters in Justine become the protagonists in Balthazar, Clea, Mountolive.

In John LeCarre’s Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Leamas, the protagonist, dies leaving Smiley, the spy master to appear in later novels. Smiley is the main guy, Leamas is the single shot protagonist.

In other areas, look at Television where the Mary Tyler Moore show spawned two other shows based on characters developed there: Rhoda and Lou Grant. Frasier comes directly out of Cheers.


Whose story is it?

Once you get four or five characters, ask whose story it is. For example in As Good as it Gets the writer gives you Jack, the Dog, Greg, and the Waitress, Helen. It is Helen’s story.

In Chinatown, the writer gives you Jake, Mulwray, Noah Cross, Mrs. Mulwray, and the Daughter. It is Mrs. Mulwray’s story, all the way

Discovering the Mythic Summary As A Literary Tool:

The Mythic Summary as a literary tool came to me while I was doing dissertation work on contemporary theatre, specifically on the plays of Fernando Arrabal, a Spanish playwright writing in French in the early 60s. I was taking a psycho-linguistics seminar on deep structure from Jarvis Bastian at UC Davis and looking at the structure of long narrative. One of the projects I worked involved asking fellow graduate students to read Arrabal’s plays and then at three and six week intervals asking them to tell me the story of each play they had read.

The results were at first bewildering but then in the theoretical framework of the nature of recall versus memory that underpinned my work and had been based, in part, on Hamilton’s notion that memory is a reconstructive process, an insight came to me:

In the retelling, a long play of seventy-five to one hundred pages reduced to three paragraphs after three weeks and at the end of six weeks reduced to a single paragraph. I was assured by the experiment subjects that the whole story was right there in that single paragraph.

On closer analysis, I realized that the retelling of these very modern stories was reduced to a cluster of archetypal principles such that, for example, the Architect  and the Emperor of Assyria, Arrabal’s masterpiece to that time, and coming in at 125 pages, reduced to this retelling: The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is about a man who’s shipwrecked on an island where he meets a wildman and gradually they each consume and replace the other.

At this point, I realized that the Architect had the same myth base as The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, and deeper than that, it linked to the Odyssey, while beyond that it was a story about humans changing into animals and animals changing into humans –a very deep and ancient process written about in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and in The Golden Ass by Apuleius . So the mythic summary appeared to me to be an artifact of memory linking to archetypes. At that time I hadn’t yet understood the relationship of archetype to myth.

As I worked through each of Arrabal’s plays to find the mythic summary, I discovered that this very modern and iconoclastic writer had reworked all the great literary themes from Odysseus and his shipwreck to the elements of the Aeneid which is itself an odyssey. Once this principle—rewriting mythic and archetypal patterns into contemporary/modern metaphors (the cloak and the time the characters live and die in)—became clear to me I then looked at the language in which Arrabal had moved the archetypal-mythic core into metaphor. What had he done to make each of these myths his own? What had he done to make each of these myths modern?

In each case, he had gone to the archetype (killer, victim, hero, outlaw, trickster) and affixed a new name. Naming the archetype. In some cases, as in the Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, he kept the characters at an archetypal level, that is, as a character in the making who can be enhanced with any cloak to temporalize him.

In such plays as the Automobile graveyard and Fando and Lis, another principle became clear to me – two archetypes can consume one another to create a third character who is neither of the originals without giving up their own form. At this point I had found that Arrabal had invented a new dramatic device which I called simply polymorphism, a term borrowed from Jung and Freud.

I then expanded this kind of analysis to other writers in the Absurdist mold, although Arrabal doesn’t consider himself to be an absurdist (he coined the term “theatre panique” for his own work), he uses some of the same dramatic techniques the reader will find in Ionesco, Beckett, and Pinter.

I used the mythic summary technique to dig into the plays of other writers and found the same effect—reduction through time, that is, dissolving the metaphor through repeated retellings leaves bare the bones of the archetypal pattern that the myth hangs on.

In Ionesco’s plays as well as in Beckett’s, I found that very basic reduction of human to animal that is characteristic of Greek and Roman retellings of the ritual principles that led  to theatricality and to drama.

Ionesco, for example, in Rhinoceros, converts all his characters into animals and by so doing releases them from the metaphoric constraint to reveal the same kind of role reversals and polymorphisms that Arrabal used and that Beckett gets to in Godot and Endgame. But with this difference:

Arrabal always brings his creatures home. He doesn’t leave them hanging in limbo and so has created a post-Chekovian drama that finds its own roots in Pirandello – who of course is not an absurdist but who through role reversals and polymorphism illustrates the inner reality of the interchangeability of characters in much the same way Zeus, in Greek retellings of the vegetation myths, can assume the guise of any animal he wishes in order to achieve his ends.

Once the secret was revealed and I had found that readers reduced each and every story to its mythic elements while stripping it completely of its metaphoric components – thus the Architect stays Architect but no one recalls what he was first wearing when he is shipwrecked and in Ionesco no one recalls the name of the first human who becomes a Rhino –the metaphoric detail is irrelevant in the retelling at a mythic level. What is important is the archetype and its possibilities.

At this point the principle of the effect of memory on long narrative recall had given me a tool for analysis of any piece. I put this tool to work on classical French drama, specifically the plays of Corneille and Racine who had adapted straight across elements of Greek myth into their contemporary French costume and ethos.

The question was—if the playwright is already aware of his myth base, what happens in a recall experiment to the metaphor? The results were not unexpected, but in a way they were surprising.

For example, Phedre, Racine’s masterwork, simply becomes The Queen (an archetype), Theseus becomes the King, and Hippolytus is the Son. Phedre is reduced in the mythic summary to a story about a Queen who kills herself after she tries to seduce the King’s Son which causes the King to call down the wrath of the Sea God on his own Son as punishment.

So, the mythic summary remains the clearest archetypal retelling that reveals the foundations of story no matter how complex or contemporary the metaphor in which that story is cloaked.

In sum, I discovered that myth is a function of the structure of the unconscious desire and ability of the mind to reduce clusters of information (metaphor) to clear, clean archetypal patterns. Once this tool has been sharpened, I then decided to see if it could be used in the other direction—can the mythic summary be used as an armature for the creative process and as a tool to build a metaphoric reality—in other words, can you use it as the basis for writing a story.

I think at the time I used the term “metaphoric universe” instead of story. In other words, can you start from a mythic summary which has its archetypal pattern fixed, and created a story in time that has meaning to readers in the twenty-first century? The answer is, yes. Yes you can, and that is what the next section of these essays is about– How to use the mythic summary as a basis for storytelling in time and space.

From Mythic Summary to Story—Developing Character: Want, Need, Can’t, Shame, Betrayal, Thwarting Desire, Denial and Action, Need and Obsession, Doubt, The Buried Need

Music Mom has a Son (15) who has the gift of voice. She wants him to succeed in the musical world. She wants him to have all the things she didn’t get. She wants him to go beyond her and her life. She needs to see him fulfilled. She wants him to win the Prize (Grail Quest).

Along the way, after a performance that advances both Son and Music Girl, the only real competition he has, Music Mom meets Other Mom, mother of Music Girl (16). Music Girl has been blessed with talent equal to Son’s. And, to complicate things, it appears that Son and Music Girl are smitten with one another, each of them overwhelmed by the other’s talent and gift, but falling in love is easy for the precocious teen-agers.

Other Mom invites them all back home to her Twenty Room Mansion.

Other Mom needs to show what she has become. Her Buried Need is hidden in a dark past. When she was a girl, she lived in a two room house with Mother, Dad (a coal miner in Pennsylvania) and two Older Sisters. In the dark, she lay sandwiched in a single bed between her Older Sisters and listened to Mother and Dad have sex. She swore that would never happen to her. She would escape. She is ashamed of her past that she keeps hidden. She is ashamed that she never got to sleep alone. Ashamed that her home was so small she listened to her Mother and Dad make animal noises. Ashamed that she had to sleep with her Older Sisters.

She won a scholarship and went away to College where she met her Husband. She can’t tell him about her past. He knows very little. He knows only that she is secretive about her family. He doesn’t care. He loves her. He became semi wealthy and gave her that big Twenty Room Mansion and a Music Girl, a Daughter with a Golden Voice (A Resource Base).

Other Mom can’t have it all, however, because she spends all her time pushing Music Girl to the limit to achieve her goal of an Operatic Career, hence the competition for the Prize which will be an audition with the San Francisco Opera Company.

When Music Mom and Musical Genius Son accept Other Mom’s invitation to the Twenty Room Mansion, Music Mom is shocked to see a photo of the Happy Family because in the photo with Beautiful Daughter and Coal Miner’s Daughter, Music Mom sees the face of an ex-lover, the Other Mom’s Husband, the Man loved her more than she loved him and who, when she thwarted his desire to possess her beyond simple sex, became obsessed with her and stalked her all her last year at Smith College until Music Mom called the police to get a restraining order against Husband-Stalker.

Husband felt betrayed because his love was unreturned and was shamed into silence when Music Mom (at age 22) took him to court to stop his loving her for good.

Now, eighteen years later, Music Mom faces the fact that her Musical Genius Son has fallen for the Daughter of her ex-lover, the man who stalked her.

Music Mom is torn apart by  her secret. Does she tell Other Mom about her affair with Husband or does she pretend nothing ever happened?

She chooses the latter, because she wants her Son to be happy and his happiness seems to be tied up with the Music Girl, so while Son and Music Girl play the piano and sing arias from Don Giovanni and La Boheme, Music Mom lives a lie with Other Mom.

Acquaintance turns to friendship. Dinner with all Six Beautiful People at Other Mom’s twenty room mansion. Maybe Husband won’t recognize her. Has she changed? Is she still beautiful? Music Mom, while dreading having to see Husband again, needs to assuage her doubts about her own beauty and allure.

But, of course, Husband’s buried need that led to his obsession – what is it? Why does a man become obsessive? Here it is: he was an ugly duckling in school, a nobody until her met Music Mom who was running from her own secret past – Why don’t you ever talk about your family?—She treated him like a human being, a real human being but when she broke up with him because she didn’t see the potential in him (he turned his obsession with her into an obsession for making money—to show her….) he couldn’t accept that because he knew he’d never find another woman like her. He is ashamed that he doesn’t really love Other Mom, ashamed that in his past there was this love of his life that he has kept secret from her—after all he nearly went to jail for her.

Husband’s thinking is distorted, yanked around when he sees Music Mom. He couldn’t have her in the past but things have changed, he has made his money, he is successful, more successful than she could have imagined, so maybe now he can have her. Upon seeing her, his old obsession resurfaces and he once again pursues her, chases her, wants her.

Music Mom wont let him back in.

We have families now, she says over clandestine coffee in an out of the way place. We have responsibilities.

I can’t live without you, he tells her.

At home, Music Mom has her doubts. Maybe she made a mistake 18 years ago. Maybe she really does want him. She tries it on for size, meets him in a motel, but can’t go through with it. She can’t betray Music Boy’s Father. She can’t betray her man, the provider who slaves for her because he loves her. Betraying him will kill him if he ever finds out.

Husband threatens to tell Music Boy’s Father if Music Mom doesn’t take him back. She refuses.

Husband won’t let go. He is still obsessed. He insists. Music Mom resists. Thwarted Desire leads to Action. Husband turns his obsession onto Father. If Husband can’t have Music Mom, he will just get rid of Father. He finds a way to attack and almost kill Father. He wants Music Mom now even if it means ruining his life with Other Mom and Music Girl Daughter.

Other Mom senses the change. You don’t look at me anymore. You don’t make love to me anymore.

I’m busy, I’m tired, I’m working late, I’m going out of town, I have a big deal to put together.

Enter the Police Detective on the case to unravel the attempt on Father’s life. Music Mom knows but won’t reveal the suspect—Husband. Police Detective takes an active interest in Music Mom. Back tracking, he digs up the facts, finds out the truth about Husband’s Stalker, and confronts Music Mom with the past. Her shame blossoms here. She should have told Other Mom from the beginning.

The two women in a ritual confessional scene bare all the truth. Music Mom tells about her past, Other Mom confesses that Husband was her way out of the dirty past of three to a single bed.

Meanwhile, Father dies, or at best is confined to a bed with his deep brain injuries—the bullet in his brain turns him into a vegetable. Music Boy is worried about his future with Father unable to provide. The Prize becomes even more of an obsession with Music Boy

Music Mom confronts Husband and threatens to tell the Police Detective she believes Husband is the Killer. But Police Detective has solved the case and arrests Husband for attempted murder.

Other Mom and Music Girl are shamed by Husband’s brutal acts and now face a dilemma: how can they go on with Husband in jail. How will Music Girl ever succeed.

Husband’s obsession has ruined all the dreams. Music Girl is ashamed because her father is a killer. Music Boy is broken because his great love’s father has taken the mind and body of his Dad.

The Myth Base here is Warring Clans built on hidden shame and guilt in the past.

In the end, Music Boy and Music Girl share the Prize. Both will get the Audition. But under the pride there is the shame and guilt they both share. They abandon their families. Together they promise to make better lives, but the shame is too much and Music Girl runs out on Music Boy who in desperation, turns to drugs and wacks himself out on ‘ludes.

Now Music Mom and Other Mom band together in tragedy—everything has collapsed. The Truth would have prevented all the tragedy but shame and guilt kept the truth buried.

In Prison, Husband is knifed in a laundry room fight when he refuses the advances of a sexual predator.

In Hospital, Father-Victim sleeps in his eternal coma unaware of the tragedy that has overtaken the family.

Music Girl flees Other Mom and goes to Las Vegas where at first she sings and dances but falls in with a Pimp who seduces her into whoring and hooking and one night, at age 19, she is killed when a Trick, drunk and out of his mind, stabs her in the throat with a broken champagne bottle and hurls her body out a window from the 40th floor of the Versailles Hotel.

Music Mom attends the funeral with Other Mom. Both women are broken but vowing to support one another.

In the shadows, Police Detective waits, his eye on Music Mom.

There is a future here…

Introduction: Essential Elements of Craft for the Serious Writer

© 2010 By Jack Remick and Robert J. Ray.

The essential elements of craft; craft versus form; staying inside the small unit.

Setting the Stage – Essential places and the things in them. The scene, the agon, the location, the setting.

Character Development—The essential emotions:

Shame, Guilt, Pain, Betrayal

The Wounded Character—The character’s history of pain, shame, guilt, betrayal: Write it. Getting to know the character’s shame and guilt leads you to the essential element of dramatic conflict that all novels must have in order to engage the reader in the story.

In The Pilot’s Wife, for example, the Pilot is guilty of adultery, fathering a child out of wedlock, lying to his wife, betraying his daughter and wife, cheating, stealing, an concealing. His is a dense packet of drama waiting to be revealed.

The Essential Elements:

Anguish: Write about your character’s anguish.

Find out what causes her anguish then ask what makes her happy.

This simple polarity of character spins out into an array of traits.

Write about the character in the past, in the present, in the future.

What will become of her? Will she find happiness? Defeat? Plotting a future for your character gives you a handle on the narrative present.

We outline exercises that you can write using timed writing. In thirty minute chunks you write about tears and love, about fear and pain, about hopes and truth.

Betrayal: How many times has your character been betrayed?

Shame: What is she ashamed of?  Write for thirty minutes about your character’s shame.

Jonny in Jack’s Novel Pacific Coast Highway can’t give up Bee’s silk sheets. The silk sheets are an index to everything he never had. Is he ashamed of his past? Ashamed of wanting to sleep between silk sheets? Ashamed of having an Uncle who weighed 400 pounds and who was a gambler whose butt crack stank because he was too obese to wash on a regular routine?

Join up Character and Plot.

Plot means story, story means competition for a resource base. Resource Base means what characters want – what they don’t want the others to have.

So the added dimension is three words:

Want     Need    Can’t.

Write for thirty minutes about Want, Need, Can’t for each character.

What does she want?

What does she need?

What can’t she… do… have…

Thwarting Desire: Human beings react to being thwarted. Desire leads to action. Action is what characters do to achieve their wants, to satisfy their needs.

Write for thirty minutes about what your character does (action) when she finds out she can’t have what she wants.

Denial: Denial leads to action. Action leads to pain. Who gets hurt?

Need merging into Obsession.

What does your character need?

A hundred thousand bucks a year?

New wardrobe every six months?

A new house?

How strong is that need? Is it strong enough to become an obsession?

When need becomes an obsession, needs melds into drive.

The Driven Character: How driven is your character? What will she do to get what she wants?  Murder? Steal? Cheat? Betray her husband? lover? children? mother?  What will she do to get what she needs

Write for thirty minutes on what your character needs, another thirty minutes on what she wants.

Bee in PCH needs to have a young man in her life. She needs to control him. When Jonny needs to break free of her control, Bee acts. She pays to have Vivian murdered.

So here the conflict of needs leads to murder.

Need: The deep, inner aspect of character that cannot be ignored.

Don’t ignore it.

Joining Need to Want and Can’t and you have an equation that fairly spits out Action. Action is what your character does to meet her needs, to get what she wants. Deepen need and want and can’t with Shame and Guilt and you have character traits that will engage your reader.

Action and Want and Need: You write about how she gets what she wants and needs.

Does your character want to be wanted? Layers of want. Why does your character need to be wanted?

One last element in the character complex: Doubt.

What does your character doubt? Her abilities? Her sexuality? Her intelligence? Doubt always leads to hesitation—that moment before she pulls the triggers, slashes off her hair, slices her wrist. Doubt is the powerful inhibitor of action. Because the character doubts his physical prowess, he fails to engage the villain in combat. Failing combat, he loses the battle. Losing the battle leads him to the brink of death. Doubt is serious business in fiction.

Write for thirty minutes about your characters’ Doubts.

Is her mother dead? does she doubt she’ll be a good mother? Who killed her mother if she was killed? Doubt and shame and guilt and need.

How deeply buried in the character’s childhood is her need? Can we see her need buried deep in her childhood?

Write for thirty minutes about that buried need. What caused it? Who caused it? How has her need been thwarted?

Summary: The coupling of want, need, can’t, guilt, shame, betrayal, and doubt lets you explore action, psychology, plot. How does plot hook to need and want and can’t? Plot is what characters do when need and wants become obsessions.