Decide What You Mean
“What’s your story about?” asks someone who could actually get your story sold, printed, or produced. You wander around the plot giving incidences here, scenes there, and the would-be helper’s eyes glaze over. You need a concise method to convey your story Theme, one which will resonate with familiarity yet stun with surprise.
Or you’ve got a bunch of ideas in search of a story theme. What can you do?
Decide what you mean and find a Mythic Theme that expresses that concept.
Contrary to popular opinion, “The Hero’s Journey” is not the only Mythic Theme. Some other powerful ones are “Lost Love Rescued”, “The Wake-up Call”, “Stealing Fire from Heaven”, “The Search for the Promised Land”, and many more.
No matter the genre, no matter the style, from futuristic to faeries, from coming-of-age to aged lovers, the heart and spine of your story will usually echo some ancient tale. Figure out what that seed story is, align your story with those timeless paradigms and voila — your story now has mythic meaning.
The plot point guidelines for each theme are simply that — guidelines. They are not formulas, they are not formats, they are not cookie-cutters. Research the myth behind your story and identify the important elements and actions: boy meets girl, they get together, one of them is taken away by forces outside their control, the other goes to hell and back to get the lover back. That’s the basic plot of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – “Lost Love Rescued”. Use the incidences as guidelines but feel free to rearrange the plot points.
How to discover your Theme? Start with other stories like it, then check out a myth book/website on comparative mythology for similar tales. You will most likely find a myth that is your story. Then expand that with –
- Mythic Meaning – what great truths does the story hold?
- Symbols, Analogies, Metaphors, and more.
- Plot Points – guidelines for your own story.
For example, in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan [the prequel to which is Star Trek: Into Darkness] there’s a copy of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick on the bookshelf in Khan’s desert planet hut. Khan’s long-lived vengeance towards Captain Kirk is a version of Captain Ahab’s vengeance towards the white whale Moby Dick that had taken his leg in an earlier encounter. If you know the story of Moby Dick you can correctly infer that this movie is going to be about obsession and vengeance. We really get a better sense of that in Benedict Cumberbatch’s young Khan character in the more recent film. This “Vengeance is Mine” theme plays out in Medea slaying her children after husband Jason’s betrayal, the curse of the Greek Atriedes clan, Mordred’s slaying of King Arthur, Othello, and more.
Say What You Mean
Though we’re advised not to have dialogue “on the nose”, your characters/narrator really do need to voice in words what the story is about, what is the heroine’s mission, and what lesson does she learn by the end.
THE THEMATIC STATEMENT [what’s the story about?]
THE MISSION STATEMENT [what’s the heroine supposed to do?]
THE LESSON STATEMENT [what’s the heroine learn?]
Where do you place these three specific Mythic Statements?
The Thematic Statement comes in the first part of your story, usually as part of or right after the setup.
The Mission Statement also comes early in the story and is when the action shifts direction.
The Lesson Statement comes at one of the following: a) beginning of last act if the story’s going to shift directions again because of the heroine’s change of heart; b) the climax as the heroine learns what it’s all really been about; or c) the denouement if it’s a tragedy or a really surprise ending.
Who should be saying these Mythic Statements?
The Story’s Thematic Statement is usually given by a secondary character or narrator. It’s often spoken by a wise old person or an innocent. In Shakespeare it’s often delivered by an otherwise oblique or obscure character. In modern films, it’s often just a good one-liner.
The heroine usually gets her Mission Statement from someone else. Sometimes she volunteers for it; sometimes it’s a regrettable duty; sometimes she takes on a Mission out of desperation.
The heroine usually voices her own Lesson Statement. Occasionally another person points it out to her.
Scholar and classicist J.R.R. Tolkien filled his Lord of the Rings novels with myth, anthropology, history, politics, a rise up the chakras for the hero-king, and rich symbolism. Peter Jackson’s films are exquisite visualizations that hold true to most of these concepts.
The Thematic Statement is given in the prologue of the first story, The Fellowship of the Ring – Power in the wrong hands is deadly dangerous.
The Mission Statement is formed at the Council of Elrond when Frodo volunteers, under Gandalf’s influence, to travel to Mordor with the Fellowship of the Ring and personally throw the cursed ring into the Cracks of Doom.
One of the most moving and valuable Lesson Statements, especially for you who are yourselves story-tellers, is given by Sam Gamgee to a very discouraged Frodo in the second story, The Two Towers.
Frodo: “I can’t do this, Sam.”
Sam: “I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
Frodo: “What are we holding on to, Sam?”
Sam: “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
As a prose writer, you can Decide What You Mean and then tap into your story’s underlying Mythic Theme. As sole creator you get to design the world however you want it to be and to infuse your descriptions, settings, actions, clothing, and dialogue styles with an appropriate thematic look and feel.
Using the three Mythic Statements, you can anchor your meaning and strengthen your story’s impact by having your characters or narrator Say What You Mean.
By aligning your story with an ancient and timeless Mythic Theme, you’ll be tapping into the power of those myth-makers who crafted the original stories to touch the human heart and inspire the human soul.
Pamela Jaye Smith is a mythologist, writer, international story consultant and speaker, and award-winning producer-director with over three decades in the media industry. She is the author of The Power of The Dark Side, Inner Drives and Symbols.Images.Codes, Beyond the Hero’s Journey and Show me the Love!
Her company MYTHWORKS™ offers ‘Applied Mythology for more Powerful Reality’ and she works with writers to bring the power of myth to their stories – all genres and all styles. Pamela has taught writing at UCLA Extension, USC, RAI-TV Rome, Nat’l Film Institute of Denmark, Marseille WebFest, Romance Writers of America [on-line and at the annual convention], Savvy Authors online, and many more.
Pamela appears on the Fox feature Ice Age: Continental Drift in the Special Features. She has been on national TV and radio programs as a mythology expert, including on the “Forbidden Secrets” TV series. She was also the on-camera spokesperson for Microsoft’s “Age of Mythology” computer game.
Other clients and credits include Disney, Paramount, Universal, the US Army and the FBI.
Various projects have taken Smith to the Arctic, the Andes, SE Asia, Europe, and New Zealand. She has filmed on the largest off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, slept in grass huts and eaten guinea pig under Ecuador’s highest volcano, caught her own sushi in the Leyte Gulf, and rappelled into the jungles of Mindanao searching for lost WWII Japanese gold.
Pamela is an avid reader, drives classic cars, and enjoys opera. A dilettante approach to sports has included surfing, skiing, snorkeling, flying, go-cart & auto racing, and driving an off-shore oil rig and an Army tank — both under close supervision.
SHOW ME THE LOVE! offers content creators of all genres, styles, and media a rich resource, new ideas, and a comprehensive, practical guide to using the dynamic and dramatic power of LOVE in all their stories.
Identifying, understanding, portraying, and communicating the core of emotion in a story is what entertains, enlightens, and educates your audience.
The best stories have some aspect of LOVE in them: romantic love, familial love, love of friends, self, country, the divine, animals, art, money, power, nature, death and destruction.
When well-crafted, the LOVE aspect of a story lives on in the hearts and minds of readers and viewers, be it “My old love! I’m paralyzed with happiness!” from The Great Gatsby; “I see you” from Avatar “; Casablanca‘s “We’ll always have Paris”.
This book covers the psychological background of different types of love and how it works in myth, history, current events, and media. You’ll learn ways to express that type of love both in words and visuals so you can make your stories much richer and more memorable.
Readers and viewers of all types of media find this information enhances their understanding and enjoyment.