Forgive me if you’ve been looking for the next post. I’ve been busy writing for others, which is a good thing in this economy. Somehow, I manage to sneak through the cracks of our current financial constriction and keep afloat by doing what I love. I recently had a Skype discussion with a friend in Germany about why I think Story is so important to cultural awareness.
Mythology defines a culture’s formative ethical structure. It gives a universal consistency to communal interaction by virtue of establishing a common perception. Mythological stories are usually found in religious texts to give a cultural context in which to function. In the western culture (Europe and its imperialist extensions), the Bible seems to put forth most of the allegories by which we define our ethical structure.
There are many such mythologies, all having similar stories of humanity and its interaction with the divine: Mahabharata, Ramayana, Torah, Talmud, Shan Hai Jing, Kojiki, and the multitudes of Native American, African, Aboriginal mythologies that were/are a part of a grand oral tradition.
Most of theses mythologies have a creation story, a flood story (Atlantis?), a migration story, a messiah story, an immaculate-conception-virgin-birth story, a martyr story, a resurrection story, stories of human frailty with consequences and rewards, etc. These stories, allegories, and parables define a cultural context.
In the Western culture, we have been slowly evolving in consciousness. Some milestones that come to mind off the top of my head are the discoveries of Copernicus and Columbus (1490s) adjusting our egocentric perception, Age of Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries), Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species (19th Century), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (early 20th century), and the current advancements in quantum physics.
These advancements, among others, contribute to the ability of the growing masses to embrace the concept of unity of opposites, a continuum of change, and diversity within unity, which shifts the entire nature of the concept of monotheism from an External Almighty to manifestation being the expanding nature of infinite indivisible source, or God within and without, as above-so below.
Okay, does it appear that I’ve gone way over the top here? Not really. I’m talking about the primary purpose of story, which is to continue to define universal ethics and morality of an evolving cultural consciousness. If a story doesn’t imply an essential moral, whether by uplifting or tragic ending, what is the point of telling the story? I’m not interested in a story that has no underlying purpose implied by resolution of values out of balance.
That said, no one wants to be preached to… unless they seek it out. Most audiences go to a movie because they want to enjoy themselves. There are various emotional conditions that couch that enjoyment. Some like to be sensually aroused, some like to feel terror; some like to feel excitement; some like to feel expansion of the heart; some like to feel mentally challenged; and some like to feel spiritually uplifted.
Notice that I have gone right up the endocrine system, which corresponds with the subtle-body chakras. These various states of emotional arousal are defined by the environment in which the story is told. Story environment happens to be called Genre. Genre is established by point of view, writing style, and content. Genre is a general story environment within which all other elements function.
For me the most important story element is character. I find that if I know my main character, all other elements spring from that knowledge. I define knowing the main character to mean understanding all those foundational qualities that form character itself – redeeming quality, emotional wound, shadows/ghosts, emotional armor, reactive behavior, values out of balance, unconscious needs, conscious desires, and a back-story that leads to the opening of the current story.
If I know my main character well, the story will write itself because plot will evolve from the above-listed character elements. Plot becomes the vehicle that delivers an implied theme. Plot comes from challenging decisions of emotional risk toward the fulfillment of some conscious desire. The ensuing obstacles and dilemmas lead to symbolic crucifixion (sense of death of the quest), an atonement of old beliefs, adjustment in consciousness, a new direction, final conflict, and balancing of values. This implies a specific theme.
In order for this character arc to manifest, the writer must create the story world and people it with the characters that bring this change about in the main character. Therefore, an antagonist is created to represent the main character’s shadow fears, and a conscience character/mentor will be created to urge the main character to make conscious choices that contradict reactive behavior in the face of dilemmas. Other archetypes are created to fulfill the needs of the story, such as ally, tempter, skeptic, threshold guardian, love interest, etc. Situations build one upon the other based on the main character’s escalating choices of emotional risk.
This does not necessarily mean the first impetus to tell a story comes from knowing a character. The initial stimulus for a story could come from anything, such as an incident, a thought, a feeling, memory, or anything that inspires one to creative expression. However, soon after that initial stimulus, I must create a story perspective in the nature of a specific character.
Most books, seminars, screenwriting gurus teach that one needs to write a treatment and outline of one’s story before the script can be written. This is the easy way to teach screenwriting 101, but it is not the only approach to that first draft. Often, I have to write a first draft to discover my main character, my story, and my theme. From thence follows my outline!
This approach allows me to write from a more intuitive place of discovery. Once I have discovered the depths of character – his behavior dictated by his inner emotional construct – and the plot and theme, I go back with my critical brain and reconstruct the character, story, plot, and theme based on my journey through the labyrinth of story impulse.
Does this mean that I sometimes start out not knowing what I want to say? I must confess that it does. However, I have the confidence that I’ll discover my voice as I hack my way through the first draft… always knowing that a critical second draft is waiting in the wings.
This is not everyone’s approach. In fact, some writers find this to be a scary tactic. There are others who write an intuitive first draft without doing the imperative second draft. Unless you are channeling Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, I would advise against skipping this final step.
Well, this post probably needs to be edited and rewritten, but alas, I’m not going to follow my own advice. I’m looking forward to getting back to my story!