Fencon, a local sci-fi and fantasy convention is write around the corner (Wow. Yes, I did just right that). I attended last year and even signed up for the workshop with Karl Schroeder. Somewhere, buried in the posts, there are even a couple blurbs about my experience. Good con, good workshop and I walked away with a bit of knowledge and a few contacts, such as fellow writer Tom Howard who provided an excellent, well organized beta read of my novel, Collateral Damage in a time frame that would make even Hurricane’s head spin.
Oh yeah, Hurricane is a one-legged geriatric superhero with super speed whose uniform mostly consists of a hospital gown.
During that workshop, I remember taking a break with a fellow wannabe writer and discussing strengths and weaknesses of the class. He mentioned that “the whole hero thing” alone was worth the price of admission and continued to go on and on about it like Mr. Schroeder had cracked open a sacred text lost beneath the frozen tundra of Antarctica which was only recently stumbled upon by hapless adventurers.
The “hero thing” was of course a brief mention of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sorta a staple of any workshop I suppose. I nodded in silent agreement to avoid embarrassing him.
Of course, I only assume everyone has heard about this. If you haven’t get caught up a bit.
A lot of people talk about this as a formula. In reality, it was really an analysis that has been adopted into a formula. It forms the basis of even more formulas and so-called secrets to telling good stories. All of which people will sell to you so that you too can be a writer.
I’m not dogging the theories or the countless books or formulas. They are definitely things every storyteller should know. But what I’ve found with all of these is it’s best to first write what you want and then recognize the universal truths hidden within. Then, if it makes the story stronger, you can accentuate certain parts of the formula and play to these universal notions in order to make something which a broader audience can feel connected to.
The danger lies in using formulas as a checklist. Hollywood is especially bad about this. The two most recent movies I’ve seen, Oblivion and Pacific Rim, both suffered from moments where tropes and formulas really weakened the story. Magical negroes, a stock underdeveloped adversarial “good guy” that grudgingly accepts the main character, and the someone-has-to-hold-the-nuke-trigger-and-I-left-the-duct-tape-at-home trope that has been re-ravaging theaters lately (Avengers, Pacific Rim, Oblivion). Michael Bay (Armageddon) would be proud.
All jokes aside, telling stories is hard. Especially original stories. In fact, common wisdom says all stories have already been told (thus the Heroes Journey that gets repeated ad nauseum) so it’s all in how you go about telling them. The presentation. The execution. So go ahead and stick with the formulae and tropes, but be clever about it and never let it override your own personal style.