Showing posts with label myth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label myth. Show all posts

Thursday, November 20

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

A well-written opening reflects the kind of story you’ve written. If it’s a horror then the opening should communicate this; similarly for romances, mysteries, westerns and so on. While many stories employ archetypes—in fact, I think that the very best stories always do—the level of involvement varies.

Before I discuss that, though, lets talk about the difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Archetypes vs Stereotypes

I think of a stereotype as a solid unchanging but shallow impression, with the added sense that it doesn’t truly reflect the person portrayed. That is, it doesn’t accurately represent the humanity, the deeper truth, of the situation.

An archetype, on the other hand, is something we’re connected to on the basis of shared experience. For example, I think we’ve all had the experience of hearing something that shouldn’t go bump-in-the-dark go bump-in-the-dark. 

We have all been alone in the cold dark and felt things glide silently through the darkness, coming for us. When we write a story about such things, such shared experiences, even though we might not have the writing skill of, say, Gillian Flynn, our readers are there with us. They are inside our character’s skin and it is the reader’s awareness of being in similar situations, that archetypal awareness, that connects them to that character.

Now, I can hear you asking ...

Given that definition aren’t all openings archetypal?

 I believe that all effective openings are archetypal to some degree, but that some are more so than others. For example:

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford)

Anyone who has ever been very sad (and who hasn’t?) can connect with this. In that sense, this is an archetypal opening. It would have also worked if instead of “saddest” the author had used “most horrific” or “bloodiest” or “most profane,” and so on. Choose your superlative ... though “most boring,” although archetypal, wouldn’t have the same punch.

Mythology, Urban Mythology and Archetypes

Carl Jung was one of the first to notice the archetypal nature of myth, folktales and what, today, we call urban legends. Take, for instance, one of my favorite folktales: Baba-Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Here’s how one version of that tale begins:

“A long time ago there lived a merchant and his wife; they had one child, a girl called Vasilisa. One day the mother placed a little doll in the child's hands, she said, ‘My child, I am dying. Take this doll as my blessing. Always keep it with you and never show it to anybody. If anything bad happens to you, give the doll food and ask her for guidance.’ Shortly afterwards the mother died.”

This opening got my attention. Yes, a question has been raised here (If the child feeds the doll will it give her guidance?) but I feel that the archetypal nature of the story is announced by the mother’s death. 

The death of those who raised us, who nurtured us when we were children, is (unfortunately) something that connects us all. It is something that, even though Vasilisa’s character is never really fleshed out, connects us to her and makes us care what happens to her.

Death As An Archetype

What I’m about to say doesn’t have anything to do with openings but since we’re discussing archetypes I think it’s relevant. Often at the middle or two-thirds point of a story a major character dies, or comes very near death (occasionally a character seems to die but is resuscitated).

One of the archetypes that runs through the fabric of human existence is our shared realization of life’s inevitable end. When a character dies we cannot help but be gripped by it. When a character almost dies and somehow finds a way back, we cannot help but be moved by the experience. 


By weaving these archetypal experiences and events into our stories we increase the reader’s involvement in that story. (And, yes, of course, this involvement would be helped along by creating rounded characters.) (See: Crafting Interesting Characters; Creating Vivid Characters for NaNoWriMo; Preparing to write a story: characters.)

And that’s it for archetypal openings! Granted, much more can be said about this, but not much more can be said in under 1,000 words! If you’d like to read more about archetypes in the human experience (and you haven’t already) pick up a copy of Carl Jung’s “Man And His Symbols.” Although you may not agree with everything Jung says it is an interesting read.

This is the last, the final, post in my Six Ways To Begin A Story series (click on the link to go to the first one which contains a handy-dandy index), I hope you enjoyed it.

If you have any questions, or any suggestions for future posts, please leave a comment or contact me.

Photo credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, August 8

Lee Child on Myth, Theseus and James Bond

Lee Child on Myth, Theseus and James Bond

In his short essay, “Theseus and the Minotaur (1500 BC),” which appears in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Lee Child discusses and dissects the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur, peeling back layers of meaning to expose the structure underneath. A structure that, it turns out, is nearly identical to Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories.

Theseus and James Bond

At first I was skeptical. After all, the myth is about how the son of a king saves Athenian youths from suffering death-by-Minotaur. (Here is one version of the myth: The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.) 

Lee Child, though, strips away the particular details to reveal the essential points of the tale. He writes:

“The story goes like this: Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, is a privileged but maverick warrior. At the start of the tale, he is away on the coast, attacking and burning enemy ships, in an action that is not fully authorized. He returns home to a crisis. Athens and Crete are in a state of uneasy truce, with Crete holding the upper hand. The price of peace is that Athens must periodically supply young men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a grotesque creature that lives in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. A demand for fresh victims has just arrived. Theseus insists that he be allowed to go, posing as one of the victims. He arrives on Crete and enlists–by seduction–the help of Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete. She supplies him with a ball of string, so that–if he survives the encounter with the Minotaur–he will be able to find his way out of the maze. Theseus descends, unwinding the string as he goes. He kills the Minotaur after an epic struggle. He retraces his steps with the help of the string. He emerges on the surface, ignores Ariadne, and returns home to a mixed welcome.”

That’s a condensed retelling! Child goes on to compare the salient points of the myth to those of the James Bond stories:

-  Athens and Crete were two superpowers who reached an uneasy truce. (The US and Russia)
- Theseus (James Bond) was a young man of rank who acted alone and took responsibility for the necessary outcome.
- The hero makes a strategic alliance with an attractive young woman from the other side. 
- A gadget (the ball of magical twine) was given to Theseus. Further, this gadget was made by an exceptionally skilled craftsman (Daedalus/Q).
- A secret underground facility (the maze/Q division).
- An all powerful opponent (King Minos) with a grotesque sidekick (the Minotaur).
- An epic fight to the death (Theseus vs the Minotaur).
- An escape (Theseus uses the ball of string to find his way out of the maze).
- The femme fatale is abandoned or dies (I’ve noticed that if Bond’s female ally is good at heart then she has an excellent chance of dying). 
- The hero returns home to a mixed welcome. In the Bond films I’ve watched, the hero usually gets taken to task for his high kill rate, his destruction of property and his general recklessness.


- A James Bond story usually begins with “a scene of gratuitous violence or action not related to the main storyline.” Compare this with Theseus’ burning of enemy ships.
- James Bond’s dual nature: is he bold, courageous and heroic? Or is he hotheaded, out of control and arrogant?
- Is M, and the secret intelligence service generally, embarrassed by James Bond, by his antics, by the number of people he kills and by the amount of property damage he does? Or are they proud of his results and his unscrupulously unswerving dedication to his goals?

Mythic Heroes

Lee Child has often said that his own heroic character, Jack Reacher, is based on the myth of the mysterious stranger. This is from an interview Child gave in 2011:

“Retrospectively, I look at the character as an update of a very old figure, who comes out of 1,000 years of literary tradition: the loner, the mysterious stranger, the knight errant who shows up, solves a problem and then leaves. He came out of Scandinavian sagas and English tales of knights and survived into the American West and pop lit. (Q & A: Lee Child on writing, naming and aging Jack Reacher)”

Who or what is your protagonist based on? What myth most closely captures your protagonist’s quest?

Photo credit: "Umgebung / Kornfeld / Sonnenuntergang" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Text overlay was applied by Karen Woodward, the quotation is from Robert Fulghum.