Called to Adventure: One Writer’s Journey through Plots, Proposals and Publication
By Dorothy Love
Author and screenwriter Christopher Vogler has identified a set of useful elements for developing plots. As I’ve used these elements over the years, expanding some, deleting others, I’ve become aware of the parallels between my characters’ journeys and my own.
Below are some of the elements Vogler discusses at length in the two volumes of his books The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters (Michael Wiese Productions). Thinking about these elements helped me to flesh out my stories. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
The Ordinary World. Where do your characters normally live? City, small town, fantasy island? What are their lives normally like? Routine? Boring? Challenging? What parts of their ordinary worlds do they love? What parts do they wish were different?
For many years my ordinary world was Dallas, Texas and the world of academia. I was good at it, but I didn’t always love it. Something was missing.
The Call to Adventure. There is your character, blissfully minding his own business, going about his ordinary world, when something happens that draws him out of it. Someone dies. Someone is kidnapped. A fortune is won or lost. And your character, no longer content with his ordinary world, must do something about it. The call to adventure establishes the stakes of the game and answers the question: what does your character have to win or lose?
My call to adventure came when my husband changed jobs and moved us from Texas to Iowa. I was not at all happy about the move. “You want to write,” he said. “Here’s your chance.”
The Refusal of the Call Your character thinks, “Whoa, this is scary. I’m facing the terrors of the unknown. I’m not sure I can undertake this dangerous journey even with so much at stake.”
I was terrified to take the leap of faith required to actually write a novel and submit it for publication. What if I failed? I imagined a group of black-clad editors in some Manhattan high rise late at night wading through the slush pile and howling with laughter in all the wrong places as they read my story.
In developing your plot, you must create some other influence that comes into play that overcomes your protagonist’s fear. That other influence is often a mentor. Mine was Peggy Moss Fielding, a fabulous writing teacher who convinced me I had what it took to write and publish a novel.
The Meeting with the Mentor. Feeling unsure and at the same time longing to fulfill the quest, your character seeks guidance from someone older and wiser. Indiana Jones seeks out his father and fellow scientist. Dorothy seeks the Wizard of Oz... The mentor gives advice, guidance, or maybe even special equipment necessary to fulfill the quest. Now, because so much is at stake, your character commits to the quest.
With Peggy’s instruction and encouragement I committed to my goal.
These elements combine to form Act 1 of your novel. In Act 2, your main character meets:
Tests, Allies and Enemies. In which your protagonist begins to understand the rules of the new world into which he has been cast. Think again of Dorothy on the road to Oz, or of the enemies and allies that gather at Rick’s Café Americain in the movie Casablanca. Armed with new knowledge and in the company of his allies, your protagonist approaches the place where the treasure may be found. In the stories of King Arthur, this place is the Chapel Perilous, wherein rests the Holy Grail. What is the Holy Grail for your protagonist?
For me, it was seeing my book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. But first I had to learn the vocabulary of publishing, the rules for submitting, the roles of agents and editors. And most importantly, the shape of a successful story.
The Supreme Ordeal. This is the black moment for your protagonist, when it seems all is lost, and death, either real or metaphorical, is a real possibility. This is the moment Peggy called “the huddled ball of misery” moment. Every story needs such a moment, when the protagonist and his goals are in jeopardy, success seems hopeless and things simply can’t any worse.
For five years I experienced that huddled ball of misery moment, that profound sense of failure, each time a rejected manuscript was returned to me. I went through a couple of periods during which I wrote nonfiction and gave up the quest for publication as a novelist.
Now we enter Act 3:
The Reward in which the hero takes possession of the treasure, which might be a physical object, but might also be new knowledge, new understanding. Perhaps this is the point in which your hero and heroine declare their love for one another. Or your character experiences a renewed faith.
My reward came in the form of “the call” in which an editor at a small New York publishing house offered to publish my first novel.
The Return with the Elixir. Your protagonist returns with a special treasure or lesson from the Other World. The elixir might be love, or freedom, or wisdom, or faith. In Billie Letts’ novel Where The Heart Is, the protagonist, Novalee Nation realizes that one lie can change a person’s life and that truth can lead to finding the love she thought was beyond her. She realizes that she has more control over her life than she thought, and that she doesn’t have to remain a victim of fate.
For me, the elixir was the knowledge that with study and practice and determination I could in face write, revise, submit, and sell a novel. My sixteenth novel, Carolina Gold came out in December, and I’ve just turned in my next one to be published in 2014. May you experience this same elixir. There is nothing else quite like it.
Dorothy Love is the award-winning author of numerous books for adults, preteens and young adults. Her popular Hickory Ridge series, set in her native Tennessee marked her return to her writing roots in historical fiction and introduced readers to her trademark blend of history, mystery and romance. Love’s latest release is Carolina Gold (available December 2013). Her next book, a romantic mystery set in antebellum Savannah, will be published in 2014. She lives in Texas with her husband and their golden retriever and welcomes readers at www.DorothyLovebooks.com and at www.facebook.com/dorothylovebooks.