Is Your Writing Hit or Myth?

The single most interesting fact I have ever learned about writing – one so significant that it affects me more than anything else as a writer is this: Knowing the power of the monomyth, a type of story structure, George Lucas went to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell for advice on his Star Wars story. Why does this matter? Because the monomyth is by far the most powerful and prevalent story type there is. (Look at the staggering commercial success of Star Wars or Harry Potter to get a sense of how important this story form is).

So then… What is the monomyth? It’s a term that Campbell borrowed from James Joyce that means “the hero’s story,” the transformational journey that a hero takes that defines him or her. The term was coined by James Joyce in “Ulysses,” but was adopted and probably gained its preeminence via Campbell’s writings and lectures, particularly in his book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

Campbell summarized the monomyth this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The monomyth is critically important as a story structure. It gives a story tremendous cohesion and power. Campbell’s research across thousands of years of mythology showed a remarkable similarity across time and across cultures in the stories that are elevated to the highest level a story can have in any culture – the status of myth. So, rearranging the pun in the title a bit, if you want a hit, use the power of myth!

In “Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation,” a book drawn from Joseph Campbell’s late lectures and workshops, he says about artists and the monomyth: “Artists are magical elfs. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”

What was significant for me in all of these insights was that I finally realized my deepest motivations in story-telling and why I write stories. The monomyth is a transformational idea that, like the theory of gravity or relativity in scientific areas, has a remarkable power to explain why certain stories are powerful and endure for generations and others are weak, valueless, and ephemeral. For me, that insight sent a deep radar pulse into my deepest heart and – finally! – showed the outline of a face that should have been familiar all along but was not.

It’s not just thousands of years of mythology and fairy tales that depend on the monomyth – modern stories like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and many others were either patterned after myths directly, or knowingly patterned using specific knowledge of the monomyth. Why do I dislike reading most modern fiction? Precisely because it tends to depart from the monomyth. I refuse to waste my time reading about complicated neurotic wimps who talk endlessly about their problems and never resolve anything. I want to read about believably heroic men and women (and children) who will inspire me to keep trying in my own personal monomyth.

Naturally, when it comes to my own writing, I gravitate toward the monomyth too. For me, much of the language of my heart and spirit is the monomyth. Writing my own myths with believable heroes is the “boon for my fellow man” with which I have returned: Hard-won truths about love, courage, and loyalty that ring true on some deep, almost unconscious level. These are the deep truths of the human spirit without which a story cannot have lasting power.