Mythpower in Short Stories

By James N. Frey

This article was originally published in the German magazine TextArt: Magazin für Kreatives Schreiben (The magazine for creative writers) in a question/answer column.

How can I use the principles of story telling using the power myth (as shown in your book THE KEY) for writing short stories? Or is this impossible?

It's not at all impossible, in fact, mythic structures and functions are powerful tools for the short story writer. Let me start with an overview of using the power of myth in modern fiction in general, and then get down to specifics involving the short story.

The power of myth involves fictional motifs and characters that were used by the mythopoets of ages gone by which have been shown to have a profound effect on the reader. Mythologists call these motifs and aspects of character "functions."

Some of more important functions are, as an example, that the hero has courage, that the hero self-sacrifices for others, that the hero leaves the world of the everyday and enters into a mythological woods where he or she will be tested, that the hero has a death and rebirth experience, that the hero has a confrontation with "the evil one," and so on.

In my book, THE KEY: Using the Power of Myth to Write Damn Good Fiction, I demonstrated how these fictional motifs and aspects of character are found in modern novels and films, such as THE GODFATHER and GONE WITH THE WIND.

Joseph Campbell the mythologist titled his THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES just that because of this phenomena of the same character traits and the actions of the hero on what is called "the hero's journey" being repeated endlessly through the centuries. Campbell pointed out that the structure myth takes is also very commonly repeated, so much so that he called hero's journey THE MONOMYTH, meaning, of course, that all myth was one myth.

I'll give you a sketch of the Monomyth. Of course not all myths include every function, but in general in the Monomyth the story opens with the hero in the world of the everyday (this part is called "separation"), dealing with his or her every day conflicts and problems. Then THE HERALD comes and brings the hero a CALL TO ADVENTURE. The call is usually some sort of mission on behalf of a community, usually to get some sort of PRIZE. The Golden Fleece, as an example, in the ancient my "Jason and the Argonouts". The "lector" in Ian Flemming's "From Russia with Love" is a modern example. The hero may or may not answer the call. If the hero refuses the call, he or she will suffer and fall into a psychological and social decline until coming to their senses. When the hero accepts the call, the hero will seek advice from THE MENTOR, get weapons for his adventure from THE ARMORER, and perhaps some magic from a MAGICAL HELPER. A THRESHOLD GUARDIAN will usually warn the her of the dangers ahead, but the hero brushes aside these warnings and CROSSES THE THRESHOLD and enters the MYTHOLOGICAL WOODS. This part of the myth is called "the Initiation."

During his or her initiation, the hero will LEARN THE NEW RULES and BE TESTED. Some of the tests her hero will pass, some he or she will fail. Along the way, the hero may have A SIDEKICK, may meet women in various guises such as MOTHER, GODDESS, WITCH, WHORE, BITCH, FEMME FATALE; and will be in conflict with THE EVIL ONE and the EVIL ONE'S MINIONS. During the initiation several things may happen, the hero may BE BETRAYED, may HAVE A CHANGE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, may FALL IN LOVE, may CHANGE COSTUME, and MAY LOSE A LOVE ONE TO DEATH. The most important motif is the DEATH AND REBIRTH which may be, say, a near death and rebirth, or may be a symbolic death and rebirth. The initiation often culminates in a CONFRONTATION WITH THE EVIL ONE which usually takes place in the evil one lair. Here the hero may be killed or fail in his or her mission, or may have a temporary victory over the evil one and take possession of the Prize. The story now moves to the third part of the monomyth, "the return."

On the return the hero is RETESTED. Having learned the new rules and passed some tests, found some new facets of his or her own character and learned some new skills. On the journey home, the hero is often pursued by the Evil One. Some of the motifs found in the initiation may be repeated, but since the hero has changed, the hero will handle them better. On the return there is often another CONFRONTATION WITH THE EVIL ONE and often here the evil one is killed. Once back in the his community, the hero may have other dilemmas, the PRIZE MAY NOT BE VALUED, as an example, or, A FALSE HERO MAY CLAIM CREDIT. The most important aspect of the hero's journey is THE TRANSFORMATION of the hero. A fearful and naive young woman might be transformed, say, into a confident and sophisticated one. Or, say, a drunken misfit pool shark, might become a responsible lover.

The above description is the bare bones of the mythic structure and some of the more common motif's. It's easy to see how THE GODFATHER fits this mold. Michael Coreleone gets A CALL TO ADVENTURE by the shooting of his father. He is acting out of SELF SACRIFICE for others, for his community, the crime family. He receives advice from MENTORS on how to kill, he shoots The Turk and a police captain, MINIONS OF THE EVIL ONE in their lair (well, a restaurant of their choosing) and has a long "return" to his community. He meets the WOMAN AS GODDESS in Sicily and FALLS IN LOVE.

She's killed in the motif THE HERO LOSES A LOVED ONE THROUGH DEATH. In the end he has been transformed into the new Godfather and has a FINAL CONFRONTATION WITH THE EVIL ONE.

Ah, great, you say, but THE GODFATHER is a long novel with plenty of space to show all this character transformation and tests and trials and so on. But how about a short story? There is no room for all these characters, tests, trials, and motifs in a few thousand words.

Okay, true, there is not as much space in a short story, but even in a short story a lot may happen. When lecturing on the MONOMYTH to my students I often cite an example of the exploitation of the mythic form and motifs in a short story of about 4500 words called "Saint Marie" by Louise Erdrich, included in LOVE MEDICINE (1993).

"Saint Marie" opens with the hero, Marie Lazarre, an Ojibwa Indian girl already on her journey. Starting after THE CALL TO ADVENTURE of course shortens the telling. Marie is on her way to becoming a nun at the Sacred Heart Convent near her home on the Ojibwa reservation. Her mission is to become an Indian saint. At Sacred Heart convent (Her MYTHOLOGICAL WOODS) she first has to LEARN THE NEW RULES--constant prayer, unending toil--and she confronts Sister Leopolda, THE EVIL ONE who TESTS her by pouring boiling water in her ear, making her sleep by the furnace, and other tortures. In the course of the events many common mythological motifs are exploited, including A CHANGE OF COSTUME, and a wonderful DEATH AND REBIRTH. In THE FINAL CONFRONTATION with the Evil One, Marie pushes the evil one into a bread oven, but the evil one bounces back out and stabs Marie with fork in her hand, giving her the stigmata and conferring on her sainthood. Marie has been transformed from being just another raggedy, anonymous Indian girl into a religious icon with nuns worshipping at her feet.

Another example can be found in Amy Tan's THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1989), entitled "The Red Candle." The hero is a young Chinese girl who's CALL TO ADVENTURE comes when she is two years old and the matchmaker (THE HERALD) comes and she is betrothed to a young boy, Tyan-yu. The hero starts on her hero's journey when she is twelve years old and goes to the house of her mother-in-law, Huang Taitai, the EVIL ONE The hero learns the new rules--that she is actually a slave, is tested by being shamed, harassed, and criticized constantly. There's the CHANGE OF COSTUME at the wedding where she finds new strength within herself, and has a DEATH AND REBIRTH EXPERIENCE and then CONFRONTS THE EVIL ONE and defeats her in a very clever way. The HERO IS TRANSFORMED from a shy, frightened girl, into a strong confident woman.

Now then, how can one use these powerful motifs in ones own work?

What confuses fiction writers when learning their craft is the lack of precise language used to describe aspects of the craft, including the definition of a short story. The philosophical musings of a mad man might be considered a short story. A slice of life vignette is sometimes called a short story. A confession might be called a short story.

In the past it was more clear what a short story was. It was simply a short ficitonal work with a beginning, middle, and end. It was "about" something. It was about greed or love or ambition, it had, what I described at length in HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL (1988), a "premise."

This type of short story I now call a "dramatic" short story to differentiate it from other fictional forms. Dramatic short stories are characterized by having a transformation of a character through a dramatic struggle. Myth based stories are always of this type.

Now then, about the mythic motifs and characters.

Just as writing a novel, what you do when you're dreaming up your story is ask yourself if it would be stronger if you included some of these mythic elements.

Say, as an example, you have an story you want to tell of an unhappy woman, Susan, who is a dutiful wife to an uncaring, unloving husband. Susan leads a drab, unhappy life at work as a secretary in a funeral parlor besides doing her domestic duties at home.

Then she wins a contest--ten free dance lessons at a dance studio. At the dance studio she has trouble overcoming her shyness, her clumsiness, her lack of social skills, but eventually she falls in love with an elevator repair man ten years younger. She's transformed by this experience in some way. This is what I would call a dramatic in which a character is transformed through a dramatic struggle.

We also have here the bare bones outline of a hero's journey. She's in the EVERYDAY WORLD (her work at the funeral home, a symbol for the dead life she leads), she gets her CALL TO ADVENTURE (winning the contest), she goes into the MYTHOLOGICAL WOODS (a strange and magical place to her--the glittering dance studio) where she LEARNS THE NEW RULES (how to dance, how to let yourself be swept up by the music) and is TESTED (let's say, by new and powerful sexual and romantic feelings). Now then, we can ask ourselves about the other elements of myth and if our story would be made stronger by the inclusion of these elements. As an example, is the husband to be not just an antagonist but an EVIL ONE. In the process of transformation, should Susan have a DEATH AND REBIRTH and what would it be? Does she get A CHANGE OF COSTUME? What is THE PRIZE?

Okay then, here's an outline of our story after including some of these elements:

Our hero, Susan, is at her desk at the funeral home consoling a bereaved customer (the hero is always GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO FOR A LIVING) who can't pay his bill, when the CALL TO ADVENTURE comes--she's won ten free lessons at a dance studio. At home that night, her selfish Evil One husband forbids her to go, but she sneaks out while he's out drinking with his friends. At the dance studio, she's at first clumsy, but A MENTOR teaches her how to move, how to be swept up with the music, and encourages her to CHANGE COSTUME. She meets Eric, the younger elevator operator, mythological character THE HERO'S LOVER, who is kind and gentle and is taking lessons because he's always been afraid of women. After the ninth session they go to a real dance where they dance into the night and they imagine they're young lovers without a care in the world. Susan drinks too much Champaign and HAS A CHANGE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, but the EVIL ONE husband comes to take her home and she has A CONFRONTATION WITH THE EVIL ONE. She looses this confrontation, and with it, the prize of love. But at home, she falls into despair and thinks of suicide, which is A SYMBOLIC DEATH AND REBIRTH, but instead of killing herself, she decides she's had it with her life and from now on, she's going to dance every day. What follows is A FINAL CONFRONTATION WITH THE EVIL ONE and she wins the true prize--her freedom of spirit, and is thereby transformed.

So that's how it works. As you dream up your story you keep asking yourself if these motif's would help your story to be stronger, and if they would, you exploit them.

Let's say Susan's father used to own the Funeral Home where she works. I think the title should be: "The Dance of the Funeral Director's Daughter."

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]