Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Great Sentences are Rare Birds with Exotic Plumage.

This month I review How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (HarperCollins)by Stanley Fish. While I have qualms about Mr. Fish's overarching argument, this book can be for lovers of good-to-great writing what a bird-watching guide can be for bird lovers, a compendium and an appreciation of great sentences in the wild, in all their varied splendor.

Unfortunately, the book's flaws show up in its opening pages when the professor of humanities and law at Florida International University makes the case that, when it comes to writing great sentences, content is irrelevant. The most important issue is form.

Professor Fish might as well be arguing that the sentence is the essential building block of life on our planet, also on Mars and the moons of Saturn. While I believe sentences are important, and while I admire some sentences every bit as much as Fish, I disagree with him over the issue of content. Content is not only relevant, it's the determining factor.

As Fish finally admits on page 35 of his book, "Content, the communication in a thrilling and effective way of ideas and passions, is finally what sentences are for." A page later, he hones in on what's painfully obvious to many: "Sentences are meaningless without context."

Fish states that the worth of a sentence is the degree to which it achieves its desired effect. That is why the prescriptive advice found in books like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is useful only in relation to some purpose. The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is "What am I trying to communicate? What is my purpose in writing?"

Yes, I agree; only I would go further: Writing is about creating a meaningful, seamless, well-formed argument or involving story that, in a way, "chooses" its own rhetorical and writing rules so as to deliver most effectively the content one wishes to express.

Once a writer knows her purpose and the larger context of a piece, she can figure out the best way to express it in a seamless, convincing, and appealing way. It's all about content.

In my opinion, when Stanley Fish writes about the beauty of certain sentences in his opening chapter, "What is a good sentence?" and when he writes movingly about great opening sentences (in chapter eight) and great closing sentences (in chapter nine) he supplies the context because he knows those works.

That's my only criticism. In fact,I love this book for its willingness to quote authors and their sentences voraciously, everyone from Romans like Cato and Cicero to Milton, Jonathan Swift, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard, and so many more.

Just a few examples Fish mentions in his "First Sentences" chapter:

"In the afternoons, it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper." (Agatha Christie)

"One day Karen DeCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca." (Elmore Leonard)

"The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses." (Philip Roth)

And from his "Last Sentences" chapter:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do then I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, then I have ever known." (Dickens)

"In my case, an accident of birth, but you, sir, you're a self-made man." (What Ralph Bellamy's character calls Lee Marvin's character a bastard in the movie, "The Professionals" (1966).

"He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance." (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.)

And arguably the most famous last line of all:

"So we beat on, oars against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

More than just a collection of great sentences, I found the author's discussion of them to be uniformly smart and well informed. It is by far the most valuable feature of the book.

I recommend it as a guide to great sentences.

While it may not teach you how to write a sentence as the title claims, it will help you to spot and appreciate the great and colorful ones when they fly by.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

How I became a Happy Dog.

When it comes to writing my novel,Charging the Jaguar, of late I've changed my bark. At first, I was not a happy dog. Then I had a series of insights when my dog, Coco, licked me on the face as I awoke from a meditation. I saw my purpose as a writer and the way I wished to spend the rest of my writing life in a new light.

It hasn't been exactly pork chops and gravy since, but thanks to Coco's  intervention, I'm now a happier, more fulfilled writer.


I was not always a happy dog.

My novel was not going the way I had hoped. I had reached what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle in the middle of it.

The first third of the novel is a chase. The last third of the novel is a thriller. The second third had elements of fantasy and farce. It's no wonder the novel seemed to come off the rails in the second third.

Two years ago I nearly stopped writing my novel at this point. Now I was at that exact point in my novel again, and, guess what? It seemed to be an all-out contest between my writing grit and my desire to quit. I was a very unhappy dog, indeed.

But this time, my wife and best friend, Gina, suggested that I take ten days and decide whether I want to continue writing this novel or give it up altogether.

The story behind my novel.

My novel, Charging the Jaguar, tells the story of Jake Lancer, a young Peace Corps Volunteer in 1967 Colombia who is riding on a bus when it is attacked by the FARC*, a Maoist-leaning revolutionary group. Jake is wounded twice in the attack; nevertheless, he administers first aid to some of his fellow bus passengers who are also wounded. In the process, he undergoes a near-death experience.

Although Jake has always been strictly heterosexual, on this day, directly after the attack, he falls in love with a young man named Jesus who bandages his wounds. Indeed, Jesus and Jake are very compatible, and they share a great deal in common.

It soon becomes apparent to Jake, however, that Jesus, the humanitarian with gauze and tape, is an undercover FARC soldier. (Later in the story Jesus reveals that he was sent by his FARC commander to investigate the Peace Corps Volunteer and determine if he is an undercover C.I.A. agent, and to murder him if he decides he is.)

It turns out Jesus isn't exactly the greatest FARC soldier. (That's why they could "spare" him to intercept Jake.) Neither is Jake the greatest Peace Corps Volunteer. In fact, the novel opens with Jake's Peace Corps supervisor placing Jake on probation because he's such a screw-up.

Jake's purpose is prove he can be an effective Peace Corps Volunteer, knowing that if he's ultimately sent home before his time he'll be drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam where misanthropic-Jake is certain he'll die in combat and be sent home in a body bag.


At a deeper level, Jake's challenge throughout the novel is find a new way to live, to relate to the people around him in a new way so he can become a successful Peace Corps Volunteer, avoid Vietnam, and, ultimately, survive.

Coco intervenes and I become a happy dog.

It was a Saturday morning. The immediate issue before me that day was deciding whether Gina and I would see a movie; also deciding on the fate of my novel. My ten days were up.

I lay on my bed in a meditative state, something I do daily. Just as I awoke, Coco, our Toy Poodle, began licking me on the face—vociferously, lustily, enthusiastically. Coco knew I had been hurting. As many of you already know, dogs are extremely intuitive, healing souls. They heal by licking.

As she licked me, Coco looked into my eyes. I looked into her eyes from only inches away. And I experienced a conversion of sorts. I came to believe Coco was telling me that all I had to do to be a happy writer was to be happy. And to be happy, all I had to do was follow my story-telling instincts wherever they led and ignore the gloomy voices in my head insisting that the story made no sense and would never work out.

Coco was saying: Just follow your story. Tell your story. Your story material is rich, raw, vital, creative, entertaining and funny.  It's inspired. Coco was telling me that when I follow the story, my story will not only make sense; in the end it will make perfect sense.


(In fact, since this happened, the first and third parts of the story have begun to sound increasingly like the second third, so the entire novel is beginning to come together very nicely.)

I awoke from my meditation convinced:

I would complete my novel;

I would never again lose sight of what a lucky dog I am just to be able to write my novel;

I would never again get so torn up about writing my story that I would live my life in the throws of indecision.

I would become a happy dog, and a happily decisive dog;

And I would see that movie with Gina.

*The FARC is the same revolutionary group that the current President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, has been negotiating a peace deal with. As it goes into effect, I pray that the FARC violence Colombia has had to live with for more than sixty years will cease. Amen.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Story of a Writer Gone Wrong.

I wanted to review Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in this ExcitingWriting Advisory, but when I discovered that Mr. Lehrer's work included numerous instances of plagiarism (making up Bob Dylan quotes, for example), I dropped that idea. I refer to what happened to him and his book here to point out how unremittingly destructive to a writer's reputation even one instance of this category of corruption is (and here I'm calling plagiarism for what it is, a kind of corruption).

A nonfiction writer has only the honesty of his or her writing to present to an audience. Without honesty an author has nothing. If it later comes to light a nonfiction work is not original, even if it's only partly fabricated (the case with Imagine), it can ruin a writer's reputation.

What happened to Mr. Lehrer is a shame. I found his book engrossing and well written, filled with interesting insights explaining how creative minds work and brainstorm together.

Now my essay takes a sharp left turn.

I met Mr. Lehrer at a talk he gave in Dallas in 2013. He was on a speaking tour, signing copies of his book after his talk, a traditional method of promoting sales.  He spoke about his book for about thirty minutes. He impressed me as being meticulous, hardworking, very creative, and very, very smart. The workings of the creative mind are extremely complicated. I thought he did an excellent job of explaining them to a non-technical audience.

After his talk, I waited in a long line holding a just-purchased copy of Mr. Lehrer's book in my hands. When I finally stood before the noted author I thanked him for writing about creativity, a favorite subject of mine. I told him his talk inspired me in regards to the writing of my novel, Charging the Jaguar. When he asked, I explained to him what it was about in a sentence or two. He asked me how long I had been working on it. I told him, and he straightaway inscribed my copy of his book with the words, "Best wishes! Believe in GRIT!" with his signature directly below.

As I look now at those words he wrote on the title page of his book four years ago, I think about the word GRIT that a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, made famous a few years ago with her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Ms. Duckworth, now also famous for a TED talk she gave on the same subject last year, postulated that GRIT was "focused persistence" irrespective of native talent, ability or intelligence that drives us on, or, as Pharrell Williams so aptly phrased in his pop song "Brand New:" "A winner never quits and a quitter never wins."

Now I ask myself what kind of GRIT Mr. Lehrer might have been thinking about when he inscribed my book: What kind of grit brings one to make the mistakes the "noted author" made. He not only made up quotes from people he never interviewed; he also copied word-for-word from work he had previously published, a sin known in the publishing world as "self-plagiarism."

The burning question I'd love to ask Mr. Lehrer (if I could get a truthful answer): Why would anyone, no less such a "noted author," put in so much honest effort and write a brilliant book but then ruin it by throwing in a handful (or more) of inaccuracies and commit publishing sins?

I can only dream that he might say something along the lines of "because the truth wasn't good enough. I wanted to make it better." But I would never pretend to put words in his mouth. That would be wrong.

(By the way, today Jonah Lehrer is still a noted author; only now he's noted for something different.)

And now, a sharp right turn.

The ever popular "CBS Sunday Morning" show ran a segment last Sunday entitled "Gay Telese and the New Journalism," wherein they showed the meticulous care with which Mr. Telese has conducted every one of his journalistic projects since he began publishing his work. Gay Telese has kept transcripts of every interview he has used in writing every book and article throughout his career, going back to the 1960s. Why? So no one can say he never interviewed the people he in fact did interview, or argue that they never said what he reported them to say.

Keeping every interview on file going back a half-century: That is what I call GRIT. It's too bad Lehrer didn't have what that takes.

And now, breaking toward a fast finish.

I used to believe fiction writers have it easier than nonfiction writers. After all, we fiction writers make no pretense: The work we are about to loose upon the world is lies, lies, lies. Lies that get at the truth, of course. Although bringing out a novel that is artistic, original, and inventive requires a uniquely special brand of lying, no one said it was easy.

"Artistic" means a novel that artfully gives the impression of being authentically true even though it's fiction; also that the stories told and sometimes the characters who populate them are attractive, maybe even likeable. At least, they are interesting to meet and get to know, although, at the same time it's important to note that stories with characters that are dark, evil, and menacing, or mysterious and enigmatic can still come off as artistic.

"Original" means the work gives the impression that nothing else like it has ever been written before. But we all know writers who borrow characters, subjects, plots and writing styles from other writers. Borrowing can damage "originality." If a writer does too much of that, his or her work can be branded "derivative," which is not good. It's the fiction version of the publishing sins Jonah Lehrer committed.

"Inventive" means the work goes where no other writer's works have gone before, or gives that impression. But writers are always letting their inventiveness be influenced by following the trends of successful authors. How else can one explain the publishing trends one routinely sees, for example, when a raft of vampire novels and movies all came out at the same time? Exactly how inventive is that?

No, I no longer believe that we fiction writers have it any easier than nonfiction writers. Only the temptations have been changed to mostly protect the innocent.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How Ulysses Came to be Regarded as the Greatest Novel ever Written.

When I first visited Paris as a young man I was overtaken by a raw instinct that compelled me to make my way to the Left Bank, and find, approximately one block from the Seine River, a quaint, hidden-away bookstore with a storied past called Shakespeare and Company. There I purchased a hardcover copy of a novel called Ulysses first published in 1922 by the very publishing company that was part of the bookstore.

What I did in purchasing that book on that day was about as informed and as thinking an act as a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. I hardly entered the store and once there hardly looked around when I told a clerk what I was looking for. He went to the back of the bookstore and handed me a hardcover edition. I immediately left Shakespeare & Company with the book in my greedy hands. Sweaty hands, too, for I knew I was holding an illicit work rumored to capture the longings and passions of human sexuality.

"Unexpurgated" was such a sexy word in those days.

I must have been dreaming. I was dreaming. In my dream purchasing that book at that bookstore was partaking in a forbidden, sinful ritual that I found both tremendously liberating and exhilarating. I was committing a revolutionary act that I strongly identified with in ways I could not begin to explain had anyone asked me. No one did.

Dear reader, those among you who believe that current events portends an all-out cultural Armageddon between the forces of good and evil, right and left, listen up! This is not the first time such a catfight loomed on the horizon or been engaged with such furiously fierce determination and a sense of crusading righteousness on both sides.

About one hundred years before Trump threw his hat in the ring, an at-the-time rather obscure Irish writer by the name of James Joyce penned a tome called Ulysses. When he completed the writing of it soon after the end of World War One (1919), he found that his novel had been born into a world that could not have been more divided over its literary value.

Joyce's Ulysses was viewed at the time and is still thought of today as the very essence of modernism itself. As author Kevin Birmingham writes. "The book that many regard as the greatest novel in the English language and possibly any language was banned as obscene, officially and unofficially, throughout most of the English-speaking world for over a decade. Being forbidden is part of what made Joyce's novel so transformative. Ulysses changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law."

The Most Dangerous Brook tells the story of Ulysses as it immerged from Joyce's imagination, and how "its 732 pages took shape in notebooks, on loose-leaf sheets and on scraps of paper in more than a dozen apartments in Trieste, Zurich and Paris." It then goes on to describe how the advocates of Ulysses fought with every resource they had against the establishment forces bent on censoring and banning the work out of existence.

Those crusaders found the book so filthy that in some cases they dared not read it themselves for fear that they might catch some decadent, degenerate germ that might corrupt their artistic sensibilities. The book's supporters saw Ulysses as the supreme artistic triumph. And they saw Joyce as an artist describing his world in innovative ways, what finally became accepted as the ultimate modernist statement.

Modernism is all about liberty of form, content and style. It's not surprising that a liberated mind might wonder into areas many establishment figures might consider sinful, evil or corrupting. "Dangerous" was the word they liked to use at the time.

Birmingham again: "The transgressions of Ulysses were the first thing most people knew about it. A portion was burned in Paris while it was still only a manuscript draft, and it was convicted of obscenity in New York before it was even a book. Joyce's woes inspired Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate running a small bookstore in Paris [called Shakespeare & Co., by the way], to publish Ulysses when everyone else (including Virginia Woolf) refused. When it appeared in 1922, dozens of critics praised and vilified Joyce's long-anticipated novel in unambiguous terms. Government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic confiscated and burned more than a thousand copies of Ulysses … because Joyce's big blue book was banned on British and American shores almost immediately… Over the course of a decade, Ulysses became an underground sensation. It was literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents. Most copies came from Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach's Paris bookstore where, as one writer remembered, 'Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar.' It was the archetype of a modernist revolution. It is, in fact, the primary reason why we think of modernism as revolutionary at all."

This is the story that Birmingham's book tells that all the hundreds of academic, critical works written about Ulysses never tell. For me The Most Dangerous Book contains a treasure trove of stories about Joyce, about the writing of his book and the way the world received it. These stories helped me re-approach the work itself with fresh eyes, and with new information and understandings, which was exactly what I needed.

Why did I need that?

When I returned to my Paris hotel after purchasing the most dangerous book, I found the actual reading of the book to be a slog, difficult to get into, difficult to read. It's the book I'm not afraid to say I've put down as often as I've given up eating chocolate. And, by the way, that's how many times I've gone back to it, as well.

While I still haven't gotten all the way through Ulysses, I still have that hardcover copy I purchased at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and I still remember my moment of rather easy revolutionary triumph when I, as a young wannabe writer, swam upstream to spawn. (Only artistically speaking, of course.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Take a Forgiveness Journey Today.

All of us are on a life journey.

We get to choose the kind of journey we are on.

Today is the perfect time to embark on a forgiveness journey.

What is your life like when you are on a forgiveness journey? And what is your life like when you are on an "unforgiveness" journey. ["Unforgiveness" isn't a word, but it should be, and I use it here and Christina Baldwin uses it because it communicates so well.]

[This month's entry is adapted from "Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest" by Christina Baldwin)

As Christina Baldwin wrote, "Forgiveness is the act of admitting we are like other people.

"We are prone to make mistakes that cause confusion, inflict pain, and miscommunicate our intentions.

[I would add, "One of those mistakes we make is becoming angry."]

"We are the recipients of these human errors and [we are] the perpetrators [of them.]

"There is no way we can avoid hurting others or being hurt by others.


"This is the nature of imperfection.

So, today I ask you, my EWA reader: Are you or have you been on an unforgiving journey?

"When you will not forgive someone, you fill your life with resentment, paranoia, isolation, righteous indignation, vindictiveness. You take assurance that your perceptions and actions are justified because of the wrong that has been done you. You withhold yourself from the human community.

"When you are unforgiven [by someone else], your life is filled with recrimination, self-abuse, isolation, fear of further accusation, shame that you have done something considered unforgivable. You withhold yourself from the human community.

"What results from either of these tracks are two crippled human beings, two crippling experiences, and two states of isolation from the spiritual journey. Both parties are in hell, and the only way out is for reconciliation to occur.

"You must decide: Are you going on a journey to see what love can accomplish, or are you going on a journey to see what revenge, blame, and hostility can accomplish? When looked at in this way, the choice seems obvious.

"But really now... [Think about it carefully.]

"A tiny bit of blame seems so innocuous and justified.

"A smidgen of hostility appears easily justified.

"It's so tempting to conjure up revenge as a sweet reward, isn't it?

"When you are on that journey WITH THOSE FEELINGS those things seem minor.

"You may not consider the consequences.

[So decide: What journey are you on? And this is so very important:] "Forgiveness is a skill that can be learned."

[Please remember:] "The journey is fragile. [I would add, "It is most important."]



--Christina Baldwin

I wish Happy Holidays to all my subscribers. And may God bless each and every one of you.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Here's What I Love about Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey."

Christopher Vogler's thesis underscoring his entire body of work is that a certain kind of story has an amazing power to attract readers and viewers and turn them into ardent fans.

The author believes that "all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams and movies. These are known collectively as The Hero's Journey."

Here's what I love about Vogler: His assertion that writers have tremendous power to lift up and heal their readers as well as themselves from traumas and hurts.

Vogler wants all writers of every stripe to become aware of the hero-story structure so that they can tap into and leverage the magical powers of this kind of story. He writes that, depending on how they tell their hero stories, writers have the power to: 

-Leave this world a better place than they found it.

-Heal peoples' hurts, traumas, fears, recurring nightmares, etc., everything that keeps them down. Writers can heal themselves, too.

-Help people grow emotionally and live on a higher plane, with more emotional intelligence.

-Inspire and instruct people on how to deal more effectively with practical yet difficult-to-solve life problems; learn how to create better and more trusting and satisfying relationships; and learn how to become more human and vulnerable, and how to grow one's own humanity.

In my view, Vogler exalts the role of the storyteller to be that of a creator working alongside the ultimate creator, God, to improve and/or fix the world.


I stated another reason I admire Vogler's book in my June EWA:  "In his book Vogler not only gives us tools for understanding our own life story better; he also gives storytellers guidance on how to tap into powerful myths as they go about structuring their stories."

Notice that word, "structuring." This is a book primarily about story structure. Vogler believes that when a story is structured so that it borrows from ancient myth or personal hero myths, it can have tremendous reader appeal as a book as well as  viewer appeal as a movie.

For example, the perennial popularity of Star Wars stems from the way it interprets personal hero myth, telling an epic story that shares certain elements found in ancient myths.


Think of this book as an "instruction manual on the art of being human," or to put it another way, "on the art of being a complete human being."

The author sets out the communication objective for this book in the Preface to his Second Edition: "In this book I describe the set of concepts known as 'The Hero's Journey' drawn from the psychology of Carl G. Jung and the mythic studies of Joseph Campbell. I tried to relate those ideas to contemporary storytelling, hoping to create a writer's guide to those valuable gifts from our innermost selves and our most distant past. I came looking for design principals of storytelling, but on the road I found something more: a set of principles for living. I came to believe that the Hero's Journey is nothing less than a handbook for life, a complete instruction manual in the art of being human."

This is a key thought: "The Hero's Journey is not an invention, but an observation," writes Vogler. "It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world."

Next month I'll conclude my discusssion of The Writer's Journey by describing six types of flawed heroes and eight kinds of archetypes.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What if, in the end, there really is only one story, the most powerful ever told?

Last month I wrote, "According to an excellent summary I've found online (no author given), The Hero's Journey is a pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar, Joseph Campbell, that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual and psychological development."

According to Vogler, in his book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Third Edition), "In his study of world hero myths, Campbell discovered that they are all basically the same story, retold endlessly in infinite variations. He found that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the hero myth, or the "mono-myth" whose principles he lays out in his book.

"The theme of the hero myth is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time; it is as infinitely varied as the human race itself, and yet its basic form remains the same.

"The repeating characters of the hero myth such as the young hero, the wise old man or woman, the shape-shifting man or woman, and the shadowy antagonist are identical to the archetypes of the human mind, as revealed in dreams. That's why myths and stories constructed on the mythological model strike us as psychologically true.

"Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events." (This explains the success of fantasy classics such The Lord of the Rings, and the more current crop of successful fantasy novels including The Harry Potter Series.)

"This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories build on the model of the hero myth have an appeal that can be felt by everyone because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns.

"They deal with the child-like but universal questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go when I die? What is good, and what is evil? What must I do about it? What will tomorrow be like? Where did yesterday go? Is there anybody else out there?"

Campbell gives a condensed version of the basic hero myth. Vogler restates the basic story in twelve "story stages" organized below in three major dramatic "acts" that can be found in all stories and dramas.

Act I – Separation from the Ordinary World & The hero's decision to act.

1. Ordinary World. Most hero stories begin in the ordinary, mundane, everyday world. Think of The Wizard of Oz before the tornado. But there's often a tension going on either inside or around the main protagonist; we often detect a certain unease about the character or about something that is about to happen that allows the audience to identify with the character. The main character is often being pulled in different directions, and this causes stress that allows us the reader or viewer to identify with that character.

2. Call to Adventure. The hero is presented with a problem or challenge so pressing she or he must go on the quest.  "In Star Wars, think of Princess Leia's desperate holographic message to wise, old Obi Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest. For example: Leia has been snatched by evil Darth Vadar. Her rescue is vital to restoring the normal balance of the universe."

3.Refusal of the Call. The hero is afraid. He turns down the call to adventure out of fear of the unknown or doubts about his capabilities. He's no hero, he's just a regular person. "At this point, Luke refuses Obi Wan's Call to Adventure, and returns to the farmhouse of his aunt and uncle, only to find they have been killed by the Emperor's storm troopers. Suddenly Luke is no longer reluctant. He is eager to undertake the adventure."

4. Meeting with the Mentor. The mentor is usually a wise old man or woman who gives the Hero valuable advice and gets him over his fears. "The Mentor may appear as a wise old wizard (Star Wars), a tough drill sergeant (An Officer and a Gentleman), or a grizzled old boxing coach (Rocky). In Jaws, it's the crusty Robert Shaw character who knows all about sharks."

5. Crossing the First Threshold. The hero commits to the adventure and crosses the first threshold. He's now committed to the adventure.  Because the hero has now decided to act, this is the end of Act I. "This is the moment at which the story takes off and the adventure gets going. The balloon goes up, the romance begins, the spaceship blasts off, the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is now committed and there is no turning back."

Act II – Descent into Crisis. What happens when the hero acts?

6. Tests, Allies & Enemies. Now that the hero has gotten into action, "he encounters new challenges and Texts, makes Allies and Enemies and begins to learn the rules of the Special World."  Saloons and seedy bars are good places for these scenes to happen.  In Casablanca it's Rick's CafĂ©. In Star Wars, it's that bar with those crazy space aliens. We see the main character and his pals interacting with one another. Character development happens in this phase of the story, as our hero is put under stress and has to produce results."

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. In mythology, "the hero may have to descend into hell to rescue a loved one (Orpheus), into a cave to fight a dragon and win a treasure (Sigurd in Norse myth), or into a labyrinth to confront a monster (Theseus and the Minotaur.)" In Star Wars, the Approach to the Inmost Cave is Luke Skywalker being sucked into the Death Star to face Darth Vader and rescue Princess Leia. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the inmost cave is the Temple of Doom itself. 

8. Central Ordeal. "Here the hero's fortunes hit bottom in a direct confrontation with his greatest fear. In the Biblical story of Jonah, it's when Jonah is "in the belly of the beast." In E.T., it's when the little guy appears to die on the operating table.  "In romantic comedies the death faced by the hero may simply be the temporary death of the hero." "At this point in Beverly Hills Cop, Alex Foley has a gun pointed at his head." At this point in the story, we the viewers/readers of the story identify with the principal protagonist so closely that whatever happens to the hero seems to happen to us."

9. Reward (Seizing the sword). The Hero finally takes possession of what she or he has been questing after. "In Star Wars, Luke rescues Princess Leia and captures the plans of the Death Star, keys to defeating Darth Vadar."

Act III – Return. How does the Hero integrate new understandings about life and what is important about life into his or her personality or psychology?

10.The road back.  "Our Hero isn't done yet. He must confront the dark forces of the Ordeal. If the Hero hasn't reconciled with the Gods, they may come screaming after him or her. The best chase scenes spring up at this point of the story. For example, "Luke and Leia are furiously pursued by Darth Vader as they escape the Death Star."

11. Resurrection.  "The hero who has been in the realm of the dead must be reborn and cleansed in one last Ordeal of death and Resurrection before returning back to the Ordinary World of the living. Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop once again faces death at the hands of the villain but is rescued by the intervention of the Beverly Hills Police Force. Axel Foley emerges as a more complete human being."

12. Return with the Elexir. The hero returns to the Ordinary World, but making it meaningful means bring with him or her, some elixir, treasure or lesson from the Special World. "Dorothy returns to Kansas with the knowledge that she is loved. E.T. returns home with the experience of friendship with humans. Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader and restores peace and order to the galaxy. Sometimes the Elixir is treasure won on the quest, but it may be love, freedom, wisdom or the knowledge that the Special World exists and can be survived."

So, this is the 12-step mythical, archetypal story that creates a strong connection with the reader's or, in the case of a movie, the viewer's heart.

Can it also be applied to a literary fiction novel in a way that is highly original? Can it cause the reader to engage with the fiction without necessarily being aware of the hero journey achetype? Absolutely. But it takes a writer who comes to this archetypal story with his or her independent view of story, not someone trying to copy this 12-step formula.

In my view, there's something extremely elemental, ineluctable, and involving about these archetypal myths. When handled correctly, hero-journey stories create page-turners readers cannot put down and movie-goers are compelled to see. Next month I'll discuss the various kinds of heroes and storytelling archetypes.