So many years ago, I was a music major in college. I won’t discuss how many years ago. Just go with it. One of the things I had the opportunity to study was musical theory. Now, if you really listen to music, not just pop music – all genres fall victim to this, you will notice something. If you rip away the fancy parts of the songs and take away the lyrics, they sound the same. At their basis, their root, they are the same.
Does this mean that all music sucks? Not exactly. You see, what you’re hearing is not a repeat of the same song, exactly. You are hearing the repeat of a progression, usually the Major Progression. The best example of this comes from Pachelbel’s Canon, which if you listen you can hear on any station on the radio – not the actual song, but other songs that use the same D-Major chord progression that Pachelbel used in his iconic canon.
To demonstrate just how wide-spread this is, here is a selection of songs. I pulled them from multiple sources. Do a Google search for “Music based on Pachelbel’s Canon” and you will find these and many more.
- Green Day – Basket Case
- My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade
- Tupac – Life Goes On
- Aerosmith – Cryin’
- Matchbox 20 – Push
- Bush – Machine Head
- Twisted Sister – We’re Not Gonna Take It
- U2 – With or Without You
- The Beatles – Let It Be
I chose these songs because 1. they cross genre. 2. These are good songs. Most people will agree on at least some of the songs on this list. These songs also stretch across multiple decades, so we know that the “good” quality is not a matter of “Well, it was original when so-and-so did it”.
What makes these songs good, in part, is the very thing that drives many people crazy. These songs use the same chord progression. Going back to what I learned in music theory, the major chord progression is powerful in part because it sounds to the ear like it is complete. It is a full sound. Because it resolves so well, it is pleasant to us. With that as the basis of your song, you can build anything around it – punk, heavy metal, rap, pop, grunge – and the listener will like the song. In fact, you very likely, especially if you don’t realize what is at work in the song, cannot help but like it. I would even bet that at least one song on this list is loved by someone who doesn’t normally like that genre or even group.
These songs have other things working for them as well, but at the heart, they have something that guarantees acceptance.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Writers can do the same thing.
You are not a writer for very long before you hear about the monomyth. If you don’t know what that is, it is also called the Hero Cycle. Some may just refer to it as a Story Archetype or talk about the use of Archetypes. The monomyth is the idea that there is a story form that can be found in all enduring literary works. If a story is broken down to its base archetypes, if it is a good story it will fit into this cycle, in part or whole.
The basic idea of the monomyth is this: Your hero begins, usually from humble beginnings. The hero starts of on a quest. The hero obtains helpers and faces challenges. The hero overcomes the challenge. The hero returns home. The actual hero cycle breaks it down in more detail. The section heading is a pretty good Wikipedia article. I’m going short form because, well … we talk about it.
Consider for a moment your favorite story. Who is the main character (the hero)? What event determines when the plot of the story begins (the call to action)? Is the character presented with a love interest (Meeting with the Goddess)? Does the hero seek something – the truth, an artifact, to rescue someone (The Ultimate Boon)?
These are a few of the questions to cue you in that the story you love fits into the monomyth in some way. Even if a story challenges the monomyth, for example Frank Herbert’s Dune Trilogy, it is still drawing upon the elements in a way that is familiar to us. The story matches the format of every story from Star Wars to “Today, Ug and I went and killed tiger.” Something within the collective unconscious reads the story, and it feels complete.
So, you know that if you can use these archetypes and story forms, you can have a great story. So you write a story and realize – you’ve read this before. And you feel your heart sink, because it is not filling you with the wholeness feeling that it should fill you with, that the stories you loved that inspired you to write filled you with. Worse, you get a rejection of the story because it is “unoriginal”.
The problem? In some cases, we focus too much on the archetypes and story form, and create a story that is just that: archetypes and story forms. In this case, the story will feel hollow and plain. We have all read these stories. In other cases, we focused on the wrong things in our study of our work. We imitate scenes and characters, not understanding what they represent in the story form or what archetype they fulfill.
When I was a kid and first started writing, I wrote essentially my own version of stories I loved. Over time, I learned how to pull from the stories I loved certain ideas to develop as my own. At the time, I did not know that I was pulling out Archetypes – I didn’t learn about those until many years later. It was not until I learned how to critically examine stories to find these ideas that I really understood what I was doing in my youth, and how to use it to my advantage as a writer.
That is the key in using Archetypes and Story Forms. You can even apply this to formula for genre writing. Boil the story down to its base. What things are present that are Archetypal? What events are formulaic and a function of the genre or Story Cycle? If you are formulating a story from there, build the characters and events in ways that feel fresh to you. You are your first reader. If you are working on an existing idea, consider how to develop the story and characters with these ideas. With the songs, the use of the Major chords sets a strong base for the song, but the lyrics and melodies built around the chords still play on our senses. A story is the same way.
Consider Leah from Star Wars, who is not merely a Damsel in Distress (and also the Meeting with the Goddess). She’s ready to take charge of the rescue attempt. She is brave, clever, and strong-willed.
Think about the hero’s call to action, and initial refusal. Does your hero really try to refuse, or run head-long into the quest – and what affect does that have? Is the initial refusal somehow vital to the hero quest, in a way that its absence has impact? What happens when the hero can’t cross the First Threshold? If you’re having trouble with the Mentor of the story, consider – what if there is no mentor? What happens if the hero has to learn the lessons a mentor would teach as he/she goes along? That one is probably better for series, because this could really stretch out a story … on the other hand, this can really stretch out a story … I’m going to have to remember this one.
Boy, that was a long one. Alright, TLDR version: boil it down to its base, its Pachelbel, and the find clever and unique ways to build around the story. What makes a story original is not its Archetypes, but how you choose to bring them and the story form to life.