I came across a Philip Pullman quote when writing this article:
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
It made me think about how stories are an integral part of our everyday. The way we share them almost constantly when interacting with those around us. We edit our own or other people’s experiences and fill them with elements that didn’t really happen. We want to create something satisfying, something that’ll provoke a response.
Past humans were no different. In this article we’re not only going to use those old tales to inform our story writing today; by the end you’ll also have a better idea of:
- How old material (particularly characters) can be recycled to create something original.
- Our relation to objects and their importance within a narrative.
- How modern mythology can inform our writing today.
Digging up the Stories of the Past
I don’t want to throw you into The Twelve Labours straightaway; so let’s do a freewriting warm up. I’m going to give you five prompts inspired by famous myths around the world.
All you have to do is continue the narrative for another 100-200 words, using your own choice of people, place and time:
- Even as I squeezed my hand through, I still couldn’t touch them. The wall was too thick, consuming the whole of my arm.
- They were born from the oil.
- When you die, you have to show you have the right tattoos to an old woman. If you don’t have them, she kicks you back down to earth to roam the land as a ghost.
- She forced him to worship the sun.
- The golden coin fell into the river and disappeared from sight.
Myths? Legends? Religion? Folkore? If it all seems vague and confusing that’s because it is. Although you can check out the definitions by clicking on the individual links, there’s a lot of crossover here. Some stories fit solely into one category, a mixture of two or sometimes there’s a total transformation from one concept to another e.g. religious beliefs becoming ‘mythological’ over time.
She’s a Superfreak, Superfreak
Ancient tales are full of fierce women, the Greek tradition being no exception. Killing your children to take revenge on your cheating husband: check. Killing your son’s murderer by killing ALL his sons and gouging out his eyes: check.
Yet the vengeful woman is one archetype amongst many. They began in the mythological tradition, amongst others: the hero, the wise sage, the comedian and so on.
For this exercise, take your favourite mythological tale and give it a thoroughly modern setting. Choose an archetype (or several) to work with but change one element. This might be changing the point of view from a traditional third-person omniscient to a first-person limited, or making the outwardly ‘brave’ hero a quivering fool on the inside.
This exercise is designed to give you the confidence to ‘steal’ from old tales to discover an undiscovered place. It might sound obvious but this can make the difference between a revolutionary piece of writing and a clichéd one.
Note: When delving into the subject of mythology, certain ‘key vocab’ pops up. Here are two important ones:
- Allegory: a story that explores the importance of something on a small scale (through character, setting, plot etc) in order to explore, reveal or explain a larger global occurrence (often spiritual).
- Personification: seeing a human or human-like features in natural forces such as wind or rain (closely related to anthropomorphism ).
The One Stapler to Rule Them All
Objects hold a fascination for us humans, and nowhere is this more apparent than in mythological stories. They can represent memory, power, mystery and knowledge to name a few. From Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor to the snake bow from Mbuti mythology, objects are considered almost like characters in themselves.
For this exercise I’d like you to consider the importance and signification of an object. It can be something random or meaningful and you can write it from your own perspective or that of a character’s. Jot down:
- What does the object look like, both literally and figuratively?
- What’s its history? (if you don’t know, make it up).
- How do you/ your character feel when you/ they come into contact with it?
- Who is this object important to and why?
- Could you come up with some reasons why someone might risk their life for this object under the right circumstances? What is it about it that makes it desirable?
Interesting MacSide note: The MacGuffin technique in fiction is the use of an object to drive plot and character motivation, popularised by directer Alfred Hitchcock.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Some might think mythology is a relic of the past, something we dip in and out of for fun before returning to our modern sensibilities.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is it a way to explain our origins and identity, we’re transmitting it more than we ever could sitting around a fire. With the help of the media, the mythological tradition is hyperactive in society, both in retelling and new creations.
For this exercise I want you to imagine that ‘figuratively’ the origins of the world begin now. Think about our current political and social climate, the state of the planet, our strongest desires and worst fears. Then, I want you to create a ‘modern mythology.’ I’ll leave the significance of this up to you.
So how did you get on? I’d love to hear about what came up for you during these activities (or see anything you’re willing to share?). If you’ve enjoyed this article you might like to check out my 10 Halloween Creative Writing Exercises to Chill and Thrill. as we come into the dark half of the year. If you dare, that is!
Until next time,