the journey of a story

I have seen stories described in many ways. A path. A pyramid. An arrow shooting the story, and the reader, forward with increasing momentum. Everything is about the journey towards a goal. Writers are told that, when composing every single scene, they must ask themselves what its purpose is in delivering readers towards that ultimate goal. Without such a purpose, the scene must be cut.

And yet, is this really how people experience stories - not only in their life, but in their reading? We all know that, in real life, no one focuses entirely on one problem, one goal. Even while toiling against the dragon (be that a work project, a family problem, a health issue, etc) we must help our children with their schoolwork, phone our elderly parents, put the rubbish out, buy birthday presents. And we know too that these everyday incidentals make our toil all the more dramatic - and all the more worthwhile.

The reason is because our stories are about us, not about the events in our lives. And so I believe the best novels - at least, for me - are those which focus on the processes of people, rather than actions and events. What would you rather read about - a heroine slashing at a dragon with her sword, or a heroine's effort as she learns to master the sword, her fear as she approaches the dragon, the dragon's own fear and rage, the exhiliration of the battle, and how the heroine deals with the emotional consequences afterwards?

I am not an expert on writing. And I can't say that my own stories are innovative or clever. I can't even say that future stories of mine will adhere to my own vision of a story pathway. It's just an idea I have, another herb to throw into the soup. Today I want to share the basic outline of the story pathway. A slower path than usual. A path which meanders, double-backs, coils around itself, and ends up in the same place - and yet a very different place as well.

Over the next few weeks (now and again, here and there) I'll describe each waymarker in more detail.

The way of experience.

Threshold : as she stands on the bones of her past and the seeded ground of her present, the world opens itself anew to the heroine. A new experience calls her out of her peace, out of herself. It is like the beginning of spring.

Wonder, mystery : like a young child, the heroine is amazed and bewildered by this new experience.

Wishing : and yet she may become overwhelmed, daunted, and so recoils inside herself and her ideas about how she wants to the world to be.

Negotiation : however, she has no real choice but to deal with her reality, and as she faces this, she takes what the world offers, and what she herself offers, and begins weaving them together to shape the new reality. She takes responsibility for it.

Allegiance : and so she must choose what she cares about - and, in doing so, she chooses the way she will take forward. It is a midsummer in her life, the season of the sacred King. He represent the values and beliefs the heroine knows she wants to work for, even when the world is roaring at her like a dragon.

Work : and now the heroine takes a deep breath and, although she may feel unready, she begins to do what is necessary. She toils, she confronts the Beast, she takes up exercise, she starts a new job, she fights the dragon.

Insight : and she comes to a new threshold. Only this one occurs within the heroine herself. Because she has done the work, she feels less overwhelmed and frightened. With the experience she's gaining on this journey, she understands now what has happened for her and why. At this point, the ostensible goal may even be reached - her work may have defeated the dragon - but the journey to soul's fulfillment may still go on within the heroine.

Change : using her new insight, the heroine is able to begin making real changes to her life and herself, with a sense that is both as fresh as wonder and as calm as wisdom, and that fears less any mysteries that arise (and life is always full of mystery) because she has proven herself with her work and her courage. It is as if she has reached true adulthood.

Letting go : but that is not the end of the story, for change always brings inner consequences. The heroine must, with sacrifice and sorrow, release her old wishes, accepting now that they will not come and the world is different from how she imagined it would be. She must also let go of all that is no longer needed, lay down her sword, and bury the dragon's bones so they may nurture future growth. It is like autumn leaves are falling, and she is a mature, if weary, middle-aged woman.

Consolidation : with what she has left, and what she has gained, the heroine now deepens upon the process of her earlier negotiation, and makes something solid and worthwhile within her life that she feels happy with.

Test : and yet, just when it seems she has found peace, there is more work to be done. Although it seems like a new breakdown - the dragon rising for one final rush of fire - it is infact only evidence of what the heroine didn't know to complete earlier. With her increased maturity, she proves herself in this final battle. She proves that the problem will no longer threaten her peace and sense of self. She is like a grandmother now.

Wisdom : as the story ends, like winter ends, and the world opens itself in a fresh new season, the heroine steps away from the old path of bones. Standing in a seeded place of peace, she turns her face to a new threshold ...

I was going to give you an example of this structure by applying it to Deep In The Far Away, but then realised it would be kind of silly to give spoilers to my own book. I hope though you can see how this structure might carry a story ... whether it be a written story or something happening in your actual life ... and that you find a certain degree of worth in it for yourself. Each of these waymarkers of course overlap, and are of differing lengths, and sometimes linger on even while the others go ahead.

Here is part one in more detail: The Start of the Story


  1. How to compose The Heroine's Journey.... Beautiful.... -happy sigh-

  2. these were interesting to read.
    i felt myself respond to some in a deeper way, which made them feel like drawing a fortune telling card.
    I am enjoying considering what you have shared.

  3. I've been meaning to pop in here and say how soulful and exquisite I find this. It makes me think of tidal surges and ocean flows, the moon, and the Feminine, labyrinthine deep. I need to return to this, many times over. There is so much to absorb and think about. xx

  4. Like Antoinette I need to keep reading this to absorb what you are saying and see how I can put it into practice - a novel way of explaining the art of good writing.

  5. Sarah...I recognize so many of these waymarkers...they seem to come along more quickly in these rosehip years. I'm grateful for how you have become aware of this pathway and can express it for us, those of us who have only been feeling it, without being able to easily talk about it.

    I like your questioning of what is usually on offer for guidance with writing. When you mentioned it yesterday, I recognized my own questioning of the business advice I receive, even that from heart-centered women solopreneurs. It just never quite fits with my own way of being and working...perhaps your heroine's journey will be the sort of help I am seeking...

  6. Thank you Sarah. This makes me think of a story that I started writing, but that I despaired quite a bit over because I couldn't figure out where it was going, what the big climax would be. I started writing something, but I didn't like it. It felt forced, like it came from outside myself and not from within, so I put that story away, though I still would like to develop it. I wonder if I could write a story of little moments, of challenges and thoughts of the heart, and leave it at that.