The “Mythic Structure” or “Mythic Progression” is a writing tool which hold an unusual position; almost everyone who writes, reads, or enjoys films and movies will know exactly what it is, but without any awareness of what it actually is. Does that make sense? No, not really right?
The Mythic Structure is also known as the “hero’s journey” (are those lightbulbs I hear clicking on?) which you are probably very aware of. This is a trope, a tool, a cliché, and a plot device, of course, all at once, but it is without a doubt also one of the most effective and beginner friendly plot structures to use. If you are ever in doubt about a genre novels progression I can assure you that the Mythic Progression can help you to iron out the kinks and circumvent the problems that might be causing a blockage in the creative process.
The Structure of the Hero’s Journey
James Scott Bell talks at length about the “mythic structure” in Plot and Structure, but to summarise it can be broken down into a series of hooks, pulls, and cut-offs (which Bell calls “doorways”). The simplest form of this structure consists of three acts and two doors, cut offs, or points of no return. This creates, or should create, and imperative for continuation and development; this is something that I hear/see time and time again as a problem.
It is so common for people to falter because, whether they realise it or not, their character has no reason to persist, or for agents to lose interest in a book because there seems to be no purpose behind the progression.
The structure should go as such;
This repeats as necessary until a final resolution can be reached between the characters/MC and the antagonist (more about writing antagonists here). A doorway cannot simply be a choice, however; they represent something that forcibly thrusts the protagonist forward in the progression. They make change, development, and continuation necessary.
When Rosie Daniels/ McClendon first leaves her abusive husband during the opening chapters of Rose Madder she makes the choice because of the sudden realisation that one day he will kill her (followed by the second, more horrible, realisation that he might not). This is the hook, the pull; when she walks out of the door she can always walk back in. Nothing has really changed yet.
The point of no return, the first doorway, (though some people may disagree with me here) comes when she uses the bank card she took from the mantel. At this point there is no going home because at some point he will find out she took the money, question why, and undoubtedly figure out why she took it. Then he would kill her.
Once Rosie withdraws the money from that ATM a door slams shut behind her; she has locked herself into the progression from battered wife to free woman, with all the dangers that entails.
The Purpose of the Doorways
The doorways, as has been previously stated, lock a character into a certain path; they make progression possible, and for the writer this is enough of a reason to keep them in use, but for the reader they have a different purpose.
To the reader they are key in the maintenance of plausibility and, where necessary, the suspension of disbelief which all story-telling requires to a degree. If Rosie had not been so certain that her husband would kill her she never would have left, but if she had not withdrawn the money using her husbands card she undoubtedly would have succumbed to fear and turned around.
As readers we understand that someone so frightened, so tremendously damaged and yet so unbelievably sheltered, could quite easily be scared away from the hard road that leads to freedom. We need to understand that the road behind her has been cut off, just as much as Rosie, as a character, needed to be forced to keep going even though it was for her own good.
What constitutes a Doorway?
The “Doorways” of the Mythic Progression must be three things above all else; they must be defined, they must be one way, and they must have an element of need about their presence.
In short, the character should be aware of the finality of their choice/action, one of the consequences should be an inability to back out/down, and there should be a sufficiently severe level of Threat or serious consequences attached to not proceeding.
If your character can walk away from the whole thing and go on as normal then they have not crossed a threshold or passed through a Doorway.
Examples of a Doorway are;
- Bilbo Baggins signing a contract with the Dwarves of Erebor; he is compelled to sign by Gandalf the Grey and by hid own curiosity. He simply could not bear to miss out on the adventure. He would never be able to live
- Michael Corleons shooting of Sollozzo and McCluskey; he does so, in a way, to protect himself, his friends, and his family, but he can never go straight again. Life as he knew it is over.
- When John McClane throws the fire alarm in Die Hard he does so to alert the authorities to a situation, but locks himself into a battle with terrorists; they now know he is loose in the building, and so he can no longer slip quietly away.
Compulsion and Coercion
Your characters can either be compelled or coerced into passing through a doorway; sometimes the driving force is also a part of the threshold itself; when Bryan Mills hears the abduction of his Daughter in Taken this event compels him to try to save her through sentiment, moral duty, and through his love for her, but also forms a point of no return. Mills could never live with himself if he did not try to save her, there is no going back even before he puts the phone down. This is an example of coercion and compulsion rolled together to make a forced progression, but not all cases are so cut and dried.
Compulsion to cross through occurs in a non-threatening, or largely internal manner. Character are compelled to cross a doorway by friends, family, or by their own morals, by a sense of duty, by a desire to rectify a situation or help, and even by reckless courage.
Coercion occurs when a largely outside, and generally threatening, force pressures a character to cross over. For example, the villain or antagonist may threated to reveal damaging information, to harm a loved one, to commit an atrocity if the MC does not go on as instructed.
The important thing is to make sure that the reader can empathise with and understand the characters actions/motivations. The bigger the change, the more significant the Doorway, the more intense the compelling or coercive reasoning for crossing over. This is how a good writer builds tension and maintains reader interest; its a fine line to walk, but ultimately results in an interesting read.