I write of writing, mostly, but also of love, tea, love of tea, roses, tea roses, poetry, ROSE POEMS, and work. I aim for scripturiency, concinnity, and prolificity. I post Weekly Writing worksheets and hold weekly online write-alongs.
A mystery is an easy way to add interest to an otherwise simple story. These mystery writing prompts will make you curious to know more. And your readers too!
What Creates Mystery?
A few elements are vital to keeping a mystery story moving forward:
Questions – A single question can be enough to sow doubt in a reader’s mind, and create a mystery where previously there was none.
Answers – The dance between questions and answers is what keeps readers engaged in a mystery. Every answer creates a new question until the final dénouement resolves the last loose ends… Or does it? Here’s a worksheet to help you solve a mystery (your own or another writer’s).
Suspense – Between the questions and the answers there’s… suspense.
The mystery genre often solidifies these elements around physical objects – a dead body, a murder weapon, a clue, a suspect, etc. – whereas a psychological thriller will focus on the internal, non-material aspects – a doubt about another character, the suspense created by a ringing telephone, the silence on the other end, etc.
Mystery Plots & Subplots
You can use these scene ideas in your mystery story, suspense story, adventure story, or thriller, and they can also come in handy for mystery subplots in any genre.
A character arc is a simple way to visualise your character’s progress through the story, whether it’s a binary comparison of their beginning and end states, or a point-by-point graph of their emotional ups and downs…
Last week we studied how characters change, and this week’s worksheet offers a simple method for visualising that change.
A “character arc”, sometimes also called a “character development arc” or “emotional arc” is the sum of the changes that the character undergoes throughout the story, or series of stories. The “arc” itself is generally a metaphor, although it can be plotted like a graph. Usually, the main focus is on the difference between the beginning and end state of the character, so that the overall shape of the graph will resemble an arc, but charting the character’s changes in fortune up or down a scale can also be useful in determining…
The emotional impact of the story (or narrative event) on the character
The emotional impact of the story (or narrative event) on the reader
The dynamic range of the story
The rate of the character’s (internal or external) change
The effective timing or pacing of a particular narrative event
When and where to begin telling a story
When and where to end a story
How to Plot a Character Arc
There are several different metrics that can be plotted on a character arc. In his humorous explanation of story shapes, Kurt Vonnegut labels his axes:
G – I = good fortune vs. ill fortune
B – E = beginning vs. end
Here is his chart for Cinderella.
Cinderella’s character arc drawn by Kurt Vonnegut from A Man Without a Country
Cinderella begins the story at a low-point – her mother has died, and her father has married a horrible woman with horrible daughters. The steps represent the Fairy Godmother’s gifts, the sharp fall, the stroke of midnight, and the infinity sign, the “happily ever after”.
You can watch Vonnegut’s explanation (and be impressed by his blackboard skills) in this video…
Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories - YouTube
Despite the simplicity of the idea, and Vonnegut’s light-hearted approach, he had previously proposed exploring this theory in his MA dissertation.
In Chicago, Vonnegut worked as a crime reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau and enrolled for an anthropology course at the University of Chicago, which in 1947 failed his MA thesis on Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales; in 1971 the anthropology department accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) in lieu of a thesis, and finally awarded him his degree. – from Vonnegut’s obituary in The Guardian
Like many scholars famous for their plot structures, Vonnegut was studying anthropology, and it was the comparisons he drew between storytelling and myth that led to his epiphany. In Palm Sunday he writes:
“But then I said to myself, Wait a minute — those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity.
The tales were identical.
I was thrilled to discover that years ago, and I am just as thrilled today. The apathy of the University of Chicago is repulsive to me.”
Point of View
However, there is something missing from Vonnegut’s diagrams. He considers Cinderella’s beginning state as miserable because her father has remarried. But clearly her misfortune is the Stepmother’s good fortune. In fact, it may be the case that an antagonist’s character arc is the inverse of the protagonist’s.
Clearly, the point of view plays a key role in plotting a character arc, and we should specify it at the outset. You might choose to study a character from the point of view of:
The character themselves
Another character in the story
The narrator (who may be another character or not)
Another (related) difficulty is one that Vonnegut addresses when he’s talking about Hamlet. Namely, what is good fortune, and what is ill fortune?
Is the stroke of midnight ill fortune? Yes, it takes Cinderella away from the Prince, but perhaps we could argue that the time they spend apart is necessary for their romance to blossom?
What about losing her shoe?
What about making it back to the carriage in time?
Whether we think about the matter on a cosmic, personal, or narrative level, it’s difficult to pin down, which should perhaps tell us something about our perception of our own good or ill fortunes in life!
So, given the problems of Vonnegut’s G-I axis, here are some metrics that might be simpler to track:
The character’s status in the story world.
The character’s emotional well-being.
The character’s physical well-being.
The character’s spatial proximity to a goal.
The character’s mental or emotional proximity to a goal.
Your choice will depend on what you want to gain from plotting your character arc. Refer to the suggestions at the beginning of this article and decide which would be most helpful to you in writing or editing your story.
How to Develop a Character Arc
A 2016 research study, inspired by Vonnegut’s work, analysed the emotional content of over 1700 English books and found that the emotional arcs correlated around 3 basic shapes, along with their 3 inverse curves:
Rags to riches (rise)
Tragedy or Riches to rags (fall)
Man in a hole (fall-rise)
In a sense, this is not a surprising pattern. It is familiar to us from poetic metre, and logically, these 6 shapes comprise all of the permutations of a binary “foot”. But they’re still a helpful starting-point for constructing your own character arc.
You can also play around with the online Hedonometer the researchers developed, and view the curves for many public domain titles, and for the Harry Potter books.
For more information on how to develop your character arc, I recommend taking a look at the following resources:
You can pick up a plot formula cheatsheet to compare how different approaches to structure develop the character’s journey.
What is a Strong Character Arc?
When readers and writers speak of a “strong character arc”, they usually mean that the character makes considerable progress during the story. The easiest way to ensure this is to place the beginning and end states (Stasis and Resolution in The One Page Novel), as far apart as possible, in order to allow the character room to grow.
Making sure that the character has a strong motivation for the actions they take in the story can also make the character arc feel well-founded and meaningful.
Similarly, if the character fails to reach their story goal, then a strong character arc should lead them inexorably to failure. In this case it may help to explore the character’s flaws, and emphasise the difficulties they face with multiple try/fail cycles.
However, a strong character arc doesn’t ensure a strong (or “successful”) character. Nor does every strong character have a strong character arc. Characters like Sherlock Holmes seem to hold a fairly flat, linear character arc, but still be successful. On the other hand, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does offset Holmes with Watson, who certainly does change throughout each story, and from story to story, so point of view once again comes into play.
Here is a highly-simplified example of a rather generic version of the Cinderella story. The vertical axis represents Cinderella’s emotional well-being, and each column of the horizontal axis represents a narrative event that affects her emotionally.
Please note that if you only include scenes that affect the character’s score, as I did in this example, then the graph won’t accurately depict the passage of time on the x-axis, in the way that Vonnegut’s story shapes does. Instead, you can include every plot point in the story, or number the horizontal axis by time unit, such as hours or days.
How to Use This Worksheet
Decide what information you want to glean from your character arc.
Write in the name of the story, and the character whose arc you’re studying in the top right.
Note down the character whose POV you’re using to study the character arc. This can be another character in the story (such as the antagonist), or it could be the narrator or reader.
Decide on your scale for the x- and y-axes and note them in the space on the right.
Colour in the appropriate box, and write a brief summary of the relevant plot point in the same column. In my example, I wrote positive points going one way, and negative points going the opposite way.
Consider the dynamic range of the story. In other words, how much variation is there between the highest point and lowest point, and how much does the character arc fluctuate? Depending on the sort of story you want to tell, you may want this to be high or low.
Find ways to increase the impact of a scene by placing it after a scene which it contrasts. For example, place a very high-level scene after a very low-level scene.
How much difference is there between the character’s beginning state and their end state? If you want your character to grow more, you can find more guidance in this article on how characters change.
Look out for parts of the story that stay at the same level for a long period. Is this necessary, or could there be more variety?
Is there a period of time at the beginning or end of the story where the metrics are fairly average? This may indicate that you could start the story later, or end it earlier.
At school you probably learned the distinction between “static” and “dynamic” characters. Static characters are usually defined as those who don’t change, or those who resist change. Dynamic characters, in contrast, are transformed by the story.
The change that a character undergoes from the beginning through to the end of the story is also called the “character arc”, or “character development arc”. Often, a strong development arc is considered to be one in which the character makes an essential change, and improves their situation.
Characters change because:
The experiences they undergo during the story alter their perception of the world, of other characters, and of themselves.
The world is changing around them and they need to adapt.
They travel to a new world and need to adapt to it.
They’re growing older.
Characters remain unchanged because:
They’ve reached a mental, emotional, or physical peak or plateau.
For various reasons, the story has not required them to change. This might signal a weakness in the story plot.
They’re resistant to change. This is often the defining trait of a tragic hero.
How Characters Change
Most stories describe a character’s transformation from one state to another, and over time, storytellers have developed plot formulas to help them understand how characters change and how this change can be related to an audience.
In general these formulas guide the character through the following steps:
THE CHARACTER REACTS TO AN IMPETUS: The character receives an impetus to change. This trigger to action may be internal or external. In other words, the character may decide to leave their current state of being of their own accord, or another person or event can urge them to do so.
THE CHARACTER ENTERS A NEW WORLD: The character comes in contact with new places, new people, new ideas, and new rules that make them rethink or doubt the ways of their state of being at the beginning of the story. This new world creates a sense of uncertainty that is necessary for unsettling the character’s old beliefs, in order that new perspectives can take their place.
THE BEGINNING STATE IS PROVED TO BE UNSOUND: The uncertainty created by the character’s meeting new people and ideas is further eroded. The character sees the problem of their beginning state, and the direction in which they’ve been heading. Sometimes, especially in the “mythic mode”, the character undergoes a figurative death.
THE CHARACTER UNDERGOES A PARADIGM SHIFT: A paradigm shift is a fundamental change is perspective that has repercussions for an entire belief system. Often this shift is a synthesis of the original state, and the lessons that the character has learned in the new world. It leads to an important insight that allows them to finally understand the direction in which the story is taking them. Some frameworks describe this as the moment when the character moves from being reactive to being proactive.
THE CHARACTER EXPERIENCES LOSS OR FAILURE: Sometimes a devastating failure or seemingly-fatal defeat will further detach the character from their old state of being, or from the direction that they thought their story needed to go. This may be the death of a mentor, guide, or guardian, or it might be an event that seals the fate of a particular enterprise. The loss guarantees that the character can’t go back to the way things were, but it may also give them a sense that they have nothing more to lose.
THE CHARACTER DISCOVERS WHAT THEY TRULY NEEDED: Finally, the character understands the new state of being that they are being led towards, and accepts the change. This usually involves a hidden part of their personality coming to light, and bringing them the necessary strength and certainty.
Consider how closely this summary follows a change you recently made yourself, or are hoping to make…
As readers we enjoy following the logical unfolding of this progress in the character’s psyche – although this does not necessarily mean that we need to have access to the character’s mind. If a step is skipped, or dealt with in an unconvincing way, we might feel that the writer has missed an important insight, or rushed ahead to a conclusion.
Internal changes are visible only to the character themselves, and to the narrator who has access to their thoughts and feelings.
External changes are visible to other characters, and to the narrator who has access to the character’s appearance, and behaviour.
How Characters Change their World
Some characters, having undergone a change through the story, will end by changing the world around them. In the Hero’s Journey (or monomyth), this occurs when the character steals or wins the Elixir of Life – a symbolic substance that restores life – in the underworld, and brings it back to the Ordinary World in order to share it with others who have not been through the same journey.
As well as bringing life, the character may also change the world using the knowledge and wisdom they’ve gained through their experiences in the story.
Common Character Changes
Characters may change:
The way they think and feel about a particular person or group of people.
For example, they may come to realise that an enemy or opponent is no different from them.
Their occupation or preoccupation.
For example, they may change from being a warrior to a healer.
A trait or set of traits they possess.
For example, they may change from being disappointed to being determined.
For example, they may change from being a commoner to a member of the royalty.
Their level of knowledge.
For example, they may change from not knowing anything about magic, to being a master magician.
Their level of ability.
For example, they may change from being a terrible public speaker to one of the most articulate speakers in the world.
If you’re using this worksheet while studying a story:
Enter the story title at the top right.
Enter the name of the character you’re studying at the top left.
Enter their beginning and end states. In The One Page Novel method, these are the Stasis and Resolution states.
What’s one word or phrase that describes the character at the beginning of the story? Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
What’s one word or phrase that describes the character at the end of the story? Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
Find references in the text to the 6 steps.
Does the character demonstrate all of them?
Does the character go through the steps in order?
If you’re using this worksheet while writing a story:
Enter the story title at the top right.
Enter the name of the character you’re writing at the top left.
Enter the character’s end state. Refer to this plot workshop for more guidance.
What’s one word or phrase that describes the character at the end of the story? Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
Turn the end state into its opposite to create the beginning state.
Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
Brainstorm scene ideas for each step of the process of change. Alternatively, you could draft a short summary for each step, taking into account the internal and external aspects of the character’s journey.
It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to any podcasts, but when I received an email announcing that my favourite quarterly had started up the Slightly Foxed Podcast, I decided it was time for old habits and new reads.
If you’re unfamiliar with Slightly Foxed, it’s a very down-to-earth publication that is all about the delight of reading, and of discovering new (often “unpopular” or obscure) books.
“We’re not snobbish about this. We believe that reading is a pleasurable activity and there are some books you need at particular times in your life, and they’re for pleasure, for comfort, diversion, inspiration.”
The quarterly itself, and now the podcast, are excellent sources for discovering books that fall in the cracks between the latest popular novels, and the classics. I remember reading the article on Georgette Heyer that finally convinced me to pick up one of those lovely editions that I kept seeing in Galloway’s, back when I was far too much of a literary snob even to entertain the notion of reading romance. What a lucky thing I did!
On Chronic Re-reading
One of my resolutions for this year is to read more fiction. While I sample widely of non-fiction, I’ve realised that recently I’ve fallen into the cosy habit of re-reading my favourites (His Dark Materials, Ivanhoe, North and South, Cadfael), and of only taking on books that I’m certain I’ll like.
These days I rarely even read any fiction published in the 20th century, let alone the 21st!
To test my resolve, I picked up the ugliest book on my Dad’s bookshelf – a copy of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. In all honesty, classic sci-fi is well within the bounds of my comfort zone, but… it’s a step in the right (temporal) direction!
I can’t say it turned out to be one of my favourites, but it did make me realise that I would really enjoy filming some book reviews specifically for writers, that hone in on the text more closely.
☞ If that sounds interesting to you, you might want to subscribe to this blog and to my Youtube channel so you can be notified when the first video is ready.
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I’m also hoping to put together a video about editing my novel, Alemmia. At least, as novel writers, we’re assured of reading some contemporary fiction! :D
I’m just getting into following booktubers, but they’ve already led me to some intriguing additions to my TBR list.
If you have any more recommendations for booktubers (preferably focused on adult fiction), then please let me know on Instagram or Twitter!
The first episode of the Slightly Foxed Podcast mentions the late Anthea Bell, who translated many important works from French and German into English, among them Simenon’s Maigret and much of Stefan Zweig’s oeuvre. Zweig is enormously popular in Turkey (and possibly on the Continent?) but I don’t hear him mentioned as often in the UK. His novella, Chess (German: Schachnovelle) is probably the best known, although I first read Amok, which bears some resemblance to Heart of Darkness, and which is still my favourite of his works I’ve read thus far.
As I’m in the thick of my own translation work, I was interested to discover an article Bell wrote titled, Translation: walking the tightrope of illusion, which was published in The Translator As Writer.
… in the modern debate over the merits of ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ translation I am an unrepentant, unreconstructed adherent of the school of invisibility, and cannot change an honestly held opinion because it is out of fashion.
I can’t deny that I love Bell’s translations, especially of Asterix, and I think that when it comes to children’s literature, a natural, “native” style is best. However, for more “literary” works… I’m not sure. While I adore a flowing, almost-disappearing style of narration, over time I’ve grown fonder and fonder of the strange syntax and word choice of strangers. It’s like looking at your own language with new eyes, and I think it’s the same pleasure that Bell describes as her early impulse to translate:
… a keen love of language and literature in general can lead to work in the field of translation, and one sometimes reaches it along unexpected byways. I suspect the process is something like this: people who are naturally voracious readers as children will be anxious to get at the contents of books in a language they cannot yet read, and will therefore work full tilt to grasp the basics of a language so as to gain access to those tantalizing volumes. Never mind passing exams; they want to get at the books.
That’s certainly been my experience!
As far as my translation of Aşk-ı Memnu (‘Forbidden Love’) goes, however, the matter is even more complicated. The novel was serialised at the end of the 19th century, when Turkish was written with Arabic (and a few Farsi) letters, and the vocabulary (and the grammar that accompanied it) was so different that it is incomprehensible to the average Turkish-speaker today.
Even within the author, Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil’s lifetime, the language (or at least the literary fashions) had changed so much, that when he published a Latinised version of the novel, he also thought it expedient to simplify the language. Since the work’s lapse into the public domain in 2016, there have been dozens of new editions and further attempts at simplification, all of which come with their own slight deviations from the “original”. Native speakers themselves are effectively reading a translation from Turkish to Turkish!
There is an amusing passage at the beginning of his book Sanata Dair (‘On Art’), where Halid Ziya bemoans his earlier penchant for writing flowery, incredibly ornate language. The examples he provides are, today, barely recognisable as Turkish, and the ultimate irony is that even his discussion of them is glossed for a modern audience. For comparison, here is a list of works published in the year 1900. Imagine struggling to comprehend the language of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Marie Corelli, or Joseph Conrad, and you will have an idea of how much Turkish has changed in just a short time.
There is one other hesitant idea that is always at the back of my mind, but that might be completely misleading; I imagine a language-learner picking up my translation to aid them with understanding the “original”. Like Bell, my main incentive for grappling with a new language is always (thus far) to read novels, so I can’t help but sympathise with my fellow learners! I keep worrying that this imaginary student will search in vain for a word or phrase that I’ve translated into idiomatic English, and that they will wonder if that certain figure of speech existed in Turkish too, or whether it’s been inserted in translation.
But, after all, how many people are likely to take up a difficult Turkish novel, even at an advanced stage of their study? English-speakers won’t even have the benefit of language-family familiarity to help them muddle through. Furthermore, I don’t think many literature-lovers go through a “Turkish phase” the way we all go through a “Russian phase” or a “French phase”. Maybe that will change in the future as more works become available in translation, but until then, I should probably abandon my imaginary Türkçeci…
Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that books in other languages are an excellent resource for leading reading out of your comfort zone. And if you’re a linguaphile, remember, translations aren’t a cop-out! :) Here is a list of 52 Books from 52 Countries that has some exciting suggestions, although, personally I found Orhan Pamuk’s Snow extremely boring in Turkish. Maybe it fares better in translation after all?…
P.S. Thank you to The Write Life for listing this website as one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2019, and thank YOU for reading and sharing!
The underworld is perhaps the most important motif in mythology and literature – tied up with ideas about life, the afterlife, belief, culture, storytelling, and the psyche, it’s the setting of humanity’s reckoning with the ephemeral nature of mortality.
As writers, we can use the motif of the underworld in two aspects:
The underworld as world of adventure
The underworld as world of the dead
Why write the underworld?
Create an internal or external site for the change your character undergoes, and the wisdom they extract from their experiences in the story.
Explore your character’s unconscious, and how the archetypes of the collective unconscious manifest in their life.
Explore your character’s reaction to the unknown in themselves or in the world.
Explore your characters’ reaction to the nature of death, and to the idea of their own death.
Explore your characters’ relationships with the dead (both those they knew in life, and those they did not).
Create an “underground” “sub-culture” that resists or subverts the ways of the ordinary world.
Remove the character from the home world in order to challenge and change them.
Develop the rules, customs, and aims of your story culture; in particular, how their perception of death shapes their perception of life.
Explore the boundaries of the upper world.
Deepen your story world by portraying its inverted, mirror, or dark side.
Tap into a rich literary tradition.
When to write the underworld?
The underworld as world of adventure is usually entered soon after the character begins their engagement in the story. In the Hero’s Journey, this is in response to the Call to Adventure, when the character crosses the Threshold of Adventure and leaves the Ordinary World behind. The rest of the story takes place in this symbolic underworld, until the character crosses the Threshold once again and returns home.
A literal descent into the underworld is likely to take place much later in the story. In the Odyssey, the voyage to the land of the dead happens in Book 11, almost halfway into the 24-book poem.
A journey to the world of the dead is best undertaken when the character reaches a mental, emotional, or physical standstill in the story. Their work with the world of the living has progressed as far as it can, and in order to seek deeper truths, uncover secrets about themselves or their world, or achieve greater mastery, they need to overcome more difficult challenges.
A journey to the world of the dead is the ultimate challenge a character can overcome, which is why those who succeed in returning are revered in myths around the world. You can prepare your character for the journey by having them first undergo adventures that take them to locations symbolic of the underworld.
In the One Page Novel, the character enters the World of Adventure in the Quest, and emerges back into the Ordinary World in the Power (thus the two stages can be plotted as mirror opposites). However, a literal trip to the world of the dead might best be undertaken when the character is deeper in the underworld, particularly during the Shift and Defeat. The Shift suggests an overturning or inversion, and no location better symbolises a sense of loss and Defeat than the depths of Hell.
How to prepare for the Underworld?
In order to be ready for the underworld as World of Adventure, the character must acknowledge and respond to the Call to Adventure. This may be either…
An external motivator (something or someone else), or,
An internal motivator (the character themselves),
and their response may be…
Willing (they are convinced of the need to respond), or,
Unwilling (they are forced to respond).
In order to prepare to enter the underworld as World of the Dead, the character should be at a point in the story where…
They have experience of previous symbolic descents to the underworld.
They have tried their mental and physical powers and have achieved some success.
They have a very strong motivation for undertaking the journey, and this motivation manifests both internally and externally.
Additionally, the character may prepare in the same way they would when entering any dangerous situation. They may…
Pack essentials such as food, drink, clothes, shelter, power supplies, etc.
Bring protection such as bodyguards, talismans, or powerful creatures.
Leave instructions behind with a trusted companion as to what should be done if they haven’t returned by a set date, as Inanna does in Sumerian myth.
Complete a mini quest to win or collect a protective item, as Aeneas, who was told to obtain the golden bough.
Settle their affairs, such as their duties to their people, or their responsibilities to their dependants.
Say goodbye to loved ones.
What to do in the Underworld?
The character’s task(s) in the underworld may be to:
Try to bring a loved one back to the world of the living.
Commune with a loved one or a stranger who has died in order to:
Discover arcane or forbidden knowledge.
Learn a secret about themselves.
Parlay or plead with the gods on behalf of their world.
Retrieve a valuable item or creature (perhaps as part of a mini quest).
Sacrifice themselves or someone else, perhaps as replacement for one of the dead.
The Underworld as World of Adventure
In the Hero’s Journey, this is the world that the character enters by crossing the Threshold of Adventure. In The One Page Novel, this is the new world of the Quest. In opposition to the World of Adventure is the Ordinary World which is the familiar home that the character leaves behind (Stasis), and usually returns to at the end of the story (Resolution). The Ordinary World is the world of light, while the World of Adventure (being in the underworld) is characteristed by increasing darkness.
The World of Adventure is a conceptual story space, meaning it may not be an actual location in the story, but simply the part of the story where the character encounters new and complicated:
But often it’s easier for writers (especially within the constraints of genre) to turn the World of Adventure into an external location, and to physically remove the character to the new World. This also allows you to set up the important contrast and tension between the Ordinary World and the World of Adventure.
Leaving home to start university/boarding school
Starting a job at a new company
Moving to an unfamiliar location
Meeting someone in a strange neighbourhood
Setting off to discover an unkown part of the world
If you’re using a plot formula, identify the stages that belong to the World of Adventure/the Underworld.
What physical location symbolises the Underworld of Adventure in your story?
Psyche in the Underworld by Eugène-Ernest Hillemacher
In this clip, Joseph Campbell describes a diagram which represents the self as a circle, intersected by a line representing the Threshold of Consciousness.
Joseph Campbell - Jung, the Self, and Myth - YouTube
The Threshold of Adventure – that is, the symbolic division between the upper and lower worlds that the character crosses – is also the Threshold of Consciousness. In this sense, any descent into the underworld requires the character to face the fears and insecurities in their psyche. The story is the process of bringing to light the shadow self that has been relegated to the individual’s or the society’s unconscious, and integrating this shadow back into the whole.
Loss of consciousness is sometimes an initiatory act that mimics a symbolic death, and for this reason it can be a meaningful element of a ritual that allows passage to the underworld.
What has the character been unwilling to accept about themselves?
What has the character’s society been unwilling to accept about themselves?
How does the character commune with their subconscious?
Dissent & Descent
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
– Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost
When something is secret, illicit or illegal, we tend to use language such as:
Under the counter
On the down-low
In contrast, we use language denoting “up” or “high” to express moral superiority:
Uprisings are put down, people who follow alternative ways of life are said to be part of sub-culture, and desires which contradict our social persona are relegated to the sub-conscious. Clearly there is a link between dissent and descent, and many writers have enjoyed the practice of overturning this order and making the underworld the site of life and light rather than death and darkness; chief among them, William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Blake not only penned his own hellish proverbs and undermined the word of the Bible, he also reinterpreted the work of one of the greatest English poets (and perhaps of all poets) when he wrote:
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
What is the accepted social order in your world?
Who goes against the social order? Who has been forced “underground”?
How are the inhabitants of the underworld morally superior?
Note: I’m dying to deconstruct this section, but I’ll leave that pleasure to you…
The Underworld as World of the Dead
While the World of Adventure is a story space, the World of the Dead is a physical location, although it can be either an internal or an external landscape. The World of the Dead is often the setting of the afterlife – the place where souls “live” after the body dies. But it can also be populated by characters who are spiritually “dead”, or who have been exiled, or who have chosen exile from the Ordinary World for various reasons.
In this sense, you can use a symbolic World of the Dead in your story without reference to a spiritual or paranormal explanation.
A distinction may be drawn between the underworld and the wasteland motifs in literature, where the underworld involves a willing descent and a quest to an existing location – usually to bring back some vital wisdom from the dead – while the wasteland often descends upon the character because of a (perceived) misdeed and transforms the world around them.
The prototype for the wasteland motif is the story of the Fisher King, whose ailing causes the land to become barren. The worlds of post-apocalyptic fiction, no-man’s-land in war fiction, haunted locations in ghost fiction, and corrupt corporations in crime fiction are common equivalents of the wasteland in modern literature. For the underworld journey (katabasis), at least for the Western literary tradition, the prototype is in Homer’s Odyssey.
The difference is subtle, and as a writer you’re welcome to ignore it, however…
If your characters spend most of the story in the “underworld”;
If your characters don’t journey to the world of the dead, but instead…
Their ordinary world transforms into the world of the dead;
and if the appearance of the world of the dead is linked to a character’s misdeeds,
… then you might want to consider developing the wasteland motif as distinct from the underworld.
The Island of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) by Arnold Böcklin
Types of Literary Underworld
THE URBAN UNDERWORLD: One popular use of the World of the Dead is as a “criminal underworld”, occupying the dark and dingy corners of a city. But it’s important to remember that, while society may regard its inhabitants as criminals, from another point of view the inhabitants may very well be a group of marginalised, disenfranchised, misfit characters living in their own “ordinary world”.
The urban underworld may also be the home of unusual or supernatural people or creatures who have been forced “underground”. As such they may use sewers, underground/subway tunnels, basements, bunkers, or other subterranean urban structures.
The opium den in The Man With the Twisted Lip
Knockturn Alley in the Harry Potter series
London Below in Neverwhere
THE HEAVENLY UNDERWORLD: There may be some debate about whether this is really an underworld at all, because worthy, long-suffering, “good” characters are often seen ascending to a higher plane in the sky. This is usually depicted as the celestial abode of the “good” gods – such as the Olympians, and the Asgardians, and of course the unified deity of the monotheistic religions.
However, not all descents underground are dark, grim, or hellish. Many cultures imagined subterranean worlds of light. In Zoroastrian scripture, the king Yima, in order to avoid a cataclysm, creates an underground city or Vara lit by artificial light. In shamanic journeys, the shaman descends through a hole in the ground and emerges into a bright, sometimes watery underworld. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the daily journey of the sun god, Ra, briefly brings light even to those grim nether regions of the Duat.
While for most characters the Heavenly Underworld is the end goal, for some it may represent boredom, being cut off from those they love, or a sense of unworthiness.
Avalon in the King Arthur legends
The Undying Lands (Valinor) in Lord of the Rings
Note: These examples are across the water rather than under the land, perhaps because the former represents a journey of hope and immortality, whereas the latter is more readily associated with death and burial.
THE HELLISH UNDERWORLD: Many religions foresee a painful end for those who don’t obey the rules, and the “hellish underworld” is where they end up. This is a world of eternal, sometimes fiery torment for wrong-doers. Often, each sinner’s punishment is tailored to them.
Hell in Paradise Lost
Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings
The Horcrux Cave in the Harry Potter series
THE GRIM UNDERWORLD: This is one of the most common literary underworlds because it offers a real chance of a “life”, though nothing on the scale of the Ordinary World. Sometimes the Grim Underworld is an adjunct to the Hellish one, and may be depicted as limbo or purgatory. Characters in this world may have unfinished business which they need to complete before transitioning on to another state.
But in other mythologies, such as in the Akkadian underworld, Kur, there is no final judgement, and the dead exist forever, with nothing to eat but dust.
The world of the dead in His Dark Materials
Pandaemonium in Paradise Lost
The underworld in Homer’s Odyssey
The land of the dead in The Earthsea Cycle
THE UNCANNY UNDERWORLD: Elements of the underworld are often inversions of the ordinary world. Sometimes these inversions overturn expectations, sometimes they subvert the traditions of the world of the living, and sometimes they literally turn things upside down. This can be useful for comical effect, but it can also impart an unsettling feeling.
The German word, unheimlich, is usually translated as “uncanny”, but also means, “unhomely”. This is particularly apt for the character who leaves their home world and travels to an underworld which bears the characteristics of a familiar setting, but in a way which renders them strange and disturbing.
Wonderland in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The house in House of Leaves
Why do you want your characters to spend time in the underworld?
What do your characters need to accomplish in the underworld?
Which type of underworld, or combination of underworlds, is best suited to…
Your character’s aim?
Your story world?
Looking at depictions of the underworld of the dead in mythical and literary texts, it’s clear to see that they have been created by the living, and for the living.
For example, some myths stress the importance of the judgement of the soul, clearly in order to encourage people to live well and do good while they’re alive.
Others emphasise the harsh living conditions that are only alleviated by material wealth and proper burial in the upper world, perhaps to uphold the status of the rich, or of a worldly priesthood.
For yet other cultures the key is to bear many children and keep up a line of descendants, and so they teach people how their dead ancestors suffer without regular libations and offerings.
What is the most important social aim in your story world? Survival? Creation? Procreation? The accumulation of wealth?
What belief about the afterlife could uphold this aim and motivate the living to live accordingly?
Which type of underworld would be best suited to promote this social aim?
The Descent to the Underworld (katabasis)
First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
& I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
“Katabasis” is the name given to the journey down to the underworld, or to the entire underworld adventure. The monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” presents the mythemes that may be encountered in a katabatic narrative, whether in the World of Adventure, or the World of the Dead, or both.
Broadly speaking, a journey to the underworld of the dead may include the following episodes:
Deciding to make the journey.
Searching for the entrance to the underworld.
Entering the underworld.
Meeting the guide to the underworld.
Paying the price for crossing.
Learning about the organisation of the underworld.
Meeting the souls of the dead.
Meeting the rulers of the underworld.
Obtaining the prize.
Journeying up out of the underworld…
And succeeding in returning to the ordinary world…
Or failing and remaining in the underworld forever.
A night-sea journey (in the “belly of the whale”) may also be a part of the katabasis, or it may be a separate episode.
The Entrance to the Underworld
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.
– from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid
The entrance to the world of the dead is often a conduit..
Today’s challenge is to start and finish the first draft of a story in 1 hour (or about 50 minutes).
This is a special, cosy winter write-along, so in addition to pen and paper, I recommend equipping yourself with a hot drink, and some thick socks. When you’re ready, hit PLAY.
Don’t worry if you find yourself changing direction or contradicting yourself as you write. Just enjoy the feeling of the story unfolding, and know that you can expand it, tidy it up, and polish it later!
A writing challenge is perhaps the fastest and most enjoyable way to grow as a writer, and to finish an interminable writing project. Pick and choose your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals and piece together a year you can’t wait to write about!
Engage in a Year-Long Writing Challenge
A year-long challenge takes a lot of focus and stamina, and it’s easy to get bored and fall off. However, a big challenge can also be very rewarding, both in terms of the end result, and the habits that you develop throughout the year. And even if you “fail”, you will no doubt have learned a lot, and made considerable progress in the meantime.
If you would like to take on a year-long writing challenge, here are a few suggestions:
Write every day. Even a few words a day can help to keep your project moving forward. If you need motivation and support, start a WriteChain!
Write first thing every morning. Many writers do their best work in the morning, especially before the rest of the family wakes up. If you need some company, you can join the #5amWriters on Twitter.
Take the Ray Bradbury Challenge and write a short story every week. This is a really fun challenge because you:
Finish a project every week.
Get to work on something fresh and exciting every week.
Can experiment with lots of different forms and genres.
Write a novel. It’s a common but admirable, challenging but achievable ambition. Will this be the year you finally write your novel? If you’re not sure where to begin, I would recommend a plot formula.
Pitch a novel. If you have a completed manuscript and you’re looking to publish it traditionally, you might want to focus your efforts on finding an agent. If you need help, (and a deadline) Pitch Wars is an annual mentorship programme that helps match writers with agents.
Publish a novel. If you would rather go down the self-publishing route, you might want to focus on getting your manuscript ready for uploading, and on preparing marketing materials.
Pick a Year-Long Focus
It seems natural to focus your year around a large project like a novel or a series, but sometimes this leads to feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or bored. You forget why you tackled the project in the first place, and feel as if you’re repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Does this sound familiar? If it does, it might help to take a step back and instead focus on the journey rather than the destination.
One simple strategy is to choose a specific word that summarises your goal for the year, and serves as a reminder. You can even set a regular alarm on your phone to refocus you during the day. For example:
If you’re having trouble deciding, consider drawing a Tarot card to focus on for the year. Study its meaning and symbolism, and if it’s a major arcana card, its place in The Fool’s Journey.
You might also choose to focus on a specific area that you feel you need to improve in. For example:
Write a paragraph around the same theme every day.
Journal as a character every day.
Revive and revise an abandoned piece.
Try a Longer, 30-Day Writing Challenge
A 30-day writing challenge hits the perfect balance for minimum stamina and maximum productivity.
Participate in National Novel Writing Month – the challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel (or novella) in the month of November. This is my favourite challenge of all time! If you’re considering taking part, don’t miss my list of NaNoWriMo Resources.
Have you tried a 10K day or weekend? It’s one of my favourite challenges, especially during NaNoWriMo. The aim is to write 10,000 words in a day, or in a weekend. I assure you, it’s very do-able!
Word War – a word war is when you sit down with another writer and try to write more words than them in a given time limit. If you don’t have a writing buddy, you can also word war with yourself (try to beat your last attempt), or join a virtual word war at wordwar.io (when it comes back),
Complete a Word Crawl in a day or week – you can use this word crawl worksheet to design your own word crawl with sticky notes, or take a look at the archive at WikiWriMo.
If you’ve previously tried keeping a journal or diary and failed, don’t worry! There are less exacting alternatives…
Keep an advent journal – journal every day leading up to an event. This might be a holiday, an exciting change such as starting a new job, or moving into a new house, or an anniversary. This is an interesting exercise to explore feelings of anticipation and excitement, or more difficult emotions like anxiety, dread, or disappointment.
Journal on a particular day every year – you can take this challenge in a few different directions.
You can choose a random day that has no particular significance and use it to document your daily life.
You can choose a significant day such as a birthday, anniversary, or red-letter day, and document your celebrations or family traditions.
Or, you can make up your own writing holiday. For example:
Alphabet appreciation day – on which you delight in letters, familiar or foreign.
Contrafibularities day – on which you write with invented words.
Keep a project journal – as a writer, a writing journal is a useful tool for practicing and learning. In particular, a short entry each day that you work (or don’t work!) on a story can help you learn more about your writing process, and figure out how to approach your next project.
Prepare for Annual Writing Events
Every year during NaNoWriMo, municipal liaisons organise local write-ins which are great fun and can seriously boost your word count. If you can, I urge you to plan to attend at least one write-in in person.
3-Day Novel Contest – this is a yearly contest that runs over the American Labour Day weekend. There is an entry fee, but one winner receives a publishing contract. If you don’t like the idea of paperwork or of being judged, you could certainly challenge yourself to a 3-day novel on your own terms!
Different countries have different dates, so I recommend looking up your national…
It can also be fun to celebrate the birthdays of your favourite authors (perhaps with a pasty and pastiche), or your favourite books (perhaps with a spot of bibliomancy).
Schedule Regular Study Time
Challenge yourself to study and learn more about literature and the art of writing. Look for classes at your local community centres, or enrol in an online course.
Masterclass offers classes from many famous writers, including Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, R.L. Stine, and many more. (affiliate link)
I offer unique online writing courses at The Lady Writers League that are designed to help you plot, develop characters and worldbuild all on one page. Click here to learn more.
For large projects, write in your deadlines and work backwards, pencilling in important checkpoints or milestones.
Know when a challenge is no longer serving you. The point of a challenge is to grow and improve, not to add more unnecessary stress and competition to your life.
Track and review your progress at least once a month. This will help you with the previous point.
At the end of the year, perform a more thorough self-assessment, especially if you’re considering writing as a career. This will also help you plan for the following year.
If you would like to track your challenge progress on paper, you might like The Productivity Pages, a bundle of 10 printable worksheets designed to help you plan and schedule your writing projects. Click here to download.
Think back to your favourite novel, and you’ll probably discover a celebration of some kind, whether it’s a cocktail party, an eleventy-first birthday bash, a school feast, a funeral wake, a royal baptism, or a harvest festival.
It’s important to celebrate in life, and even more so in fictional life where gatherings can serve many purposes that further the plot, develop characters, and build up the story world. And unlike real life celebrations that we’ve planned, we’re happy when things go wrong in fiction!
Celebrate the success of an individual character, usually in an endeavour that benefits the entire group.
Celebrate the success of a group of characters in triumphing over an obstacle or a common opponent.
Celebrate a birthday, a coming-of-age, a marriage, a funeral or any other significant change in life status.
Commemorate an important historical event.
Celebrate the season, or another planetary event or alignment.
Celebrate an important religious date.
Celebrate the end of a period of hardship, such as drought, war, financial depression, or the school year.
Celebrate an accession, coronation, usurpation or other occasion marking a shift of power.
Celebrate an alliance.
Celebrate a departure or a return, for example, to or from war, school, or a journey.
Celebrate a sporting success.
As a writer, you can use a celebration in your story to:
Slow the pace, and give characters (and readers) a chance to relax, especially after a period of high action or tension.
Reflect on what’s happened. This is particularly in the Resolution at the end of the story.
Build the story world by showing the reader what the characters consider important enough to celebrate, as an individual or a society.
Develop the character arc by showing the character transitioning symbolically from one state of being to another. In particular, this is the case with coming-of-age ceremonies and celebrations.
Build backstory, using the cycle of the seasons or years to reflect on past celebrations.
Widen the field for social interaction among characters, so that the reader can see them outside of their usual, day-to-day activities.
Ground the characters in their environment, by showing how natural events (positive, negative or neutral) affect them.
Bring together characters who would not normally meet, in order to exchange information that furthers the plot.
Planning a Fictional Celebration
Make sure the timing is right. Celebrations are most likely to take place during a lull in the action, often after an important goal has been accomplished or attained. However expedient it may be for the plot, it’s unlikely that the characters will celebrate if there’s something more important that they need to be doing, especially something urgent or threatening.
Consider the celebration from the point of view of the characters who are planning it.
How would they like to celebrate?
What entertainments would they enjoy?
How good are they at planning?
How good are they at considering the guests’ needs and desires?
What resources are available to them?
How long will it take them to organise everything?
Consider the significance of the celebration for the story or series as a whole.
What change does it represent for the main character(s)?
What change does it represent for the group or culture?
How eager or able are they to accept this change?
What do they need to learn or experience in order to be ready for what’s coming next?
From our perspective, as writers, celebrations are often most useful when things go wrong, creating conflict and revealing rifts in the characters or their world.
Who has an argument?
Who doesn’t turn up to the party?
Who arrives unexpectedly?
Who leaves early?
Who learns something they weren’t supposed to know?
The repetition of a regular celebration can be an excellent opportunity to recap or reminisce, especially if you’re writing a long series.
How do the characters feel when they remember the last celebration?
If you’ve fallen behind on your NaNoWriMo novel, you might be in need of a pep talk right about now! Your characters may need one too, whether in a private conversation with a mentor, or on a crowded sports pitch, or on a field before battle. Or perhaps it’s your readers who await encouragement, motivation, incentive, impetus, ignition…
Here are a few quick tips for writing a pep talk, from my favourite film, Gladiator. General Maximus is addressing the cavalry before battle:
“Three weeks from now, I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line. Stay with me. If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled, for you are in Elysium, and you’re already dead! Brothers! What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”
Address your audience’s desires, and if possible, show how yours align with them (especially if you’re working together towards a common goal).
Furthermore, offer them a vision of themselves in possession of their desired outcome.
Give them specific instructions or tactics to employ.
Throw in a joke to lighten the mood, and (if possible) the audience’s fears.
Comfort the audience and show that you’re beside them to support, protect, and guide them. Demonstrate that you’re worthy of their trust.
Offer a metaphor that gives the audience greater perspective on the challenge.
Remind the audience of the reasons why.
Make the speech timely, succinct, and to-the-point. Also, if possible, deliver it in a place that supports the message, or makes it more memorable.
Philip Pullman’s Pep Talk (I remember my excitement when this landed in my inbox!) – “This is a strange thing, but I’ve noticed it many times: a bad day’s work is a lot better than no day’s work at all.”