Writing about Work

Work and workplaces make for some of the best story material. The reason is quite simple: workplaces have an ample supply of the essential ingredients for a good story: conflict and character. Most workplaces are full of book-worthy characters: the lazy worker, the boss, the scrounger, the guy who wants a rise and will do anything to get it, the new employee eager to make an impression, the spy, the thief, the embezzler, the dirty dog, etc. Then conflict: a potential take-over, hostility between colleagues, two people after the same job, gossip, suspicion, stealing secrets, hacking into the network, and last but certainly not least, love affairs.

The list goes on and on.

Some professions have more conflict than others, which is why so many books and films have been written and made about lawyers, doctors, police officers and detectives. These professions have intrinsic conflict. However, it’s important to understand that you can write about any profession, as long as you have a good setting (the office, the warehouse, etc.) and the characters, i.e. a group of colleagues. Imagine writing about a hairdressers or a computer store. Again, remember that it’s characters that make books. At first glance, you might think that a book about a computer store might be boring, but that would be superficial. Imagine someone is stealing goods from the suppliers and then selling them on to the boss’s business rival. Imagine that this business rival is having an affair with the boss’s daughter or wife. Imagine a new recruit unknowingly becoming an accomplice to the crime, while having a family to support.

Well, all of a sudden it’s not so boring.

People love reading about work. After all, that’s what a good portion of our waking hours are devoted to. So next time you’re stuck for an idea for a novel, think about the humble workplace.

The Hero’s Journey

In 1949, the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell published a seminal work called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he described how many of the world’s mythical stories seem to follow the same basic pattern, or are composed of the same elements. He summarised this pattern as the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is a sort of blueprint for stories: it says what the different stages of a story are and how they unfold. It’s been especially used in Hollywood for making blockbuster movies like Titanic, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the Matrix. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t map perfectly to every story but the concepts are great. So here are the stages in the journey – as you’re reading them, think about how they map to your favourite film or book. You’ll be surprised!

(1) The Ordinary World – here, the hero is presented in their normal, everyday life. A good place to introduce internal, emotional or personal conflicts. Note that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘dull and boring’. For example, for a police officer in a high crime area, an ‘ordinary’ day might involve a pursuit of an armed criminal. On the flip side, the ‘ordinary world’ for a drug addict might mean committing a crime to get money to buy their fix for the day.

(2) Call to Adventure – something happens that makes the hero have to leave their ordinary life and take up a challenge. This is usually because something is threatening their ordinary world and they must do something quickly before it collapses.

(3) Refusal of the Call – the hero is reluctant to take up the challenge and needs some external factor to seal his commitment.

(4) Meeting with the Mentor – the hero meets their mentor, usually an older person, who advises the hero on what they need to do in the adventure.

(5) Crossing the First Threshold – the hero takes the first step into the unknown, adventure world. Note that this could be an emotional journey as well as a physical one.

(6) Trials, Allies, Enemies – the hero undergoes a series of small, but gradually harder trials during which he makes a number of friends and enemies. This tends to be the ‘middle’ of a story, or Act II in a film or play.

(7) Approaching the Inmost Cave – the hero prepares to go to the heart of the adventure world and make the final confrontation.

(8) Ordeal – the hero undergoes a tough test during which their commitment is tested and the success of the adventure is at stake. In an action movie, this is typically where the hero is captured by the ‘bad guy’ and has to escape.

(9) Reward – having successfully passed the ordeal, the hero reaps the rewards of the adventure they set out on. This is usually the first climax of the story.

(10) The Road Back – having completed the bulk of the adventure, the hero makes their way back to their ordinary world, but not without troubles.

(11) Resurrection – the hero performs the final deed that completes the adventure, often involving the resolution of a personal conflict. This tends to be the second climax.

(12) Return with the Elixir – the hero returns to their ordinary world and at peace – all external and internal conflicts are resolved.

In later posts, I’ll start talking about in depth about the character arc and the different types of characters in the Hero’s Journey and in what stages they appear (Hero, Anti-Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Shadow etc.).

Leave it to the Imagination

The topic of my post today is the importance of leaving aspects of the events of a story to the reader’s own imagination. Some time ago, I was watching a TV show called The Greatest Scary Movies, which went through the top 50 scary films as chosen by viewers. At number three was Seven Deadly Sins, at number two was the Exorcist, and at number one was Alien. What nearly all the commentators said about these films is how, by leaving aspects of the crimes or creatures to the imagination, the viewer is actually forced to create their own, very personal image of what is happening. This image, created by the viewer according to their own personal fears, is so much more powerful than anything that could be accomplished visually by the filmmakers. For example, in Seven Deadly Sins, we are shown only the aftermath of the crimes and told how they happened through a vivid description given by the killer himself. Because the film doesn’t actually show us the killings, we are forced to create our own ‘mental movie’ of how it happened. This ‘mental movie’ is much more likely to be feared and remembered, because it was created by our own mind.

Similarly, in Alien, we are never shown the entire face and body of the creature. Instead, we see the effects it has on the crew of the spaceship. It is precisely because we never see it that we fear it so much. In fact, if you think about it for a moment, the things we fear the most are quite often the things we don’t see. The most frightening evil is one which has neither face nor shadow.

Now, how do we apply this principle to writing, the realm of words? Now, I’m not talking specifically about thrillers or horrors. The principle is that we allow, to a certain extent, the reader’s mind to ‘fill in the details’ of our story. We can start by not overdoing our descriptions or overloading with adjectives. For example, don’t feel the need to describe in detail how characters look. Readers will identify so much more with a character if they give him or her appearances of their own choosing. For example, if your character is a romantic hero in a novel aimed at women, imagine how much more a reader will care for the hero if she can feel free to picture him as a man that she knew, knows, or dreams of. I’m not saying don’t describe the physical appearance of your characters—in some cases it may be essential to the story—but just bear in mind that it’s your characters’ personalities, goals and conflicts which will ultimately linger on in the minds of your readers long after appearances have been forgotten.

Story Ideas

Stories are all about conflict and risk. And the best conflict and risk happens with the unexpected. This is the best way to generate an endless stream of story ideas: just take any everyday situation, think about what you would normally expect to happen (boring), and then think about something dramatically different and unexpected (exciting). Stories are born in that magical gap between the expected and the unexpected.

For example, a woman walks her dog every day in the same park. She enters the park at around 7:0pm at night, and leaves at 7:30pm to go back to dinner. This happens every day, until ONE DAY she can’t get out of the park…..

Another example: you brush your teeth every night before you go to sleep. You look in the mirror to make sure you’re brushing all the right parts. Then ONE DAY you look in the mirror and you see someone else’s face…..

One more (yes, I’m enjoying this): a man takes the train to work each day and always gets there on time. Then ONE DAY, the train just stops mid-way….

Get the hang of it? It doesn’t even have to be dramatic as such, as long as it’s UNEXPECTED. If it’s what you’d expect to happen, it isn’t interesting, even if its dramatic. If someone falls off a cliff, you’d expect them to die: that’s dramatic, but boring and predictable. BUT, let’s say someone falls off a cliff and their body is never discovered…well, hmm, now that’s more like it…