The American Society of Journalists and Authors hosted its annual conference last week at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Over the next few days, we’ll post recaps of some of the panels we were able to attend.
We started off with a recap of “Sassy Sentences and Wicked Good Prose: How to Craft Better Writing,” in which San Francisco-based journalist Constance Hale shared her tips for perking up your writing in surprising ways. We also posted highlights from “Social Media Crash Course: Write Tweets People Read,” which featured insight from tweeters from BuzzFeed and The New York Times.
Today, we continue with highlights from “The Hero's Journey: The Fiction Foundation for Great Nonfiction Interviews,” which featured writer Mary-Kate Mackey.
Many of us are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, better known as “the hero’s journey.” In this session, Mackey, an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communications and an award-winning writer of more than 100+ articles, demonstrated how to implement the stages of the hero’s journey to strengthen non-fiction stories.
The hero’s journey can be depicted with 7-12 steps and, at times, more. Mackey included in her list 10:
- The hero confronts a challenge.
- The hero turns down the challenge, usually based on a character flaw.
- The hero accepts the challenge.
- The hero gathers allies and mentors.
- The hero learns new skills -- can be repeated.
- The hero meets the problem head on and loses.
- The hero experiences the dark hour of the soul.
- The hero takes a leap of faith with help from within, help from others, or help from a higher power or inspiration (or from all three).
- The hero meets the ultimate challenge.
- The hero becomes a teacher.
There are many advantages to using this for non-fiction pieces:
- It makes you conscious of your own storytelling.
- It creates an instant connection to the reader because we all know it.
- It allows access to your good ideas in a familiar form.
- It gives familiarity to strange material.
“The stranger the story, the more we need a familiar structure,” Mackey said. Using this structure will help in nonfiction storytelling, and knowledge of this structure comes in especially handy in regard to interviews and organization.
“The first way to use [this structure] is when you are creating your interview questions,” Mackey said. “You allow the structure to shape your questions, and by shaping your interviews from the very beginning, you save yourself a heck of a lot of time.”
Mackey added that this journey is deeply imbedded in everyone, and whether we are conscious of it or not, many of us will tell our stories using this structure.
Some sample interview questions based on these steps include:
- What made you start to do XYZ?
- Were you on another path first? Was this the first thing you wanted to do?
- What circumstances helped you decide to do it?
- Who assisted you along the way? Who/what blocked you?
- What expertise/mistakes did you have to learn?
- Tell me about the time of your greatest challenge/struggle?
- Was there a time when you thought this isn’t going to happen?
- How did you get around the obstacle?
- When did you know this is going to work out?
- What have you learned from the challenge?
The questions coincide clearly with the arch of the hero’s journey. Mackey says answers to questions four, five and seven of the hero’s journey are the most interesting because they are the ones that contain the most drama. She advised the audience not to be discouraged if the answers do not fully shadow the hero’s journey.
“This disparity may give you just the slant you need for the story to work,” she explained, and could ultimately lead the writer to the hook.
This structure assists the writer when it comes to an abundance of material with organization.
“You can break the material into manageable pieces by placing chunks on the story arch.”
Doing this will reveal a few things, including what is missing and what you want to use. This will also raise the tension and forces the writer to acknowledge conflicts within the story.
Using this structure helps the writer “punch up their lead sentences.”
“Once you see where you’re going, you can add stronger leads that point your readers where to go,” she explained.
As an example of how this structure can help assemble massive amounts of material, Mackey chose Michael Lewis’s adaptation of “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.”
“By placing the search for understanding high-speed trading into the familiar structure we know, we can follow the story,” Mackey says. “We can absorb huge amounts of facts and information along the way, and by the end we actually do know a little bit more on how this hidden system works.”
Mackey closed her presentation with a few helpful hints:
- You don’t have to use it all, but can just use one section if need be.
- Be sure to “clothe it” with your narrative and words; do not just let the bones of the structure show.
- This structure does not have to be used for people only, but can be used for journeys of things and ideas as well. For example, Mackey used this structure for a piece she wrote about the “fairytale” transformation of a dingy yard to a beautiful garden.
Mackey concluded her presentation by stressing the importance of focus on a particular journey, considering people are most always on more than one at a single time in their life.
The Joseph Campbell Foundation: http://www.jcf.org
Christopher Vogler’s “The Memo that Started it All” and “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces”: http://www.thewritersjourney.com
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