Michael Scott has written novels, films, and plays in a variety of genres for adults and children and teens. He’s learned that it doesn’t much matter what sort of story you’re writing, or for whom your writing it: “A good story is always a journey. It is about the people the hero meets along the way and how they change him or her.” Now that we’re thinking about the themes of stories, it becomes apparent that a character’s journey is inextricably bound with a story’s theme. And since the theme has to be something general and powerful, something universal and impactful, it’s not surprising that there aren’t that many journeys that really matter.
Have a look at this list of fundamental human journeys, and let me know in the comments whether there are any that I’ve missed:
Fundamental human journeys
(simple transitions based on external changes – these are more likely to work in, say, a young adult genre novel than in a literary short story, but often in genre fiction a material transition will be made possible by a psychological transition)
Peril <-> Safety
Single <-> Married
Powerless <-> Powerful
Poor <-> Rich
Obscure <-> Famous
Picked on <-> Popular
Not seizing the day <-> Seizing the day
Isolation <-> Human connection
Love <-> Loss
Despair <-> Hope
Obliviousness <-> Awareness of mortality
Innocence <-> Loss of innocence
Inhibition <-> Boldness
Desire <-> Contentment
Self-doubt <-> Self-acceptance
No sense of sublime <-> Sense of the sublime
Search for meaning <-> Accepting meaninglessness
Fear <-> Acceptance of death
Faith <-> Lack of faith
Video transcript follows below:
I’ve discussed in the past how successful stories chart journeys. They may or may not contain a geographical journey, but they almost always contain a journey of character. At the beginning the character is like this, and by the end she is like that. Or, sometimes, they chart an unfinished journey: at the beginning the character is like this, it looks like he’ll become like that, but in the end he reverts to being like this.
Now that we’re thinking about the themes of stories, it becomes apparent that a character’s journey is inextricably bound with a story’s theme. And since the theme has to be something general and powerful, something universal and impactful, it should be apparent that not any character journey is going to work.
For instance, if your character transition is only that at the start the protagonist doesn’t like avocados, and by the end she does, then this is unlikely to provide you with a theme that resonates with many readers. But if you connect that simple subject to a fundamental human journey then it just might work. Maybe she’s never tried avocados. Maybe she just imagines she won’t like them, and maybe she is the sort of person who is too afraid to try anything new. Maybe eating and enjoying an avocado is symbolic of her transition from being someone who is inhibited and restricted to being someone who will henceforth live with boldness.
Inhibition to boldness is one version of a fundamental human journey. A similar idea is the transition from drifting to seizing the day. All these journeys can happen in either direction – from isolation to human connection, or vice versa. From love to loss, or from loss to love. From faith to lack of faith, or from lack of faith to faith. From self-doubt to self-acceptance, or from self-acceptance to self-doubt.
Have a look at the list of fundamental human journeys in the worksheet below. Can you think of any that I’ve missed?
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses a photo by Tim Ove. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/timove/