20 Mythic Themes

From “High Concept” to “Controlling Idea,” theme is touted as an important component of your story but often vaguely described. Consciously or unconsciously, theme is also what you are really writing about.

Myths contain a wealth of themes. At the center of these mythologems resides powerful archetypal images.

Here is a partial list of mythic themes that may help you identify what underlies your plot that gives it meaning and drives your characters to take purposeful actions.

Depending on your genre, the trick here might be to differentiate the literal application and the metaphorical to your specific story.

1. The Father Quest
2. Meeting the Father
3. Exile/Return
4. Salvation/Redemption/Atonement
5. Paradise/Wasteland
6. Betrayal/Loyalty
7. Home
8. Death/Resurrection-Rebirth
9. Night Sea Journey
10. The Deluge
11. Immortality (Fountain of Youth)
12. Beauty
13. Love
14. The Forbidden Fruit
15. The Dark Wood
16. Enchantment
17. Inexhaustible dish (e.g. the Grail)
18. Initiation
19. Dismemberment/Wholeness
20. Divine Child/Orphan

Understanding and applying these mythic themes will give your work added depth. As they are also timeless and part of the on-going human psychic life, applying them may also increase your story’s potential for relevance.

Write well. Write often.

TV and Intelligence

We often hear that TV is geared to the lowest denominator. A common criticism is that mass media not only reduces uniqueness among various cultures, but contributes to numbing the mind and quashing the imagination.

However, well known story consultant, script doctor, and teacher, Robert McKee, has been saying for a long time that some of the best writing today can be seen on TV. (I could say that some of the worst can been seen on TV also, but that’s not the discussion today.)

In an essay Rob Brezsny says:

“. . . an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker notes that Americans’ IQ scores have been steadily rising for a long time — so much so that a person whose IQ placed her in the top ten percent of the population in 1920 would be in the bottom third today. One possible explanation: Our “growing stupidity” may better be described as a difficulty keeping up with the ever-growing mass of facts, whereas we are actually becoming better at solving problems.

Gladwell cites the book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Its author, Steven Johnson, argues that pop culture is increasingly expanding our intelligence about social relationships and stretching our ability to sort out complex moral dilemmas. TV shows in the 1970s, like “Starsky and Hutch” and “Dallas,” had linear, easy-to-follow story lines with simple characters who behaved in predictable ways.

Writing for TV shows like LostThe Sopranos, and Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica Cast photo by dark chacal 2010

Battlestar Galactica Cast
photo by dark chacal 2010

weave together a number of convoluted narrative threads that require rapt attention and even repeated viewings in order to understand. Characters often wrestle with contradictory motivations that complicate their behavior as they deal with ambiguous dilemmas for which there are no clearly right solutions. Viewers who take in shows like this are in effect attending brain gyms.” (Go to Rob Brezsny’s website for his full article.)

Great stories, intricate plot, and fascinating characters feed our imagination. Imagination might seem stifled by a constant diet of reality shows. However, imagination arises from the psyche and the psyche is difficult to manage. Like our bodies, it is best to feed psyche the highest level of nutrition available. Even though we may lack the best, there is still great potential to function well beyond our current level.

Of course, as a mythologist, I recommend mythology as a place to begin to feed the imagination quality nutrients, and, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the writers for the shows listed by Brezsny also dine at the mythology banquet.