I intend Story Alchemy, The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone of Storytelling to be a companion volume to Novelsmithing, The Structural Foundation of Plot Character and Narration. Whereas Novelsmithing addresses more directly the craft of novel writing, Story Alchemy focuses on the generic processes of storytelling and may more readily be applied to all forms of narrative fiction and screenwriting. Story Alchemy bears a relationship to alchemy but is also deeply entrenched in analytical psychology, and I ran onto many of the principles developed in these pages while studying and practicing modified therapeutic techniques suggested by Carl Gustav Jung. Specifically, I developed this material using Jung’s Active Imagination but modified to suit my needs.
The Land of Story, as the habitat of all myth, ancient and modern, is an ephemeral psychic space that exists in the fertile soil of the imagination. To bring your story to life in that phenomenal landscape, the leavening ingredient is conflict.
With an Imaginarium, Dream Invasion, and a Memory Palace.
The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone of Storytelling
CHAPTER 1 The Quest
Such was the contention of alchemy that a substance exists, called the nigredo [Latin = black] or prima materia [prime material], that Alchemists thought to be matter’s original primitive and base state. Use of this primal ingredient was the first step in the long quest to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that transmuted lead into gold and under the name Elixir of Life could provide immortality. After obtaining the prima materia, the alchemist followed detailed but coded procedures to produce, after decades of slaving over a hot, smelly furnace, the sacred Stone. But the search had a catch. To find the correct path to the Philosopher’s Stone and wield it once found, the alchemist had to be worthy. Every alchemist knew that within the dark recesses of the inner being, a human nigredo also existed, and this Shadow of the Soul had to be transmuted as well. To become worthy, she/he had to attain personal perfection along the way.
The culmination of two thousand years of alchemy came at the hands of Sir Isaac Newton. We don’t think of Newton as an alchemist; after all, his Laws of Motion and Gravity came to govern the mechanical theories of the Universe for two hundred and fifty years until Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity replaced it with what might be termed the Philosopher’s Stone for cosmologists. Even today, we have put men on the Moon and robots on Mars using Newton’s Laws as an accurate and easily manageable physics to predict motion and gravitation on Earth and throughout the Solar System. Newton’s Laws, obtained by decades of studying alchemy and rudimentary scientific research, were his Philosopher’s Stone. They didn’t change lead into gold, but they did turn a world of scientific chaos into a manageable, predictable arena of scientific development and led directly to the Industrial Revolution. Newton transmuted the ideas of alchemy into intellectual gold.
If this is true of science, one might well wonder why no one has found a Philosopher’s Stone for storytelling. The reading, theatrical and movie going public have an insatiable appetite for story, and yet so many, indeed most, writers stumble and fall in their attempts at telling a good one. Even the master storytellers of Hollywood puzzle over the basics, sometimes hitting the mark and at others missing so badly that they spend tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars on special effects, trying to coverup their storytelling deficiencies. They end up with not gold but fool’s gold.
Writers can’t even agree on how to define the key elements of storytelling. Definitions for theme, plot, and storyline are without consensus and have no actionable content. Do we have any hope of finding the Philosopher’s Stone of storytelling? Who would believe that he or she had been given a truth, the equivalent of Newton’s Laws of Motion, that could straighten out the process? Who would claim to be such an adept?
I believe such an ‘object’ does exist. I believe we see bits and pieces of it in all the writings of those who have tried to lead us forward. Storytelling is a primitive art, although it has had eloquent practitioners who have tried to convey their knowledge. Henry James, Annie Dillard, Syd Field, Irwin R. Blacker, Janet Burroway, Robert McKee, Stephen King, along with many others have provided sound device on both the art and craft of writing. And yet, no specific, detailed and consistent guidance on how to plot and integrate the organic elements of character, conflict and theme exists. So the question persists: What is the underlying nature, the physics, of storytelling?
This problem didn’t start yesterday. Here’s a quote from Aristotle that illustrates how difficult plotting was for tragic poets back 2300 years ago:
…beginners succeed earlier with the diction and characters than with the construction of a story; and the same may be said of nearly all the early dramatists. We maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of tragedy is the plot… [Poetics, 6]
Aristotle didn’t just see plot as an important part of storytelling. He called it the “life and soul” of the work. He was talking about epic poetry, tragedy, as well as comedy and dithyrambic poetry, all of which he calls “modes of imitation” of life. All storytelling is an imitation of life. But even Aristotle’s advice from 2300 years ago provides nothing actionable. It doesn’t help us get the words on the page.
To whom can we turn to get a surefire way to construct a story? If we follow the examples of Sir Isaac Newton and the alchemists, we could spend decades producing the Philosopher’s Stone of storytelling. But once found, would we recognize it? Would we be able to wield it? The alchemists realized that it had to be an outward quest for knowledge but also an inner purification of the heart to become worthy.
I started my own search some four decades ago in Denver, Colorado with my first attempt at a novel. I quit after one hundred or so pages because I didn’t know where my dystopian story was going. I had a good idea, I thought, but after exploring the situation I envisioned, my story lost steam because it had no direction. It ran aground in a sea of possibilities. I tried again and again but always ran up against one stumbling block after another. In the ’80s and ’90s, I read about craft, took classes at the University of Colorado, formed a writing group, joined the Rocky Mountain Writers guild, and over a period of five years, I finished my first novel, not set in a post-apocalyptic world but my own hometown. Since then, I’ve written and published three more novels, along with a couple of nonfiction works. One of them, Novelsmithing, on the craft of narrative fiction.
At the same time, I was constantly reading self-help books. I was always interested in psychology, and I even briefly entered group therapy following a divorce. I kept a journal. In 1988, I entered therapy in earnest with a psychiatrist, and I continued two-a-week sessions for almost five years. Shortly afterward, on January 1, 1993, I got laid off from my day job, astronautical engineering no less (yes I was a rocket scientist). I decided not to return to my profession and instead took a trip to Greece where I confronted myself with the ruins of my life while visiting ancient religious sites for two and one half months. During the following two years, I turned my journal of that trip into a travel book and published it under the title Oedipus on a Pale Horse. I learned that narrative nonfiction contained the same story elements and structure as that for fiction.
I then decided not to return to my profession at all, but to write full time, and I moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico where I lived in an old house my grandfather had built with his own hands. Not particularly plush, to say the least, but certainly adequate for a struggling writer. When I ran low on funds, I went to work in the library at the local branch of New Mexico State University. In addition, I taught classes in Greek mythology, novel writing, and astronomy. I turned my class notes concerning novels into my book Novelsmithing.
Still, I seemed to be missing something and continued my work investigating the nature of storytelling. I ran into the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, the analytical psychologist. I read many of his works and those of other Jungian psychologists. Then in mid June 2009, I made a startling breakthrough in my research. In the ensuing days, I extended this new concept. For four years, this new hunt kept expanding, but the full importance of the discovery eluded me. I didn’t fully realize what I had discovered until the morning of January 23, 2013 when it came to me in a flash. I finally realized that I had discovered the Philosophers’ Stone.
In the following chapters, I provide directions for creating a magic ‘substance,’ the equivalent for authors of what the alchemist’s called the Philosopher’s Stone. It took forty years of hard labor to learn the true nature of the writing process and decode it. What I am offering you is the inside story on the nature of storytelling.
Even if I do give you the Philosopher’s Stone, will you be able to use it? In the words of the alchemists, “Are you worthy?” The answer is probably no. Jung cites an old Chinese proverb: “If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.” [Alchemical Studies 7]
Don’t lose heart. I also know something about remedying this worthiness issue. Jung’s method of individuation could well get you there. Perhaps I can show you the way. The good news is that the process of writing fiction, at least the method I’ll provide, is an offshoot of the path to individuation so that while practicing your craft, you are also traveling the path to becoming worthy. Just as the ancient alchemist perfected himself by looking within while practicing his alchemy, so will your writing efforts, if done properly, serve a dual purpose. By staying on the right path to good storytelling, you become worthy.
Here’s a word of caution. Sir Isaac Newton may have found the Philosopher’s Stone for physics, but he paid a price. He had an emotional collapse and almost didn’t survive the process. Plus he was a different person once he came out the other side. He was no longer much of a scientist and became a bureaucrat. Unaccountably, he accepted an appointment to be Warden of the Royal Mint. No one remains unaffected by a process that looks so deep into the psyche. You might have a good talk with yourself concerning your own emotional stability before getting into what I’m going to present here. I’ll have more to say on this as we proceed.
This is where I’ll leave off this introductory chapter and start down the path to teaching you about storytelling. Have I found a Philosopher’s Stone for storytellers? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
[Publication: Fall 2013]