Myth, Magic, & Metaphysics in Your Media
There’s MAGIC in the air, whether from Harry Potter’s wands or the wizards of Lord of the Rings.
Ancient MYTHS come to life in modern forms from the Mayan calendar and Roland Emmerich’s 2012 to Slumdog Millionaire’s version of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The principles of METAPHYSICS are all the rage in our personal lives from those Laws of Attraction promoted in The Secret to secrets of the gods and the afterlife as explored in Battlestar Gallactica.
These three categories overlap, and each is a rich source of story material because they are some of the most enduring and popular ways we try to make sense of the often weird and wacky world around us and within us. The more you know about Myths, Magic, and Metaphysics – how they work and how to work with them - the more conscious you can be about the media you create and the more effective that media can be.
You’re probably working with myths already, whether you know it or not. The trick is to become conscious of what you’re doing, to plug into that deep well of meaning that is mythology, and to make it your own.
Partly, this requires courage and partly, it requires humility.
The courage part is the very act of writing. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the keyboard and open a vein.” Fortunately there are long shelves of books dealing with the difficulty of writing. They all boil down to a couple of categories: fear of diving deeper into the hidden realms of the self and of others, and fear of bringing what we have discovered there back into the light of day, subject to exposure and judgment. Then there are those ever-present fears of failure and of success.
All these Dwellers on the Threshold[*] can be minimized by a courageous move to stand with myth-makers of the past who have dared to point out the foibles and failures as well as the glories and joys of being human and to do so in emotionally engaging ways. We are very lucky to be living in a time when both the past and the present are so accessible. Once we know what to look for, we can observe Mythic Themes like the Hero’s Journey, the Search for the Promised Land, Lost Love Rescued, etc. being played out all around us. Having learned how to recognize the patterns, we can then learn how to recreate them in our own stories.
The humility part is to realize that you really are not a totally unique brilliant genius and that your great idea has been thought of before, many times. But take heart – you may still be a totally brilliant genius, just not a unique one. And that’s better really, because if you were totally unique you would not be able to communicate with any of the rest of us. You’d be so far out there you’d be, like, totally gone, man. But once you learn how to take those timeless stories we all keep telling ourselves in every time and place and put your unique personal spin on them, then you can take your place with the great Creatives.
So pluck up your writerly courage to go again and again to the deep well of myth and find one that resonates with your particular vision. Then use it as both inspiration and framework and you too can stand on the shoulders of genius and reach new heights for yourself and your audiences.
How do you access this well of myth? Part of it is instinctive and you’re already doing it. It’s how the human mind and heart work, tapping that great collective unconscious. Part of it is intuitive and as an artist that’s how you are wired, to tap into that higher plane of creativity inaccessible to so many others. The rarest part is inspiration, combining your instinct and intuition with your intellect to reach the rare Olympian heights of story bringers.
You noticed the word ‘intellect’? Yeah, you’ve gotta put some smart-time into it to really power-charge your natural talent. The pyramid of “I gotta great idea!” is very big at the bottom and very narrow at the top. One of the best tools for your own ascension is to learn and apply the classic tools of effective story-telling. That means having collections of myths and analyses of myths at your fingertips. It means always considering the deeper meaning of any story idea, even the entertainment-only seemingly shallow ones. A few well-placed lines of dialogue or symbolic images can sneak in under the radar and tweak your audience in those deep places wherein meaning lies.
Your Mythic Tools
- Select the Mythic Theme most resonant with your story and decide which of the many truths it tells you that you will feature in yours. Besides the Hero’s Journey, there are other powerful Mythic Themes such as Stealing Fire from Heaven, Lost Love Rescued, Search for the Promised Land, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and many more.
- Design your Mythic Statements [Thematic, Mission, and Lesson Statements] with the desire that they’ll be quoted for generations to come because they carry so much meaning, emotion, and cleverness. Wouldn’t you like your movie’s words to be on posters, mugs and t-shirts? [Presuming you keep ancillary rights and are getting the residuals, of course.]
- Use archetypes to clarify your characters’ arcs. Take them through the shallower to deeper expressions of the archetype; or have them circling around it being ineffective and then once they align with it they come into their own power.
We are meaning-making creatures. It’s how we see Mother Teresa on a cinnamon bun or Jesus on a screen door (or was that Willie Nelson?).
Film is an illusion. Literally. It is a series of still images that your brain turns into moving images. Digital photography uses a different mechanism, but the result is similar in that there is a translation of reality into electrons into bits and bytes and pixels. But we perceive it as a reality and hence can be affected by it. Neurophysiology now explains how our eyes and brain fill in the blanks. That’s how lots of magic works – by counting on the natural tendencies of the human mind to fill in the blanks.
According to mythology and metaphysics this is the Age of the Magician, the Age of Aquarius. In the middle of the last century people were predicting that magic would re-emerge as a major theme in the stories of humanity. Seemed a bit of a wild prophecy in the turbulent civil rights times of the 1960s, the Hippie era of the 1970s, and the “Me!” decade of the 1980s. [Let’s don’t even talk about disco.] But then the Age of the Magician began to emerge and grow. Certainly there was media about magic before this, but in 1997, the first Harry Potter book came out and the race was on. Magic was no longer on the fringes. It was legitimized as a respectable topic for books, movies, and TV series.
Your Magic Tool
- Occult Silence – something not just for your stories, but mostly for you. [The word ‘occult’ simply means ‘hidden’, not anything evil.]
You know how magicians are always drawing those chalk circles on the old stone floors in deserted abbeys, or inscribing pentagrams in the dirt of a blood-soaked compound? You know how covens typically meet in the deep woods on a dark night, and how to get into a cabal you need secret handshakes and special passwords? Why is that?
Magic requires exclusivity. A contained environment. A select usually small group of participants. Why is that?
It’s physics, really. If you want to make a chocolate cake you select specific ingredients, mix them in a container, and apply heat for a set length of time. It’s the same with magic. Depending on what you want to end up with, you need to select the correct ingredients, isolate them in a container, and apply attention for a set length of time. Magic happens throughout the process and if you have done it all correctly then voila! you have a chocolate cake, a story, a new invention, a new country.
We’re interested here in the isolation, the container part of the process. The best examples come from gardening and gestation. You don’t plant carrot seeds and then pull them up every day to see how they’re developing. Babies develop inside the womb for 40 weeks; if you interrupt that closed system process, you don’t end up with a baby.
Likewise with your creative projects. It’s best when you first get that “Aha!” great idea NOT to tell anyone about it. There are plenty of cartoons and stories about how an initially brilliant idea gets picked apart, deflated, discouraged, and even encouraged into dishevelment and oblivion.
You know that old saying, “Too many cooks spoil the pot”? In the collaborative process that is filmmaking, there’ll be plenty of cooks stirring their own ideas into the pot all along the line, be it agents, managers, producers, financiers, distributors, directors, cinematographers, production designers, stylists, editors... The more solid you can make your story before it gets out there, the more likely it is to hold its integrity against the onslaught of collaboration.
It’s one thing to say, “I’ve got an idea about a boy and his dog.” It’s totally another to have 125 pages of a solidly crafted script with well-drawn characters, well-structured plot, mythic tie-ins, and effective symbolism.
“But what about getting feedback?” you may be saying. There are two caveats here.
1) Engage with your vision so that you are really familiar with it before you talk to absolutely anyone about it. That can mean writing down the impressions of that dream you had before you tell it to your partner. Feedback from others can dilute the intensity and the integrity of your original vision.
2) Have your story developed enough to register it with the U.S. Copyright office and the Writers Guild of America before you take it outside the realm of a professional story consultant whose professional ethics include complete confidentiality. Most do, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
The natural human tendency when we hear a new idea is to critique it. This is helpful because it saves lots of time not spent on projects that simply won’t fly. On the other hand it’s debilitating because new ideas are typically rejected and must be fought for like crazy.
So use an ancient tried-and-true principle of MAGIC and keep Occult Silence about your nifty new idea for a script until you have it more grounded.
And then – may you have great success with it!
‘Meta’ means ‘above.’ Meta-physics are the principles of the universe that are still unexplained by regular physics, but which are observable and dependable nonetheless.
You’re an artist. What do you care about physics or metaphysics? Well, the more you care, know, and use it, the better artist you can be.
Lots of metaphysics is about the processes of creation - trinity into quaternary, the 4-part cycle, the inbreath and outbreath. Lots of it is about group dynamics – how individuals fit into systems, how systems work, and how to work systems. All can be useful as you endeavor to create an effective and moving “system” of writer-story-audience.
Your Metaphysics Tool
- Recognition Creates Relationship – one of the most important metaphysical principles for anyone involved in communications.
This is such a basic tool of storytelling, we sometimes lose sight of its importance. Just as planets are impossible without gravity and our brains won’t work without electricity, creating a relationship between your characters and your audience is impossible with some sort of recognition. The late great Blake Snyder captured this well with his teachings on Save the Cat. It’s all about creating sympathy, or even in the case of an anti-hero who may kill a cat, at least some understanding.
Aim for 2-3 layers of Recognition to create Relationships among your various audience demographics. It can be recognizing what we are, what we want to be, or what we do not want to be. Greek plays, the Mystery plays of medieval Europe, and initiation rituals from ancient Egypt to modern Masonry all use the principles of Recognition Creates Relationship to take the audience and participants on a transformative journey.
What about modern media? Let’s use romance as an example. One reason most guys don’t like chick-flicks is that there is so little there for them to relate to. Given that men are typically more romantic than women (witness the preponderance of love songs, poems, and stories written by men, even factoring in oppression of women’s creativity) and suffer more from heartbreak, putting a man’s perspective in your love story will tremendously broaden its recognition and appeal. I polled some men friends about their favorite romantic films. Here is one that’s expected, and one that’s unexpected.
Casablanca offers points of recognition for people of widely varying ages, genders, and affinities. It offers high adventure, nobility, honor, passion, friendship, patriotism, greed, lust, love, sacrifice... There are touch-points of recognition for what we are, want to be, and do not want to be – all in one great film.
A writer friend replied that his favorite romantic scene was from the 1987 movie Robocop. Surprised, I queried why? He recounted the scene where Officer Murphy, wounded seemingly beyond repair, dreams about his past. He goes into his home, looks around at all the everyday parts of it. His wife comes up to him and tenderly says, “I love you.” In that exchange between them, you saw all the years and years of love and life. And he would never, ever have that again. It just breaks your heart. Anyone who has experienced or wanted to experience that kind of love, warmth, and support recognizes the poignancy of this scene and feels a relationship with Officer Murphy. And need I remind you this was an action film!
Have fun exploring MYTH, MAGIC & METAPHYSICS and even more important, the multiple layers of meanings within them. Then apply that knowledge to your stories and infuse them with universal meaning expressed in your unique personal way. You will enjoy the media-making process ever so much more, and we will all be ever so grateful to you for having done it.
Meet the Author: Pamela Jaye Smith
PAMELA JAYE SMITH is a mythologist, author, international consultant & speaker, and award-winning producer-director with over 30 years in the media industry. She is the author of Beyond the Hero’s Journey, Inner Drives, The Power of the Dark Side, Show Me the Love, and her latest book, Romantic Comedies: These Films Can Save Your Love Life.
Pamela has 8 years formal study in comparative mysticism and is a certified teacher of the Mystery Schools. Credits and clients include Fox, Microsoft, Disney, Paramount, RAI-TV Rome, Marseille and LA Webfests, UCLA, AFI, Romance Writers of America, GM, Boeing, the U.S. Army, and many mo...