A great question for a Protagonist to answer.

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In 2016, I’ve been reading “A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke,” one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century. One thing I’ve found interesting is how we can use his poems and observations as a lens through which to interpret the Protagonist’s journey and, thus, expand our understanding of Story. Here is yesterday’s selection:

“Where Am I Going”

Again the murmur of my own deep life grows stronger,

flowing along wider shores.

Things grow ever more related to me,

and I see farther into their forms.

I become more trustful of the nameless.

My mind, like a bird,

rises from the oak tree into the wind,

and my heart sinks through the pond’s reflected day

to where the fishes move.

— Book of Images

Those of you who follow Go Into The Story closely or have taken any of my Screenwriting Master Class offerings likely recall my language in referencing four stages of metamorphosis or what is more commonly called the Protagonist’s Transformation Arc.

Disunity.

Deconstruction.

Reconstruction.

Unity.

In most movies, the Protagonist goes through what we may call a positive change. By logic, that means they start off the story in a NEGATIVE place, whether they recognize it or not. They may THINK they’re happy and achieved their lot in life, but in truth they are living an INAUTHENTIC EXISTENCE, not the life they should be living. There lies within them some deeper, even hidden truth which wants to press up and out into the Protagonist’s consciousness.

As Joseph Campbell says, “The hero is just making do… and they need to change.”

I call that state Disunity.

Something happens. We may call it the Inciting Incident, the Call To Adventure. Whether the Protagonist receives it as a positive or negative experience, embraces it or resists it, the fact is the Protagonist can no longer sustain the status quo. They have to leave their Old World behind and enter a New World. Whether that involves an actual geographical relocation, their journey is a psychological, even spiritual one.

The Protagonist’s experience in the New World challenges their Old Ways of Being — beliefs and behaviors, defense mechanisms and coping skills. Generally this feels like a negative because this involves disassembling that which is familiar and comfortable, however it is a net positive in that this process enables their Core Essence, their True Self to start to emerge.

Ovid says, “The seeds of change lie within.” This stage of metamorphosis allows the sun, rain, and air to agitate and feed those seeds, and they begin to germinate and move toward the surface of the P’s experience, their consciousness.

I call this part of the metamorphosis process Deconstruction.

Various challenges, obstacles, and tests compel the P to rely more and more on this emerging sense of self, either reshaping their Old Ways of Being into New Ways or rejecting the Old entirely. Now they are connecting with their Authentic Nature, not only causing them to see the world in a different way, but also empowering them as they move toward what Conscious Goal has come into view as part of their physical journey.

I call this stage of their psychological journey Reconstruction.

The final stage, what we typically refer to as Act Three, leads to a Final Struggle. Per the Plotline, that is the Big Event, the culmination of the action. From a psychological and existential standpoint, this major Plotline point is akin to a final exam: Has the Protagonist learned what they need to learn in order to pass the test? Do they know who they are? Have they embraced their change fully? If not, they fail. And that is a tragedy. Since Hollywood prefers happy endings, the Protagonist invariably succeeds and in that final challenge taps into the full expression of their New Self.

I call this stage Unity.

Now let’s look at Rilke’s observations again:

Again the murmur of my own deep life grows stronger,

flowing along wider shores.

Things grow ever more related to me,

and I see farther into their forms.

I become more trustful of the nameless.

My mind, like a bird,

rises from the oak tree into the wind,

and my heart sinks through the pond’s reflected day

to where the fishes move.

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To me that is a wonderful, lyrical way of describing Reconstruction. If we assume the writer is the Protagonist, they have made the transition from the negative experience of Deconstruction and begun to align themselves with their True Self.

I love that phrase: “My own deep life.” Many metamorphosis journeys involve the P moving from a surface level experience to a deeper one.

A perfect example of this is Will in Shakespeare in Love. He begins in Disunity — drinking and whoring around, married but separated from his wife and children, stuck with a severe case of writer’s block. Indeed when we first meet him, he is busy writing out versions of his own name, quite literally searching for his true identity.

Who are you, Will Shakespeare? A talented writer who is living on the surface. What does he need? To experience his “own deep life” in order to become the great William Shakespeare. Where are you going?

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Enter Viola. Their passionate romance takes Will to the heights of rapturous joy. Her eventual marriage to someone else and departure to American plunges him to the depths of sorrow. Psychologically speaking, the entire point of the story is to move him out of his surface level way of living and take him into his “own deep life” so he can tap into his true talent and become the bard we all have come to know.

Of course, one of the beauties of these type of metaphors is they apply to our lives as writers and, indeed, as human beings on our own hero’s journey.

Take a few moments and meditate on Rilke’s words. What associations come to mind… or better yet, come to FEELING about your OWN deep life?

How can you and I become more “trustful of the nameless,” leaning into seeming void of inner self only to discover that which animates our creativity, our own seeds of change?

Carl Jung says, “Become who you are.” The essence of the metamorphosis journey. For our Protagonist characters. And for ourselves.

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