Literary Alchemy

Anne C. Miles > literary alchemy > Literary Alchemy

Yes, literary alchemy is something I have spent some time studying.

The goal? To profoundly affect your readers by allowing them to transform vicariously along with your main characters. The model has been used for centuries. Shakespeare used it. CS Lewis used it. JK Rowling used it. Suzanne Collins used it. The writer of Breaking Bad used it. I’m pretty sure Pat Rothfuss used it.

So this guy tells how to analyze stories to see if they are using the model. He wrote a book about it. But no one is talking about how to write with it. I’ve looked. It’s like staring into a black abyss of nothing. 

This is unacceptable.

So though I am but a humble apprentice, I will share what I know.  Hopefully a master shall come along and offer us pointers in the comments. Till then, we shall muddle through.

Why learn this method? Because when you’re staring at the blank white page, it will help you. Trust me.

The Basics

Behold. Some of the elements of literary alchemy are:

Ring structure





Symbols (especially sulphur and mercury)

A Wedding

Death to self

These arcane elements will transform lead into gold.


So to start, you need to know how the main character ends up.  Then move backwards. She starts as the opposite of how she ends. You can do this for any character. Using an outline? You’ll want to put the end state at the end and the opposite at the beginning. The story is the path between the two in three acts. Each is represented by a color: Black, white, and lastly, red. Some people get fancy and use gold instead of red. They might throw in purple. For simplicity we will just use black, white and red.

Act One: Nigredo (BLACK STAGE)

Make the character miserable. Upend their life. Or show that they are miserable. Remember, this is the stage they will transform from so lay it on thick. Most writers will actually include the color in their description somehow, or in a character name. Thus we have Albus Dumbledore (albus derives from white) and Rubeus Hagrid. (red)  Your character might be underground or in the dark and emerge in the next stage. You’ll have symbolism of earth at this stage.

In Sorrowfish you’ll see Peter Rose, Scott Black and Dane Whitley. There’s a Nero rehab facility (Nero is black) There are other clues to which stage you are in, but those should be enough to get you started if you’re reading my work.

Act Two: Albedo (WHITE STAGE)

Purification! Hope! It’s time clean your character up. The character faces some testing or learns something that helps them to grow, usually there is water. The color white is prominent in the plot or symbolism. The characters do not change yet, but are being prepared for the final stage, the  rubedo.

So in your transformation plan, this will be the stage preceding the final act. Think of it as an equipping stage. You might give your character a truth or let them uncover a lie. You might give them a new piece of information or let someone help them. They might get a mentor, or lose a bad habit or influence. Maybe they make a good choice.

Act Three: Rubedo (RED STAGE)

Now it’s time for the fires of testing. With this last stage the main character’s path leads to a choice that shows in action the truth they have learned or the decision they have made. We see the transformation as the world applies pressure and conflict. The heat goes up and the red character might kick things off for this final act. (Right, Jesse Pinkman?)

At the end of the story, the last scene should mirror the first scene as closely as possible. The person should be in the same place, forever changed, possibly in a changed world.

More to come!

Ok, so this is the rough overview of how to use literary alchemy. (I used it in this post, as well, did you catch that?)

I’ll go into more depth on how to use ring structure in my next post. Till then, happy writing!

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2 thoughts on “Literary Alchemy

  1. “So this guy tells how to analyze stories to see if they are using the model. He wrote a book about it. But no one is talking about how to write with it. I’ve looked. It’s like staring into a black abyss of nothing.

    This is unacceptable.”

    Isn’t that the whole point of literary criticism? It’s a set of tools used to analyse stories, not to write them!

  2. Makes sense. Using a tool set to analyze stories but not CREATE THEM is totally legit. thanks for your input.

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