Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Writer's Journey

I have just finished reading and reviewing The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Here's the review I wrote for Amazon.

Christopher Vogler readily acknowledges his debt to Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 seminal work on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces  is the source of the Hero's Journey that Vogler uses as his template for an effective screenplay. Vogler's more contemporary style is perhaps more accessible for the modern reader, and his many examples from well-known movies ('Shane', 'Star Wars', 'Titanic') really help to demonstrate the practical application of the formula that he explains in rich detail here.

Make no mistake, it is a formula, and some readers have criticised Vogler (himself a Hollywood screenwriter and story consultant) for peddling a formulaic approach to the creative act. In fairness, he warns several times in the book about slavish adherence to the recipe, and is clear that no writer should simply spread out the journey map and start plotting the route accordingly. Like any writer's tool, this book is a valuable travelling companion, not a pilot. Vogler provides a good example in his analysis of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' of a great script that contains all the essentials of a Hero's Journey presented entirely unconventionally with freshness and verve.

Novelists as well as scriptwriters should find this a useful and interesting guide. Don't let it be the only book you rely on (Robert McKee's Story is another rewarding read) but be sure to take it with you if you are embarking on your own writer's journey.

As you can tell from the review, I liked it. For me, it's a good reminder of story archetypes and key stages. Among the archetypes Vogler presents in the book are:

The Hero
The Mentor
The Threshold Guardian
The Herald
The Shapeshifter
The Shadow
The Ally
The Trickster  

As a little spot-check, I looked to see if I could find all of these archetypes in my novel 11:59 which I wrote before I read Vogler's book and certainly without thinking of  'mythic structures' (this is a contemporary novel). I did find all of them, and one of the things I found interesting is that one or two characters evolve from one to another - the best example is Oliver, who starts out as Fool (not strictly an archetype Vogler recognizes, except as a variation of Trickster), becomes an Ally to the 'hero' Marc, and eventually emerges as Hero himself. I like to think this mobility of archetypes is healthy, formula-resistant.

Here are the stages of the journey as Vogler sees them:

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting with the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The Ordeal
The Road Back
The Resurrection
Return with the Elixir

Again, I retro-plotted these with Marc's journey in 11:59 and could recognize all the staging-posts, except that at the end, though we are confident of Marc's Resurrection, we are left hoping that Oliver will enjoy a Resurrection too.

Vogler also has some interesting diversions on subjects such as Polarity and Catharsis, though I think towards the end of the book he gets a little New Age for me.

I'll finish this rather long posting with a few random quotes from the book that I marked as interesting.

Christopher Vogler
x. ‘An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips. If I wasn’t getting some kind of physiological reaction from a story, I knew it was only affecting me on an intellectual level and therefore it would probably leave audiences cold. ‘

7. ‘The protagonist of every story is the hero of a journey, even if the path leads only into his own mind or into the realm of relationships.’

42. The best advice is worthless if you don’t take it.’

68. ‘It’s important to remember in designing stories that most Shadow figures do not think of themselves as villains or enemies. From his point of view, a villain is the hero of his own myth, and the audience’s hero is his villain.’

162. ‘Identifying with a hero who bounces back from death is bungee-jumping in dramatic form.’

224. ‘All the subplots should be acknowledged or resolved in the Return. Each character should come away with some variety of Elixir or learning.’

308. ‘We thwart the deep wishes of the audience at our peril. Movies that deny the wishes of the audience to see the heroes ultimately happy or fulfilled may not perform well at the box office. The audience will inwardly cheer for poetic justice – the hero receiving rewards proportionate to his struggle, the villain receiving punishment equivalent to the suffering he has inflicted on others. If that sense of poetic justice is violated, if the rewards and punishments and lessons don’t match up to our wishes for the characters, we sense something is wrong with the story, and go away unsatisfied.’

309. Polarity is an essential principle of storytelling, governed by a few simple rules but capable of generating infinite conflict, complexity, and audience involvement.’

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