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Monday, October 27, 2008

One of the books they made us read in film school way back when was Christopher Vogler's book THE WRITER'S JOURNEY: MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR WRITERS. Vogler has come out with a third edition, so I thought I'd take a read.

Vogler is coming at story structure out of the Joseph Campbell HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES tradition. Campbell theorized that hero stories have a similar structure across all human cultures, and that there are archetypes that we always see in them: the refusal of the call, the mentor, the inmost cave, etc.

Vogler attempts to relate Campbell's character archetypes to successful movies. Who is the Shadow? Who is the Shapeshifter? Who is the Mentor? He also outlines a basic structure for the story:

1. Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. Ordeal
9. Reward

10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir

When you try to apply this formula to some movies, it works quite well, e.g. STAR WARS. Bear in mind, though, these often seem to be movies written by writers who are consciously trying to apply Joseph Campbell to screenwriting, as George Lucas was. Back in film school, I tried a bunch of times to relate these steps to stories I was trying to tell, and I had trouble telling what step I was supposed to be on. Lisa pointed out that many of the steps applied to the series I'm working on (Natural World, Refusal of the Call) but later on it gets difficult to say which part is "The Road Back" and which is "Return with the Elixir".

When Vogler tries to fit stories that aren't intended to be epic hero tales into his formula, the results aren't so neat. It can feel like he's shoehorning the facts into the theory, as when he looks at PULP FICTION. No "Shapeshifter" character? Claim that Vincent Vega and Mia's dance moves "reflect the SHAPESHIFTER archetype, as they try out various masks and identies in the APPROACH to love" (p. 275). Uh huh.

I'm not a big fan of formula, myself. I'm agnostic about Blake Snyder's formula (see my earlier post on SAVE THE CAT!) because I can see how it might work. My problem with Vogler is that while it is an interesting way to look at movies, and to understand what they're doing for the audience, I don't see how it helps me write one. It looks like a way to analyze what is going on in a movie, rather than a way to write a movie.

I should note that Christopher Vogler is not a professional writer, but a professional story analyst (if I understand his resume right). He shares credit on one German movie. Mostly, my impression is, he works with writers that the studio feels could use someone with a deeper understanding of story structure. In that case I would imagine that his approach, actually applied by him, might work.

But if you want a mythic perspective on screenwriting -- and how it fits into the grand epic tradition of storytelling -- then you might well check out THE WRITER'S JOURNEY.

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4 Comments:

I just finished reading Political Myth by Christopher Flood, which provides a pretty good synthesis of sacred myth and political ideology.

A great chapter in it discussed ideological literature, referred to a Frenchwoman lit crit that wrote a book on just that topic. It provided me with insight both into the current political narratives of political candidates for the US presidency (the analysis in that book actually matched your analysis of the political theater of Obama) and into actual political narrative of attempted ideological literature, something very useful for what I'm working on now.

All in all, though, I think Christopher Flood provides a much more dynamic analysis of at least political mythology, which uses some amount of Joseph Campbell's analysis of sacred myth, but mixes things up with ideological analysis.

By Blogger The_Lex, at 3:03 PM  

I always took 'The Writer's Journey' to be more about the process of becoming a writer - when it's (over)applied as a story formula, like Robert McKee's maxims, the results can be clunky. But it's a great way of tracking your path through a project. Nowadays we've moved on - or back - to strict character-based discipline, haven't we?

By Blogger blogward, at 3:23 PM  

I enjoy reading Vogler because I like thinking about how some concepts have endured even into our present thinking. But I've also encountered problems trying to use it as a "beat sheet" or sorts.

I think its a more useful tool to help see what characters can do to us in the backs of our minds. How they tick and make us tick. I find it more useful to think of it as a primal force at work in kinds of types.

By Blogger SH Cone, at 8:45 PM  

I've studied Campbell a great deal. I find his insights and talks fascinating.

And while I agree with his thesis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, I don't accept the idea that every new story must be confined to that structure. I think one thing that important to remember is that myths are born of individual cultures. Most of the older myths were written when all cultures faced a common problem, surviving the harshness and limitations of the natural world.

Now, we're at a phase when, at least in the West, the physical challenges of the natural world rarely present themselves. Our society has evolved, and I believe we're well on our way to forming a global society. It seems like some new mythology describing this phase of evolution would emerge.
(Frankly, I thought "The Matrix" might be the first instance of such, but the two sequels tanked. I wish the Waschowski brothers had focused on their scripts more, and less on video games, animae, and highway construction.)

By Blogger David, at 9:39 PM  

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