Showing posts with label monomyth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label monomyth. Show all posts

Friday, December 25

Storytelling


My Dad was an amazing storyteller. Because of him, I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about stories, thinking about whether there’s something that great stories have in common.

There is: the hero’s journey. (Also called the monomyth.)

I started blogging about writing in 2010 because I believed that, as Seneca wrote, "by teaching we are learning." My blog grew from that quest.

The sort of stories I focus on are genre stories. Those are the kind of stories that keep decent hardworking folk up until indecent hours, unable to put their book down until they find out what happened, whether the hero or heroine rescued their love, recovered the treasure, saved the day. 

The key to writing good genre fiction is to create suspense. Which means creating complex, compelling, characters, putting them in an interesting yet hostile setting, introducing believable opposition with clear stakes, and wrapping it all up in a well thought out plot.

So...simple. ;)

Genre

I know it’s an obvious point, but stories within the same genre have a common structure. An example: for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will be a sleuth and they will uncover various clues. Some of these will help the sleuth nab the murderer, some won't. Certain characters will be red herrings and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the story the sleuth will reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how they uncovered the suspects' lies to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

Murder mystery stories are a subgenre of mystery stories, but the divisions and subdivisions don't stop there. There are many different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more demanding set of requirements. A cozy or whodunit (think of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above as well as a logical, rational solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions. The focus is on the mystery of the murder itself--how it was accomplished--as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. It is crucial that the storyteller plays fair with the reader and tells them everything the sleuth learns as he or she learns it. A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and its solution and more on action and gritty realism. 

I'm not going to go through each genre and give a detailed map of reader expectations. What I'm going to do is talk about a structure that is common to all good stories, regardless of genre. At least, that's the plan. 

A Three Act Structure

Most stories can be broken into three acts.

Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter

Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfolds, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story revolves around his quest. That's what a story is, fundamentally: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.

The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure

The Ordinary World of the hero is static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He isn't happy but he's afraid that if he tries to change anything things will get worse. 

During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world. This change will eventually effect the hero and shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who says he wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.

When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairytale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea. 

Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp. Shrek accepts and, in the process of accomplishing his mission, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.

The Lock In

At the end of the first act the hero is locked into their quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if they do, there is no going back.

In Shrek, when Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest. 

In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone. 

I think the most obvious case of the Lock In is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.

Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half

At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage. 

In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies and Enemies. It is also here, at the beginning of Act Two, that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of Trials and Tests is also a time of Fun and Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.  

The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the villain and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding between the hero and their sidekick, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? 

The Midpoint

Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. René Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars, Luke discovers the Death Star.

Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the Midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but the Midpoint marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the villain. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the villain's--as well as the hero's--place in it. 

After the confrontation at the Midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the Midpoint he will also fail at the Climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the Midpoint he will likely win at the Climax.

Regardless of whether the hero wins at the Midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the Climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home--as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy!--will lie in the balance. 

Another important change that occurs around the Midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is driving the story forward, it's also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.

Disaster

Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment (or, rather, by a series of them where each is more intense than the one before). As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when Shrek overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona is talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.

The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was deriding him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.

Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter

After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. Because of the way the B-story ends, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict as well; this often takes the form of an epiphany. The hero then uses this revelation to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal. 

 I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero lacked empathy but now understands how other people feel.

Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If there is no inner conflict, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero who lacks any significant internal conflict.) 

(Note: Though, having said this, one of my readers quite rightly pointed out that Indiana Jones starts out the movie doubting that the power of the Ark is real. By the end he knows it is. So his is a journey from ignorance to knowledge.)

One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes and he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One. 

I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it. 

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

Aftermath

In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? This is where any loose ends are tied up.

Caveat

I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a unique structure if looked at in all their particularity. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different. The bottom line is: If a story works, then it works.

The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right! 

As I write I like to think about the structure of the story I'm working on and make it explicit. Often, if I feel something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be your guide.

Recommended Reading

Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D. James.

Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

Le Guin’s Hypothesis, at Book View Cafe by Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules.

Tuesday, March 19

Chuck Wendig On Story Structure, Part 2

Chuck Wendig On Story Structure, Part 2
What follows is based on Chuck Wendig's fabulous post (adult language warning): 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure.

This is part two of a mini-series, here's a link to Part 1: Chuck Wendig On Story Structure.


The Microcosm Mirrors The Macrocosm


Chuck Wendig writes:
Whatever structure you give to a story is also a structure you can give to an individual act. In this way, each act is like a story within a story with its own ups and downs and conflicts and resolutions.
An example of this is how--in stories at least--things tend to come in threes.

The Magic Of Three


Chuck Wendig writes:
[Omne Trium Perfectum is] Latin for ... “Every set of three is complete.” Even if you ignore all other structural components, this is a good one to keep an eye on — the Rule of Threes suggests that all aspects of your story should have at least three beats. Anything that has any value or importance should be touched on three times and, further, evolve a little bit each time. Every character arc, every act, every scene, every setting, every motif or theme, needs you the storyteller to call it back at least three times.
Further:
You could argue that all stories fall into three acts — and, in filmmaking, if they don’t fall that way they’re damn well pushed. Act One is the Set-Up (first 25%), Act Two is the Confrontation (next 50%), Act Three is the Resolution (final 25%). It’s an imperfect description and damn sure not the only description, and in the grand scheme of things you could, if you chose, distill it down to beginning, middle, and end.

Arcs


Like stories, arcs have three parts, a beginning, middle and end. Chuck writes that "a story comprises a number of smaller and larger arcs". Anything can have an arc, not just stories and characters. For example, "[c]haracters, themes, events, settings ..." can all have arcs.

Your main character's arc--from desire/motivation, getting a goal, encountering obstacles, encountering more obstacles, attaining her goal (or failing to)--lasts for the entire story. Heck, it is the story. But all the main characters can, and should, have their own arc. Many antagonists even have arcs (for more on this read How To Build A Villain, By Jim Butcher).

Chuck writes:
Some [arcs] fill a whole story, some are just little belt loops popping up here and there. Some arcs begin where others end. Many overlap, rubbing elbows or shoulders .... Television is a great place to study arcs (and if I may suggest a show: Justified, on FX). Comic books, too.

Well, that's it! I thought it would take me three posts to get through the material in 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, but it only took two. Yesterday I wrote about the monomyth and story structure and, of course, I'll be revisiting points Chuck Wendig touched on such as Freytag's Pyramid, the 7 act structure, and Vladimir Propp's 31 structural steps explicating "the narrative nature of folk-tales (Russian folk-tales in particular)".

Hope you have a great writing day!

By the way, the first chapter of Chuck Wendig's new book, Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits, is up over at io9.

What are you working on right now? Are you writing a first draft or editing one?

Other articles you might like:

- A Chance To Meet Stephen King And Help Mark Twain House
- Hugh Howey's 3 Rules For Writing
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Photo credit: "els pets:al seient del costat" by visualpanic under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, March 11

Writing And The Monomyth, Part Three

Writing And The Monomyth, Part Three

9. The Reward


As I mentioned in Part 2 of Writing And The Monomyth, the basic structure of the monomyth is that of a quest. The hero wants something and he wants it so much he gives up his ordinary life and goes in search of it. Everything, all the trials and tribulations the hero and his companions endure, have led to this point: the reward. Christopher Vogler writes:
With the crisis of the Ordeal passed, heroes now experience the consequences of surviving death. With the dragon that dwelt in the Inmost Cave slain or vanquished, they seize the sword of victory and lay claim to their Reward. (Stage Nine: Reward)
This is a time for celebration, even if it only lasts for a moment. It is an important milestone. 

A note on pacing


When I first read The Writer's Journey it puzzled me that the hero gets his reward about 65% of the way through the second act. I had always thought the hero would get his reward after the climax which generally comes 90 to 99% of the way through the story. For example, Blake Snyder and Michael Hauge's systems are like this.

I'll have more to say about this in another post.


10. The Road Back


Christopher Vogler condenses five of Joseph Campbell's stages (Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Within, Crossing the Threshold and Return) into one: The Road Back.

For those keeping track of the act structure, this takes us from Act Two into Act Three. The hero returns from the special world of the adventure grasping the elixir of life.  Vogler writes:
Often heroes are motivated to hit The Road Back when the forces they have defied in the Ordeal now rally and strike back at them. If the elixir was stolen from the central forces rather than given freely, there may be dangerous repercussions.

Setbacks/Complications and higher stakes


The hero often suffers setbacks on the road home. Perhaps his mentor dies, or perhaps he has failed the ordeal, he may temporarily turn from his quest and need to talk to someone to get him back on track, just like what happened at the beginning when he received a call to adventure.

The hero often encounters tests again, but things have escalated. When the hero first came into the special world he was playing for much lower stakes, he was practicing, getting accustomed to his new surroundings, making friends and probably a few enemies. Yes, it was potentially lethal practise, but practise nevertheless.

The hero and his band are no longer playing war games, they're going to war. People that were the hero's enemy become his allies--perhaps his grouchy, unwilling allies, but allies nevertheless. People he thought were his friends betray him.


11. Resurrection


This is where the climax occurs. The hero goes head-to-head against the antagonistic force, whatever that is, and either wins or fails. Christopher Vogler writes:
At the simplest level, the Resurrection may just be a hero facing death one last time in an ordeal, battle, or showdown. It's often the final, decisive confrontation with the villain or Shadow.

But the difference between this and previous meetings with death is that the danger is usually on the broadest scale of the entire story. The threat is not just to the hero, but to the whole world. In other words, the stakes are at their highest.
Now the villain doesn't just threaten the hero's life and the life of his companions, now he threatens the lives of the hero's family back home, the lives of his entire tribe.

Major setback/Dark night of the soul/All is lost


Often, before the Climax, there will be an all is lost moment where the hero's grand plan for bringing down the villain unravels, his powers are ripped from him and he is plopped in a dark slimy pit of despair. But the hero will find a way out and there will be a showdown between him and the villain/antagonist. Whether the hero wins or loses is up to you and the kind of story you want to write.


12. Return With The Elixir


Christopher Vogler writes:
The most popular story design seems to be the circular or closed form, in which the narrative returns to its starting point. In this structure you might bring the hero literally full circle back to the location or world where she started. Perhaps the Return is circular in a visual or metaphoric way, with a replay of an initial image, or the repetition of a line of dialogue or situation from Act One. This is one way of tying up loose ends and making a story feel complete. The image or phases may have acquired a new meaning now that the hero has completed the journey.The original statement of the theme may be re-evaluated at the Return. Many musical compositions return to an initial theme to rephrase it at the ending.

Aftermath/Denouement


Show how the hero's life has been changed as well as the lives of his allies. For instance, in Erin Brockovich, at the end of the movie she has her own office and receives a huge, life changing, bonus for her work.

#  #  # 

There is SO much more that can be said about the stages of the monomyth, and I do plan to return to this soon. I'm working on an outline that incorporates the various systems (Blake Snyder, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, etc.) into one. Or at least that's the goal!

Do you use the monomyth to help structure your writing?

Other articles you might like:

- Writers Beware of Authariam
- Chuck Wendig's Editing Plan: Edit A Novel In Four Months
- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Random Sentence

Photo credit: "She Was Completely Transparent With Me" by Randy Son Of Robert under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, March 3

The Writer's Journey: Writer As Hero


I'm in the middle of writing a series on the monomyth so I couldn't resist sharing this inspirational series of blogs about the writer as hero by Martina Boone (@MartinaABoone).


The Writer's Journey: Writer As Hero


Martina, rather than writing about the hero's journey per se, talks about the journey writers travel every time we tell a tale. She writes:
[T]he other day while I was on the phone with the brilliant Angela Ackerman ... I had a revelation. The journey the hero takes in our manuscripts is essentially the same journey many of us take as writers. (The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part One)
So here it is, a journey where the writer is the hero and his (or her) quest is to write a story. Martina writes:

THE ORDINARY WORLD


Here we are, bumbling through our careers and family lives, vaguely uneasy and unfulfilled but maybe not even aware that there's a void inside us, a gaping wound. Why haven't we written yet? It could be that we tried and failed, or that we had to get on with the business of making a living, or raising kids, or maybe we have a family who has always dismissed writing as a pointless pursuit—something everyone wants to try but only a chosen few achieve. Implying, of course, that we're not good enough. So we shelve our illicit hopes, paint on a smile, and get on with our lives not realizing that something inside is tugging us in a different direction than the path we are still trudging down.

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE


But then . . . Then we have a dream, or read a book, or see a movie, or witness an event that shakes us. Something stirs inside us, an elusive wisp of an idea scented with adventure. It begins to rise and pull us with it, beckoning us to come along, to put our own spin on the wheel of inspiration.

REFUSAL OF THE CALL


Of course we refuse. We're human. We're afraid. We don't have time, we don't have money, we don’t have the knowledge to pursue something as overwhelming as writing an actual book.

Or maybe we don't refuse. Maybe we take those first tentative stops, only to hear someone else, someone who means well, who doesn't want to see us hurt or disillusioned, make the refusal for us. For our own good. Because really, the idea of writing for publication is absurd, and we shouldn't have any expectations.
Martina goes on to recount a writer's trials and tribulations, his or her conflicts, as he or she travels through each stage of the monomyth; above, I've just given you the first three.

Here are the links to Martina Boone's articles (there are two in the series):

The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part One
The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part Two

Before I end this article, here is a link that's just too good not to pass on (thanks Martina!): Plotting Made Easy--The Complications Worksheet.

By the way, Martina has a wonderfully informative blog (Adventures In YA and Children's Publishing).

Other articles you might like:

- Hugo Gernsback And The Future That Might Have Been
- Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two
- How To Communicate Setting: Establishing Shots

Photo credit: "bridging knowledge to health" by paul bica under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 1

Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two


Writing And The Monomyth Continued


Yesterday I began writing about what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth (see Writing And The Monomyth), although I drew more from Christopher Vogler's version of the myth than Campbell's.

Today I want to pick up where I left off and examine the final seven or so steps. (update: I only made it to the midpoint, so I'll attempt to finish off tomorrow.)


6. Tests, Allies and Enemies


The hero has just crossed the threshold from the ordinary world and has landed, probably with a few bumps and bruises, in the special world. In a screenplay this plot point would also mark the beginning of the second act. 

Blake Snyder in Save The Cat! make the point that the Special World should be as different as possible from the Ordinary World (for instance, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Miss Congeniality). If the Ordinary World is the thesis then the Special World is the Antithesis.

Something BIG needs to happen to propel the hero (because I'm talking about the monomyth it feels natural to talk about heroes and villains rather than protagonists and antagonists) from the Ordinary World into the Special World.

The hero must enter the Special World of the adventure willingly, he can't be tricked or abducted, it must be an intentional act.

B Story


Blake Snyder makes the point that this is also the place where we start the "B Story", a subplot that, in some way, is the antithesis, the opposite, of the "A Story", the main plot. In Legally Blond this is where Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) meets Paulette (played by Jennifer Coolidge) in the beauty shop. Paulette--big and showy--stands in stark contrast to Elle's other, more reserved, friends.

The B Story is often a love story, one that echos the theme.

Fun and Games


As our hero meets some of the people in the special world and gains a few allies, makes a few enemies, we can relax a little. We can have a bit of fun as we get to know our new friends and become adapted to the strange new world

If there is a 'feel good' part of the story, it comes out here.


7. Approach to the Inmost Cave


We have almost reached the middle of the story. The hero must now become serious and prepare for the ordeal ahead of him. If your hero has a love interest there's time for one last love scene before facing the ordeal awaiting him. This is a good way, too, of making the stakes clear.

In preparation for the ordeal, the hero might try to 'think like the antagonist', to get inside his mind.

However your hero does it, he's going to have to prepare for the ordeal. Even if he is blindsided by the danger he needs to make a conscious decision that he will confront the antagonistic force, whatever it is.

At this point perhaps the hero reorganizes his party, perhaps he makes alliances with his enemies. As he gets closer to the ordeal the pressure builds and the mettle of his traveling companions--as well as his own--will be tested.

As the hero approaches the inmost cave he is beset with obstacles. Common obstacles are illusions--perhaps illusions created by threshold guardians--ominous warnings, impossible tests (I always think of the Kobayashi Maru in this context!), and so forth.


8. The Ordeal


We have reached the middle of the story and are in the midst of Act Two. The hero will confront the antagonistic force working against him and either appear to win big or lose big. Neither of these, though, will be a complete victory/defeat.

Michael Hauge calls this "the point of no return". The hero is now completely committed, there is no going back to the Ordinary World except by finishing the journey.

For instance, in The Firm at the midpoint Mitch McDeere is given a choice: go into witness protection and live in fear of being killed by the mob or spend the rest of his life in prison. Whatever happens his life has been irrevocably changed.

What needs to happen at the midpoint:


- A false peek (it all seems to go right for the hero) or a false collapse (everything seems to go wrong).

- The stakes are raised. The midpoint needs to change the whole dynamic of the story. Fun and games are over, now things become much more serious, much more intense.

The midpoint is a place of transformation, of death and resurrection.  Either here at The Midpoint or, later, on The Road Back, there is often a death, either a literal one--for instance, the hero's mentor dies--or a symbolic one. Someone could tell a story about death or, this is Blake Snyder's suggestion, show a dead flower. But there should be a hint of death, a reminder of the price the hero has had to pay for his victory.

#  #  #

Well! It seems, once again, I've underestimated how many words this would take to explain. I'm going to leave off at the midpoint--it seemed appropriate--and I'll pick up this discussion again tomorrow.

Can you think of a movie, a movie you liked, that does not follow the structure of the monomyth?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Communicate Setting: Establishing Shots
- Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame
- How To Edit: Kill Your Darlings

Photo link: "the army" by linh.ngan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, February 28

Writing And The Monomyth

Writing And The Monomyth

Let's get back to talking about writing, the butt-in-chair stuff.


The Monomyth


Just as all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, all plots are variations of the monomyth. Perhaps, in writing circles, the best known version of the myth is the one popularized by Christopher Vogler in his wonderful book, The Writer's Journey.

I believe that every writer has internalized his or her own particular version of the monomyth. This is the structure that organizes our stories.

Each of our individual monoymths is going to be different because each writer is unique. We each have a different perspective on life and the world and this is going to show itself in our work.

What follows is my version of the monomyth. This version is no better than anyone else's (and hopefully no worse!) and I present it here more as an exercise for myself to make my implicit understanding of story structure explicit. If something I write resonates with you then I invite you to use it and if something doesn't then ignore it, it's not for you.


The Stages of the Monomyth


1. The ordinary world


Here we see the hero (the hero can be a male or female) in the ordinary world. This is the life he is used to. For instance, at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope we see Luke working on his Uncle's farm.

SHOW the hero in the ordinary world. Take this as an opportunity to show what the hero is good at. What is he comfortable with? What is he terrible at? What are his hopes and dreams?

2. Call to adventure


A force crashes into the heroes ordinary world. Something happens, something changes. Perhaps a herald/messenger comes with news that the hero's great uncle has passed away and left him a mansion. Perhaps a malfunctioning droid shows him pictures of a pretty girl pleading for help.

3. Refusal of the call


The hero doesn't always refuse the call to adventure, but at the very least he has to consider what answering the call would mean. What would he have to give up? What might he gain?

4. Meeting the mentor


If the hero refuses the call to adventure the mentor can help spell out the stakes for him and motivate him to explore the strange new world that awaaits those few brave enough to attempt the journey. Even if the hero is eager to be off, the mentor can provide him with advice, or perhaps equipment, or--if it's a fantasy--a magical charm or three.

Often the mentor travels with the hero as a helper. Nearly always the mentor dies or leaves the party before the climax of the story, leaving the hero on his own to meet the final test alone.

Think of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid or Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope. The mentor knows more about the special world where the adventure will take place (e.g., the world beyond Luke's home planet of Tatooine; knowledge of The Force).

5. Entering the special world 


Before the hero leaves the ordinary world he often has to pass a test given by a threshold guardian. He doesn't quite pass the test, or he does but he makes the guardian angry, and is tossed into the belly of a whale, or trash compactor, or otherwise left for dead.

In any case, something happens to the hero such that he is swallowed into the unknown and begins--perhaps grudgingly--to adapt to the ways of the special world.

The special world is the land of adventure. There are different rules here, different social norms, different dangers. What the hero was good at he is no longer and what the hero couldn't do before now becomes possible.

After entering the special world the hero goes through a period of adjustment. Think about Luke when he goes into the Mos Eisley Cantina with Obi Wan Kenobi and the wonderful strangeness of the customers, the setting.

Have you ever used the monomyth to help structure your stories? Is there another structure you use? If so, please share!
Update: The discussion of the monomyth is continued here: Writing And The Monomyth, Part 2.

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Photo credit: "let's type" by |vvaldzen| under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.