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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Shape of the Story

My daughter has been learning about Joseph Campbell's *The Hero's Journey* and *The Monomyth* in her classroom, and I've been enjoying reading her notes over her shoulder.

Let me preface my commentary this morning by saying that I think Campbell was quite insightful to have extricated a generalized structure out of myth, and his work was groundbreaking. The rumor is that George Lucas wrote Star Wars with his notepad in one hand and Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in the other. Campbell certainly discovered a deep truth about story.

Still, I'm struck by just how clunky his *set of rules* is. For a lengthy homework assignment my daughter recently had to fit an already-produced story into the *Monomyth* model. She chose Ironman, one of my current favorites, a beautifully done film that is as classically structured as a fairy tale. And with this just-about-perfectly-structured movie, with the midpoint falling right at the 51 through 54% mark (you can't get much better than that!), she still had to do a little shoe-horning in order to make this movie fit into the following 17 (!) stages:

1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. Belly of The Whale
6. The Road of Trials
7. Mother as Goddess
8. Woman as Temptress
9. Atonement with the Father
10. Apotheosis
11. The Ultimate Boon
12. Refusal of the Return
13. The Magic Flight
14. Rescue from Without
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
16. Master of Two Worlds
17. Freedom to Live

It made me realize why people don't tend to use Campbell's story structure anymore. A common complaint with this model, related to the fact that it IS so rigid, is that the stories produced tend to all look the same. It gets boring after awhile.

I've also studied story structure, but I see story as a fluid thing, not hammered down by any stereotyped *stages* as Campbell does. The posts that I've identified -- such as the inciting incident or the midpoint -- do not have a particular shape, so much as they guide the story to move in a certain direction. Does this make sense? If I draw the analogy of a stream, Campbell places specifically shaped rocks along the path of the water. I'm looking, instead, at the direction the water flows. The event doesn't matter for itself, but rather with how it guides the story. The flow of the story, I've found, is remarkably similar, but the events are infinitely varied.

Very cool stuff, IMHO. Every storyteller has a unique voice and vision that cannot be duplicated. The storyteller must imagine the events truly, as he or she sees them, and not force them into a box. Dear reader, learn from writing models, experiment with them, but don't slavishly follow them. Trust yourself. Believe in your vision, and then just write.


Billy Coffey said...

I've read that about George Lucas, too. And I don't see why not, since Star Wars follows Campbell's work almost perfectly. I've read that Dan Brown did something similar when he wrote The Da Vinci Code.

There's certainly something to Campbell's theories. All of the great works from Homer to The Lord of the Rings employ similar structuring, and it seems to resonate deeply in people.

I agree, though, that his set of rules is "clunky." I'm not very formulaic. I like the freedom to experiment.

Andra M. said...

Ditto to Billy.

I wouldn't mind trying Campbell's formula to see what I come up with, but to follow it with every work, no thanks. I prefer to let my stories write themselves.

gzusfreek said...

Barbosa: "the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules." :-)

I was a "slave" to Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method for some time. A lot of good things came from it, but at some point I gave up - exasperated.

Thank you for all that post, Amy. I am a "newbie" and am truly learning from you!

Travis said...

Perhaps if I used more "rules" I'd be a tad more successful. Alas, it's not going to happen. My ADD kicks in a I get antsy...

But, maybe I can discipline myself to try it out sometime.

Ruth Dell said...

Hi Amy

Many thanks for the stream analogy- it's a great help in understanding story structure.

Best wishes