Storycrafting 1 – The Hero’s Journey

Posted on May 14, 2016


Just some ramblings about other peoples’ good works and how to apply them to the things you might be trying to do.

I was talking to a friend of mine who had a premise and was interested in turning that into a story. So he asked me if I had any “story outlines.” Of course I mentioned I might have a few and promptly sent him some links on story theory. I’m afraid I may have done him a grave disservice.

Just because a lot of people have had a lot to say lately, the basic concepts have been around for a long time. Aristotle was the first to layout what makes a good story in Poetics several hundred years B.C. and he had a lot to say on the subject that holds true today.  Here, a very good treatise on it:

Plot is the “first principle,” the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents”: i.e., not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. According to Aristotle, tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Plots that meet this criterion will have the following qualities (context). See Freytag’s Triangle for a diagram that illustrates Aristotle’s ideal plot structure, and Plot of Oedipus the King for an application of this diagram to Sophocles’ play.

  1. The plot must be “a whole,” with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, called by modern critics the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are downplayed but its effects are stressed). The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i.e., its causes and effects are stressed). The end, or resolution, must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed); the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive moment (context). Aristotle calls the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis), in modern terminology the complication. He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the resolution the “unravelling” (lusis), in modern terminology the dénouement (context).
  2. The plot must be “complete,” having “unity of action.” By this Aristotle means that the plot must be structurally self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus ex machina (context). According to Aristotle, the worst kinds of plots are “‘episodic,’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”; the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the same person. Playwrights should exclude coincidences from their plots; if some coincidence is required, it should “have an air of design,” i.e., seem to have a fated connection to the events of the play (context). Similarly, the poet should exclude the irrational or at least keep it “outside the scope of the tragedy,” i.e., reported rather than dramatized (context). While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his plots, he “ought to show invention of his own and skillfully handle the traditional materials” to create unity of action in his plot (context). Application to Oedipus the King.
  3. The plot must be “of a certain magnitude,” both quantitatively (length, complexity) and qualitatively (“seriousness” and universal significance). Aristotle argues that plots should not be too brief; the more incidents and themes that the playwright can bring together in an organic unity, the greater the artistic value and richness of the play. Also, the more universal and significant the meaning of the play, the more the playwright can catch and hold the emotions of the audience, the better the play will be (context).
  4. The plot may be either simple or complex, although complex is better. Simple plots have only a “change of fortune” (catastrophe). Complex plots have both “reversal of intention” (peripeteia) and “recognition” (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe. Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon surprise. Aristotle explains that a peripeteia occurs when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he intended to produce, while an anagnorisis “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” He argues that the best plots combine these two as part of their cause-and-effect chain (i.e., the peripeteia leads directly to the anagnorisis); this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the final “scene of suffering” (context). Application to Oedipus the King.

So you will note that although he was discussing tragedies, the basic form of his time, that you can map almost any movie or book you’ve ever read to it, as long as it was in narrative form. And by that I  don’t mean contemporary literary fiction MFAs write for other MFAs so that MFA programs can stay in business which has s completely different format: Things are bad. Nobody changes. They get worse. (Somewhere somebody dies.)  No, I mean stories that people care about and change the way they think, which is what stories are meant to do.

The Writer's Journey

The Writer’s Journey

Fast forward a few thousand years and enter Joseph Campbell and his concept of the Hero’s Journey monomyth that explains why this formula exists in every human culture on earth ever since we started recording stories and probably long before. Forgive me if I don’t have all of my dates and history in order here, but basically this is what happened. Enter Christopher Vogler who penned The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.  You probably want this book. It extends Campell’s ideas and tells you how to apply them to stories. He was a script reader and it started out as a treatment, but it became a bit of a blue print. It kind of took over Hollywood. James Bonnet did something similar with Stealing Fire from the Gods, and even though I found his book a bit too dense and overwhelming, it does add something fascinating to the canon: he maps the 7 character archetypes to the 7 regions of the human brain. And while this book may not have exactly made me a great writer (it was way too advanced for me when I read it), I use it all the time for meeting facilitation, because not only do stories break down along these lines, but so do social groups. So instead of  saying “Why is this person being such an ass?” I can say, “Oh, this person is playing the critic’s role. It’s the role we are having an issue with, not the person.” I think there is juice in this and I could probably give seminars in it, to the point where I corresponded with Bonnet about it for a while.

Stealing Fire from the Gods

Stealing Fire from the Gods

What were we talking about? Oh, right stories. At this point a lot of people had decomposed stories, and while I’ve done a bunch of research on this all of this work seems to be applied to movies, I don’t know why. At this point I couldn’t tell you who was first, best, or smartest. Every body has a book on it and you can go to dozens of seminars. But here is the point I want to make, and where I mislead my friend. Certainly there are hundreds of thousands of would-be screenwriters who are not quite clear on this:

Story theory is not  plot outline.

Let me give you an example of what I’m trying to say.

“Rock songs (and most other song genres) follow three different song forms. The first is ABA, a song structure typical of shorter songs (though some long songs, such as Master of Puppets by Metallica, have this form). This means that the song starts with an A section, which is the introduced verse and chorus. Then, the song moves to a new part, which is the bridge of the song. Then the song moves back into the original chorus.”

There you go. Now you know that many, many famous songs are written on the same framework. Can you now write a song?

Well, no. I mean if you had the idea for a song you might now start to attach that idea to a structure that you had confidence in working.  That is a different blog post.

I’m not trying to be trite here. You can certainly entertain a healthy skepticism that there is a universal story outline. When I came to story theory, I’d already written a few stories that I thought “worked” and that I really liked. It was pretty easy for me to map my stories to some of these outlines and convince myself I was already using the outline, even though I didn’t know it. (To be fair, you do make adjustments in short stories, there is a really good post on this here.)

My Story Can Beat Up Your Story

My Story Can Beat Up Your Story

I think all writers should understand the Hero’s Journey. It’s part of your craft. Years ago I read Stealing Fire from the Gods, and frankly while I thought it was brilliant, I wasn’t ready for it. Over the years, I’ve picked up other books, like My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, which I also found really helpful for understanding patterns and having a methodology. This is the 3rd book you should get. But don’t use them as outlines! I never really use any of these formats before I write a story. I don’t sit down with a stack of pre-printed hero’s journey cards (hey, now there is an idea….) and start to fill them in. Usually I write a story, and then if something is bugging me about the story, or if it gets stuck, or I just plain don’t like it, I’ll troll through some of these sites and get ideas. For instance Act 2 generally sucks, but MSCBUYS has some great suggestions on Act 2. If I’m stuck I might thumb through it while my subconscious is solving things.

In the end, you should never feel constrained by the outline, just supported by it to solve problems. When I first deconstructed my own story, Die with a Human Heart, I suffered a lot of self-doubt because my Inciting Incident doesn’t happen until the second half of the second act, almost at the end of the story.  But it’s the thing that drives the entire story (hence the Inciting part of Inciting Incident). I tried to move it, but in my head this is where I wrote it, this is where it fit, this is where it belonged. And so I trusted myself, but not really until I read some guru who said exactly what I’m saying now: story first, outline second. Tell a story, don’t fill out an outline, and follow your heart because a story is precisely about taking something out of your heart and trying to communicate that effectively to somebody else. But if you do get stuck, The Hero’s Journey offers you an objective way to look at your craft and a common language to discuss it with other writers.

I’ll leave you with a couple of Raymond Chandler quotes on the topic:

“And here I am at 2:30 A.M. writing about technique, in spite of a strong conviction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that’s proof he is fresh out of ideas.”

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”

“Without magic, there is no art. Without art, there is no idealism. Without idealism, there is no integrity. Without integrity, there is nothing but production.”

“All this talk about “pros” is itself sheer amateurism. There is no such thing as professionalism in writing.”

“The challenge is to write about real things magically.”

“The more you reason the less you create.”

“Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it.”

“I am a writer, and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine.”

You should probably buy some of his books, too. He didn’t publish until he was 51 and he changed the genre irrevocably. Follow your heart, change the world. Isn’t that why we create?