I generally am leery of screenwriting gurus who present formulas and spend books twisting and massaging stories to show that every movie fits or is fundamentally flawed. They take three hundred pages to describe what a square is, and then prove all Play-Doh is square by shoving an amorphous example blob through a square hole.
Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is one of these books at its heart, but it has narrowed its focus in a way that makes it acceptable. It is a surprisingly worthwhile and palatable read.
The book has two major sections: Mapping the Journey, which discusses the archetypes we will encounter, and Stages of the Journey, which takes us through the major plot points.
Like other books of this type, it comes complete with graphs and charts:
We are given power words, and reminded of them when they’re place in bold and all caps. But I never feel like I am being force-fed.
Vogler doesn’t attempt to define All Stories, instead focusing specifically on mythic and epic structure, which is much more manageable and sensible. If one were to try to explain “geometric shapes,” the set would be too big, too general; it is a pointless task. If one were to explain the subset of parallelograms, however, there are common characteristics that deserve definition. The specificity gives us something to discuss.
The subsets of stories he has chosen — myths and epics — are grand by nature. The Middle Ages artwork at the start of each chapter feels like it belongs. The extra-heavy page weight that makes a four hundred-page book look six hundred is somehow forgivable, or even appropriate. He makes statements like, “When you ‘spell’ a word correctly, you are in effect casting a spell,” and they’re not out of place. You may roll your eyes, but you get why he’s doing it.
Vogler is quick to allow and even encourage exceptions to his rules. He doesn’t seem threatened by films that don’t follow his structure, but instead is happy to tackle difficult stories and show how they fit. He offers Pulp Fiction as a case study, demonstrating it fits even with its non-linear story telling, and he does so convincingly. Then he applauds its untraditional nature.
Pulp Fiction reflects the postmodern condition in both style and content. […] The sequences appear to have been sliced up with a samurai sword and thrown in the air, although in fact the order of scenes has been carefully chosen to develop a coherent theme and produce a definite emotional effect. […] Pulp Fiction is part of the pop-culture jet stream, flowing easily out of the current collective unconscious, charged with images and sounds from previous eras.
Even if a story doesn’t fit, he can stick by his rules. He’s talking Joseph Campbell, defining Mythic structure, not Story structure. A film that doesn’t work is not wrong; it is simply outside of the structure’s purview. The specificity gives him an out.
Still, the definitions themselves are loose. He never defines characters, but instead defines character roles. No one is the “mentor;” different characters act as mentors at different times. Everyone is free to shift and change as the story progresses, even the hero. And the definitions, both of characters and of plot points, are valuable tools for breaking down stories, mythic or otherwise.
Vogler provides a universally applicable way of thinking without trapping himself into calling it the only way of thinking. He manages to be all encompassing without being suffocating; grand enough to be valuable without being so grand it’s ridiculous.