I read this book for work. I am a novelist, so I had to self-edit as I went, since it is written with a strong bent toward screenwriters. I was taking extensive notes, since I was planning on using the Hero’s Journey model for an upcoming project. Let’s just put it this way: I wouldn’t un-read the book, I need the information I gleaned and am thankful for it. On the other hand, it was quite dry. It read much more like a manual than a novel. Since it is more of the first than the second, I can’t really fault Vogler, but I would have loved some snazz.
So what is the Hero’s Journey, and where did this book come from?
The Hero’s Journey is a concept first pioneered by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in the 1940s. The idea is that most–if not all–stories have a discernible pattern in common (and that pattern comes from ingrained human psychoses, heavily leaning on Jung’s interpretation of it (and Freud?)). From ancient myths to modern movies, great stories–stories that resonate with people–have a number of components, structure and stages, in common. There are seventeen stages in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (also called a Monomyth), and not all of them are present in every story. Campbell’s ideas have been both expanded and refined since his presentation of them, and became very popular in the 1980s and 1990s.
Among such adherents and fans (like Bob Dylan and Geroge Lucas) was a man named Christopher Vogler. He had been working as a film producer and writer when he released a memo for Disney workers called “A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey.” This memo was based on studies of Campbell and the Monomyth and it so changed Vogler’s life, his approach to writing, and possibly even the industry, that he expanded it considerably in the first edition of A Writer’s Journey. He became a Campbell proponent, a lecturer, and a screenwriting story consultant supreme, causing a further movement in the Hero’s Journey’s own story arch.
I can’t tell you much more about Campbell’s Monomyth, but I can lay out the stages and archetypes according to Vogler. And they are: ACT ONE: Ordinary World; Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Meeting the Mentor; the First Threshold; ACT TWO: Test, Allies and Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; the Supreme Ordeal; the Reward; ACT THREE: the Road Back; Resurrection; and Return with the Elixir. The main archetypes are the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster. Vogler takes a loose approach to the whole thing, saying that stages can be moved around and archetypes can be combined or split. Gender is not set, although historically the hero and mentor have been male, the shapeshifter female. Vogler encourages the writer to play with the forms, but to keep in mind that all great stories have these things in common. I appreciate his practical approach to everything: Does it work? Great.
Vogler also embraces Campbell’s views that the Monomyth arises from the human psyche. He goes a step further, in fact, asserting that the Hero’s Journey can be used to navigate our real lives and real emotions and motives. His book is mainly a primer on the stages and archetypes of the Hero’s Journey, fleshed out and with examples. In the epilogue, Vogler also addresses such issues as the role of the reader in the interpretation of story, polarity as a theme, catharsis as a concept and a necessity, and trusting the journey of writing.
If you are a writer of any sort, this is the kind of book that if you haven’t read it already, you will want to get your hands on it. Not only are you going to look completely out of it if it comes up at your next cocktail party, but it can work for you. Vogler doesn’t suggest–just the opposite actually–that you simply plug stuff in to a Vogleresque structure. He wants to make you aware, as a writer, of what a story is–has always been–about, and how structure, plot, and characters are part of that heart-stirring, life-changing process. Especially for writers in crisis (which happens to all of us at least a few times, right?), this book could be instrumental in getting yourself out of a pickle, let alone changing the way you approach your own process.
If you are a leftist feminist or a generally angry person, you might disagree. (See “Criticism” section of Wikipedia’s article on Monomyth for some fodder.) I’ve never had a problem with generalizations as long as we don’t consider them absolutes. I admire–and participate in–anecdotal observation to make sense of things. I didn’t exactly swallow the whole psychobabble pill, but I certainty didn’t find it offensive. I would love for storytelling to continue to evolve and come up with wonderfully fresh material and yet I strongly believe that there is nothing new under the sun. Why not acknowledge our common threads while addressing the world from the stage of novel writing?
Visit Christopher Vogler’s website here.
I also loved the illustrations. And can’t believe I didn’t mention Star Wars once in the review.
“The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed too precisely” (p19).
“These wounds of rejection, betrayal, or disappointment are personal echoes of a universal pain that everyone has suffered from: the pain of the child’s physical and emotional separation from its mother. In a larger sense, we all bear the wound of separation from God or the womb of existence–that place from which we are born and to which we will return when we die” (p93).
“Hundreds of writers have told me they plotted their screenplays, romance novels, or TV sitcom episodes using the Hero’s Journey and the guidance of mythology” (p233).
“These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived” (p237).
“The Ship of Fools is an allegory, a story in which all the conditions of life and levels of society are lampooned savagely in the situation of a boatfull of pathetic passengers. It is a sardonic tale, harshly depicting the flaws in the people and social systems of its time” (p248).