Masterful Storytelling

WritersJourney3rddropWe live in remarkable times. Stories are told in every part of the world, and shared with millions of people. Once, this was the domain of the rich and powerful. Today, anybody can tell a story, and share the majesty of their ideas.

Of course, some stories are better than others. There is an art and a craft to all of this, a discipline studied in college programs and in private instruction taught by masters.

One such master is a Hollywood story consultant named Christopher Vogler. Since 1998, Vogler has been the industry expert on a particular, popular type of storytelling and character development. He explains it all in a wonderful book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,  now published in its third edition by Michael Weise Productions.

No doubt, you are familiar with the structure of the mythical hero’s journey. You’ve seen it in so many movies. The hero of the story does not begin as a hero. Instead, he or she (more often, he) is an ordinary guy doing ordinary things every day. Then, something happens, and suddenly, he is thrust into an uncomfortable role, reluctant to proceed in anything resembling a heroic journey. Inevitably, the wizened old mentor or the playful talking dog shows up, and the ordinary guy begins to understand that he has no choice, that he must pursue the journey whether or not he wants to do so.

It’s Star WarsThe Wizard of Oz, Sister Act, Big, Raiders of the Lost Ark… you know the routine, but it’s still a story we love to experience, a story we love to tell. It’s the human experience, each time presented anew.

We’re on a mission from God” — Dan Ackroyd and John Landis, screenplay, Blues Brothers

So what’s so special about this book? Well, Vogler has a tidy way of breaking down each of the steps along the journey. For example, after leaving the ordinary world; hearing the call to adventure; refusing the call; meeting with the mentor; encountering tests, enemies and allies; and approaching an innermost cave, the hero is inevitably faced with an ordeal that must be overcome in order to move ahead with the journey. Joseph Campbell, whose book, Hero with A Thousand Faces, covers much of the same territory from a mythological analysis perspective, also arrives, at this point in the journey, at the greatest challenge and the fiercest opponent. So here’s the secret of the ordeal:

Heroes must die so they can be reborn.

To be clear, “the dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way, in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality. Most of the time, they magically survive this death and are literally or symbolically reborn to reap the consequences of having cheated death. They have passed the main test of being a hero.”

Vogler goes on to explain that heroes “don’t just visit death and come home. They return changed, transformed.” So, the ordeal serves as a central core to the story, the place where the variety of story threads begin to tie together in a meaningful way. BUT–the crisis is not the climax of the story. That’s a completely different concept, a part of the story that arrives much later on (near the end, in fact.)

One reason why we love to watch the hero’s journey time and again is because every story is unique. Vogler explains how and why this may be true. Most often, the crisis occurs at the story’s mid-point, which Vogler describes as a tent pole–if it’s too far to one side, the tent sags / the audience’s interest wanes. (He reminds us that our word “crisis” comes from a Greek word meaning “to separate.” Vogler looks at the question of ordeal from many different perspectives, each one a driver that we’ve all experienced in the movies or in good fiction: a crisis of the heart, standing up to a parent, witnessing the death of a loved one, going crazy with emotion, and the list goes on.

If you’re sensing that The Writer’s Journey might be a useful tool for both constructing and de-construcing stories, you’re beginning to understand the value of Volger’s accomplishment. For the writer attempting to tell a story in a way that will ring true for the reader or the audience, this would seem to be an essential tool. For the reader, or the movie fan who wants to better understand the art and craft of storytelling, the deep secrets of the creative team, this book exposes the magic for the trickery that it is, then waves its cape to reveal far deeper magic within. For the English teacher, or professor, in search of a far better way to connect with students who ought to read or write with greater proficiency, here’s the elixir.

Of course, that’s only part of the story: the writing. Next up, from the same publisher: how to tell the visual story to ignite the audience’s imagination.

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