Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 1

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When you learn to play an instrument, you learn the proper way to hold the instrument and the proper way to make it produce sounds.  You learn the scales and the work of others, all the while learning how to read music and the basics of how it works — key signatures, beat and rhythm, etc.  In writing, we learn how to construct a story with plot, character, voice, and such.  We learn (hopefully) basic grammar and spelling, and gain an understanding on how these tools interact.  But in both arts, there is a deeper understanding to how it all works — theory.

You don’t need music theory to write a good song.  But if you study a little, if you learn what a tonic chord is and how it relates to a dominate or sub-dominate chord, you can make better, more precise music.  You won’t have to hunt around the scales for that perfect note because theory tells you where that note is — then you can choose to go with it or ignore it on purpose.

This is true in writing, too.

Now before all my fellow English majors freak out — I am not talking about Literary Theory (I hated that class with a deep passion).  Literary Theory is an approach from the reader’s side of the experience.  No, I’m talking about Writing Theory.  In particular, today, I want to explore the key writing theory: the Monomyth.  Joseph Campbell famously described the monomyth in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  If you don’t mind academic reading, I highly recommend this book.  For a more accessible take on it, I recommend The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  Though geared toward screenwriters, Vogler’s book does an excellent job of breaking down the monomyth structure and showing how it applies in modern film using everything from The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars to Pulp Fiction and Titanic.

The basic idea is that all stories — all our myths, legends, fairy tales, everything mankind has bothered to write down and share — tends to follow in one form or another, the same story, the same archetypical characters, the same events, the same everything.  Characters like the Hero, the Mentor, the Herald, and the Trickster appear again and again in everything from Gilgamesh to Beowulf, from tribal tales to the Bible, from Frankenstein to Lord of the Rings.  Plot points like setting the Ordinary World, having a Call to Adventure, the hero’s Refusal of the Call, and more mark the familiar foundation of story structure.  Not every story will include every aspect of the monomyth, but no story goes entirely without part of it.

Here’s the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey (as simplified by Vogler):

  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. The First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approaching the Inmost Cave
  8. The Ordeal
  9. The Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Returning with the Elixir.


That’s it.  Twelve easy steps.  Many are self-explanatory by title.  Some require a little more detail.  But that should serve as an appetizer.

While I intend to look deeper into this structure and its character types in the coming weeks, I want to use the rest of this post to stress a point.  Understanding the Hero’s Journey, as laid out by Campbell and revised by Vogler, does not create a solid blueprint for telling your tale anymore than having a good handle on music theory gives you a hit song every time.  It is merely another tool.  Few writers consciously approach creating a story by looking at the monomyth and thinking, “Oh, I need to include the Shapeshifter character because it’s in the blueprint.”  This thinking leads to boring writing and sometimes downright bad writing.  On occasion, you can hit gold (see Star Wars Episodes 4-6), but if you become a slave to the structure, you’ll ultimately fail (see Star Wars Episodes 1-3).

Instead, use the monomyth during the revision process to identify problems and to find possible solutions.  If a character isn’t quite working and you don’t know why, see what archetype this character falls under.  Is she fulfilling her role completely?  Sometimes mixing archetypes will help.  Perhaps there’s a plot problem that could be solved if this character took on attributes from a different archetype, too.  Has your plot stalled?  Maybe you’ve missed a classic step in the basic structure.  The twelve steps rarely appear in the same exact order, so what’s missing?  Do you need it?  If it’ll help, use it.  If not, maybe you can do the opposite of the expected step.  Maybe you have the step in there, and you need to cut it out.  Or perhaps by pondering this step, you’ll be inspired into a different direction.  The thing to see here is that by learning the monomyth, you can have the thought process above.  Otherwise, you’re just a writer banging your head against your desk, waiting for some inspiration.  That inspiration will eventually come to you and after many years you’ll have figured out much of this information on your own, but most of the time, your solution will be part of the monomyth anyway.  So why not save yourself the headache and learn it now?

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21 comments to Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 1

  • authorguy

    Back when I was writing Unbinding the Stone I had never heard of Campbell, Vogler, or the monomyth. Strangely, my story parallels the monomyth almost perfectly, probably because I was drawing on all the other stories I had ever read as patterns. (I have never taken a writing course, or been part of a crit group.) While I strive to be ‘different’ in my writing, some patterns are just too big to ignore. Even now my preference is to write the story as a cycle, end the character where he began, mostly to show his development by the contrast. Maybe in my next story I should start at point 6, go all the way around the cycle and end at point 6 again, just to be different.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

  • Great post, Stuart. I’ve used Vogler in classes and found it very useful in my own writing. I particularly like your point about avoiding the boiler plate approach to this stuff because of the formulaic stories it can produce. Absolutely true. It’s also true that Campbell was tracking ancient myths/stories, and the patterns which emerged and which Vogler and others have used subsequently really belong to a particular kind of story which is premodern in form and purpose. That’s why the pattern lends itself to those big, epic stories you cite (LLR, Star Wars). I don’t think they fit quite as well with more modern stories whose notion of heroism is more complex and whose ends are more ambiguous. That doesn’t make the model unhelpful, of course, but it reinforces that sense that you shouldn’t treat it as a boiler plate for your story. Personally, I find that the best use of the hero journey model is as a way of testing my story to see why something isn’t working, what might be missing, particularly in terms of overall plot arcs. As you suggest, I can often identify the elements of the pattern in my work though I didn’t intend them as such, and then can find ways to make elements of the pattern serve MY story better. Thanks!

  • authorguy — As artists, we always love to be different, don’t we? And yet, being different for the sake of being different has never served me well. I find it better to let the story and characters dictate to me where the unique things are. If none exist, then the story is probably too bland an idea anyway. Hmmm…seems like there’s a whole post I could write on this, too.

    AJ — I agree (obviously, since you’re agreeing with me!). And, yes, one has to reach a bit more to fit the monomyth in with Pulp Fiction then the ancient myths, but the elements still appear. Because of Faith’s recent success (Hurray Faith! 😀 ), I was thinking about how the Jane Yellowrock series fit into all this. Yup, some of the pieces are there. Of course, it’s almost impossible to escape at least a bit of the monomyth because parts of it are so broad in scope. But, ultimately, like we’ve both stated, it’s best used as a revision tool rather than a planning tool.

  • mudepoz

    OMG, There is a 12 step program for writing? Do you have to go to meetings in church basements? (I love the posts here, they really make me think.)

  • Fascinating stuff, and something that I haven’t really been exposed to. I went to college intending to study writing, but was turned off to it by a bad workshop class and didn’t come back to this first love until my education was done. I can already see how this could be enormously helpful as I begin to contemplate rewrites on the second Thieftaker book. Thanks for this, Stuart. It truly gives me a whole new way to think about my work. And yet, looking at the list and reading through the post again, I find, as seems normal, that much of my writing already follows some of these patterns. As I say, fascinating.

  • >>>On occasion, you can hit gold (see Star Wars Episodes 4-6), but if you become a slave to the structure, you’ll ultimately fail (see Star Wars Episodes 1-3).

    OMGOsh, yes. Adhering to principle instead of letting our muse guide us is an awful mistake! And that SW example is perfect. Oh — and thanks!!! Still glowing.

  • Stuart, a fantastic post. Are you going to tie this in with the Three Act Structure at some point because I think understanding how they relate is important for the ebb and flow of the story. Even just a brief discourse on that would be beneficial.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • Stuart, a fantastic post. Are you going to tie this in with the Three Act Structure at some point because I think understanding how they relate is important for the ebb and flow of the story? Even just a brief discourse on that would be beneficial.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • Excellent post. Everything I thought while I was reading it has already been articulated by others, so I’ll leave it that. Excellent post.

  • mudepoz — Isn’t there a 12-step program for everything?

    David — I got a little of this working on my Masters, but the focus in school tended toward critical reading and (argh) Literary Theory. So, much of it came afterward. As I said in the post, Campbell’s book is an academic approach, so it can be a bit thick and dry at times. Vogler’s approach might seem a bit simplistic to some, but I think it’s valuable and more than just a primer.

    Faith — In fact, now that I think about it, not only can you recognize and learn from how Lucas used and mis-used the monomyth, you can learn a lot from Star Wars by noting the effective places where Lucas veers away from the monomyth (probably by accident).

    NewGuy — I hadn’t planned on it, but since you asked, I guess I will. Isn’t that the wonderful thing about a blog? You ask for something, and it can happen! :)

    NewGuy — You’ve asked twice! Boy, you really must want this badly. 😉 Well, okay, I said I would, and I will. But first I have to delve into the monomyth itself, so don’t expect anything regard the 3-act structure until later in this series.

  • LOL. Sorry, my bad. Tried to stop my first post because I posed a question and ended the line with a period. I’ve been reading Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, where he discusses the connection between Monomyth and the Three Act Structure. It’s been quite useful for understanding what I was already doing on instinct.

    I’m interested to hear what else you have to say about the Monomyth. Keep them coming…

    NGD

  • Unicorn

    And so the TBR pile grows ever higher. Thank you for such an interesting and thought-provoking post. I’ve always thought that there’s some kind of formula for epic fantasy, but I never guessed that it might apply to other fantasy/sci-fi subgenres too… Food for thought. Meanwhile I have to figure out how the monomyth fits in with my WIP – starting on the revisions soon – and for the first time I’ve noticed that the hero is terribly cooperative. In other words, no Refusal of the Call. He just stepped up to the challenge without having to be asked twice. This is probably a dumb question, but is that a bad thing?
    Unicorn

  • NGD — No problem. I’m just having fun with you. I haven’t read James Scott Bell’s book, so I can’t say much there, but I’m glad it’s working for you.

    Unicorn — Let me overstress this because it’s very important. The monomyth is a guide or a reference but not, I repeat NOT, a mandate. While the idea of the reluctant hero, the one who tries not to accept the quest but ultimately will, is most often used, it is not required. Conan the Barbarian is hardly a reluctant hero. He’ll jump into a mess with barely a thought. And while I haven’t read Harry Potter in a while, he’s a bit of a mix, isn’t he? His “call” could be construed as the point at which he learns he’s a wizard and must go to Hogwarts. He wants to go. It’s his Aunt and Uncle who refuse it for him. Later, he is faced with other”calls,” some like that little thing about defeating Voldemort he is less enthused about dealing with, but his initial step into the realm of a new world is made with eagerness. So, no, it’s not a bad thing to have a hero ready to go. It’s just more common that the hero balks a little — mostly for dramatic effect. Again, if you learn the monomyth then you can make informed decisions on when and where to go against it. So, if you find that your hero doesn’t have enough conflict, this might be (but, again, is not required to be) a place to fix that. Make sense?

  • I loved the monomyth, but I also thought there was a monofairy tale. So I created a structure for that, just for fun :)

    http://suzimcgowen.blogspot.com/2010/05/labyrinth-plotting-method.html

    I heard some comments about myths being (mostly) male centered, and fairy tales are (mostly, but not completely) female centered, so I wanted to see if that would create any differences in why the character is called, and the character responds to that call.

    It was fun to play around with.

  • Thanks for bringing this up, Stuart. Do you intend to address the twelve parts of the journey individually?

    UF author Shanna Swendson has been talking about this exact thing in her biweekly posts / mailing list. Right now we’re up to “The Road Back”. I’m interested in hearing your take on this topic.

  • Suzi — I’ve not heard about a monofairy tale. I’ll have to check yours out.

    Laura — I am going to go a bit more into each step and some of the character archetypes but not one post for each. If I did that, I’d have no room to write about anything else the rest of the year!

  • Sarah

    “Again, if you learn the monomyth then you can make informed decisions on when and where to go against it. ”

    Yes! Great post Stuart – the more we become aware of the cultural structures that are guiding our reading and writing practice the more conscious control we’ll have over our use of them. May I add that another useful practice is to read foreign literature? I mean really foreign. Read books that are so weird you feel like they were written by aliens. I took a class in college on the modern Japanese novel that shook up my whole concept of plot and character and symbolic structure. African literature can have the same effect on those of us who grew up enmeshed in American/European literary structures. I’m not saying that the European literary heritage is bad – I’m a 3 act, monomyth, premodern kind of gal myself. But I was really shaken up (in good ways) by reading novels whose authors base their world on Zen Buddhism and subscribe to the view that “a story is not a mountain to be climbed. Rather it is a bamboo stand. All the elements of the story must be connected like the roots of the bamboo, present but not seen, with each element standing on its own, some leaning on others, some standing beside.”

  • Sarah — Well said. I totally agree. I’ve been a fan of Asian writing, film, anime, etc for quite awhile and I love how what constitutes a story can be very different from our expectations. The mixture of SF and Fantasy as one in the same and their specific archetypes that we don’t have (like the child savant) fascinate me. In non-genre work, there is a subtlety and sparseness that we can learn a lot from. So, I’m 100% right there with you!

  • Unicorn

    Thank you for the reply, Stuart. Yes, it made a lot of sense, especially with the Harry Potter example. Thanks again.
    Unicorn

  • Fair enough, Stuart. Shanna’s been talking about archetypes at length over the last few years, and just the twelve parts of the journey alone has been going since halfway through August.

    Here’s the links if you’re interested – http://shannaswendson.com/archetypes.html,
    and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/writewithshanna/. I’ve found them both very educational.

  • greggarious

    Intriguing distinction between myth and fairy tale.
    I’m going to say that the difference is that a myth has mythic themes (world-changing, challenges society to change, unearths something that changes history), and a classic fairy tale is about a journey into a different world and return. These can obviously overlap.
    But I’m more interested in the difference between Youth Fairy Tales and Mid-Life Fairy Tales. Most of our fairy tales, and that includes Star Wars and Avatar, are Youth Stories. The archetype of the Hero is an adolescent, coming-of-age, questing and learning and meeting a mentor and… It’s all about the adventures of a young person moving into maturity.
    Mid-life Fairy Tales are rather more rare, and intriguing. If you follow Campbell, the bigger pattern (beyond the 12 steps of the Youth’s hero’s journey) goes from the Youth’s quest, to the Return and taking up of Leadership, to The Fall (into disempowerment, hubris = self-serving power madness, or frivolity), to Humbleness and Wisdom in Service. Thus Hero leads to King to Tyrant/Fool to Sage/Wizard.

    Star Wars was based on Dune. Dune has most of the elements of the classic Hero’s Journey, and is indeed a coming-of-age story. The second and third books continue the 4-step pattern described above. It all has interesting twists and a unique expression of the pattern though, as people have been advocating here. That’s one reason it is the best-selling science fiction story of all time.

    I’m considering that rather than studying the elements of the Hero’s Journey, I consider that it has emerged from the depths of the human psyche and experience in relationship to the world, and that I can more authentically look to that source–the deep primal longings and urges of my basic human-ness–to express stories. Perhaps that’s what Dreams are, and perhaps it was actually dreams from which many peoples told their stories.
    Mythago Wood by Holdstock explored this magnificently.