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):
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- The First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approaching the Inmost Cave
- The Ordeal
- The Reward
- The Road Back
- 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?