Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 6

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Well, we’ve reached the end.  Just a few loose threads to tie up and this long journey will conclude.  From early on in this series, it has been asked of me to discuss how the monomyth compares with the 3-act structure.  So, here it is:

The 3-act structure is a traditional story structure most often found in film.  It has its origins in the stage but I prefer to think of it in film terms because theater also embraces 1-act, 2-acts, and when we get in the realm of Shakespeare 5-acts (indeed, there are even plays with more acts but they are more the oddity than the norm).  But film, even those films that utilize the monomyth, loves the 3-act structure.

It works basically like this (where one page of screenplay equals roughly one minute of film) — Act 1 is about 30 pages, Act 2 is about 60 pages, and Act 3 is about 30 pages.  All together you get a two hour movie.  Act 1 begins with an Inciting Incident and ends with a major plot point.  Act 2 follows the rising action and ends with another major plot point.  Act 3 culminates with the story’s climax and resolution.  These “plot points” are also called reversals and they tend to be an event that shifts the action of the film into a different direction, propelling the characters into the next act of the story.

In terms of the monomyth, Act 1 contains the Ordinary World, the Call to Adventure, the Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor, and ends with The First Threshold.  Act 2 includes Tests, Allies, and Enemies, Approaching the Inmost Cave, the Ordeal, and the Reward.  Finally, Act 3 rounds out the stages with The Road Back, the Resurrection, and the Return with the Elixir.

That’s how they line up in a very literal sense; however, as we’ve talked here many times during this series, not all stages of the monomyth are used in every story nor are they used in the exact order.  So, the match to the 3-act structure is not truly parallel.

And here’s the thing.  The main point I’ve made over and over throughout this series is that we should not use this information to plot a story but rather to understand where we are having problems and find possible solutions to those problems.  A common refrain heard concerning movies of the last few decades is that they all feel formulaic (well, actually the common refrain is that they all suck, but the underlying trouble is that they all feel formulaic).  One reason for this is that Hollywood has become a slave to both the 3-act structure and the monomyth.  When Hollywood got hit with Star Wars and then later with Vogler’s success as a script doctor using the monomyth, it took notice.  Now, every screenwriter overuses the monomyth to such an extent that originality feels hard to come by.  The issue is obviously far more complicated, but I do believe the “simple fix” of using the monomyth has had a detrimental effect upon Hollywood.

Don’t let the same thing happen to your writing.  The monomyth is fascinating and really cool and it’s amazing how even when we try to break free of it, we invariably utilize parts of it.  But it is NOT a creative tool.  Don’t use it to come up with your story.  Plot your tale using whatever creative methods work for you.  Write using whatever creative methods works for you.  If you’re stuck, and thinking about archetypes and monomyth stages launches you in new directions, then that’s wonderful, but otherwise, ignore it until later.  The best time to look at the monomyth is during revisions, and only when you have a structural issue that you can’t solve.  Then it may be of great use to you as a fixing tool.  Just don’t let it stifle your creativity.

Oh, and one other great time to use the monomyth is when you are reading other people’s work.  When you are analyzing why a piece of writing is effective (or not so effective), check out how the monomyth does or does not fit in.  Take a look at the characters and how they play against the archetypes.  In other words, it can also be a learning tool.

And that’s really my whole purpose in this series of posts.  The monomyth is a learning tool.  Not an end but a means.

I think that about covers it all.  If you have any questions, write them in the comments, and I’ll be glad to answer.  If there’s something I failed to cover enough, given the “overview” nature of this series, go ahead and let me know so I can address those concerns (perhaps in yet another post).  And finally, thank you all for joining me on this long, winding journey.

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14 comments to Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 6

  • Nicely done, S. I especially like the note on how easily this stuff can feel formulaic if not handled judiciously. When it works well, I think, you barely notice it until you start consciously analyzing the film. It’s like that rarest of beasts, good rhyming poetry (like Phillip Larkin, say), in which the rhyme scheme almost vanishes because the verse feels so natural. Lay the monomyth on with a trowel and you have the filmic equivalent of the Hallmark greeting card. But you are so right that for all the perils, the monomyth structure is so useful, esp. for doctoring the problems in our narratives. And for all the complaints about movies being formulaic, most people are pretty much hard wired to that structure now, and when films deviate from it most audiences feel they’ve gone off the rails. Great series, Stuart.

  • Love this series, Stuart. I will be using the monomyth to fix things that go off the rails in my WIPs now. Previously, all I did was follow an ecitor’s comment that, “Something exciting / different / or twisty has to happen every ten pages.” Which worked quite well in the actual writing stages. But not so well in the fixing stages. Thank you!

  • AJ – Thank you. And yes, it’s a weird thing that people complain there isn’t any originality, but if you give them something even semi-original, they tend to balk.

    Faith — I’m happy you’ve enjoyed the series so much. It’s been a blast to write. And I’m even happier to know it’s been useful. Now stop reading this blog and get back to writing JY-5! 😛

  • Thank you for this series, Stuart. It’s been very informative!

  • Thanks for all of these posts, Stuart. I’ve learned a huge amount from them, and now need to go back and read them all start to finish, to make certain that I have a good handle on all aspects of the concept. Again, enormously instructive, and incredibly fun to read — these posts made me think about my work in a whole new way.

  • “The main point I’ve made over and over throughout this series is that we should not use this information to plot a story but rather to understand where we are having problems and find possible solutions to those problems.” That is an excellent point, and I’m glad you said it. Taking the monomyth and applying other story elements to it probably won’t make for an interesting story because the structure won’t be incidental/inherent to the plot and characters, but going back and seeing where the monomyth rose from the text organically, or could be applied to fix a problem, is a really great suggestion.

    I think you’ve just managed to prove the reason studying literature is so necessary to writing it: not because we can’t come up with ideas or execute a good story without studying, but because we wouldn’t know how that story then fits into the scheme of literature, and the various tropes and themes we could draw on to make the story stronger, or downplay to make it more original.

    Awesome series. It’s almost like you could make a book with these posts…;)

  • Amy Sandbak

    Thanks for the series, Stuart. Vogler’s Writer’s Journey is one of my favorite writing reference books, the kind that made me constantly going “aha!” whenever I watched a movie or read a novel for nearly a year after reading it. Your series covered the concept well, and it was a great refresher for those familiar with the hero’s journey and a great overview for those who weren’t familiar with Vogler or Campbell. Again, a personal thanks for bringing the monomyth to mind as I’m revising. Perfect timing :)

  • Stuart> Thanks for this great series! I put together a handout for my students with the first parts of this. It’s not for their writing. It’s for their reading–to show them how to read pieces of literature that follow this pattern (which is most of ’em). I credited you on the handout. I’ll be teaching it on Monday, when we start The Lord of the Rings. I’m looking forward to it! I can let you know how it goes if you like.

    I do think this is more immediately useful for reading literature… the danger with using it to write is of course things becoming too formulaic and forced. Thanks again for this.

  • Laura — Glad you’ve enjoyed it!

    David — I’ve actually learned a lot, too. I thought I knew this stuff fairly well, but being forced to write it out for others to read made me re-learn it and discover some new things. So it goes both ways! I guess that means I should be thanking all of you.

    All of you — Thanks!

    LScribe — I think you’ve said it better than me. And a book . . . hmmmm . . .

    Amy — Thank you. And I’m glad the timing worked out so well for you. Serendipity has its charms.

    Pea — Please do keep me posted on your class. I’ve done “guest spots” at Wake Forest (one of the bio teachers periodically does a class on science and science fiction) and it’s fascinating to watch students who know little about reading/writing discover that a structure like this exists.

  • Lance Barron

    Stuart, I have learned a lot from this series.

    LScribeHarris, I agree: a book.

    The contrarian in me wanted to do something *twisty* and not pile on with the universal acclaim, but there’s no leverage. Thanks.

  • Lance — Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll post something later this year that’ll give you plenty of opportunities to throw something *twisty*. Until then, universal acclaim works just fine for me.

  • Great series, Stuart. Like David, I’ll be capturing the whole thing to read again. And again. And – well, you get the idea.

  • Great series of posts. In particular, I like how you have stressed that this is merely a tool for analysis.

    In the “Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell, he refers to two doorways of no return at the end of the first and second act. The first door moves the MC from the safety of their peaceful world into the danger of the world beyond. Whether that happens as a result of the Mentor’s influence or some other event, it’s really irrelevant. What matters is the forward motion and that the doorway is significant.

    The second doorway propels the MC into the final confrontation with the antagonist or the conflict to resolve the story problem. I like to have the MCs internal conflict make these doorways feel even more difficult to pass through, sort of intersecting points where the internal and external conflicts collide.

    Anyways, great stuff. Thanks again.
    -NGD

  • Thank you, Stuart. I’m busily studying story planning and architecture right now as I work on my first novel, and your series has been enlightening. I’m excited to learn that there are so many ways to evaluate our work and solid techniques to improve it. It gives me hope that my first book won’t completely suck!