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.