christopher vogler: the writer’s journey
Sometimes I have the good fortune to meet my mentors in person and not just in the books they write.
Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, visited Australia in October this year. When I discovered he was giving a seminar at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), I jumped at the chance to hear him speak.
Vogler is a guru among Hollywood story consultants. He began working in the film industry as a story analyst, working with a number of movie producers and studios before becoming a reader for Twentieth Century Fox and a story consultant for Disney.
While at Disney in the mid-80s, he wrote a famous seven-page memo called “A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces”. The memo provided Hollywood with a new way to look at story structure, distilling for filmmakers the ideas articulated in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a book by renowned comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell.
After producing the memo, Vogler went on to contribute story ideas to an array of Disney films, including The Lion King (which was boarded according to the principles in Vogler’s memo), as well as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Hercules.
Following his time at Disney, Vogler worked as a consultant to the major Hollywood studios and returned to Fox as a development executive, influencing screenplays such as Fight Club, Courage Under Fire, Anna and the King and The Thin Red Line.
As an independent consultant, Vogler has worked on films such as Hancock, I am Legend, 10,000 B.C., The Wrestler, The Karate Kid remake, Then She Found Me and The Fighter. He wrote the script for the animated European film Jester Till and is author of the manga Ravenskull.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WRITER’S JOURNEY
Vogler is perhaps best known for his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which expands on the principles set out in his famous seven-page memo. The book was first published in 1993 and is now in its third edition.
If you haven’t already heard of The Writer’s Journey, this is an introduction to it from Vogler himself.
According to Vogler, many theorists present a linear model when discussing plot progression. Joseph Campbell departed from this approach by bending the traditional straight line into a circle, as you will see in the diagram below.
The circular Hero’s Journey suggests that the events in the life of the hero are part of a cycle — others have preceded the hero on this journey and more may be destined to follow.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY OUTLINE
1. The Ordinary World. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
2. The Call to Adventure. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
3. Refusal of the Call. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
4. Meeting with the Mentor. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
5. Crossing the Threshold. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
7. Approach. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.
8. The Ordeal. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
9. The Reward. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
10. The Road Back. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
11. The Resurrection. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
12. Return with the Elixir. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
THE HERO’S INNER JOURNEY
Corresponding with the outer journey is the Hero’s Inner Journey, which is summarised in the following diagram.
Vogler also identifies a number of archetypes we tend to meet during the Hero’s Journey. Archetypes are recurring patterns of human behaviour, symbolised by standard types of characters in movies and stories.
1. Heroes. Central figures in stories. Everyone is the hero of his or her own myth.
2. Shadows. Villains and enemies, perhaps the enemy within. The dark side of the Force, the repressed possibilities of the hero, his or her potential for evil. Can be other kinds of repression, such as repressed grief, anger, frustration or creativity that is dangerous if it doesn’t have an outlet.
3. Mentors. The hero’s guide or guiding principles. Yoda, Merlin, a great coach or teacher.
4. Herald. One who brings the Call to Adventure. Could be a person or an event.
5. Threshold Guardians. The forces that stand in the way at important turning points, including jealous enemies, professional gatekeepers, or your own fears and doubts.
6. Shapeshifters. In stories, creatures like vampires or werewolves who change shape. In life, the shapeshifter represents change. The way other people (or our perceptions of them) keep changing. The opposite sex, the way people can be two-faced.
7. Tricksters. Clowns and mischief-makers, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Our own mischievous subconscious, urging us to change.
8. Allies. Characters who help the hero through the change. Sidekicks, buddies, girlfriends who advise the hero through the transitions of life.
TOP TIPS FROM VOGLER
At AFTRS, Vogler spoke about his life and career to date. He also retraced and expanded on the steps of the Hero’s Journey. Here are some of his top storytelling tips.
1. Get into it as a fast as you can.
When Vogler worked at Disney, the saying was that most writers’ stories are like aeroplanes getting loaded up. At a certain point you want the plane to take off but it’s taxing down the runway and gathering speed while the writer is busy gathering more and more characters, who keeping jumping in through the windows. Then the plane hits a fence and goes into the surrounding neighbourhood (and through the local orphanage) without ever taking off. The moral? Get into it as fast as you can.
2. Study one thing.
You must have a theme — a one-word statement that sums up what your story is about. Usually, this is a word from a list of human drives or qualities, such as love, trust, loyalty, ambition or faith. Knowing this one word will have a unifying effect on the whole work of art, governing the choices you make about how the story plays out.
3. A story is a metaphor.
A story is a comparison or model of some aspect of human behaviour that the storyteller wants to isolate and study. The habit of active comparison is a survival mechanism fundamental to human nature. We naturally ape the successful behaviour of others, cherry picking aspects of “successful” characters in order to upgrade our own performances. We will also try to avoid the mistakes of others, including the errors of downcast or foolish characters. The best stories create what Vogler calls “explosions” in the minds of audience members, causing their frames of mind and ideas of the world to shift.
4. The hero may be more like Pac Man than a demigod.
A hero is not necessarily all-powerful and may even be a reluctant leader. The word ‘hero’ means someone dedicated to protect and serve the group — a definition suggesting humility, generosity, a lack of selfishness and an element of sacrifice. Furthermore, the hero — like Pac Man — may be missing a wedge. He or she might not be a team player, might blame others all the time, or might be unable to forgive him or herself for a past action. The hero therefore needs to learn a lesson along these lines and the story teaches that lesson, giving the hero a “final exam” at the end of the journey to test whether or not the lesson has been learnt. If the hero fails the exam, the story becomes a tragedy.
5. The audience must be able to relate to the hero.
You may detest the hero in a story but he or she does have to be relatable, possessing a recognisable human quality or lack. In The Sopranos, for instance, Tony Soprano desperately wants to be good on some level, so we tend to forgive him his flaws.
6. Audiences need somewhere to plug their umbilical cords.
We all have umbilical cords that we want to hook up to things in life such as love, society, friends, clubs, or ideals. In films, people want to plug their cords into characters they like on screen. As Vogler says, “you can’t be nobody in a movie”. You have to relate to, align with, or be someone in a movie, although this may shift as the movie progresses.
7. There must be a cheering interest.
It’s hard for audiences to connect with a story until they know what the main character wants. Once you know what the hero wants, you want it too. Vogler advocates writing into the text what the hero wishes for, even if this overt reference doesn’t remain past the first draft. The character might say: “This is a boring town. I wish something would happen for a change.” That will get the story’s attention. Sometimes the character’s wish isn’t expressed verbally but, if we like them and relate to them, the wish may be implied.
8. Good stories are sadistic to their heroes.
A good story gives the hero his or her wishes but in a twisted, sadistic way, setting up obstacle after obstacle for the hero to overcome. Essential to this sadism is the Ordeal. If you don’t have an Ordeal (Stage 8 of the Hero’s Journey), you don’t have a story. Here, you are bringing another character into the drama: Death. The Ordeal is the crux of the Hero’s Journey, bringing the hero into a difficult situation and causing him or her to die, or appear to die, literally or metaphorically.
9. “It has to get muddier before it gets clearer.”
This was a favourite saying of the late Laura Ziskin, Vogler’s boss at Fox, who is best known for her work on films like Pretty Woman, Fight Club, The Thin Red Line and Spiderman. She always said it’s good to kick up the dust and smear the story around — then it will settle and become clear.
10. The ending must be both inevitable and surprising.
According to Ziskin, you should already have expected an ending like the one the story gives you but you should not have known exactly how the story would end.
11. You want audiences to get that sparkly, “champagney” feeling.
A physiological reaction determines if something is good or not. That shiver you get down your spine doesn’t just happen when you’re watching films — it can happen when you realise a story idea is just right. By the time Vogler came to work on The Lion King, the team had already created a scene where the newborn Simba is held up and presented to the crowd. Vogler recalled that, in the Catholic Church, the light coming through the stained glass windows creates a halo around the priest. So he suggested incorporating that halo effect into the scene. It was the sort of idea that immediately felt right. Suddenly, all the animators in the meeting room, who have a habit of doodling and sketching the heads of the people in front of them, began drawing haloes around those heads.
12. The Hero’s Journey is not a formula, it is a set of guidelines.
The Hero’s Journey is free to interpretation and should be adapted to suit your storytelling needs. After all, a great artistic ambition is to do unexpected things. For instance, although the Hero’s Journey begins in the Ordinary World, where you put this on screen is adaptable. You don’t need to show it first up. Vogler notes, however, that many a script has failed because the filmmakers “didn’t set the table correctly” at the beginning. In other words, there hasn’t been enough orientation — showing what is up and down in the Ordinary World, what is good and bad, as well as what to wish for and cheer for.
13. The Hero’s Journey is not just a template for conventional storytelling.
The Hero’s Journey has proven useful for unorthodox, avant-garde storytellers, a prime example being the director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler and Black Swan), who first encountered The Writer’s Journey in classes at Harvard and consulted Vogler regarding the screenplay for The Wrestler.
(N.B. In this article for The Browser, Aronofsky was asked to recommend five books on film. On that list is The Writer’s Journey, which Aronofsky describes as “the Bible for screenwriters”. He says that when he teaches, he always cites The Writer’s Journey as “the first book that everyone’s got to read.”.)
14. How clearly you articulate the stages of the Hero’s Journey is up to you.
In the early days, Disney adapted the myth of Persephone in The Goddess of Spring. She was drawn using a method called rotoscoping, where the animators traced over a live-action film of a person acting out the character’s movements. Persephone ended up with unrealistic rubber hose arms. When the company began working on Snow White, Walt Disney decided that the animators needed to articulate the skeleton better. So, they drew dots where the joints were, giving the arms angles that more accurately resembled the natural movement of the human body.
Likewise, a storyteller has an artistic choice regarding to what extent he or she brings articulation to a story. Filmmakers have a lot of tools at their disposal to punctuate the different stages of the Hero’s Journey, including music and architecture. They might have one musical segment for the Ordinary World and a more exotic one for the Special World. Hitchcock sometimes punctuated his films with stairs.
Vogler likes clear articulation but warns that, if you show the joints too expressly, the audience will get ahead of you or be disappointed. It is useful to compose to the joints but remember to flesh it over later, like the animators did in Snow White.
15. When writing a TV series, think about fractals.
Fractals are designs that are exactly the same at every level of magnification. Similarly, the Hero’s Journey should work at all levels, with every shot, scene, episode and series of episodes each having a beginning, middle, climax and end.
16. The Hero’s Journey can be applied to short films.
Commercials can fit in every stage of the Hero’s Journey, so short films should be able to do so too. Vogler has written about this on his blog, where he says that “the absolute bare minimum, I would venture, is an implied Ordinary World, an efficient Call to Adventure, a Threshold Crossing, an Ordeal (or Resurrection) and a Reward (or Return with the Elixir). In reality, almost always the other pieces are either implied or present in truncated form, and the audience will labor mightily to fill in any blanks you leave.”
17. Take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding stories.
In developing his theories about storytelling, Vogler has drawn on his knowledge of the military, Disney, physics, human dynamics, psychology and vaudeville. In his most recent book, Memo from the Story Dept. (2011), Vogler conducts a dialogue with the Columbia University film professor, David McKenna (whom he describes as “virtually [his] twin brother in New York”), in which they discuss — among other things — some of the influences on their work, including vaudeville, Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Theophrastus’ The Characters.
18. Finally, “Trust the Path”.
Each storyteller is not the first or last on the path but has a unique view. You should trust your own instincts and the stories you have been given to tell. In other words, trust the story — it knows the way. Go out and tell the best stories you can because the world needs them.
Many thanks to Christopher Vogler for giving me his blessing to write this article and for his generosity in allowing me to reproduce his video, diagrams, The Hero’s Journey Outline and the summary of The Archetypes in this post (with minor alterations to suit the flow of the article).
You can read more about Christopher Vogler and his work at http://www.thewritersjourney.com/. There you will find Vogler’s summary of the corresponding “Heroine’s Journey”, which Vogler based on Maureen Murdock’s book, The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Murdock wrote the book in response to Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
During his visit to Australia, Vogler did an interview with Deborah Cameron on 702 ABC’s Mornings program, which you can listen to here.
Finally, a free sample of The Writer’s Journey is available for download here. If you enjoy reading it, I highly recommend buying the book: it will improve your understanding of, and ability to troubleshoot, the stories you write, read, hear and see.