Structure Is A Journey

NEWSFLASH: we don’t watch movies or TV or read books ‘about characters’. We watch movies and TV and read books about characters who do something for SOME REASON.

Lots of new writers will say structure is a ‘formula’. Nope. It’s a FRAMEWORK. The most obvious is ‘beginning – middle – end’. Even children know how this works. It’s built into our DNA. If we think of characters as having to go on a journey from A to B to C, then we can see how plotting and characterisation are interlinked.

This is never more obvious than with frameworks like Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, updated as The Hero’s Journey. There are certain expectations we have of heroes, after all. Heroes need to be:

  • Brave
  • Wise
  • Good

These 3 elements are paramount in the making of a hero. Both Campbell and Vogler have attempted to shine a light on the stages a character goes through to become a hero. They are broad enough to mean you can do write these steps however you want …

  • Whether you write novels or screenplays
  • Male or female leads
  • For different audiences
  • In every genre

CLICK HERE to check out 6 popular movies that follow the Monomyth, broken down. CLICK HERE for a great list of books ( and some more movies).

Why You Should Study Structure

First though, a little shot in the arm. B2W is always banging on about structure and plotting, it’s true. This is because a good 90% of new writers, both screenwriters and novelists, simply don’t know enough about this subject! They may believe  they ‘can’t’ fix structure on their own … Or they may simply not want to do the work.

Whatever the case, you need to get real. Every year B2W works with writers who ask me to tell them where their scripts and novels are going wrong and how to fix them. But here’s the kicker: I can usually tell them these things. But even if I do, without understanding the foundations of structure, those writers literally can’t follow my instructions. Supersadface.

So, studying how structure and plotting works gives you a toolbox to work with. It makes you a better writer!  To get you started on the foundations, let’s look at a classic structure format – The Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey. I will be comparing and contrasting both of these in the course of this post, using visual representations to help. Remember, there are lots more ways to look at plotting and structure, so make sure you check them out. Now, onto Campbell’s and Vogler’s works.

Joseph Campbell’s ‘Monomyth’ (17 stages)

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) was an American Professor of Literature who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His most well-known work is his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero shared by world mythologies, termed The Monomyth. The character’s journey breaks down as follows, according to Campbell:

Departure

  • The Call To Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting the mentor
  • Crossing The First Threshold
  • Belly of the whale

Initiation

  • The Road of Trials
  • The Meeting With The Goddess
  • The Woman As Temptress
  • Atonement With The Father / The Abyss
  • Apotheosis
  • The ultimate boon

Return

  • Refusal of the return
  • The magic flight
  • Rescue from without
  • The crossing of the return threshold
  • Master of two worlds
  • Freedom to live

Here’s a cool visual representation of The Monomyth

Check out the pics inside the bubbles to see examples of each stage from, various movies. CLICK HERE to find out more from the source.

If you are not keen on the idea of the Monomyth being a circle, you may like this more linear one, below. I like it because it also hints at the notion of ESCALATION in the story, which is very important.

Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (12 Stages)

Now, on to The Hero’s Journey. You may have seen Christopher Vogler at London Screenwriters’ Festival a few years back. He has worked for Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. Inspired by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell, particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces,  Vogler used Campbell’s work to create a 7-page company memo for Hollywood screenwriters, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This became The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, which is frequently referred to as just The Hero’s Journey. It breaks down as follows: 

Departure

  • Ordinary world
  • Call to adventure
  • Refusal of the call
  • Meeting with the mentor
  • Crossing the first threshold

Initiation

  • Tests, allies and enemies
  • Approach to the inmost cave
  • The ordeal
  • Reward

Return

  • The road back
  • The resurrection
  • Return with the elixir

Here’s a couple of visual representations of this version

This one from Movie Outline presents a nice, clear linear approach:

I particularly like the one below, which I found on tumblr.  It also contrasts the plotting of The Hero’s Journey with the Hero’s personal character arc. More about this below.

A Visual Representation of The Hero’s Emotional Arc

I also like the visual representation below because too often, heroes are emotional for samey story reasons, like a dead wife or family. What’s more, sticking to such plot devices and tropes can do a disservice to characterisation.

This infographic reminds us that great characters and plotting are interlinked. The journey itself then should be fraught with emotion for our heroes. Equally, the stakes should be high … What could happen if our hero fails? Too often in quest narratives possible failure is never really on the horizon. As a result, this stops us investing in the journey of the character as the audience.

Example of Classic Hero’s Journey Narratives

Cinderella may not be everyone’s go-to example when considering the Hero’s Journey, but that’s why I love this visual representation. B2W has long rejected the notion male and female heroes have to go through different trials. After all, heroism is not gendered; nor is heroism necessarily only related to being an actual warrior. In short, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

Comparison

It’s obvious from the offset that Vogler’s version is a ‘pared down’ version of The Monomyth. With 5 stages ‘missing’ or merged, The Hero’s Journey is broader, more economical. It also uses more accessible language and removes allusions to such Biblical stories as Jonah’s, ie. ‘Belly of the whale’.

It also has some key differences, more in keeping with modern tastes. The latent sexism of ‘male = hero’ is no longer present; nor is the notion of the Jezebel in ‘woman as temptress’. Though Campbell always stressed it’s a ‘greater power’ (rather than an actual father the hero needs to ‘atone’ with), the proliferation of ‘Daddy issues’ in hero stories suggests many creatives took this literally.

As mentioned, The Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey relates to The 3 Acts, named ‘Departure, Initiation and Return’ in both.  Whilst Campbell’s 17 stages seem more ‘balanced’ going 5-7-5), Vogler’s seems more ‘top heavy’ to me (5-4-3).

Lastly, both make the point that the character arc of the archetypal hero is about CHANGE. S/he usually undergoes a metamorphosis during the course of the journey. Life will never be the same again.

There’s plenty for writers to learn here, when it comes to quest narratives. I always recommend Bang2writers study both The Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey as a starting point for learning structure. Both offer an accessible way of understanding how plot and character are intrexicably linked.

Last Points

With the above in mind then, I urge you as a writer to start thinking of plotting as a journey for your characters. You don’t have to follow The Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey to do this, either. I break it down to literally just:

‘Your characters start in one place / state of being … then end up in another, having done X along the way’.

This might seem obvious, because it IS! We’re talking about Set Up/ Pay Off, basically. Yet too many spec screenplays and unpublished novels meander all over the place, or make their characters ‘run on the spot’. The above is the basis of the latest B2W Plotting worksheet, which remember you can download HERE or on the B2W Resources page.

Good luck!

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One Response to Spotlight On Structure: The Monomyth Versus The Hero’s Journey

  1. Hell yep. I used this structure in my romcom. Yes, it’s expected and therefore predictable but it’s what you layer over the foundations that’s different. I’m still dialling up the payoff—that’s been my most obvious issue. I’m sure there are more but I’m nearly ready to send it out. Largely in part thanks to structure starting me off in the right direction

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