Sunday, June 24, 2012

Joseph Campbell: How to fix what’s wrong with your story!

Joseph Campbell was an American professor of mythology. His writing and interviews with PBS anchor Bill Moyers are deeply moving. I was recently introduced to Campbell’s work and my approach to writing or outlining a novel has profoundly changed.

Interesting fact, George Lucas was the first Hollywood filmmaker to credit Campbell's influence. Lucas stated following the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977 that its story was shaped, in part, by ideas described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of Campbell's. The linkage between Star Wars and Campbell was further reinforced when later reprints of Campbell's book used the image of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker on the cover. Lucas discusses this influence at great length in the authorized biography of Joseph Campbell, A Fire in the Mind.

Intellectuals are saying: In the long run, the most influential book of the 20th Century may turn out to be Joseph Campbell's THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.

It's certainly true that the book is having a major impact on writing and story-telling, but above all on movie-making. Aware or not, filmmakers like John Boorman, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Coppola owe their successes to the ageless pattern that Joseph Campbell identifies in the book.
The ideas in the book are an excellent set of analytical tools. With them you can compose a story to meet any situation, a story that will be dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true. With them you can always determine what's wrong with a story that's floundering, and you can find a better solution to almost any story problem by examining the pattern laid out in the book.

This is the outline to telling a universally appealing story; the hero myth.

Stories built on the model of THE HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns. They deal with universal questions like "Why was I born?" "What happens when I die?" "How can I overcome my life problems and be happy?"

The stages of the HERO are:

Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you're going to tell a story about a fish out of his customary element, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world. In WITNESS you see both the Amish boy and the policeman in their ordinary worlds before they are thrust into alien worlds -- the farm boy into the city, and the city cop into the unfamiliar countryside. In STAR WARS you see Luke Skywalker bored to death as a farm boy before he takes on the universe.

The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure. Maybe the land is dying, as in the Arthur stories about the search for the Holy Grail. In STAR WARS again, it's Princess Leia's holographic message to Obi Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest. In detective stories, it's the hero accepting a new case. In romantic comedies it could be the first sight of that special -- but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing/sparring with the remainder of the story.

Often at this point, the hero balks at the threshold of adventure. After all, he or she is facing the greatest of all fears -- fear of the unknown. At this point Luke refuses Obi Wan's call to adventure, and returns to his aunt and uncle's farmhouse, only to find they have been barbequed by the Emperor's storm troopers. Suddenly Luke is no longer reluctant, and is eager to undertake the adventure. He is motivated.

By this time many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like character who is the hero's mentor. In JAWS it's the crusty Robert Shaw character who knows all about sharks; in the mythology of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it's Lou Grant. The mentor gives advice and sometimes magical weapons. This is Obi Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker his father's light sabre.
The mentor can only go so far with the hero. Eventually the hero must face the unknown by himself. Sometimes the wise old man is required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the adventure going.

He fully enters the special world of his story for the first time. This is the moment at which the story takes off and the adventure gets going. The balloon goes up, the romance begins, the plane or spaceship blasts off, the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is now committed to his journey... and there's no turning back.

The hero is forced to make allies and enemies in the special world, and to pass certain tests and challenges that are part of his training. In STAR WARS, the cantina is the setting for the forging of an important alliance with Han Solo, and the start of an important enmity with Jabba The Hut. In CASABLANCA, Rick's Cafe is the setting for the "alliances and enmities" phase, and in many westerns it's the saloon where these relationships are established.
The tests and challenges phase is represented in STAR WARS by the scene of Obi Wan teaching Luke about the Force, as Luke is made to learn by fighting blindfolded. The early laser battles with the Imperial Fighters are another test which Luke passes successfully.

The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of his quest is hidden. In the Arthurian stories the Chapel Perilous is the dangerous chamber where the seeker finds the Grail. In many myths the hero has to descend into hell to retrieve a loved one, or into a cave to fight a dragon and gain a treasure. It's Theseus going into the Labyrinth to face the Minotaur. In STAR WARS it's Luke and company being sucked into the Death Star where they will rescue Princess Leia. Sometimes
it's the hero entering the headquarters of his nemesis; and sometimes it's just the hero going into his or her own dream world to confront his or hers worst fears... and overcome them.

This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it's a black moment. In STAR WARS, it's the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacle monster that lives in the sewage, and is held down so long the audience begins to wonder if he's dead. E.T. momentarily appears to die on the operating table.
This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and is born again. It's a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of- -death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero's return from death.
This is the magic of any well-designed amusement park thrill ride. Space Mountain or The Great White Knuckler make the passengers feel like they're going to die, and there's a great thrill that comes from surviving a moment like that. This is also the trick of rites of passage and rites of initiation into fraternities and secret societies. The initiate is forced to taste death and experience resurrection. You're never more alive than when you think you're going to die.

Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, the hero now takes possession of the treasure he's come seeking. Sometimes it's a special weapon like a magic sword, or it may be a token like the Grail or some elixir which can heal the wounded land. Sometimes the "sword" is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces.
The hero may settle a conflict with his father or with his shadowy nemesis. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both, as he discovers that the dying Darth Vader is his father, and not such a bad guy after all.
The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Often she is the treasure he's come to win or rescue, and there is often a love scene or sacred marriage at this point. Women in these stories (or men if the hero is female) tend to be SHAPE-SHIFTERS. They appear to change in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly changing aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the hero's point of view. The hero's supreme ordeal may grant him a better understanding of women, leading to a reconciliation with the opposite sex.

The hero's not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure. This is the chase as
Luke and friends escape from the Death Star, with Princess Leia and the plans that will bring down Darth Vader.
If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile with his father or the gods, they may come raging after him at this point. This is the moonlight bicycle flight of Elliott and E.T. as they escape from "Keys" (Peter Coyote), a force representing governmental authority. By the end of the movie, Keys and Elliott have been reconciled, and it even looks like Keys will end up as Elliott's father. (The script not the final cut, guys).

The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his experience. There is often a replay here of the mock death-and-rebirth of stage 8, as the hero once again faces death and survives. Each ordeal wins him new command over the Force. He is transformed into a new being by his experience.

The hero comes back to his ordinary world, but his adventure would be meaningless unless he brought back the elixir, treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it's just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with the elixir or some boon to mankind, he's doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. Many comedies use this ending, as a foolish character refuses to learn his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place. Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. Sometimes it's just coming home with a good story to tell.

The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.
As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is danger of being too obvious.

The HERO MYTH is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself. The order of the hero's stages as given here is only one of many variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically reshuffled without losing their power.
The values of the myth are what's important. The images of the basic version -- young heroes seeking magic swords from old wizards, fighting evil dragons in deep caves, etc., -- are just symbols, and can be changed infinitely to suit the story at hand.
The myth is easily translated to contemporary dramas, comedies, romances, or action-adventures by substituting modern equivalents for the symbolic figures and props of the hero story. The Wise Old Man may be a real shaman or Wizard, but he can also be any kind of mentor or teacher, doctor or therapist, crusty but benign boss, tough but fair top sergeant, parent, grandfather, etc. Modern heroes may not be going into caves and labyrinths to fight their mythical beasts, but they do enter an innermost cave by going into space, to the bottom of the sea, into their own minds, or into the depths of a modern city.
The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama. It grows and matures as new experiments are tried within its basic framework. Changing the sex and ages of the basic characters only makes it more interesting, and allows ever more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them. The basic characters can be combined, or divided into several figures to show different aspects of the same idea. The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic.
And it will outlive us all.

 Taken from

Adapted from coverage by Chris Vogler

Norm Applegate author of:

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