The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
You’re going to tread some pretty deep water when you step into the pages of The Writer’s Journey. The author, Christopher Vogler, does a good job of playing this up to the hilt too, just like Joseph Campbell did in his day. But think about it, both of these men promise to tell you the secrets of storytelling, tapping into the oldest storylines that have been repeated over and over again since the dawn of time. Like I said, it’s pretty heavy stuff.
If you’ve read C.G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols you’ll know what I’m talking about. You might also be of the opinion that it’s a lot of bunk. I caution you against that sort of thinking because I held much the same belief at one point and ended up beating my head against the proverbial rock of ages and have now come back to the mountain seeking wisdom.
Who is this book for?
This book is mainly for screenwriters, but there are good lessons that can be applied to the general writing of fiction where there is a desire to tap into the deepest elements of storytelling. I believe The Writer’s Journey is best read as a companion to other writing books that deal explicitly with story structure in your genre of interest. For example, if you are a fantasy or sci-fi author, I’d recommend Orson Scott Card’s classic How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy with The Writer’s Journey serving as a good top layer. I have another review of James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery in which Frey himself recommends The Writer’s Journey as a good secondary text.
About the Author
Way back in 1992, Christopher Vogler was a professional story reader. Not quite the same sort of professional story reader that I happened to be, but one that was really getting paid for his opinions and advice on screenplays. You might have heard of this sort of gig before; it’s called a Script Doctor.
I can recall quite clearly the years when I worked from home, getting paid for eight hours a day when I really worked just one or two. I read 6-8 books a week back then.
Ah, the good life…
There’s nothing like fully-automated employment. I won’t give you the specifics, but let’s just say that it pays to be a programmer when your job involves a computer but not necessarily any actual programming.
There are patterns in storytelling and they are ancient. As much as we, the literary artists of the world, might wish to believe that we have some new angle, a new method or insight, the truth is otherwise. We are telling the same story, all of us, and the sooner you get over yourself the better.
I realize this isn’t a very nice thing to say. Chances are you’re feeling a bit low already and you’ve come here seeking support. Now, I’ve just hit you with a club (well maybe a ruler), but I know that of which I speak (to get all King Jamesian). Learn from my mistakes.
You are not a special flower
The key point in The Writer’s Journey is the constant reminder that you are but one in a long line of storytellers coming down through the ages. No matter what you do, you will be telling a story that has been told thousands of times before. You are not a special flower.
This is not to say that you may not have a lyrical gift. If so, then good for you! I personally salute you! However, the storytelling craft is in fact an artisan skill. Your fancy penwork is the flourish that will give you a unique identity in company of other practitioners but it will not set you apart. What sets you apart is the knowledge and application of the storytelling craft. In other words, the underlying mechanics of how one goes about constructing a story.
I feel a little like John Gardner here (which is not altogether a good thing) so I will try to be more concrete.
The pattern of the Hero’s Journey is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time. It is as infinitely varied as the human race itself and yet its basic form remains constant. The Hero’s Journey is an incredibly tenacious set of elements that springs endlessly from the deepest reaches of the mind of man; different in details for every culture, but fundamentally the same.
To a novelist who spent fifteen years trying to develop a unique literary style (and failed), this quote is both disturbing and reassuring. I find it disturbing because it invalidates all of the work I’ve done in the past. It is reassuring because I have lived with the subconscious idea that I was a fool for pursuing my course for some time and yet I went on plugging away as if I knew what the hell I was doing.
Three Act Pony
As The Writer’s Journey is focused on screenwriting, Christopher Vogler builds on the classic Three Act structure:
- Act I – Departure/Separation of the Hero from the Everyday World
- Act II – Descent, Initiation, Penetration
- Act III – Return
Ok, so you might wonder what Act II is all about. Basically, this is where the hero is tested, fails or succeeds (multiple-times), eventually reaches a final test, defeats the bad guy, and finally receives his/her reward. In a nutshell.
From a novelist’s point of view, this is an awful lot to slam into a single act. There is no doubt this makes good sense in the world of drama (stage or screen) but I prefer the Five Act structure. Just seems to flow a little better, though perhaps this is just quibbling.
In The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slowness, and many, many other fine literary novels) describes the use of a Seven Act movement in fiction akin to the way one would structure a symphony. This is fine and dandy (in fact, my literary brain is aquiver with excitement) but it is totally impractical for the storyteller who wants to write something the larger world will actually read.
No-doubt, most people reading this article will be familiar with the five-act structure. The Wikipedia has a decent overview of which the below is a high level view:
- rising action
- climax (or turning point)
- falling action
- denouement or catastrophe (depending upon whether the drama is a comedy or a tragedy)
I outlined James N. Frey’s example (using the genre of a mystery) in my article about his book, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. I won’t repeat it again, but you might want to check it out.
Alright, so what exactly, is the point of all this Act structure crap anyway? As you begin the process of planning your novel, these organizing structures will help you define your action. However, when you finally get around to writing the prose itself the five-act structure can also be a guide to the mood of your story. This is a step beyond the action. It involves pacing and color. It is the form of your dialogue and description. I’m speaking in a rather abstract manner here. I should really provide an example, but that isn’t the point of this article. Maybe I’ll write my own article on this later, but feel free to contact me if you want more explanation on this point. chance are you will because I have yet to see a single writing book explain the multiple uses of such organizing principles and how they come into play at different stages of story development (from concept to final copy, and they do play a role at every stage).
Act I – The Ordinary World
Vogler’s Act I is comprised of several smaller parts. The first is the Ordinary World. Every story begins with a hero in their normal setting. The author may chose not to show the hero in this setting and begin in the middle of the action, but for a hero to be a hero they must have a world of their own. Conflict is going to result later when we take the hero out of their preferred world and drop them into a new one.
Act I – Call to Adventure
This is the thing that drives the hero out of the normal, everyday world. In the case of a mystery, it is the promise of a murder or crisis to solve. A romance might have the introduction of the one with whom the hero is destined to fall in love. There are many variations. Vogler provides some good examples in the book.
Act I – Refusal of the Call
If the call to adventure is accepted on the first chance, we’re off and running. However, additional dramatic tension is created when the hero refuses the call. Often, bad things result because of the hero’s refusal, which only serves to strengthen their resolve when they do decide to heed the call. [I realize this is what I said in the second sentence and that this is redundant.]
Act I – Enter the Mentor
Sometimes a hero needs to get into shape before they tackle an adventure. Sometimes the hero needs a nudge, a push, a shove, to get on the road. Both of these elements are usually served by the introduction of a character, an archetype, known as the mentor.
The mentor doesn’t have to be an old, wizened soul, but that is often the case. Their purpose is to help the hero get going and provide a little something extra to help along the way.
Act I – Crossing the First Threshold
Once the hero decides to accept the call to adventure, they cross the first boundary, they step into the other world. This can be an emotional high or low, depending on the type of story, but there really should be some sort of emotion packed into this event. After all, this is point of departure not only for the hero, but for the reader too.
Act II – Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Here we enter the long road of trials. Vogler points out that the first test always seems to happen in bars or other seedy places. He mentions the cantina in Star Wars and Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca. I’m reminded (somewhat dimly and perhaps erroneously) of a tavern scene in Sword of Shannara and (more firmly) of the first tavern scene in Fellowship of the Ring.
In these first scenes, the Hero gets an idea of what’s ahead, the danger and excitement. The Hero also sees some strength on display of those who will be his partners in adventure. As the story progresses, the Hero takes a more active role (having learned from past adventures) and begins making a name for himself.
Act II – Approach to the Inmost Cave
This is start of the real action. At this point, the Hero should be prepared as well as he is ever going to be and is now ready to face the biggest trial. This isn’t the trial itslef mind you, just the build-up.
Act II – The Supreme Ordeal
Face to face confrontation with the Hero’s biggest fear. The Hero will live or die (most likely live, of course). Basically, this is the final showdown with the Villain, the Evil One, whatever.
Act II – Seizing the Sword
Wow, Act II is really dragging on (at least for me). But in any case, this is the end. The Hero has defeated the Evil One and now takes his rightful reward. It might be a physical prize or it might be something more abstract like a feeling of justice.
Act III – The Road Back
A Hobbit’s Journey.
Sorry, just kidding, but only just. In Vogler’s scheme, the road back is also fraught with danger.
The Hero begins to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces of the Supreme Ordeal. If she has not yet managed to reconcile with the parent, the gods, or the hostile forces, they may come raging after her.
Act III – Resurrection
One more life and death scene. Except in this case, it is a purification ritual that allows the Hero to leave behind the Special World and return to the Ordinary World of the beginning. Vogler points out that the Hero is often humbled by this experience, becoming a deeper person (losing their edge perhaps).
I think this is generally true of new Heroes. They’ve never been tested before, pushed to the edge. However, for a Hero who has already been to the Special World once before this Resurrection would be a bit forced.
Act III – Return with the Elixir
Also known as THE END, whereby wrongs are righted and all is made whole. if the Hero fails to return with the Elixir (the boon to the community), he is doomed to repeat the adventure again. Hmmm. Seems like this might be a key to building an ongoing series.
After you read the brief overview of archetypal theory, you’ll be ready to dive in to chapters about each particular character type. This part feels a lot like reading a D&D Character Guide, and I suppose it is to some degree.
I am not going to go into all of the details of each type in this article though. I leave that to you and your own research. However, I will list out each type mentioned by Vogler and their dramatic function within the story. Remember though, there are infinite variants here so do not take them as is and run off to build a plot. I did that once and it was awful. That’s part of the problem with a book like this too. It gets you all excited and you rush off and dive into a project without giving it enough thought. Next thing you know, you’re stuck with cardboard characters in unbelievable situations. Learn from my mistakes.
This is the character with whom your reader is supposed to identify. If that isn’t a weary and stilted sentence, I don’t know what is… Basically, the Hero is the center of your tale. Things happen to the Hero and the Hero takes ACTION. Remember that. Action. If your Hero is inert, a punching bag to whom things happen but which such things do not illicit a response then your reader is going to be bored.
A good way to tell if your Hero sucks is to give him the Homer Test. No, I’m not talking about some serious classical test. I’m talking about Homer Simpson. I love The Simpsons primarily because a lot of things happen to Homer and he rarely does anything about it. In fact, he exacerbates his problems by his general sloth and continually seeking any and all alternatives other than direct action.
This is comedy, folks. I’m not interested in writing comedy. Funny? Yes. Comedy? No.
Alright, so the Homer Test works like this: when your Hero is faced with a problem do they consistently:
- run away?
- ignore the problem?
- fail to see the importance of action?
- do the wrong thing?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, your Hero fails the Homer Test. Yes, even point number four. Remember we’re talking about consistent failure, not a one time thing. Heroes act and generally they do the right thing to keep the story moving forward. If the story moves backward, you’d better have a darn good reason for it.
I wrote story once with an anti-hero. This fellow wanted desperately to avoid being a hero. Even though he wasn’t bald with a fat belly, he repeated each of the four failures above time and again. I was never satisfied with my story because I wanted that hero to fail and fail. Then when confronted with real danger, the true hero in him would rise to the occasion and step into the fray.
The problem with this approach was that no one actually gave a crap about the hero when it was time for him to do his thing. Readers of the story told me they felt like the thing was just dragging on and on because even though the hero moved forward physically through the scenes his emotional progress was nil and the dramatic value of those scenes was less than nil. [Actually, they didn’t give me that kind of feedback but that’s what I discerned from their comments.]
Also known as the Wise Old Man, the Mentor’s role is to teach the Hero a thing or two and perhaps give them the special tools they need to complete the job. Vogler describes various types of mentors, including false mentors who are actually working against the hero even though they appear at the start to be assisting.
I’ve never had a Mentor myself and I think that is a pretty glaring weakness in my work. If I go back and consider the bulk of my work, I see that my Heroes have to make it on their own. This is okay I suppose if your hero is experienced, but if they are just making their way to their hero-status it’s a recipe for failure. I suppose this is probably more telling about myself than my fiction, but then in every writer’s case the two are generally inseparable.
The Threshold Guardian
This is one of those archetypes that Vogler talks about as often wearing the the mask of the Mentor. Generally speaking, the Threshold Guardian (TG) is the Black Knight who guards the road forward. Their role is to provide the hurdles that make the Hero stronger and prepare him for the eventual showdown with the main villain. But there is another aspect to the TG that I hadn’t really thought about and that is the benefit they derive personally from keeping the Hero from advancing. Vogler has a great point to make about this:
It’s important for a hero to recognize and acknowledge these figures as Threshold Guardians. In daily life, you have probably encountered resistance when you try to make a positive change in your life. People around you, even those who love you, are often reluctant to see you change. They are used to your neuroses and have found ways to benefit from them. The idea of your changing may threaten them. If they resist, it’s important to realize that they are simply functioning as Threshold Guardians, testing to see if you are really resolved to change.
In my own work, I generally do a crappy job of building TGs. I usually skip this step and go right into the conflict between the Hero and the Villain. Big mistake.
Heralds are the voice of change. They provide the information that serves as a motivator to the Hero. This type is often tied in with the Mentor and lays out both the challenge and the opportunity to the Hero.
Also known as the trickster, this archetype injects doubt into the story. They usually get pretty close to the Hero. This is another one of those types that is often an aspect of one of the primary characters.
The Shadow is the one against whom the Hero is set against in conflict. Where the Hero is self-sacrificing, the Shadow is acting for selfish reasons. Admittedly, there is a fine line between the Shadow and the Threshold Guardian. Both act against the Hero, but instead of merely standing in the way, like the Threshold Guardian, the Shadow is actively seeking the Hero’s destruction.
Although he doesn’t point this out, the Shadow characters are usually the authors of the plot behind the plot. They are the reason that the Hero has gotten out of bed and bothered to pass from his Ordinary World into the trials of the Special World. I think this is really important, because so often young writers are tempted into writing stories about Heroes wanting to become Heroes. But how often does this approach work in life? Solutions seeking Problems are recipes for failure. You’ve got to get at it from the other end.
Vogler spends the rest of the book going over the ins and outs of the steps along the journey. I’m not going to go through all of these again. It’s good to read from a high-level standpoint but not very helpful for actually constructing a story. This is pretty much what I said way up at the top of the article. Still, it’s a valuable read if you’ve never been exposed to this whole mythic structure thing.
Building on that last point, like The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, this stuff really ought to come with a warning label. It is incredibly addictive because of the promise a reader pulls from its pages, but do not be fooled. There is a lot of work to do in taking ideas and theories and shaping them into fiction. This is one reason I prefer the five-act structure mentioned above. It’s has greater clarity.
Still, The Writer’s Journey is a classic and you no doubt will learn many useful things if you approach it with an open but wary mind.