Screenwriting Meta View: Initiation

April 17th, 2013 by

In writing a screenplay, we go into the story. That’s critical in order to connect with the characters and immerse ourselves in the story universe. But we also need to balance that by stepping outside the story universe and take a meta view of the narrative.

I like to do that by thinking of five ‘passages,’ broad movements in the Protagonist’s or key characters’ experience. Those are:

* Life before FADE IN

* Separation

* Initiation

* Return

* Life after FADE OUT

The middle three come straight from Joseph Campbell and his articulation of the Hero’s Journey:

“The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return.” — Joseph Campbell

There is Life Before FADE IN, whereby all the characters in the story, but particularly the Protagonist have lived out their lives 24/7/365. That is what writers call backstory. The more we immerse ourselves in and understand those events and dynamics, the better we can know our story’s primary characters, and the story itself.

There is Separation. That assumes we set up the Ordinary World, all the key characters, narrative elements, psychological forces at play. Then something happens which acts as a Call To Adventure. Reluctant or willing, this sets the stage for the Protagonist departing the Ordinary World and crossing the threshold into the New World.

But all of this is in service to the focus of a Hero’s Journey…


In an increasingly secular world, more and more removed from nature and the ‘tribe,’ the very idea of initiation may seem arcane, even ridiculous. But strip away what we may typically associate with a rite of initiation and look at it from a strictly psychological perspective, and the concept comes alive because each of us goes through initiations multiple times in our lives.

Birth. Childhood. School. Adolescence. Sex. Drugs. College. Sports. Cliques. Hobbies. Job. Clubs. Relationships. Broken Relationships. Travel. Marriage. Parenting. Divorce. Relocation. And so on…

Each one of these represents a life-passage. And along with that passage, we find ourselves ‘initiated’ into a club.

When you lose your virginity, you are no longer a virgin. Welcome to a new club!

When you join a religious group, you are no longer an unbeliever. Welcome to a new club!

Likewise when you drop out of a religious group, you are no longer a believer. Welcome to a new club!

When you become a parent, you are no longer a non-parent. Welcome to a new club!

During our lives, each of us is ‘initiated’ into dozens of new ‘clubs.’

In a movie, whether the scope of the story is big or small, a Protagonist goes through an initiation which is in effect a powerful experience. Their unconscious presses up and out into consciousness. Secrets of the past, present and future get revealed. Destiny made known.

“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth… As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form-all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” — Joseph Campbell

Per screenwriting, thresholds are complications, roadblocks, and reversals. Dragons are characters and situations which most profoundly represent a projection of the Protagonist’s fears and/or shadow. Divinity is the True Self. The void is the All Is Lost moment where the Protagonist has come so far and is near their goal, but they have a major setback. Do they go forward or turn back? It is the height of their existential journey. They have nothing to rely upon except their connection to their Core Essence and what they’ve learned from  Mentors, Attractors, Tricksters, all the characters with whom the Protagonist intersects.

This is the stuff of initiation. It works with big hero epics and broad comedies, chaotic road trips and intimate character studies. The language may sound sprawling, but the narrative scope can be quite constrained. And yet initiation, no matter how big or small, is a powerful experience. It lies at the heart of a Protagonist’s metamorphosis.

Tomorrow: Return.

For Part 1: Life Before FADE IN, go here.

For Part 2: Separation, go here.

Comment Archive

4 thoughts on “Screenwriting Meta View: Initiation

  1. Despina says:

    this series so far is just what I needed this week! thanks!

  2. Holly Bell says:

    Hi Scott, I’m really enjoying this series. I just want to see if I’m getting it right:

    Michael C. is initiated into the family business to learn revenge. Michael D. is initiated into a woman to learn what a jerk he was as a man. Clarice is initiated into the FBI field work to meet Lecter for her journey. I just watched Casablanca, so, as an example, Rick is initiated into a cause again and old relationship to learn/regain altruistic behavior?

    I haven’t read Campbell or other Hero’s Journey material, but I’ve been getting initiated by following your blog, and I do see the the relevance in many of the movies I watch and love. Well, did I get it right? Am I in the club? Thanks again for the series.

    1. Scott says:

      Holly, sounds like you’ve gotten the gist of it. The thing to remember, just like many tribal initiation rites for adolescent males or females, it is about recognizing the adult potential that ALREADY exists within the initiate. So:

      * Michael C already has the DNA and awareness, albeit limited, to become a Mafia don.

      * Michael D already has a feminine aspect to his psyche, whether he realizes it or not, which blossoms when he becomes Dorothy Michaels.

      * Clarice already has the need to redeem the death of her father which she does by saving Catherine Martin and slaying Buffalo Bill.

      * Rick Blaine already was an idealist, lost that when Ilsa dumped him, then gets called back into the fray through what transpires in the movie.

      Even though Protagonists leave their Old World for the New World, and the external circumstances of what transpires may be entirely unfamiliar to them, this initiation awakens their Core Essence / True Self / Authentic Being, psyche aspects that were already present, and now emerge throughout their Hero’s Journey.

      Campbell talks about it this way: “Our task is to become who we already are.” This is why the experience is authentic: It is about getting in touch with and arousing true aspects of our Self, as opposed to slapping on some externally based way of being.

      By the way, much of Campbell’s language and ideas derives from one of his heroes: Carl Jung which is why for the last several years I have been studying his writings.

      And yes, I would say you have now entered the Joseph Campbell club!

      1. Holly Bell says:

        Wow, Scott, you’re really opening my mind on some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I have another question, but I’m going to wait for the Return post tomorrow so I have more time to think about it. Thanks again. Some of this stuff is finally starting to click for me.

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