Screenwriting Meta View: Return

April 18th, 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.

There is Initiation, a series of tests and ordeals, equal parts forcing the Protagonist to shed old behaviors and beliefs, and incorporate authentic aspects of their psyche evolving into a New Self. This middle part of the journey is a powerful experience that contributes mightily to the character’s metamorphosis.

But that is not all. The Protagonist needs to prove all they have learned and who they have become has taken hold, then go back to the Ordinary World and integrate into that environment as a transformed Self.


In order to return home, the Protagonist must endure a final struggle, one almost always tied to their conscious goal.

In taking on the Final Struggle, the Protagonist’s only chance of success is to be fully united, Want and Need, Body and Soul, and through their success mark the full emergence of the New Self.

Then and only then can they return home. Oftentimes victors. Sometimes not. And sometimes the Unity state they achieve derives only through physical death.

The Protagonist has passed through fire and emerged a transformed individual, now freed from the shackles of their Old Self:

“Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back – not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other – is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer…” — Joseph Campbell

To be a Cosmic Dancer is an expression of a fully realized self. Speaking psychologically, the Protagonist begins their journey as a child, then separates from that stage, and their initiation marks a shift into adolescence, then their return is symbolic of their emergence as an adult.

We see this pattern over and over and over again in movies, multiple, even endless variations, reflective of the ubiquitous nature the Hero’s Journey.

Tomorrow: Life after FADE OUT.

6 thoughts on “Screenwriting Meta View: Return

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Really interesting little series Scott. Am just working through Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” which is heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell. He uses 12 steps, but I think some of them are really sub-steps of the major beats in the story as you have outlined above. Really interesting book for a novice though.

    1. Scott says:

      Vogler’s book is a must-read, but I get concerned when I hear about producers and reps complaining about the Hero’s Journey leading to formulaic scripts when that so far removed from what Campbell was about. In some ways, that’s why I think a meta view of broad movements is more helpful to a writer. Think like that, then connect with the characters to the degree that they come ‘alive’ for you, then you are much less likely to write formula, and more likely to write something vibrant, surprising and emotionally resonant.

      I feel like I should follow up with a series on five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. Haven’t hit on that in awhile and it fits hand in glove with this meta view of screenwriting.

      If anyone is interested in that, let me know.

      1. Mark Walker says:

        Hi Scott, I think Vogler does stress that…..that his Writer’s Journey is a template and he recommends the writer to develop their story with the journey stages and character archetypes in the back of their mind. He doesn’t describe them as a definitive template for stories, but as reference to come back to to help solve problems and recognise characters and beats in your won work.

        And that does work. Reading it I am always thinking back to my own work and thinking, “…oh yeah, I have that character type…”, or, “…yeah I hit those beats…” but I am now less worried if there are specifics that I haven’t used. And I think the examples he uses from the Wizard of Oz help… as I don’t think all of them sit perfectly within the films own running time to fit exactly within a tightly specified structure of the hero’s/writer’s journey. It is a great book and I am enjoying working my way through it.

        It contrasts to books like Snyder, which I think I have mentioned before which are good for a novice, but have the potential to “trap” new writers into very forumlaic writing as they encourage sticking to rigid structure…. and it has become very clear to me very quickly, that this is dangerous and stifles creativity.

        Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent now… maybe this is something for a blackboard discussion? Might have a think about that for later, but I need to get out of bed and sort the kids out for school!

        But, yes, as series on the archetypes would be very welcome.

  2. Turambar says:

    only Hell Yeah!

  3. Holly Bell says:

    I’ll second what Turambar said. I’m already looking forward to that series.

    Scott, some of the comments really clicked yesterday, and I think I was able to put together another connection for myself. You mentioned: “it is about recognizing the adult potential that ALREADY exists within the initiate”. So, for Prep writing, should I focus most of my effort on making The Life Before FADE IN and the Initiation connection, since this leads to the core essence of the protagonist?

    For example in Gladiator for Maximus: Life Before Fade In is he’s a soldier who just wants to serve his emperor father figure and go home to his family. He’s a farmer who really doesn’t have a connection to Rome or seems to care to.

    At the initiation part, he’s initiated into the gladiator club where he literally has to fight for the crowd (Roman citizens) against Commodus. And it’s here where he finds his essence (adult potential) — to lead Rome to a republic. But, as you said, he arouses this and doesn’t really gain it. It’s already there: he’s a natural leader (of his army), loyal servant, and I think it’s implied in the movie he grew up under Richard Harris’s tutelage, who certainly cared for Rome. And it’s during this initiation passage he arouses the need to free Rome from Commodus.

    So for the prep writing, is it most helpful to focus on that connection or am I missing an aspect?

    Thanks again for the series. I’ve found it to be really instructive and it’s always fun to dive into these movies.

    1. Scott says:

      Holly, glad you’ve found the series to be helpful. Re your question: My advice is to understand as much about your characters as possible on all fronts. The ‘lens’ I’ve been laying out in this series is, I hope, helpful in providing a different perspective on what is generally called the characters arc. Everyone talks about arcs. But what does it mean? Even if I say, “Metamorphosis” as being the primary one [and a positive one at that], what does that look like?

      So here we have five movements: Life Before FADE IN, Separation, Initiation, Return, Life After FADE OUT. There is a continuum to it, a character’s arc evolving incrementally from beginning to end.

      As I’ve suggested, we may also look at as moving from Child to Adolescent to Adult.

      Here is another ‘lens’ through which to look at arc:

      Disunity – Deconstruction – Reconstruction – Unity

      That is how I typify the metamorphosis process. You can see the parallels, Assuming Life Before FADE IN represents backstory:

      Separation / Disunity

      Initiation / Deconstruction

      Return / Reconstruction

      Life After FADE IN / Unity

      These are not stages per se, rather ways of thinking about a character’s development, in effect tools. If they help creatively, great. Use them. If not, I’m sure there are other metaphorical approaches that can work equally as well.

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