Joseph Campbell word for word on The Hero’s Journey

June 16th, 2016 by

Bouncing around the online writing universe, I invariably run into a lot of chatter about Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. However there is a surprising amount of content out there which distorts what Campbell himself said about his theory. So I thought it would be a good idea to hear directly from the man – word for word.

The following iteration of The Hero’s Journey is transcribed verbatim from Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers in the wonderful PBS series, “The Power of Myth.”

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension. The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it. Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying. The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

During the first half, the Hero is tested…
The Hero has to determine the rules of the Extraordinary World into which they are moving – Who can the Hero trust?

Along the way, the Hero meets “threshold guardians,” people who guard the entrances… The trick to facing any opponent is to get into their skin, understand their habits, maybe make them friends and allies.

The midpoint from a mythological standpoint is that moment when the Hero confronts that which they fear most, often related to entering the headquarters of the enemy.

Afterwards, the Hero feels the consequences of the Midpoint… Reflects on their task, often a chance to rest…

Then a chase scene often occurs…
The enemy has been struck a mighty blow, but recovers enough to mount one final act.

A black moment where it looks like all is lost, there is no way to defeat the enemy.

The final test…
To demonstrate whether the Hero has learned his lesson or not…
The process has purified him to ensure that he hasn’t become part of the Other World – but will he succeed?

The Hero returns home with some booty, an elixir, the source of power from the Other World, i.e., treasure, Holy Grail, knowledge, gold, love, wisdom, humility.

In the end, the Hero is a transformed individual.

For all the discussion among writers about The Hero’s Journey, this is pretty much all you need to know.

Separation from the Old World.
Initiation in the New World.
Return to the Old World.

The theme of The Hero’s Journey: Follow your bliss. Through their adventure, the Heroine discovers the most essential and authentic part of her psyche, embraces it, and as a result is empowered to win the final test, thus returning home a “transformed individual,” the physical journey servicing the Heroine’s psychological journey.

It’s that simple. However it is profound in its simplicity. Moreover we can apply this narrative archetype to a majority of mainstream movies.

And for us writers? The Hero’s Journey has endless variations if we allow ourselves to enter into the lives of our characters and enable them to lead us into and through the story-crafting process.

So my advice? Don’t get hung up with complicated analyses of The Hero’s Journey, rather better to take a macro view. And the version cited above, a literal transcription I typed up of Campbell’s actual words, should be your guide and touchstone.

The Psychological Subtext of the Call To Adventure

April 13th, 2016 by

As part of my daily journaling, this year I’ve been reading “A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke”. It’s been an interesting ride thus far, considering his reflections in terms of my own life, but also in relation to Story and in particular the Protagonist’s journey. Here’s an excerpt from today’s reading:

Calling out, yet fearful
that my call will be heard
and destined to be drowned
in another’s life.

Of course, this brings to mind the Call To Adventure, what in the screenwriting trade many refer to as the Inciting Incident. Basically SOMETHING HAPPENS early-to-middle of Act One which jumbles the Protagonist’s ordinary life and sets into motion their departure into a New World (whether geographical in nature or not).

Here’s how Joseph Campbell described it verbatim in “The Power of Myth,” the wonderful interview series with Bill Moyers:

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying.
The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

This is a good reminder: When we write about the Inciting Incident, bear in mind that no matter the seeming psychological status of the Protagonist, even if seemingly confident, there will always be some layer of fear at work.

Why? Because change is hard. Transformation is terrifying.

Will I survive?
Will I change for Good or Bad?
Will my call be heard?
Will I be drowned in another’s life?

The interesting thing is in order for Metamorphosis to occur, the Protagonist does have to be ‘drowned’ in another’s life. Their Old Way of Being has to give way to a New Way of Being. The former represents an inauthentic life, cobbled together behaviors and beliefs, what Campbell calls “just making do”. The latter is an authentic life, grounded in the Protagonist’s Core Essence, the seeds of change which already exist within who they are, and shaped by their coming to know, understand, and embrace that empowering inner dynamic.

If the result of their journey is a positive one, their transformation leads them toward a state of wholeness and Unity. That’s the arc we see in most movies, a key part of a ‘happy ending’.

But at the story’s beginning, when the Protagonist receives the Call To Adventure, they aren’t anywhere near that happy ending yet. They are just beginning their transformation-journey… and it’s a scary prospect.

Will I survive?
Will I change for Good or Bad?
Will my call be heard?
Will I be drowned in another’s life?

Those are the questions at work as subtext in the Call To Adventure. As writers, we should be aware of that. Those questions, that fear adds depth of emotional meaning to those key moments where the Protagonist begins their journey from an Old Life… to a New One.

Happy Birthday, Joseph Campbell!

March 26th, 2016 by

Joseph Campbell’s birthday is today. If he were alive, he would 102 years old. His physical body died in 1987, but his ideas live on.

He was a fascinating guy. I first studied Campbell’s work as an undergraduate at UVA, so originally I thought of him strictly in terms of academics. Then when I first made the rounds of studio execs and producers in 1987, I was shocked to see Campbell’s seminal book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” in their offices. That’s when I discovered that George Lucas had used Campbell’s ideas in shaping the original Star Wars movie.

Beyond Campbell’s articulation of character archetypes and mythic elements, I think that the core reason why his idea of The Hero’s Journey, or as it’s sometimes called the “monomyth”, has taken root in the culture of contemporary screenwriting is the dynamic of transformation. The emotional arc of the Protagonist, starting out the story in one emotion-state, then ending up in a different psychological ‘place,’ is prevalent in most mainstream commercial Hollywood movies.

In the wonderful PBS series “Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth”, which I highly recommend, Campbell provides a succinct version of the hero’s journey. Here it is in his own words:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…

In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing from their life…
a sense of discomfort or tension.

The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it.
Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying.
The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

During the first half, the Hero is tested…
The Hero has to determine the rules of the Extraordinary World into which they are moving.
Who can the Hero trust?

Along the way, the Hero meets “threshold guardians,” people who guard the entrances.
The trick to facing any opponent is to get into their skin, understand their habits… maybe make them friends and allies.

The midpoint from a mythological standpoint is that moment when the Hero confronts that which they fear most, often related to entering the headquarters of the enemy.

Afterwards, the Hero feels the consequences of the Midpoint…
Reflects on their task, often a chance to rest…

Then a chase scene often occurs…
The enemy has been struck a mighty blow, but recovers enough to mount one final act.
A black moment where it looks like all is lost, there is no way to defeat the enemy.

The final test…
To demonstrate whether the Hero has learned his lesson or not…

The process has purified him to ensure that he hasn’t become part of the Other World… but will he succeed?

The Hero returns home with some booty, an elixir, the source of power from the Other World, i.e., treasure, Holy Grail, knowledge, gold, love, wisdom, humility.

In the end, the Hero is a transformed individual.

And here are some great Campbell quotes. One I have up on my wall is what Campbell understood to be the moral of The Hero’s Journey:

JCampbell03.0BLISS

For more on Joseph Campbell, you can go here, here, and here.

Anyone a fan of Joseph Campbell? Please share your thoughts in comments.

Joseph Campbell: “All the gods are within you”

March 25th, 2016 by

It’s Joseph Campbell’s birthday on Saturday and to honor this great thinker, I am reprising a five part series I posted back in 2012 to take us deeper into The Hero’s Journey.

This is the fifth in a series of posts I’ve been writing this week to expand our shared consciousness about what Joseph Campbell brings to the table for screenwriting and storytellers. He is much more than The Hero’s Journey. You may read the first four posts here, here, here, and here.

“All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.” — Joseph Campbell

For the final post in this week-long series on Joseph Campbell, we have another example of an observation by the scholar that is applicable to the writing process on multiple levels, all of which point to one inescapable fact: The single best way to avoid “formulaic” and “flat” stories is by going into your characters and discovering their inner mysteries.

Think about yourself. Or perhaps more precisely, your Self. You are not one emotion, one personality, one voice. You are your own universe of dynamics, a multifaceted persona filled with memories and experiences, feelings and moods. That Self acts and reacts to what transpires in the External World, donning a plethora of masks to circumnavigate each day.

If you are aware and honest with yourself about your Self, you know what Campbell says is authentic: gods, heavens, hells, all within you.

Likewise with our story’s characters. This is only natural because our characters come into being and exist in a symbiotic relationship with our Self, expressions and projections of our own multifaceted persona, then as we work with them in our writing morphing into their own individual forms.

In Hollywood, when someone says of a script, “The characters are flat,” what they mean is the characters are one-dimensional, one-note, lacking in depth.

There is no good reason why any writer’s characters should come off that way. Flat characters derive from a writer having an absence of curiosity and a lack of commitment to understanding the who, how and why of their story’s characters.

Because the simple fact is, all the gods, all the heavens, and all the hells are within our story’s characters, too.

Nowhere is this more important than with your Protagonist. It is by exploring the depths of this character that the writer can transform The Hero’s Journey from a series of events in the External World into a dynamic interweaving of action and emotion, reaction and feeling, imbuing the story with meaning as metamorphosis.

Conversely The Hero’s Journey as a narrative archetype in a screenplay can come off as formulaic if the writer does not dip into the accompanying Psychological Journey.

So to those would would critique Joseph Campbell for the flood of formulaic and flat scripts floating around Hollywood, I would argue that as a rule the fault lies not with Campbell, but with the writers who are working with a reductionist take of The Hero’s Journey and only a cursory grasp of Campbell’s ideas.

Stories are windows into the human soul. Inside that soul is a churning mass of gods, heavens and hells. What we do with our stories in telling The Hero’s Journey as Psychological Journey is the great challenge. Our characters are calling out to us. May we have to courage to engage them in their fullness of being.

Here are some reflections by Campbell on the mythology of the Trickster:

Tomorrow which is Campbell’s birthday, take a few moments to think about the deeper meaning of The Hero’s Journey and how you can follow your creative bliss.

Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned”

March 24th, 2016 by

It’s Joseph Campbell’s birthday on Saturday and to honor this great thinker, I am reprising a five part series I posted back in 2012 to take us deeper into The Hero’s Journey.

This is the fourth in a series of posts I’ve been writing this week to expand our shared consciousness about what Joseph Campbell brings to the table for screenwriting and storytellers. He is much more than The Hero’s Journey. You may read the first three posts here, here, and here.

Take the quote above. Have any of you had a significant shift in your life-plans? I did. Let me share three anecdotes from my own life-journey.

The first takes place in New Haven. It is my final semester at Yale Divinity School, the end of my 7th consecutive year of school at the collegiate or graduate level. I have come here to up my bona fides academically with the goal of getting into a top Ph.D. program and I have done well in that regard, eventually graduating near the top of my class.

But something is happening: Every day I drive up to the campus at the top of Prospect Street and enter the administration building, I have this feeling in my gut. There’s a heaviness, a weight. Every. Single. Day. I feel the same thing. A physical sensation in my stomach whenever I walk onto the campus.

I talk with my friends. My professors. Finally with the Dean Colin Williams. I explain to him my situation, suggesting that part of what could be going on is my interest in playing music. I started to learn how to play the guitar when I was 14, and have been writing songs and performing ever since. Dean Williams listens to me, then says, “Well, you’ve got to take a year off then, don’t you?” He puts into words what I know is true: If I don’t pursue my music, at least give that a shot, I could very well end up living the wrong life. “Your gut is telling you something, isn’t it?” And he’s absolutely right. Which leads me to the second anecdote.

After I graduate, I take off driving around the country, visiting family and friends. While staying with my brother in Minneapolis, a college buddy of his [Tony] happens to swing by for a visit. That night I play some songs for them. Tony asks me about what I’m doing. I say I’m taking a year off to pursue playing music. “How are you doing that,” he asks. I say, “I don’t know.” He says, “Why don’t you come to Aspen?”

In all honesty, I’d never even heard of Aspen, Colorado. But Tony tells me about the lively music scene there — John Denver, The Eagles, lots of clubs with live music. He should know, he lives there. “Come to Aspen. You’ll learn real quick if you can cut it or not as a musician,” he says. He even offers to let me crash with him for a few weeks. Which leads me to my third anecdote.

It is September, late on a chilly evening. I am driving to Aspen. Having been behind the wheel for several hours, I’m too tired to continue on. I also know I need to stretch my savings, so instead of a motel, I pull into a rest stop off Interstate 70 about forty miles east of Denver. I stretch out in the back seat of my car and go to sleep.

It’s the cold that wakes me up. And here’s the thing: I don’t know what time it is. One of the deals I made with myself when I took the year off was to get rid of my watch. Spontaneous gesture, but symbolically important to me to try to live in the present. At the moment, it’s a pain in the ass because I have no idea what time it is.

So I reach up front, flip the car key to accessory mode, and I’m blasted by the car radio. It’s a news announcer’s voice.

“We’re looking at a record temperature today of 112 degrees in downtown Los Angeles.”

It’s KNX 1070AM radio. So that’s kind of weird, an L.A. radio station while I’m in Colorado, probably one of those early morning radio wave bouncing off the stratosphere things.

And it’s also strange that here I am freezing and this guy’s talking about a heat wave.

But the most bizarre thing of all is this: As soon as I hear that dude’s voice, I am overwhelmed by a sensation. Comes from nowhere, but utterly seizes me. “You’re going to end up in L.A.”

It’s not a voice, rather it’s this conviction, like the truest of all truths I may have ever experienced. That somehow I was going to intersect with Los Angeles.

Well, I spent that year off in Aspen. And another year there. Playing music and doing a volunteer ‘bar ministry’ [true story]. Then the musicians in the band I’m playing with in Aspen decide to head home to southern California. I make my way to northern California, home to a few of my Yale buddies, where I spend seven months as a salesman at The Guitar Center in San Francisco. What the hell am I doing? How did I get here? I decide I have to recommit myself to the music.

My ex-bandmates invite me down to Ventura. I end up living there through 1985, playing music, then of all things shifting into stand-up comedy. I meet my wife there. She gets into college at Cal, so we move up to Berkeley. And all the time, I’m wondering, “Did I do the right thing leaving school like I did?”

Then I discover screenwriting. Write K-9. It sells as a spec script. And in January 1987, I finally find my way to Los Angeles. My wife and I move there that summer, and we end up living there for many years. Just like the radio dude on KNX ‘predicted.’

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned.”

I have made a trillion mistakes in my life, but of the handful of crucial right choices I’ve made, this was one of them: I was willing to get rid of the life I had planned in order to pursue the life waiting for me. I thought it was music. Instead music led to comedy led to screenwriting. Then I thought screenwriting was my life. It still is, but all these other things have entered into it as well. And as I look to the future, I have no idea where it’s all leading. I’m just following my gut.

Now that is a story. Not perhaps a particularly good or well-told one, but it’s a story nonetheless. And it really happened. Each of you has your own story. And I’m willing to bet the house that each of you has experienced in some way the reality of this truth: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I’d love to hear your stories if you’d care to share them in Comments.

But that is only part of the saga. One of the beauties of Campbell and his observations about life is how applicable they are to what we do as writers. This saying is yet another example.

Think about movie Protagonists. How often do they start off the story with some Big Goal in mind? A promotion, to land a guy, to get into this college, to score that deal, and so on. They begin the story with a sense of their life and plan on how to live it.

Then something happens. A stranger shows up. A visitor. A strange call. An event. Something happens that serves as a sort of herald’s call. It riles things up. Depending upon the Protagonist’s psychological state, they may leap at the opportunity or more likely they may resist it. But by the end of Act One, somehow the Protagonist finds him/herself on a new and different path. And in departing the Old World and entering the New World, whether they even realize it or not, they leave behind the life they had been planning in order to live the life waiting for them.

This dynamic is at the heart of a vast majority of movies. The Protagonist’s journey in the External World is accompanied and influenced by their journey into their Internal World where they get in touch with their Core Essence, their Authentic Self, the foundation of that life that has been waiting for them.

That is a story human beings want to hear. That is a story we need to hear. Because we long to believe in the possibility of change, in the power of metamorphosis, in our ability to transform ourselves and be transformed.

Sometimes in movies, the Protagonist has a negative metamorphosis. Sometimes they refuse to change. Sometimes they act as change agents. Most of the time in films, the Protagonist goes through a positive change, moving from an inauthentic life to an authentic life, from a life they had been planning to a life that has been waiting for them.

There are countless ways to approach this narrative dynamic and endless possibilities to spin these type of stories. But when you tap into this, you are accessing an archetype that runs deep into the human psyche, and in so doing you increase the chance exponentially that what you write will resonate with readers.

So I encourage, even challenge you: If your experience of Joseph Campbell is limited to The Hero’s Journey or frankly if how you approach screenwriting is from a place where your prime directive is to lock down the story structure — plot points, beats, stages, whatever — get rid of that ‘life’ you have planned, and take another path.

Go into your characters. See where they are now, what their goals are, then dig into them to see what is going on in their Internal World, what their Core Essence is about. Follow that. Tell that story. Don’t worry about story structure, trust that the characters will lead you there. Because that story… is waiting for you.

Here are some reflections by Campbell on the dynamic of life:

Tomorrow: One last post on Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure”

March 23rd, 2016 by

It’s Joseph Campbell’s birthday on Saturday and to honor this great thinker, I am reprising a five part series I posted back in 2012 to take us deeper into The Hero’s Journey.

On Monday, I wrote the first in a series of posts this week on Joseph Campbell, using as a centerpiece one of his quotes:

“What each must seek in his life never was on land or sea. It is something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else.”

Yesterday I followed up with a second post featuring another Campbell quote:

“Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.”

My point in this has been to try to reclaim the ideas of Joseph Campbell from the tyranny of “formulaic” and “flat” writing that can derive from a flawed take on his idea of The Hero’s Journey. Reducing it to a twelve step screenplay paradigm captures a surface-level understanding of the much broader meaning Campbell has for myth, metaphor and the transformational power of story.

So today I continue my quixotic effort by starting with another Campbell quote:

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

Within the context of the Story Universe, there is a pretty obvious point of applicability to narrative: At some point, a Protagonist needs to confront their deepest, darkest fears. The value of this type of dynamic is vast:

* It means that the character must have an active interior life where emotions, feelings, passions, memories and experiences lurk unseen — at first — in the External World of action and dialogue.

* It implies that the character has a built-in inner conflict which cries out to be resolved.

* It requires dramatic moments whereby the character must confront the darkest aspects of who they are.

* It helps to create a character with which the general audience can relate because the universality of human experience of the divided self.

On and on the reasons go, ending with perhaps the most important one: When the inner conflicts a character has tie into the external conflicts they face in the course of the unfolding plot, it imbues the narrative with multiple layers of meaning and emotional resonance.

That’s all within the context of the story universe itself. But what about that other perspective we, as writers, bring to the story-crafting process, where we stand outside the story universe, that existential relationship we have with the Story: I and Thou?

This is where I see The Hero’s Journey going off the rails and straight into formula. Why? Because from this vantage point, we have a powerful instinct to figure out the story, get from FADE IN to FADE OUT as quickly as possible, finish the script and send it out to the world with hopes it sells for a zillion dollars. That’s a strong drive that can translate into lots of energy.

Now let me say, there is nothing inherently wrong with that impulse. Indeed it’s that motor combined with other psychological dynamics such as persistence that help us to finish our scripts. Indeed in some cases, where a writer is immersed in their story, it’s hugely helpful to spew out a ‘vomit draft’ as quickly as possible. Get into a flow and go.

But when we are not immersed in the story and we have not done the due diligence we need in terms of character development, plotting and all the rest, where the image in our heads is not one of writing the best possible script, but simply to get the script done, it’s that instinct left unbridled where we run into trouble. When we fix our gaze on something like The Hero’s Journey, clamp onto it like our story savior, cram a patchwork of plot points together to match the supposed 12 stages of the ‘paradigm,’ and knock off a script, that’s where “formulaic” and “flat” scripts derive.

I propose we flip the dynamic. Instead of looking at The Hero’s Journey as some sort of map to create this story out there, some sort of quantifiable plot wrapped inside a 100 or so script pages, consider it as a guide for each of us as writers to go inside ourselves.

Every story is about your Self. If it isn’t about your Self, then it’s unlikely to have much in the way of resonance to other people.

What is perhaps the best way to avoid “formulaic” and “flat” scripts? Dig into and create dynamic, vibrant characters who have free will. People do surprising things. So, too, do ‘alive’ characters. And plots that emerge from characters are much more likely to have twists and turns reflective of their dynamism.

So if you write a script to which the response of readers is, it feels “flat” or “formulaic,” that is you stumbling. It’s a bummer to hear that response, no doubt. But it’s also an opportunity because it is pointing you in the direction of your treasure: The Internal World.

The Internal World of your story.

The Internal World of your Self.

Here are some reflections by Campbell on initiation through trials:

Tomorrow: More Joseph Campbell.

[Originally posted January 11, 2012]

Joseph Campbell: “What each must seek in their life never was on land or sea”

March 21st, 2016 by

It’s Joseph Campbell’s birthday on Saturday and to honor this great thinker, I am reprising a five part series I posted back in 2012 to take us deeper into The Hero’s Journey.

I suspect most screenwriters familiar with Joseph Campbell have a connection with him based on some version of The Hero’s Journey they have picked up along the way. Or maybe they’ve seen the 6-hour TV series “The Power of Myth”, a fascinating conversation between Campbell and Bill Moyers. Possibly a few have tried to work their way through Campbell’s first book, the seminal “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, but I’m guessing most never made it beyond a few chapters. It is, after all, a scholarly work.

I bring up Campbell because the other day, I posted this question: Why are there so many Protagonist orphans? It spawned a wide-ranging conversation, ultimately leading to Joseph Campbell. At some point in the thread of comments, TripDreamer posted this:

Killer Films producer David Kaplan made a comment on twitter denouncing Campbell. I asked him why and he told me that 90% of the scripts he reads follow the same formula and this, he insinuated, made them flat and, well, formulaic. These books can only give you so much guidance, it’s up to us to inject soul, heart, voice, and identity into a story.

I thanked TripDreamer for posting that, even though it pained me to read it. Not that I doubt Kaplan’s assessment as I’ve read far too many scripts of the ilk he describes as well. However to come to a situation where someone would associate the words “formulaic” and “flat” with Joseph Campbell seems to me… well, almost blasphemous.

I have studied Joseph Campbell since my junior year at the University of Virginia. What he accomplished in his career as an author, teacher, thinker and speaker is nothing short of phenomenal. The problem lies not with Joseph Campbell. The problem lies with what people in Hollywood — specifically writers — have done with Campbell. By essentially reducing the mass of his work to The Hero’s Journey, then to reduce that to a twelve stage pattern to fit into an easily digestible screenwriting paradigm basically falsifies both Campbell and his work.

Therefore I thought I would attempt this week to open the door just a bit to a wider appreciation of Joseph Campbell by spotlighting some memorable quotes of his I have picked up along the way. Here’s the first one:

“What each must seek in his life never was on land or sea. It is something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else.”

The beauty of so many of Campbell’s observations is they not only have meaning for us personally in our own lives, but also as writers. How? By making the subject of the quote the Protagonist of our story.

“What each Protagonist must seek in his/her life never was on land or sea. It is something out of the Protagonist’s own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone other than the Protagonist.”

Let’s parse this further by looking at the first line as referring to the External World of the story universe, the realm of action and dialogue.

The second line then refers to the Internal World of the story universe, subtext and intention, emotions and feelings. In other words the “unique potentiality for experience” is that which lies within the Protagonist.

Looked at this way, we can see how wrong-headed it is to conceive of The Hero’s Journey as being primarily about twelve stages in the External World. Sure, you can write a script like that, but more than likely it will come off as “formulaic” and “flat” because the story is lacking the single most important element of all: Psychological meaning.

Everything that happens in the Plotline must be tied intimately and directly to the Protagonist’s “unique potentiality for experience.” Indeed it’s not a stretch to assert that for Campbell, that is the whole point of The Hero’s Journey: For the Hero Within that has always been inside the Protagonist as potential to emerge into the Light. Which is to suggest the events of the Plotline service the grand story of metamorphosis (or to use Campbell’s preferred term transformation).

A battle is a battle. A sword is a sword. A death is a death. It is only through the meaning attached to those events precisely because of the Protagonist’s “unique potentiality for experience” that a story means any bloody thing at all. Otherwise it’s just noise.

To speak metaphorically — which Joseph Campbell would approve wholeheartedly! — screenwriters who use The Hero’s Journey merely as a pattern to structure their story’s Plotline and nothing more, they are seeking life on “land or sea,” when in fact the real life, the animating life of a story exists beyond that which we can see and touch, it dwells in the Internal World of the Protagonist and other character’s “unique potentiality.”

If you want to write scripts that land on a producer’s desk that come off as “formulaic” and “flat,” then stick to the realm of “land or sea.”

If you want to write scripts that come alive in the imaginations of readers, the words lifting up off the page and emerging as a movie in their minds-eye, go into your story’s Internal World, go into your Characters, go into your Protagonist and find the “unique potentiality” that exists there.

Here is a reflection by Campbell on how myth acts as a mirror for the individual’s ego:

Tomorrow: More thoughts on Joseph Campbell.

[Originally posted January 9, 2012]

Writing and the Creative Life: “Come to the edge”

September 3rd, 2015 by

A poem by Christopher Logue:

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re comfortable back here,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re too busy,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“It’s too high,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re afraid,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’ll fall,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
And they did.

And he pushed them.
And they flew.

I love this poem because it speaks to two journeys: That of the Hero and the Writer.

With regard to the Hero’s Journey, here are the exact words Joseph Campbell used to describe the beginning of a story to Bill Moyers in the wonderful PBS series “The Power of Myth”:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension.
The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it. Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying.
The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

Compare this description to the poem. The character called “he” is the Herald, proclaiming the Call To Adventure, the repeated refrain: “Come to the edge.”

The “ordinary world” Campbell talks about extends as far as the people who live within it know it. At some point, there is a boundary which represents a threshold crossing. This is the Edge.

Beyond the Edge lies the New World, the World of Adventure. The Hero knows the Ordinary World… but not the New World. That in and of itself is frightening, fear of the unknown.

But the implication is that once the Hero crosses the threshold, s/he will be a Stranger in a Strange Land. New places, new faces. What works for the Hero in the Ordinary World may not, likely will not work in the New World.

Therefore the Hero will have to change. Transformation. And that is, as Campbell suggests, “terrifying.”

This is reflected in the poem. Notice the arc of the defenses “they” — the one who is called to the adventure — mount to avoid the call:

“We’re comfortable back here,” they said.

“We’re too busy,” they said.

“It’s too high,” they said.

“We’re afraid,” they said.

“We’ll fall,” they said.

Each line strips away a layer of excuses, revealing a deeper truth, until “they” express their darkest fear: “We’ll fall.” In other words, we will die.

This is the dark cloud hanging over every Hero’s journey. Sure, transformation is terrifying. But the prospect of self-destruction is even worse.

And yet, this is what makes a Hero’s Journey compelling, confronting physical fears (death) and psychological fears (transformation) in a strange new world where the Hero is an underdog.

This dynamic describes a vast majority of story setups, particularly mainstream movies. Whether the possibility of death is visceral and actual (e.g., going off into battle, exploration into the unknown), or symbolic and existential (e.g., the uncertainty of getting married, sinking one’s savings into a new business venture), most stories establish a sense of stakes for the Hero and their journey. That’s what makes for good drama… and a gripping Hero’s Journey.

There is also the Writer and his/her journey.

The Call To Adventure is the beckoning of the story. At first, it is unshaped and largely unknown. All a writer has are a few stray ideas… images… sensations. Those may excite the imagination, but there is the hard work of brainstorming ideas, sorting through them, then wrangling everything into a coherent narrative.

This process, confronting so many intangibles along with the very real possibility of failure, represents its own form of terror.

As writers, whenever we are called to embark on a writing journey, we are enticed to the Edge. The Edge of what we know. The Edge of what we believe about ourselves as creatives. The Edge between creative ambition and the practical experience of surviving in the real world.

And yet in both — the Hero’s Journey and the Writer’s Journey — instead of turning away from the Call, rife with all of its negative potential, as the poem suggests, we do “come to the edge.”

The lure of the Story pushes us over the edge…

And if we trust in the creative process, give ourselves over to the Story, reach out to its Characters, and believe they want us to tell that Story…

We will fly.

Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted August 21, 2014]

30 Things About Screenwriting: Story as psychological journey

July 23rd, 2015 by

We can look at story from many different vantage points: structurally in terms of plot, thematically in terms of symbolism, visually in terms of imagery. However when we consider a story from the perspective of character, what we are doing is interpreting it as a psychological journey. Indeed from this particular point of view, it is not out of line to think about all the events of the story and all its characters as existing precisely in order to support the playing out of the Protagonist’s psychological quest.

The noted Swiss psychoanalyst and theoretician Carl Jung said this:

The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains divided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict.

Carl Jung

On a personal level, this is quite remarkable, meaning that if we don’t engage all aspects of our psyche, especially the darker impulses, the universe will create circumstances to compel us. In terms of screenwriting, the implication of this observation is two-fold:

  • A Protagonist who begins a story in a state of Disunity has an implied destiny to move toward Unity
  • The events that transpire in the story’s Plotline have a direct connection to the core elements of the Protagonist’s Disunity

As Joseph Campbell suggested, “The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.” So when Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz seeks to go “somewhere over the rainbow,” driven by her sense of disconnect to the place she knows as her home but doesn’t feel like home, we already have a sense from the start that her psychological journey will involve events which feed into her eventual realization, “There’s no place like home.”

This is how we begin a character-based approach to screenwriting: Delving into our story’s Protagonist, determining what is at the core of their Disunity, then working outward from that base of understanding to craft a throughline that combines events and actions as the Protagonist grows through their unique metamorphosis process.

While there are movies where a Protagonist does not go through any sort of significant transformation or their arc may be a negative one, the fact is they do experience a positive metamorphosis in most stories. Indeed Campbell posited that transformation is the central theme of The Hero’s Journey.

For a screenwriter, perhaps the best way to go about digging into their story’s psychological journey is to ask these two questions:

What does my Protagonist want?

What does my Protagonist need?

By want, I mean their conscious goal, an end point they have clearly in mind, perhaps at the very beginning of the story, but surely by the end of Act One. What was Dorothy’s want in The Wizard of Oz? Once she had reached that magical realm, her goal — stated multiple times — was to get back home to Kansas.

By need, I mean the Protagonist’s unconscious goal. To a certain degree they may be aware of this inner desire, but more often than not it is an instinct the Protagonist has been suppressing unconsciously. What was Dorothy’s need? To feel like these people she lived with in Kansas were actually her family and the farm was actually her home.

The tension of the Protagonist’s want and need is the core of their Disunity. As a result, there is an important truth that lies hidden in plain view: The seeds of the Protagonist’s unity lie within who they are from the beginning of their journey. Their need is the key and as it emerges into the light of consciousness and the Protagonist embraces it as part of their destiny, the more likely they are to achieve a cinematic semblance of Unity. This truth is reflected at the very end of The Wizard of Oz when Glinda tells Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”

You have always had the power. If there is one mantra key to understanding the essence of the Protagonist’s metamorphosis, it is probably this phrase.

The Protagonist has always had the power. It has been tied up:

  • By the Protagonist’s belief systems, coping skills, defense mechanisms, and behavioral patterns in their lives in the Ordinary World leading up to FADE IN.
  • By the Protagonist’s suppressing and disavowal of their need, even though it is a key aspect of their authentic Inner Self and Core Of Being.

All of that requires energy, diverting the Protagonist’s resources. When they finally do allow their need to emerge, it unleashes the floodgates of power, typically what they require to overcome the challenges they face in Acts Two and Three.

We see this type of positive metamorphosis at play over and over again in movies, the Protagonist evolving from a beginning state of Disunity, embarking on a journey during which they confront different obstacles and tests, challenged by some characters, aided by others, then ultimately facing a Final Struggle which if they succeed allows them to achieve some manner of Unity.

Which is why when we think of a story, we must always consider its psychological journey

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 23, 2013]

Happy Birthday, Joseph Campbell!

March 26th, 2015 by

Joseph Campbell’s birthday is today. If he were alive, he would 101 years old. His physical body died in 1987, but his ideas live on.

He was a fascinating guy. I first studied Campbell’s work as an undergraduate at UVA, so originally I thought of him strictly in terms of academics. Then when I first made the rounds of studio execs and producers in 1987, I was shocked to see Campbell’s seminal book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” in their offices. That’s when I discovered that George Lucas had used Campbell’s ideas in shaping the original Star Wars movie.

Beyond Campbell’s articulation of character archetypes and mythic elements, I think that the core reason why his idea of The Hero’s Journey, or as it’s sometimes called the “monomyth”, has taken root in the culture of contemporary screenwriting is the dynamic of transformation. The emotional arc of the Protagonist, starting out the story in one emotion-state, then ending up in a different psychological ‘place,’ is prevalent in most mainstream commercial Hollywood movies.

In the wonderful PBS series “Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth”, which I highly recommend, Campbell provides a succinct version of the hero’s journey. Here it is in his own words:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…

In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing from their life…
a sense of discomfort or tension.

The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it.
Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying.
The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

During the first half, the Hero is tested…
The Hero has to determine the rules of the Extraordinary World into which they are moving.
Who can the Hero trust?

Along the way, the Hero meets “threshold guardians,” people who guard the entrances.
The trick to facing any opponent is to get into their skin, understand their habits… maybe make them friends and allies.

The midpoint from a mythological standpoint is that moment when the Hero confronts that which they fear most, often related to entering the headquarters of the enemy.

Afterwards, the Hero feels the consequences of the Midpoint…
Reflects on their task, often a chance to rest…

Then a chase scene often occurs…
The enemy has been struck a mighty blow, but recovers enough to mount one final act.
A black moment where it looks like all is lost, there is no way to defeat the enemy.

The final test…
To demonstrate whether the Hero has learned his lesson or not…

The process has purified him to ensure that he hasn’t become part of the Other World… but will he succeed?

The Hero returns home with some booty, an elixir, the source of power from the Other World, i.e., treasure, Holy Grail, knowledge, gold, love, wisdom, humility.

In the end, the Hero is a transformed individual.

Here is Part 1 of “The Power of Myth”:

And here are some great Campbell quotes. One I have up on my wall is what Campbell understood to be the moral of The Hero’s Journey:

JCampbell03.0BLISS

For more on Joseph Campbell, you can go here, here, and here.

Anyone a fan of Joseph Campbell? Please share your thoughts in comments.