Are all movie heroes the same person?

June 24th, 2014 by

For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the work of Joseph Campbell, his seminal book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” and how his articulation of the narrative archetype The Hero’s Journey became so popular, including in Hollywood, an article in Pacific Standard, an online magazine, is a good place to start.

While several factors deserve credit for Star Wars’ ongoing popularity—the ballet-like lightsaber duels, the roguish charm of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, the massive amounts of toy merchandising—it’s quite possible that the space opera’s greatest strength lies in its reliance upon the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell.

For those who care about such things, the link between Star Wars creator George Lucas and Joseph Campbell, especially his 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is well known. During an award ceremony in 1985, after the original Star Wars trilogy had already seared itself onto the pop-culture collective consciousness, Lucas, in reference to Campbell, admitted, “If it hadn’t been for him, it’s possible I would still be trying to write Star Wars today.”

I first studied Joseph Campbell as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in the honors program at the Department of Religious Studies, so when I first made the rounds of studio executive offices in Hollywood, I was amazed to see copies of “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” in their bookshelves. What in the dickens was an academic book doing here?

In the mid ’80s, a Hollywood executive named Christopher Vogler summarized Campbell’s ideas, which borrow from the work of Carl Jung, James Joyce, and the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, into a seven-page memo titled “A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” It begins by stating that Campbell’s book very well may become one of the most influential texts of the 20th century, and ends by claiming that the Monomyth, with its infinite flexibility, will “outlive us all.” Vogler gave his memo to executives at Disney (who now own the rights to both Star Wars and Marvel’s treasure chest of comic book superheroes) before winding up working on The Lion King—yet another widely adored film that leans heavily upon Campbell’s template. Eventually, Vogler turned his now-legendary document into a popular screenwriter’s guide titled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This helped spread the gospel of Campbell even further.

I was introduced to Vogler when he made a presentation at the WGA in 1988. “The Writer’s Journey” is one of a handful of books on screenwriting and storytelling I recommend as he does a good job of distilling Campbell’s ideas into a form that is directly relevant to movies and TV. Perhaps too relevant.

So here’s a question: Will we ever see an end to Campbell’s hand in the stories we tell? Will the Monomyth ever become irrelevant or meet its own extinction due to overuse? While no sensible person would ever claim that the Hero’s Journey (another name for it) is the only form of narrative on the market, the model has proven indisputably pervasive, undeniably powerful, and irrefutably profitable. But is it inescapable, too?

Which leads to the question posed by the article’s title: Are all movie heroes the same person?

We can look at that question from a Campbellian perspective, underscoring the prevalence of similarities between hero types across narrative and cultural platforms. Or we can look at it the way I did in a blog post from January 2012:

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.

This is the problem: People who take the 12 stages of The Hero’s Journey as articulated in Vogler’s book and elsewhere, and use them as a formula. I mean seriously, does this guy look like he would traffic in a mundane, simplistic formula?

In fact, I spoke to this concern about turning The Hero’s Journey into a formula at length in that 2012 post, so let me quote from that:

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.

Please, do your Creative Self a favor… and do studio executives, producers and eventually movie lovers a favor, too: Do not approach The Hero’s Journey as a formula. Campbell never intended it to be used that way. And I feel confident from my reading of Vogler’s book that neither does he.

Use it for insight. Use it for inspiration. Use it as a tool to develop your story. As far as I’m concerned, the two most important aspects of The Hero’s Journey as it relates to screenwriting are these:

* The general arc of Story is in three parts: Separation, Initiation, Return.

* The point of The Hero’s Journey is this: Transformation.

There’s a lot more to be gained from studying Campbell, of course, but taking this meta view is the surest way you have of avoiding turning his work into a screenplay formula… and pissing off more Hollywood execs and making for repetitive movies.

For more inspiration, here are some posts I did featuring some Campbell quotes:

“Every myth is psychologically symbolic.”

“Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

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

“All the gods are within you.”

To read the rest of the Pacific Standard article, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek”

May 29th, 2014 by

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”– Joseph Campbell (1904 –1987) Mythologist, Writer, Lecturer

As most of you know, I’m an acolyte of Joseph Campbell, having studied him first when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, then later at Yale, and eventually when I came to Hollywood and discovered he was all the rage in story development circles due to the influence of Christopher Vogler.

Campbell has influenced my writing and my thoughts about writing enormously. Beyond his scholarly research and contribution of The Hero’s Journey to the discussion about story, Campbell also holds a special place in my intellectual, spiritual, and creative life because of this: His work introduced me to Carl Jung.

As it turns out, Jung had a massive impact on Campbell. Indeed it is difficult to imagine Campbell’s ideas evolving anywhere near what they became without the underlying observations, principles, and philosophy of Carl Jung.

The quote above is a perfect example: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” That is classic Jung. The process of individuation, a fundamental psychological and life-process by which a person integrates disparate parts of their self into a whole, acknowledges the fact that the individual must engage all aspects of who they are, even those which they fear.

Here are some Jung quotes that echo this sensibility:

“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.”

“Man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.”

“Our heart glows, and secret unrest gnaws at the root of our being. Dealing with the unconscious has become a question of life for us.”

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”

“To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light.”

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

Why this post? Two reasons:

* Almost without exception, the stories we write involve a character or characters who, along with whatever else happens to them along the way, experience a psychological journey. It is that interweaving of what transpires in the Plotline and how that impacts the attitudes of a character in their Internal World, reflected in their metamorphosis (Themeline), that gives our stories richness, depth, and meaning. It makes dramas, comedies, thrillers, action movies and all the rest better stories.

* We ourselves as writers go on our own psychological journey in the telling of our tales. And oftentimes in order to dig up diamonds in our imagination, we must plumb the depths of our own souls and enter our deepest, darkest caves, for it is there where we will find our treasure.

So much of what we are told about screenwriting has a tendency to reduce creativity to filling in blanks on this template or that paradigm. As helpful as that may be in wrangling a plot, where is the life in that? Where is the heart, soul, and humanity? It is only through giving ourselves completely over to our stories and creative self — and yes, sometimes going into Dark Places — and engaging the process as an organic one where we discover magic, mystery, and treasure.

For more on Joseph Campbell, go here.

For more on Carl Jung, go here.

From TED-ED: What makes a hero?

May 15th, 2014 by

From Holly Bell over at The Black Board, this nifty overview of The Hero’s Journey. If you’re a parent or teacher, this is a good visual resource to introduce young people to the idea of the Monomyth.

I do have an issue with the video: The narrator’s use of the word “template”. Indeed the idea of 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, reinforces a notion I do not think Joseph Campbell, the originator of The Hero’s Journey, would have been comfortable with.

These are not stages. The Hero’s Journey is not a set pattern of twelve beats. Rather these are recurring narrative elements we find in stories. Writers who think of this as a template, especially in trying to adapt it for screenplays, run several risks most notably the following.

The Hero’s Journey is a metaphor for Life and Life Experiences. The latter are organic and spontaneous, often surprising and transcending logic. Stories should have that feel as well. Hewing too closely to any structural template — filling in boxes, a paint-by-numbers approach — can result in precisely the opposite. Instead of a vibrant story that feels fresh and alive, we end up with a formulaic narrative that comes across as stale and lifeless.

Again The Hero’s Journey is not a template, it is a metaphor. Don’t worship the specific iteration of these twelve dynamics, rather embrace the underlying spirit of the Monomyth.

Separation. Initiation. Return. Tests. Metamorphosis.

In my view, those are the big takeaways from The Hero’s Journey. Be cognizant of those dynamics as you write stories and you’re tapping into its soul while allowing the narrative room to evolve, breathe and emerge into being in an organic way.

Saturday Hot Links

December 14th, 2013 by

Time for the 116th installment of Saturday Hot Links!

Today: The Joseph Campbell And The Hero’s Journey Edition.

Superhero movies are getting too greedy.

If you’re bored with the regular way of playing Pokemon, try the Nuzlocke Challenge.

Script for Star Wars: Episode VII has not been turned in yet.

Is there life on Jupiter’s moons.

Golden Globes: 18 biggest snubs and surprises.

Best part of the Golden Globes: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

More Amy: Watch as she and Billy Eichner force people to sing Christmas carols on the street [video].

Why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

The year in comedy: It’s bigger than laughter [The Dissolve].

Can anyone make a citizen’s arrest.

Sharon Stone kisses stranger for money [relax, it's for charity].

What one thing can determine whether or not you’re successful in life. Hint: It’s not Donald Trump’s hair.

Love Actually: Is it a classic or terrible.

6 surprising ways to make better decisions.

“House of Cards” Season 2 trailer [video].

9 legendary monsters of Christmas.

Screenwriter Nancy Meyers named to Final Draft Hall of Fame. No, we’re not related.

11 incredible facts about Venus flytraps.

Heroines of cinema: An A to Z of women in film in 2013.

Cul-de-sacs are killing America.

Everything you wanted to know about the 2014 Sundance Film Festival program is here.

How to watch some of the Sundance films without going to Park City.

11 classic video games you can play online.

Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” returns in January.

15 best winter beers.

Blockbuster U.K. will close its last 91 stores on December 16.

Hey, all you 1% types: Here are the world’s best islands.

30 most quotable Will Ferrell moments.

200,000 people apply to live on Mars.

The lowest grossing movie of 2013 only made $72.

14 reasons why Santa Monica is the best place to grow up.

Ted Hope: 15 predictions for the future of indie film.

An ancient city is discovered underground.

5 cable networks that badly need rebranding.

What if the universe had no beginning.

Manohla Dargis’ top films of 2013.

A.O. Scott’s top films of 2013.

The 10 worst reviewed movies of 2013.

The biggest cheaters of 2013.

Watch Bill Murray and Emma Stone charm the troops [video].

-135 degrees. That’s how cold it was recently in Antarctica [yes, it was a record].

Eye on the Oscars: Writers on writers [Variety].

Meditation has the power to influence your genes.

Similarities between “The Mindy Project” and “When Harry Met Sally” [video].

Support our teachers!

The best quotes about writing from literature laureates’ Nobel Prize speeches.

Scientists discover parts of our bodies age at different rates.

See every James Bond title card in one place [video].

Philip K. Dick on how to build a universe.

50 things you didn’t know your iPhone could do.

The 50 best movie posters of 2013.

“The Wire” creator David Simon talks about “two Americas” [video].

Strange Christmas traditions from around the world.

PG-13 movies combine as much violence, sex and alcohol as R-rated titles.

The Evan Rachel Wood oral sex scene the MPAA doesn’t want you to see.

Lycra, the fabric of spacetime.

The 100 worst Christmas movies.

Finally Bob Dylan’s infamous Fender Stratocaster fetches nearly $1M at auction.

Screenwriting Master Class tip of the week: It’s always gratifying to hear from a writer who found inspiration and insight on Go Into The Story. And it’s especially heartening when a writer I’ve worked with through SMC takes what they’ve learned and translates that into a success on the professional front.

For example, just this week I received an email from Eddy Martens who lives in Belgium. Eddy participated in a Prep: From Concept To Outline this year with me as well as The Core Package. Check out what happened:

Maybe you remember the synopsis I posted in one of the Screenwriting Master Classes called “Slopie” about the 11-year old girl and the prompter. Thanks to your feedback I was able to find and write a great ending. Two months ago I entered the treatment with the VAF (Flemish Audiovisual Fund), a fund that supports selected projects. And guess what? The treatment was selected and they are going to pay me to write the screenplay!!!

I am very thankful for your inspiring courses and your insightful feedback. I am also grateful that I was able to follow the 8 week Core courses. I learned a lot. I must say after having read several books on screenwriting, I have learned things in your class I hadn’t read about in any of these books.

I was very skeptical the first time I enrolled in one of your courses, not knowing what to expect. But it turned out to be worth my while! Thanks a million!!!

Congratulations, Eddy! And congratulations to all of the SMC writers who deepened their understanding of the craft and made substantial progress with their writing this year.

The reality is you do not have to do anything other than watch movies, read scripts and write pages to grasp what you need to achieve success as a professional writer. However screenwriting is a craft and you can shorten the learning process by working knowledgeable and committed teachers, like Tom and myself.

Let’s say you have a story you are itching to write. Or maybe you have one you started, but set aside because you lost confidence in writing it.

Consider one of our workshops:

Pages I: The First Draft: This 10 week workshop provides a structure within which writers pound out script pages each week for peer review and my detailed feedback. For many writers, having those due dates each Sunday is precisely the motivational tool they need to pound out a first draft. Next session start date: January 6. Instructor: Scott Myers.

Prep: From Concept To Outline: This 6 week workshop takes writers into and through their story from the beginning to the end of the development process, resulting in a scene-by-scene outline the writer can use as a guide through the first draft process. Next sessions start date: January 1. Instructor: Tom Benedek.

These are just two of the numerous writing workshops we offer at Screenwriting Master Class to go along with our Core and Craft courses which explore screenwriting theory and practice.

As you plan how to move forward as a writer in 2014, think about working with Tom or myself. We offer a unique combination of front line experience as Hollywood writers and decades as teachers.

Who knows. Hopefully someday you’ll be sending me an email like Eddy Martens and countless others have done with your own writing success story.

Have a Happy Holiday seasons and as always, we look forward to the opportunity to work with you.

Screenwriting Meta View: Life After FADE OUT

April 19th, 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.

There is Return, where the Protagonist goes back home, physically and/or symbolically, but before that can happen, the Hero must endure a final struggle, one almost always tied to their conscious goal. As Campbell says:

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?

In most movies, the Protagonist does succeed. Yet typically, the story is not finished. There is one more movement.

Life After FADE OUT

Per Campbell:

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.

Part of this movement is about celebration, a confirmation of the Protagonist’s victory and metamorphosis.

Part of it can be about the sharing of wisdom by the Protagonist to characters on the home front.

And part of it is directly for the moviegoer’s benefit: To know everything is going to be all right.

So when the movie hits THE END, credits roll, and the viewer exits the theater, they have a sense of how the character’s lives will be after FADE OUT.

In this series, we have taken a meta view of the screenwriting process. It’s one way to think about the Protagonist’s journey, especially helpful in the prep-writing process to wrangle narrative elements into a coherent whole… and throughout writing and rewriting a touchstone for the psychological and symbolic meaning of the story.

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.

Return

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.

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…

Initiation

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.

Screenwriting Meta View: Separation

April 16th, 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: which might be named the nuclear unit to the monomyth.” — Joseph Campbell

The monomyth is another term for the Hero’s Journey. The comparison to a rite of passage is instructive. Campbell claimed the whole point, symbolically and psychologically, of the Hero’s Journey is transformation. The person passes through the “test of fire” and in that process is made “new”. To accomplish that, they need to go through a separation.

Separation

So what is separation? For a screenwriter, it involves three macro components:

* The Old World: Providing a sense of place, time, mood, and environment for the Protagonist’s ordinary world. This is critical to set a touchstone against which to measure the character’s metamorphosis. Moreover the Old World helps us to understand why the character is the way s/he is. This is the distillation of key narrative elements and dynamics arising from Life Before FADE IN and laid out as part of the Act One setup.

* The Call to Adventure: Something happens. That is common to all movies. The Protagonist is going about their business in the Old World when something happens. A Herald arrives with important news. An event occurs which inspires or forces the Protagonist to make a decision, take action.

* The New World: Whether it’s geographical, psychological, or symbolic, the Protagonist leaves the Old World behind and enters the New World.

This last point represents the essence of separation, a severing of a character’s presence in and connection to the Old World. Why is this important?

* To rattle the Protagonist’s cage: Beliefs, behaviors, defense mechanisms, coping skills, the psychological armor the Protagonist has cobbled together in their life leading up to FADE IN, their shift into the New World calls everything into question, shaking things up.

* To expose the Protagonist to their True Self: As long as the psyche dynamics of their life leading up to FADE IN are locked in place, the Protagonist has no hope of accessing let alone embracing their Core Essence. But being a Fish-Out-Of-Water / Stranger -In-A Strange-Land can cause the Protagonist to see the flaws in their Old Ways.

* To begin to build on their True Self: Not fully or perfectly, but a start. Shedding the Old Ways allows the New Self to emerge. That becomes the foundation of who the Protagonist will eventually become.

“The herald’s summons may be to live…or…to die. It may sound the call to some high historical undertaking. Or it may mark the dawn of religious illumination. As apprehended by the mystic, it marks what has been termed “the awakening of the self.”…whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transformation-a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth.” — Joseph Campbell

The result is a transformed character who has “passed through the test of fire” and is made new. That process begins with Separation.

Tomorrow: Initiation.

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

Screenwriting Meta View: Life before FADE IN

April 15th, 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 other two derive from the experience of writing screenplays.

This week, I will look at each of these five passages.

Today: Life before FADE IN.

You, as a writer, have to believe something. Something quite specific.

That your story universe exists.

Your story’s characters exist.

As most movies deal with the journey of a Protagonist figure, let’s work with that.

Your Protagonist has been alive his/her entire life. They have had a lifetime of what we call backstory. All those events and experience have influenced who they are and what they’ve become.

As a result, your Protagonist has developed, among other aspects of their psyche:

* Beliefs

* Behaviors

* Coping skills

* Defense mechanisms

So in their life up to FADE IN, they have managed to cobble together a survivable existence. In fact, they may even think they are living the good life.

But in almost every case, they exist in a state of Disunity.

They have an Authentic Self, a True Self, aspects of their psyche they are unaware of, avoiding, or suppressing. In one way of looking at your story, the very reason why the Protagonist’s adventure emerges is precisely to compel them to engage their True Self, even if they resist it at first [Reluctant Hero].

Their life leading up to FADE IN has been one in which they have settled for how they exist. Heroes don’t settle. Heroes go for the gold and in most instances that means tapping into their Core Of Being and transforming into a New Person, the persona they were meant to be.

In their lives leading up to FADE IN, the Protagonist has been making do. But they have a sense of discomfort, whether they are conscious of it or not.

That discomfort is their Authentic Self pressing upward into their consciousness, striving to see the light of day.

The Protagonist can never discover their Core Of Being unless they leave the comfort of their Ordinary World and venture forth into their personal Hero’s Journey.

Joseph Campbell called that Separation. We will consider that tomorrow.

How about you: Do you think about your characters’ lives before FADE IN?

“Finding Joe”

March 30th, 2013 by

This is a nice find, a 2011 documentary by filmmaker Patrick Takaya Solomon. Some of you may find the movie too New Age-y, but if you can get past that, this homage to Joseph Campbell [whose 109th birthday it was this week] and exploration of the Hero’s Journey may very well speak to you… both as a writer and a truth-seeker.

The film features several writers including Academy Award winning screenwriter and producer Akiva Goldsman, writer-director Catherine Hardwicke, actress-screenwriter Rashida Jones, and playwright Lynne Kaufman.

If you feel like the Hero’s Journey is some sort of formula for crafting a story’s structure, you are missing the point entirely. It is about a way of looking, a way of understanding, a way of living. And through that, it can become a way of writing.

Moreover this being Easter weekend, no matter what your religion (or not), themes of death and resurrection run throughout almost all stories, metaphorically speaking, and that is a key dynamic in the Hero’s Journey, therefore it’s a timely opportunity to consider these powerful narrative dynamics.

So I encourage you to watch the video. Feed your creative understanding. Edify your soul.