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:


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

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

“The big question is whether you’re going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure”

November 3rd, 2014 by

The wisdom of Joseph Campbell pertains not only to our own life-journey, but to that of the Protagonists we write in our stories. Here is an example:


If you are familiar with The Hero’s Journey, you doubtless know about The Call to Adventure. Here is how Campbell described it to Bill Moyers in the wonderful PBS series “The Power of Myth”:

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?

Because we’ve seen, read or heard tens of thousands of stories in our lives, it’s easy to overlook the reality of this plot point. We just assume the Protagonist is going to accept the call because… well… there would be no story otherwise.

But in the context of the Protagonist’s life and their existence in what Campbell called the Ordinary World, often the heroine is reluctant to go. She knows her world, she knows the people, she knows the customs. It may very well be an unhappy or unfulfilling life she is leading, but sometimes the grass is not greener on the other side, or so at first she may believe, so better to stay here where, while the grass may be brown, at least she is safe within this place she calls home.

The thing is, it’s not just about leaving and going to the New World. It’s about what that can mean. Transformation. We all think change is good, right? But that means confronting truths we may be hiding from ourselves. Calling into question beliefs and behaviors. And ultimately addressing the most fundamental question of all: Who are you?

So the next time you write a story and you hit on the Call to Adventure or Inciting Incident or The Hook (what I call it), one of the first major plot points in the narrative…

Take seriously the psychological and emotional state of your Protagonist. Consider how terrifying the idea of going on the adventure may be. Delve into them and see if they are excited to go… reluctant to leave… or even stubbornly refusing to budge.

To have a story, you know they need to depart, but how they get there can create wonderful opportunities for drama, tension, humor and a lot more, all of which can make the start of your story more compelling.

Of course, consider Campbell’s observation from a writing standpoint:

“The big question is whether you’re going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

Every time you commit to writing a story, you are saying ‘yes’ to an adventure. Here’s to you embracing the challenge with a hearty yes!

About the graphic above: Huge props to Trish Curtin, a delightful person and wonderful writer from Australia. She has created several of these images set to Campbell quotes which I will be sharing over the next few weeks. The images are public domain, so feel free to distribute and spread the inspiration.

Many thanks, Trish!

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life”

October 28th, 2014 by

The wisdom of Joseph Campbell pertains not only to our own life-journey, but to that of the Protagonists we write in our stories. Here is an example:

JCampbell01.0 ABYSS

From a psychological, even spiritual standpoint, each of us has work to do, a never-ending interplay between the exploration of our inner world and the unfolding of insights we translate into our beliefs and behaviors in the outer world. Carl Jung called this lifelong process individuation, where a person digs into their Self to gain awareness and understanding of all aspects of their Psyche, the totality of their psychological being. As part of that process, Campbell calls out to us to confront those parts of our psyche which scare us the most, our Shadow, go down into that ‘abyss’. For it is there, we will truly “recover the treasures of life”.

This framework functions beautifully for the Protagonist journey. It implies a starting point where the Protagonist is not in a state of unity, they are in some sense disconnected from their treasure. That treasure is likely symbolized as a conscious goal — a job, task, relationship — something they want to achieve in the external world. There is also a related unstated or unconscious goal in their inner world, a need to emerges along the way of the journey. That need is almost always tied to this ‘treasure’ that exists within.

The thing about this ‘treasure’ is it has always been there. Whether we call it Core Essence, True Self, or Authentic Nature, it has been lying fallow. This is why Campbell asserts that the hero begins the story needing to change. Indeed from a psychological standpoint, the entire point of a story is for the Protagonist to become aware of the treasure, embrace and use it to accomplish their goals and move toward a state of unity.

Hence Campbell’s word choice: Recover. Get something back.

Just as Glinda tells Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas” and that she needed to go through the trials and tribulations she did in Oz because “she had to learn it for herself,” so too most Protagonists in their own journeys. Whether it’s Michael Dorsey learning to be a better man by experiencing life as a woman in Tootsie, C.C. Baxter embracing his inner ‘mensch’ in The Apartment, Katniss Everdeen emerging as both warrior and leader in The Hunger Games, and so many other Protagonist examples, we see this dynamic play out again and again in stories.

Oftentimes the key is for the Protagonist to down into their abyss. Hannibal Lecter knew this about Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, that until she managed to overcome her deep, dark anxieties about her associations of her father’s death with the spring slaughter of the lambs on her uncle’s Montana farm, she would never be free. By confessing that terrible memory to Lecter, Clarice prepared herself to descend into an actual abyss — a serial killer’s basement — and face the physicalization of the Boogeyman who killed her father: Buffalo Bill. Her treasure? Saving Catherine Martin and a measure of personal redemption.

Silence 7 Basement

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” If ever there was an apt expression of the arc of the Protagonist’s psychological journey, it is this.

About the graphic above: Huge props to Trish Curtin, a delightful person and wonderful writer from Australia. She has created several of these images set to Campbell quotes which I will be sharing over the next few weeks. The images are public domain, so feel free to distribute and spread the inspiration.

Many thanks, Trish!

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 eleven 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 eleven 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.