What Makes A Good Story, Or Is Joseph Campbell Bossing Me Around?

Written by K.P. Gresham

Writers (or at least me) despise (rightly so) the idea of formulaic writing. I am creative! I have my own ideas! Ain’t nobody gonna tell me how to write!

But what if this “formula” came from inside ourselves? What if I create it in my thoughts, my actions, my psyche? What if this “formula” is actually an internal pattern shared by all humans?

Joseph Campbell was a pattern finder. As he studied different cultures, different mythologies, different religions, he developed his theory that the journey of the archetypal hero is at the very soul of what makes us human. He called it the “Monomyth” and, drawing on Carl Jung’s theories, he proposed that a psychic unity is shared by all humankind, and that our lives AND stories are all mythic narratives as variations of a single great story.

Boulderdash, my creative spirit cries! But…shoving hubris aside, what does the evidence show?

Okay. Enough of Campbell. I’m not smart enough or deep enough to even begin to understand the intricacies of his studies or theories. So I did what most of us do. I looked for someone who could “explain it to me.”

For me, those answers came from reading Chris Vogler’s The Writers Journey. Mr. Vogler breaks down this inner self-generated pattern of how humans think and act into twelve understandable, progressive steps.

Step One-The Hero’s Ordinary World (Everyday Life Before the Insanity Begins)

Examples: Dorothy’s life in Kansas before the tornado tosses her into the land of Oz. Luke Skywalker’s mundane life on Tatooine before the C3PO and R2D2 show up. Your life when you’re in your comfort zone.

Step Two-The Hero’s Call to Adventure (Introduction of Something that Must Happen)

Examples: Bilbo Baggins appalling invitation to go with the dwarves to reclaim their treasure in The Hobbit. Captain Pyke’s challenge to James T. Kirk to join Starfleet in the latest Star Trek movie iterations. Your college acceptance letter taking you to a life you’ve never lived before.

Step Three-Refusal of the Call (Ain’t No Way I’m Gonna…)

Examples: Humphrey Bogart doesn’t want to take Kathryn Hepburn on The African Queen. Indiana Jones not wanting to investigate his father’s hogwash theories of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Your unsuccessful job hunt that presents you with the one offer you’d most dislike doing.

Step Four-Meeting with the Mentor (Somebody help!)

Examples: Robert Redford getting Paul Newman to help him get even with a murdering crime boss in The Sting. Charlie is guided by Willy Wonka through the Chocolate Factory. Your new boss’s admin takes pity on you and shows you the ropes of the career foisted upon you.

Step Five-Crossing the First Threshold (Taking that first step on the new journey.)

Examples: Alec Baldwin jumps from a helicopter to help find Sean Connery’s Russian sub, The Red October. Cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) leaves his Detroit home to discover who murdered his friend in Beverly Hills. You pack your belongings in a car and leave home.

Step Six- Tests, Allies and Enemies (Life Happens)

Examples: In Casablanca, Rick’s Café is frought with desperate refugees, thieves, spies and intrigue. In the recent movie, 1917, the two soldiers meet with countless dangers and pitfalls in their efforts to save 1600 British troops. You have to figure out where to live, who are your friends and who are your enemies, and how will you pay for it all.

Step Seven-Approach to the Inmost Cave (Facing Your Worst Fear)

Example: In The Matrix, the Oracle tells Neo that either Neo or Morpheus must die, and Neo has the power to choose which goes. Nala asks Simba to return to the Pride and take back the throne in The Lion King. You realize that you must make peace with the parent who never loved you.

Step Eight-The Ordeal (Your fight within the belly of the beast.)

Example: In Spiderman, Norman figures out that Peter Parker is Spiderman and kidnaps . In The Odyssey, Odysseus must go to the underworld to find the way home and is almost killed. You have no choice but to declare bankruptcy in a financial matter.

Step Nine-Reward (Hero Achieves Goal)

Example: Luke reconciles with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Robert Redford and Paul Newman pull off their “Sting” and get away with it. You and your creditors come up with a plan to pay off your debt. Step Ten-The Road Back (Trouble’s Not Quite Over)

Example: The moonlight cycle ride of Elliott and E.T. as they escape government bad guys. Harry Potter’s walk on Hogwart’s Bridge to destroy in the Elder Wand in Deathly Hallows II. Your ride home from a hospital visit with medicines in tow and physical therapy sessions in sight.

Step Eleven-Resurrection (Death and Darkness Get One More Shot Before Their Destruction)

Example: In Divergent, Tris’s mother dies, but Tris and Four defeat the Erudite coup. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly witnesses the Professor getting killed (again), only to learn the Professor was wearing a bullet proof vest. You discover your long lost sister only to realize she’s dying.

Step Twelve- Hero Returns to Real World with Elixir (Back at Home, but You’re Not the Same Person You Were When You Left.)

Example: Dorothy goes home to Kansas knowing that she if loved by her family. In the Hunt for Red October, Ryan is able to sleep on the airplane going home. Turbulence isn’t a problem—he’s seen a lot worse. You realize you’ve gone through hell with a certain issue, but you’ve come out alive and stronger.

Now folks have taken these steps and created beat sheets (I’m referring specifically to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! fifteen step beat sheet), diagrams, pie charts, whatever. But the basic monomyth theory is the same: a hero’s journey. Formulaic? Perhaps. Or maybe a pattern observed in the psychic unity of mankind. Is this something foisted upon us or something that originates from the very core that makes us human?

High brow questions for a low brow thinker. All I know is I love a good story.

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