When I started script reading for studios like Universal and Columbia Tri-Star (that shows you just how long ago that was!) Christopher Vogler had not long written his famous story memo to the executives at Disney. True to the time, I often bemoaned the lack of structure in the screenplays I read, shaking my head at the writer who didn’t tie down his Meeting the Mentor with sufficient voracity. That was a long time ago now but The Hero’s Journey seems to be as popular as ever with aspiring writers, and many studio executives.
The Hollywood love affair with Vogler and mythic structure is based upon the need to mitigate risk. Structural applications imply a method, a system for ensuring the quality of a script and hence, that the film works – that it will appeal to the widest audience.
If stories can be analysed structurally then we will have a quantitative method for creating screenplays as opposed to a qualitative system based upon objectivity and judgment.
We will have a scientific method that by implication has repeatability.
If there is a system, a series of elements that if followed will result in a great script and translate into guaranteed box office success, then every studio executive will take it.
The concept that mythic structures are at the heart of all great storytelling is very appealing to an industry where, for as long as films have been in theatres, high concept, big budget films have inexplicably flopped.
Why is it that supposedly sure fire hits fail to find an audience and hence make a profit? The answer, unfortunately is complex and cannot be boiled down to a simple methodology. Films are confluences of creative, societal, economic and cultural elements that all have to come together to create the hit movie. The problem is that all these elements exist in a state of flux, in a hugely dynamic system – the entertainment industry. Films in general have a long production time – going from concept right through to screen. During that time social, economic and cultural changes all impact on the possible resonance a film has with an audience.
Now this might seem like an ideal scenario for a storytelling system that posits the eternal nature of all human storytelling. The issue once again though comes back to how an audience relates to what happens on the screen, how they give themselves over to the story.
The problem with all structural arguments is that an audience primarily relates to any story through its central character, not through its narrative structure. This is also a two way street. Just as the audience will access the story through their relationship with the protagonist, the writer then can reach back through the character to touch the audience. This relationship is crucial to the success of any story and this has to be the primary factor in constructing a story.
Mythic concepts subvert the primacy of character to simply an actant within a predetermined paradigm, and therefore subverts the most powerful tool for engaging an audience – that of the protagonist. Structure is important but must be viewed as an overall movement, not as a predetermined series of actions. It is character that creates actions and plot movement not structure.
Structuralist proponents of mythologies such as Vladimir Prop opened up the idea of mythic structure to the world of film in the late 1960’s when his 1928 book The Morphology of the Folktale was revived by critical theorists.
These ideas and have more recently been taken up by a number of different writers using mythic structure as a formula for creating successful screenplays. The concept is that mythic structure is the power behind all great films, from Star Wars to Casablanca. But what is it that makes Star Wars or Casablanca or Brief Encounter such great films. Is it the application of mythic structure or is it the power of great characters, of oppositions creating conflict and change? I would argue that it is the latter.
The defense of mythic structuring often contends that not all films will use every step and that some elements of the structure will be in a different order. If elements can be missed out or changed round then what happens to the structure? Paradigmatic flexibility to me seems something of an oxymoron.
The point of all this is not to dismiss the idea of mythic structure and the importance these narrative theories have for writers. Vogler’s excellent book The Writers Journey gives us an explanation and guide to the process of these structural applications. Mythical structures do work in helping writers think about the movement of stories. My point is that the structural aspects of character are equally, if not more important.
Most criticism of Campbell’s monomyth – the Hero’s Journey – centres on the highly generalized and universal claims it makes about narrative structures and the act of creating plot through fixed points. It has been roundly criticized for the lack of originality and the abundance of clichés in many popular fictions.
However, structural devices such as those proposed by Christopher Vogler and Syd Field do provide a valuable starting point for creating a strong framework for plot construction. What is vital is that character, and the narrative aspects associated with that, offer a way of avoiding the problems that over adherence to monomyth structure creates.
This is one of the problems associated with using mythic structure to design the movement of the story. Mythic structure assumes a certain level of fixed character, something that is not consistent with the concept of character arc and change. Mythic structure uses actions as the basis of story construction. It does this because motifs, persons and objects can change from story to story, so the only constant, the framework in which to pour the variable elements, is based on plot actions.
This inevitably means that structure is not based on character design and change but on predetermined action points. Instead of treating a character as a person with a capacity for action and change, mythic structure treats him or her as simply an effect of structure. One common problem among writers is the assumption that dramatic structure is somehow a predetermined framework in which to pour the premise. What is narrative structure after all? It is the movement of story across a temporal frame of reference. Story is created by character and played out across a time period. Structure is the assemblage of the plot across time in such a way as to tell the story in the most dramatic and coherent way.
Structure therefore, is in some ways, singular and specific to that story. That might not be what many writers and studio executives want to hear as it goes against the concept of formula based storytelling.
A key problem here is that characters are not seen as a structural element in story design. All too often, narrative structures are put in place and characters created to fit these structures.
The power of a story exists in its relationship with its audience –whether that be in a cinema, a theatre or in a novel. Stories are always about people – about characters. The complexity and dynamics of the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist determines the dramatic core of fictional narratives.
The more powerful that relationship, the more powerful the story. Character design and choices decide action and plot, that then impacts on the character itself changing them and moving them on in their journey.
However, the movement is not circular – it is a spiral. This is a dialectical change. We do not return to the same point when an action or plot point occur, as the event will change the character – perhaps imperceptibly – but will change nevertheless. The character has changed and they then impact on the story in a slightly different way. The circular motion of character and plot interaction actually becomes a spiral. Two dimensional character arc becomes the three dimensional character spiral.
It is this character/plot dynamic that is at the heart of all storytelling.
Mythic structures can work, but it has to be understood that these theories came out of the critical study of folktales and not narrative in general. Their acceptance and attempted generalization by the critical theorists of the 1960’s have their origin in the wider structuralist movement so prevalent at the time. We can see the popularity of mythic structure as another element of the structuralist zeitgeist that gave rise to the application of linguistics to film theory and the work of theorists like Christian Metz and the Grand Syntagmatique.
In the era of Post Late Capitalism, these structuralist concepts seem too rigid and reductionist. Stories are about people and we relate to, and engage with, these stories on a human level.
When we leave the darkness of the movie theatre we remember that human drama. What lives with us are those great scenes – Rocky going the distance, Luke firing on the Death Star, Alec giving that last sad look to Laura as his train leaves the station. One thing we probably don’t remember is the excellent use of the Approach to the Innermost Cave!