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Toss them out the window! Using and forgetting the Hero’s Journey

This morning, I was giving a talk to a group of writers on Joseph Campbell and the Hero Journey or Monomyth (in this case, specifically with regards to setting, rather than plot or character). I ran the group through a basic overview of Campbell’s schema, and gave them a number of examples from movies (since visuals are always helpful) — including two movies that I know for a fact consciously used Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as inspiration: Star Wars: A New Hope and The Matrix. And I mentioned that, while I loved the first Matrix movie, I felt as if I could hear the pages of Campbell’s magnum opus turning as Neo’s journey progressed. Call to Adventure? Check. Crossing the Threshold? Check. Belly of the Beast? Double-check…

One of the participants asked, very reasonably, how to use and honor the Hero’s Journey schema without falling into the trap of writing a story that is formulaic.

When I was studying to be an actor, we had a wonderful master teacher named Archie Smith. Now in addition to being a terrific teacher, he was also (though in his late 60s) still an actor and a student of acting; he would sit in on many of our classes with other teachers and go through the exercises they had us work on, then apply them to his own work on stage and talk to us about what he’d learned.

One day, one of our classmates asked Archie how we could keep all of our acting fresh, even as we tried to apply all of these technical concepts that we were learning. Archie told us to learn all of the techniques that he and our other teachers were giving us, to internalize them… and then, he said with great glee, “Toss them out the window!”

Toss them out the window! by Roz Chast

When I’m writing, I try to think about the Monomyth cycle (and about all of the other skills and techniques I’ve picked up) as I’m researching, outlining, and note-taking. But then I put all of out of my mind as much as possible. I take Archie (and Binky) to heart, and… toss them out the window.

I almost always find that in my books (for example, Risuko), I’ve followed the schema — just not quite as slavishly (hopefully) as they did in The Matrix. 😉

I think Campbell would say that the story will tend to follow the pattern whether we want it to or not — it’s an expression of the structures of the unconscious mind, after all.

However, being conscious of those structures allows us to make choices about how we want to follow the pattern. Knowing that the setting of the world of supernatural wonder (“the forest adventurous,” “the land of adventure,” etc.) has to reflect an inversion of some sort to the world where we and the protagonist started out allows us to make choices about what exactly is going to change, so we can make notes, draw, collect pictures…

Then toss them out the window and write.

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