In this episode, Rob and Don sit down to discuss story structure. They explore the origins of the 3-act structure, discuss Chris Fox’s Write to Market strategy, and break down the Lester Dent Master Pulp Writing Formula and Michael Moorcock’s How to Write a Book in Three Days method. All this, and why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is really a ninja, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!
- Closing Music:
Ode to Joy performed by Oliver Eckelt
3 Act Structure Made Easy (video)
Save the Cat!
Chris Fox’s Write to Market
Buffy Vampire Slayer
Vampire the Masquerade
The Hero’s Journey
Writing Creative Procedural Fiction
Rob’s Thoughts on Different Story Structures (blog post)
Dan Harmon’s Story Wheel
Predator Rocky Sequel?
Lester Dent Master Pulp Writing Formula
Michael Moorcock’s How to Write a Book in 3 Days Method
Okay so I’m driving to school and screaming at my stereo system.
Why? Because I’m catching up on the DNA of course and the writing show is on and my name gets invoked… “Why am I not there??”
Here’s my thoughts.
First of all “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell should be writing 101. There’s a reason why it’s my most precious book in my collection.
I have a friend- Rae- who was married to a Cinematographer/ Producer in Hollywood in the eighties. She actually had dinner parties at her house with George Lucas, Spielberg and Campbell among others.
She was so impressed with the ideas that she took courses in writing, and her degree in Jungian psychology.
The Hero’s Journey is not just a single means of telling stories. It is THE way of telling stories. It’s not just a model, it is THE model.
There’s solid reasons behind this. Campbell’s specialty is in looking at common myths through a variety of cultures. It’s not Western specific.
The Frog Prince doesn’t just show up in Germanic folklore. It shows up in African, Japanese, celtic.. almost everywhere.
This is the difference between Fairy Tales and myths. Myths come from a place of the collective unconscious.
Dragon. Vampire. Changeling. Ghost. God.
These aren’t just examples of a single culture. These are found in nearly every culture, called by different names but still signifying something deeper.
Maybe they all are half-remembered things from an ancient past, but perhaps, and more likely, they are all aspects of how the human experience sees itself.
As for the procedurals. We can look at the Hero’s Journey in many different filters- many different ways of cutting up a pie, many pieces, but it’s still pie.
The Procedurals aren’t a different way of telling stories. They are still telling the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is not just about self discovery. This is what bothered me the most. That’s a very limited misunderstanding of the process. Just like there’s a ridiculous TED talk out there criticizing the Hero’s Journey because the guy thinks girls should have the right to a hero’s journey. Why does it have to be a man? It doesn’t.
The Hero’s Journey as I teach in my classes can be broken down into some basic steps.
1. The Call to Adventure
Either a hero seeks adventure or adventure seeks a hero. Any hero who does not answer the call becomes a victim waiting to be saved.
2. Crossing the Threshold
The hero must cross a threshold from the known to the unknown. Any hero refusing to cross the threshold becomes a victim waiting to be saved as is no longer the hero of the story.
3. In the Belly of the Beast
After a number of challenges, the Hero is swallowed by the darkness. Like Jonah and the whale, the either works through the darkness, or they become swallowed up by it and .. you guessed it… no longer become the hero and become a victim waiting to be saved. (This is why Darth Vader is the villain. He is swallowed up by the darkness when his mother is killed by the Sand People. He either moves through it, or it swallows him up. Luke says in Return of the Jedi., “You can’t die. I’ve come to save you!” Vader: “You already have.”
4. The Dragon/Treasure
This is either the great bad boss, great evil, or great challenge, or treasure to be gained from the hero. If the hero loses, they are a victim to be saved or lost forever.
5. The Return
This is where the hero must return to where they began to bring back the information or treasure, or knowledge to TRANSFORM the society.
This is key, and the important aspect to let you know that the Hero’s Journey is NOT about the hero. While the hero is transformed, the knowledge is about transforming everything about you.
Without the hero constantly renewing everything society stagnates and never grows. It takes Kennedy to set into motion the equal rights access for America. It takes Gandhi to act as a catalyst to transform India.
That both men die in the act doesn’t change the fact that the transformations occur.
What appear to be a different format, is not. It’s all the same thing.
Breaking Bad for example, while its been a while follows absolutely the Hero’s Journey
1. The Call to Adventure (3 Calls here)
He discovers that he is dying from cancer- Adventure comes to him
He discovers he can use drugs to fund saving for his family when he’s gone- He seeks Adventure
He must make something of his life. He is a brilliant man who has sold himself short- He seeks Adventure
2. Crossing the Threshold- He learns the life of drug selling from his ex-student. Going where old Walter White never would go.
3. In the Belly of the Beast- Walter’s world is crashing down around him. People know. His family leaves him. His son hates him. The death of his brother draws a noose personally and emotionally around him.
4. The Dragon- Famous gun in the trunk killing all the bad guys. Saves what’s left of the people he cares about.
5. The Return- Returns with the knowledge that set him out. He is transformed and has personally dignity. As opposed to the drugs destroying him, he has found his sense of purpose and accepts the losses even though it costs his life.
Transformation is not always one direction remember…
This happens in any story. What’s more there’s LITTLE and BIG Hero’s Journey’s.
Lots of people think there’s just one per person. That’s not the case.
HIGH SCHOOL Grade 9
1. Call to Adventure- I must graduate high school- Hero seeks adventure
2. Crossing the Threshold- Entering the high school for the first time. New Teachers. New expectations. New Classes.
3. In the Belly of the Beast- Exams
4. Treasure- PASSING
5. The Return- Going home for the Summer and being a different, older, wiser person with more knowledge etc..
NEXT HERO’S JOURNEY- Grade 10!
Finally, your suggestion about Superheroes not going through the hero’s journey is again focusing on the short stories of the hero, and not their live’s.
Captain America is a flat character in that he knows what needs to be done.
The hero’s journey for Cap, and Superman etc… is to transform society through their long scale changes. They do. Right until the end.
Keep in mind that Frank Miller shows hero’s journey in his short runs.
Batman Year One- How do I Revenge my Parents?
Batman Year Two- Are guns the answer?
The Dark Knight Returns- Can I still save Gotham?
It’s interesting that you say the hero’s journey has 5 steps when every version I’ve read of it uses 8 steps. Just two more steps to go and it will be the perfect formula! We can even call it something like 3-step-structure!
Kidding aside, I think what’s happened is that there have become two hero’s journeys, but not the little and big ones you propose. There’s “Campbell’s Hero’s Journey” and then there’s the “Lucas Hero’s Journey”, and these are two very different things which may be getting confused. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is an attempt to break all stories down to their core elements as a way to understand the unconscious desires which all human beings have through the stories they resonate with. As I joke above, it’s simple to the point of almost being a 3 act structure, but with just enough detail to show the cycle which most stories follow in one form or another. (Actually, Japanese Kishotenketsu story structure doesn’t follow Campbell’s structure, so it’s not actually universal, but I digress…)
On the other hand, there’s the Lucas Hero’s Journey, which is how the entertainment industry has processed Campbell’s ideas and turned it into a formula for telling stories. I’m dealing with Hollywood people right now, and the first thing they told me was they wanted the story to be more like the “Hero’s Journey”, but they weren’t talking about Campbell’s version, they were talking about Lucas’s. The Hero’s Journey ala Star Wars:ANH is how the industry understands the Hero’s Journey, and how they process and use it. Since they use it this way, it’s been spread out to popular culture in this way as well. As a result, a “Hero’s Journey” is now about watching a character go into a life changing situation, grow, evolve, and come out the other side as a hero. This may or may not be how Campbell intended it, but it seems like this is the shorthand version that society has chosen to run with.
So, while yes, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey would definitely encompass most stories including the Lucas version, the one I’m referring to in my discussion of Procedurals isn’t Campbell’s heroic journey, but Hollywood’s- the hero’s journey as it is used, not as it is theorized. (Much the same was the concept of Privilege has changed from it’s academic theory state to it’s actual implementation by those seeking social justice.) Humans have this nasty habit of running with theories and taking them in directions the theorizers never foresaw. It doesn’t help that by naming it “The Hero’s Journey” Campbell accidentally trapped himself in the mold of heroic stories (in people’s minds) whereas he may have intended it to be universal. (For example, while he may have intended it to include romance stories, nobody in society except maybe English teachers would think of those as being heroic journeys.)
If you want to see how Hollywood perceives the Hero’s Journey, check out this series by Dan Harmon about his Story Wheel.
Thanks for the feedback!
Edit- If you want to literally see the guy that created the Hollywood version of the Hero’s Journey, go here.
>I’m catching up on the DNA of course and the writing show is on and my name gets invoked… “Why am I not there??”
It’s because we set up the protective circle of salt and said the incantations to Hecate first.
>The Hero’s Journey is not just a single means of telling stories. It is THE way of telling stories. It’s not just a model, it is THE model.
Well…. I don’t think it’s the only model, but it is a dominant one ‘cos it keys into things that are inside everyone. At some point in our lives we all face the need for change, and we all go through these stages…. more or less. So it resonates with most people, which is probably why it’s Hollywood’s go-to these days.
>On the other hand, there’s the Lucas Hero’s Journey, which is how the entertainment industry has processed Campbell’s ideas and turned it into a formula for telling stories.
Okay, I think this is where we start getting at the crux of the issue. There are two big factors at play here:
-First, and possibly most salient is the question of; does the formula make the story, or is it a way of explaining what happens in the story? Campbell presented his notion as the first; he was trying to explain why certain ideas and stories are so prevalent in human history. But the idea got picked up by Lucas, and became (in the minds of a lot of up and coming writers) the instructions for how to write a story. So nowadays you can be hard pressed to find a story that DOESN’T follow this pattern. But if you go back to the 60’s or 70’s you can find a lot of movies that don’t follow this pattern. There were a lot of stories that end at step 4, or have the hero fail in step 5…. no doubt due to the nihilism of the day. There’s even a fair bit of comedy that stops around step 2.
-The second confounding point…. especially for superheroes…. comes from the nature of production. That is; why is this story being made? A superhero comic is perpetual; it’ll keep coming out as long as it sells, and there’s a lot of effort put into keeping the sales figures up. So a lot if influence that has nothing to do with character OR story works it’s way in. We mentioned this in the show, but it goes way farther that we’d discussed. So much of what we consider a “story” is actually licensed product, and that add s a whole schload of circumstance. And THAT confounds the issue. Can Batman have a hero’s journey in the comic? Not if marketing has anything to say about it. And even if you DO change things they can always change back (I’m looking at YOU; Knightfall….) or just get retconned/fudged/ignored when you change media. So, gravelly voiced Bale Batman can have an end to his story that lasts until the next film, in which he’s suddenly older, a different person and hating on Superman. You have little trips, not journeys; and they’re usually affected by circumstance outside the character, story, setting. In the movies Superman has his descent into darkness and it’s jarring ‘cos the character…. as previously established…. never did. He never HAD to face his inner demons ‘cos he doesn’t really HAVE inner demons. He’s the good guy just ‘cos. But that plays into the first bit…. that the Hero’s Journey is SO ingrained into film that we CAN’T skip it, even if the character requires it. So instead of Supes being the ultimate noble hero he becomes a watered down Batman; watching his dad die not from a villain’s bullet but inactivity, and then travelling the world not in a quest to learn the skills he needs but instead sclubbing from job to job.
Some of that’s nitpicking on my part. You can fudge an interpretation so’s to support either side of the argument; but that’s again why I’m a fan of not getting wrapped around the axle about this sort of thing. Superman would still be a perfectly viable character if they never tried “humanizing” him. I’d also put forth Judge Dredd, who…. at least according to the comics…. exists specifically to put an END to the Hero’s Journey. Even when they do his descent and return, what he brings back to society is a return to exactly how it was.
I still disagree. Yes, I’m aware of the expanded version of the Hero’s Journey. My five steps breaks it down into the simple parts. There’s a reason why Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is called ‘The Monomyth”, and its because all mythic tales fit into it.
What you guys I think are articulating is more of the scenery of how the story fits. The Hero’s Journey is the road, and your procedurals could be the road in the city, or the road in the country. Procedural writing isn’t so much different as rather a different PACE.
Even Lester Dent’s follows the Hero’s Journey. The difference being in Star Trek for example is it a little journey of the episode, or a bigger one of the grand story of the characters, or the Federation etc….
Remember, the Hero with a Thousand Faces was on Lucas’ desk when he was writing Star Wars. Did you watch the Moyers and Campbell conversations at Skywalker ranch?
I think the problem is we sometimes get enamored with form and miss the bigger picture. Yes someone brought an iteration of the Hero’s Journey to Hollywood. But that’s just his format of the beats- like Snyder’s Save the Cat. It doesn’t change the fact that this is how we tell stories- how humanity tells stories. Why stories fall flat for us. Not because we’re just trained dogs, but rather how stories have been told in multiple cultures, in multiple times across the planet.
I challenge you to give me a story that is incredibly popular, that doesn’t fit the five basic stages of the Hero’s Journey. As you pointed out, I went through every movie I’ve seen with students and eventually they were the ones coming back to me and telling me everything from Jack and Jill went up the Hill to Finding Nemo, to The Notebook, to Stepbrothers, to The Wedding Crashers, to Batman.
Don’t shy away from the fact that we’re all in the Hero’s Journey, the trick is to hide the structure to make it exciting and interesting so the reveals even up feeling right.
Lastly, I still think you have it wrong about Superman- and all heroes that are flat characters. The truth is that they have reached their truth. The struggle is in their trying to transform the world. There’s a reason why Captain America (Essentially MArvel’s Superman like character) worked so well in the movies. It wasn’t because he was flawed. It was because he was demonstrating the flawed society and providing a rock that the audience wanted to rally around.)
>What you guys I think are articulating is more of the scenery of how the story fits. The Hero’s Journey is the road, and your procedurals could be the road in the city, or the road in the country. Procedural writing isn’t so much different as rather a different PACE.
Well…. I put more credence on the nuts and bolts of a story, and how those affect the way things play out. Specifically, like I’d mentioned; that there are three components that you can shift focus from. (Character, setting and plot.) I do think you get essentially different stories depending on where that focus goes, and those stories work differently thereof.
>I challenge you to give me a story that is incredibly popular, that doesn’t fit the five basic stages of the Hero’s Journey.
Hemmingway’s (supposed) tearjerker: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”
>I still think you have it wrong about Superman- and all heroes that are flat characters. The truth is that they have reached their truth. The struggle is in their trying to transform the world.
That works, but I think that happens ‘cos the world IS the focus. Ultimately. Mostly ‘cos of the perpetual nature of superhero comics. But that’s one of them external circumstances that have to be dealt with when doing stories. It’s also why I think the Marvel stuff is more of an easy sell for the public at large: the Marvel “heroes with problems” formula is much closer to the average real world schmo, and easier to relate to. DC’s characters tend to be larger than life icons, so the usual plot and character doesn’t apply so much.
Fair enough. I always argue that superheroes are really the Greek or Norse Myth heroes in new form. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are more like gods (As per Frank Miller’s assessment).
For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn… is a cute exercise I use for my students. They actually find it harder to write the short, short stories than the longer ones. Poetry is always harder for that reason.
But the truth is.. you’ve already got the Hero’s Journey in there. You just have to decide what the resrt of the story that isn’t told.