My Paradigm (or why I love the Hero’s Journey)

Some screenwriters bristle at the suggestion that they should write to a “formula”. But there are 3 reasons why you should consider using an identifiable narrative structure. And a million reasons why that story paradigm should be the Hero’s Journey.

Why some screenwriters hate “formulas”

A lot of writers arc up if you say that their screenplays should have a certain shape or include particular narrative elements. They say that formula is Hollywood, that they hate Hollywood and that writing to a blueprint will cramp their creativity. I challenge these assertions on all 3 grounds.

Firstly, the story paradigm I personally subscribe to is not a Hollywood construct. In fact, this “formula” first surfaced at least 5,000 years before European émigrés began running dollies across the sands of the San Fernando Valley – and possibly a million years before that.

Secondly, when people say they hate Hollywood movies they tend to forget that Hollywood has produced films like Casablanca, North by Northwest, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, LA Confidential, Brokeback Mountain, Groundhog Day, Little Miss Sunshine, and Fargo. Yes, Hollywood turns out some dreck but that is not because writers use a formula but because some Hollywood writers are unable to bring talent and soul to craft.

Thirdly, having stakes in the ground doesn’t hinder creativity. If you want to fire the imagination, impose some limitations.

3 reasons why you should use a story paradigm

I used to resist the idea of a paradigm but now I enthusiastically spruik story structure in general and one paradigm in particular. Here’s why.

1. Story paradigm is a Lonely Planet guide (for a hostile planet)

The first reason you should explore using a story paradigm is a very practical one. A screenplay is 110 pages long. If you head off on that perilous journey without some sort of guide you’re likely to either not go the distance, or get lost and miss your destination. If writing the screenplay is like climbing Everest then a story paradigm is your trusty Sherpa.

2. Story paradigm is a universal plug adapter

The second reason that you should embrace paradigm is that your audience does. People go to the cinema with expectations. They expect your story will look like some narrative form they’ve experienced before. Romantic comedy. Film noir. Coming of age film. Redemption drama. Zombie horror. There are conventions and if you defy the conventions (consciously or unconsciously), you’ll tend to piss people off. You want to defy their expectations? Good luck with that.

So story paradigm gives you a way of connecting with audiences. Think of it as a universal plug adapter that lets your story travel all over the world.

3. This story paradigm works

If you don’t like a story paradigm – if it doesn’t help you write – then don’t use it. Syd Field’s work was considered ground-breaking but it’s fairly simplistic and I never found it of much practical value. Many people swear by Robert McKee’s Story, but it doesn’t resonate for me, so it’s not part of my storytelling arsenal. But when I was introduced to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey it absolutely transformed my understanding of story structure and I’ve been evangelical about its power ever since.

Joseph Campbell revealed, originally in The hero with a thousand faces, what he’d discovered after analysing myths, stories and folk legends from cultures all around the world – across the millennia.

Campbell found that there was one story that resonated for all people across all time. He called it the monomyth. He said that each generation creates fresh stories of specific relevance but that the stories that endure beyond their time share the same classic shape and the same recurring elements. He called this universal timeless story structure, The Hero’s Journey.

I find this incredibly compelling. Not only does the story shape feel right to me, but the fact that it’s been endorsed by every generation of every culture that’s ever walked the planet is quite a testimonial. If a story shape can continue to engage and entertain us after several thousand years, there’s a good chance it will stop people from fidgeting for the 2 hours in the cinema, wouldn’t you think?

Unfortunately, The hero with a thousand faces isn’t especially accessible but Chris Vogler applied Campbell’s thinking specifically to the movies in The Writer’s Journey and this is the book that had the greatest impact on my work. If you only read one book on screenwriting, make it this one.

Vogler’s Hero’s Journey consists of 12 steps that help define not just the plot but more importantly the character arc. He uses copious examples from great films to help illustrate what’s happening for the character emotionally, with the only problem being that the one film to which he consistently refers is the Wizard of Oz.

Don’t be put off by the term Hero’s Journey, or by the terms for each of the steps. You might feel that mythological sounding names like “Meeting with the mentor” or “Resurrection” couldn’t possibly apply to your intimate two-handed urban drama but the longer I’ve worked with the Hero’s Journey the more I’ve become convinced that it can help writers of every sort of film. Little Miss Sunshine, for example, a small ensemble piece is a perfect illustration of the Hero’s Journey at work.

I love the Hero’s Journey. I see it in the films I adore, I apply it in the films I write and I share its magic in the classes I teach. I wouldn’t blame you if at this point you remain a sceptic. But most people who attend my screenwriting courses leave amazed at how the Hero’s Journey can be relevant to such a diverse range of films and inspired to use it to help deliver greater emotional impact to their own screenwriting. I hope it works for you too.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mark Harmon May 13, 2010 at 5:12 pm

In my early 20′s I used to think that using a writing formula would constrain me. I saw formula as a prison that would smother my creative freedom.

Some writers may like to experiment and play along the limits of expression but I figure, if you want to reach a wide audience with traditional story telling, its better to see it as a craft.
And if you want to become a skilled craftsman you need to learn all the tools and techniques. Storytelling has a long history of craftsmen who learnt their trade by many years of trial and error. Why try to re-invent the wheel when we can benefit from their hard won wisdom.

Why bang my head against the wall for a lifetime only to realize that many of the important skills of storytelling have already been discovered?

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