SARAH BEACH BLOG
Scribbler’s Guide to Myth
Mythic motifs at work in storytelling (Contents copyright by Sarah Beach unless otherwise noted.)
Everyone is on a Journey
September 28th, 2009
A lot has been written about the Hero’s Journey. Even I have tossed in my two cents worth on the matter. It can be very, very hand for any writer to know the shape of the Hero’s Journey. But many writers have gotten stuck on a single model, Chris Vogler’s redaction of Joseph Campbell’s outline. I’m not saying that it is a bad model, for it isn’t. But the problem of being stuck on it is that the Vogler/Campbell outline is not the only one available.
It is entirely possible for a writer to be on fire for his story, and struggling to get his plot to “fit” the Hero’s Journey outline that he knows — only to dispair because his story doesn’t want to go that way. It’s possible for that frustratd writer to think that he is wrong about his story (even though he is still jazzed by it, in the back of his head). So he stops.
Now, it’s my feeling that no writer should give up on a story that excites him. It may be a mess, plot-wise, and need work. But no writer should feel she has to give up on something just because it doesn’t fit one outline. So, that’s why I felt it important in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth to mention some of the principal variations of the Hero’s Journey that I have encountered over the years. The different outlines often have elements not included in the Vogler/Campbell model. But every writer should also remember that these things are not cut in stone: they are very flexible, and you can move things around a bit, to suit your own story. After all, you are the storyteller.
Getting comfortable with the Journey your Hero is on is only the first step, however. If you want to add depth to your story, and to help the other characters take on substance, you need to remember that the Hero is not the only character actually going on a “journey” in your story. The villain is pretty sure he’s the Hero of his own life. And your love interest or B Story sidekick is also making a journey. Do you know the shapes of their Journeys?
This brings us to another reason why there is an advantage in knowing multiple versions of the Hero’s Journey. Your three principal characters do not have to be traveling according to the same pattern. In fact, it can be very interesting if they are not. Nor does everyone’s Journey have to start at the same point. For instance, your villain’s journey may begin well before the point where you want to start the story. This could turn into what Blake Snyder called Act Zero material. The Journey for your B Story character may not be so complicated.
The mechanics of coordinating the different Journeys will reveal how well you understand your plot. A villain’s high point may be your Hero’s darkest moment, or it may just be one of the trials and tests the Hero meets. It’s your story. You decide. But at this point, index cards or a computer program that has a similar function, where you can shuffle and mix individual story beats can be a big help.
And there can be great satisfaction in looking at the meshed outline, mere you can clearly see where each charcter is on his or her particular Journey. When you realize you know exactly what the villain wanted as his victory and what is a set-back for him; when you know just what the B Story character’s Journey is, at that point your story become more solid and deeper.
Everyone is on a Journey. Everyone has a goal. They may not all be met by the events in your story. But when you start constructing things this way, you will discover that it is very useful.
As always, if you are interested in talking more about this matter than blog comments allow, visit my MESSAGE BOARD.
Burning Jeopardy August 13th, 2009
One of the many things I talk about in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth deals with franchise storytelling. This can cover comic book series, sets of movies, television shows or a string of novels. Most such creations are built on what I call the “Incidental Jeopardy” context: that means that in any specific story, your main character (upon whom the franchise depends) has a 50/50 chance of failing to meet his or her goal. But some other series get set up where the main character is driven by some burning goal. I call this the “Constant Jeopardy Syndrome,” where the set up is such that if the main character ever reaches his goal or solves the Big Problem of his life, the series ends.
In the book, I discuss the problems encountered with the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome, especially that involved in keeping the characters emotionally realistic. The point is that when over a long span of time a character fails to solve the Main Problem in his life, he tends to lose emotional credibility, especially if the constant failure doesn’t seem to faze him.
Cable’s USA show Burn Notice is constructed on a Constant Jeopardy Syndrome: Michael Westen used to be a spy and got burned — this means he has been black-listed and rendered an official non-person, no bank accounts, no official records (driver’s license or passport). The series deals with his attempts to find out who burned him, why, and his getting himself reinstated. (And if he ever achieves all of these, it’s likely the show would end.)
Since Michael is presented from the beginning as being one of the very best at his job, if he did not make some progress in his quest to solve his Big Problem, we would quickly lose interest.
Fortunately, the series creator and writers address this by giving Michael progressive stages of existence (professional and personal problems) to deal with.
One of the first obstacles he has to face is that he has been dropped into his hometown of Miami, Florida, where he has to deal with his mother.
Madeline Westen is expert at wielding emotional blackmail over Michael — which works because at rock bottom, Michael is a good guy and does love his mother. Madeline also serves to show that although Michael may be officially a non-person, he also needs to relearn how to be a real person, with a real (ie, emotional) life.
Madeline is assisted in this by the presence of Fiona — the love of Michael’s life.
Fiona’s “official” position is “not his girlfriend.” Except that she is his ideal partner. The ups and downs of their relationship ring true, for they are dealing with real issues: the nature of Michael’s old job, what that job requires of his character, how to accommodate another person deeply into your life.
The two characters are alternately obstacles and assistants in Michael’s hunt for information and reinstatement.
First after being burned, he was watched by FBI minders. He upped the stakes on them, to the point where a special overseer was assigned to keep Michael subdued.
It’s a new problem in Michael’s way, which he removes over the course of a few episodes by creating the appearance that the overseer has been compromised. This leads to the mystrious organization that burned him revealing itself slightly.
The series very carefully continues revealing obstacles for Michael to overcome. Each step forward also reveals more of his own character to Michael. First, he seeks to put a face to his new “manager”, Carla, and in fact draws her out to revealing herself.
She tells him she helped burn him in order to recruit him to the secret organization she serves. She sets Victor to “manage” Michael.
Victor is like Michael (ie, burned), “but with rabies” (according to Sam Axe, Michael’s friend and sidekick). Michael transforms Victor from opponent to ally and the pair remove Carla, forcing the organization’s Management to reveal himself. Michael is offered better conditions in the organization, under the threat of removal of their protections (from enemies and authorities).
Michael opts to reject the protection and the job. The new set of obstacles in his way toward reinstatement include dealing with a police detective who has suspicions that Michael is behind some unusual occurances in town.
Michael succeeds in turning her from opponent to an at least hands-off observer. So the next obstacle steps up. “The Devil” (Strickler) offers Michael assistance at reinstatement, in exchange for Michael working for him.
This is too much for Fiona, who questions what this deal will do to Michael’s character. This emotional “real person” challenge conflicts with Michael’s desire to be an “official person” again.
Every time Michael progresses closer to his goal, either a new obstacle gets in his way, or the goal becomes slightly redefined and moved. The writers avoid all the traps of the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome: failure to make any progress toward the goal and/or lack of emotional reality. The audience is satisfied by the proof that Michael is indeed as competent as claimed (he makes progress), and also maintains a realistic emotional response to both his successes and failures. The show is a fine example of how to handle the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome.
The Problem with Wonder Woman
August 2nd, 2009
Every so often readers (and writers) comment on problems they have with the comic book character Wonder Woman.
The Amazon princess, Diana, was created in 1941, by William Moulton Marston. On the heels of the appearances of superheroes like Superman and Batman, Marston felt that girls deserved their won role model. His creation was beautiful and strong, and carried the Lasso of Truth. Detecting truth was a matter of interest to Marston, as he invented the polygraph, popularly known as the “lie detector.”
Wonder Woman has a number of contradictions attached to her — she is a warrior and yet she is also an ambassador of peace from the Amazons to “Man’s World.” Try as they might to downplay the incongruity of a warrior society such as that of the Amazons also purporting to be more peaceful than the rest of humanity, writers have been stuck with it. It just will not be shaken off. Recent writers have shown the Amazons as less than perfect in their adherence to peace. Yet, “warrior for peace” remains an element in the character of Princess Diana.
The Lasso of Truth also forces an unusual quality upon the nature of Wonder Woman. By using it, Diana can force a perpetrator to face aspects of his or her own nature that they have been denying. Even if she doesn’t use this pwoer, its presence with her is a constant reminder of what she could do. It bestows a certain implacibility to her character.
Molded in clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, given life and powers (strength, flight, and apparently immortality) by the Greek gods, Diana is in her origin somewhat removed from normal humanity. And yet she is not really a goddess (although one writer did have her become the Goddess of Truth for a time).
However it came about, there is something in the nature of Wonder Woman that defies easy pigeon-holing.
She won’t be easily pegged and yet, readers do have a sense when she’s being taken off track, when she is “out of character.” She is caring and merciful, and yet if she goes too far into emotional territory, something feels “off.” She’s passionate about her family and protecting those under her care, but romance inevitably seems unbalanced when brought into proximity with the Amazon princess. (It might be that readers feel she has no peer, so that all possible romantic partners are “beneath” her.)
Some of the factors that create this unsettling nature spring from how closely Wonder Woman’s character parallels that of the Greek goddess Nemesis. Nemesis was the daughter of Night, which places her in the realm of the mysterious and unaccountable. We have come to treat nemesis as a negative force, but she wasn’t such originally.
She was all about keeping things in proper balance. She made sure virtue was rewarded and injustice was brought to balance. She is, in fact, the figure of Justice we see in courts these days; blind-folded for impartiality (she doesn’t care about your social status), holding both a sword and a balance scale — and she will use that sword to help put the scales in balance. Nemesis is very unsettling — and Wonder woman, for similar reasons, carries the same effect.
Diana is a “divine hero” — in a community, but not of it, and she brings a boon to society. We are a bit ambivalent as to whether we want to take the whole of her boon: truth and peace require things of us that are hard to give up.
But one of the other crucial elements that figure in the nature of Wonder Woman is that, unlike Nemesis, she is not a figure of Night. By nature, with her openness and her commitment to reason and truth, Wonder Woman fits the dynamics of a solar figure.
She’s “a babe,” a confident woman, beautiful and bold. And yet, Wonder Woman remains difficult to peg. That is, perhaps, part of her enduring power to fascinate us. We try to sort her out, to figure what makes her tick, because we don’t really want to deal with someone as completely committed to truth and justice as the Amazon princess is. She’s not some wild woman who needs taming, nor some insecure heroine who needs coaching. She is, as she has always been, Wonder Woman and something more than we expect.
Before Going “Up”
July 6th, 2009
It’s one of those rules you learn in screenwriting courses: don’t front-load your tale with your Hero’s backstory. Sure, you the author need to know it, but don’t explain it all up front. Get on with your story, and explain it later, in little bits and pieces.
Write it out for yourself if you need to, but don’t stick it in the actual story in one piece. My friend Blake Snyder calls this “Act Zero”. Most of the time you do not need to explain the backstory before you begin the adventure.
And then, there is Disney-Pixar’s Up.
Let us be clear: the story-adventure of Up actually begins when Russell shows up on Carl’s doorstep insisting he has to help the elderly man. That is Carl’s Call to Adventure, and he’s not having any of it. (His Refusal of the Call makes for a bit of comedy: he sends the kid on a snipe hunt.) That is, structurally speaking, where the story starts.
So, that wonderful, poignant stuff that went before that moment, what was that?
Backstory. Act Zero.
Usually, we do not have to see that up-front. But let’s consider why we need it for this story.
The Hero’s Journey (and Carl is our Hero in this story) begins in the Hero’s Ordinary World (or his Old World). Usually, something needs to be changed, and he ventures out from that world. But in Up, if the presentation of the story really did start with Russell at the door, what follows would still be entertaining and engaging (crusty old man learns to care about someone while on a wild adventure), but it would not have the depth of meaning that Up possesses. We actually do need to see this Act Zero.
First off, we see that Young Carl is almost exactly like the young Russell we will shortly meet. He dreams of adventure, but his scope is small. Until he meets Young Ellie. In the boisterous Ellie, he meets someone who startles and entrances him with her active response to the call of adventure.
Of course they fall in love. Their enjoyment of each other is its own adventure. Their dream of a real adventure is a shared dream, but not the real glue of their lives (though it will take Carl a while to understand that).
It is important for us to know that Carl is capable of love and that he does understand the call of adventure that has a hold on Russell. And that we are given the chance to love Ellie too, this gives us the powerful gift of wanting Carl’s adventure to succeed. We connect with the forces that drive him on, in a very powerful way.
The storytellers use Act Zero to also set up the Opponent, and very nicely compact it with Carl’s youthful hero worship of Muntz. Because that hero worship is something we understand, it adds a poignant bite when Carl learns his Hero is no hero. Carl has to be his own Hero.
Up is one occasion where the storytellers present at length how the Hero’s Ordinary World became what it is. And unusual as that is, they made it work — basically by giving it its own three-act structure and telling it swiftly, without over-dwelling on it.
Beautifully done and perfectly structured. (Warning: these storytellers are trained professionals, so “don’t do this at home.” Remember, Up is an exception when it comes to revealing the backstory.)
July 2nd, 2009
Dr. Gregory House has a genius for diagnosing unusual medical conditions… And he sets about changing illness to health, Transformer figure. As I say in The Scribbler’s Guide, all doctor stories are Transformer stories.
But House is also an example of what I call the “Divine Hero.” Now, this doesn’t mean that the Divine Hero has superpowers. It means that the hero comes from outside the community, bringing a boon to it. He is in the community, but not of it.
Gregory House is in the community of the hospital, but he is not really of it. He refuses to conform to the dress code, he is always at odds with Cutty’s administration, his only friend is Wilson (whom he regularly provokes). But the boon he brings to the community is his skill as a diagnostician, and they genuinely value it. So they keep him.
What makes for the dramatic tension in the show is the fact that Gregory House does not want to be this Divine Hero. He is a misanthrope, disliking people. He doesn’t really want their praise or appreciation. His personal conflict is that the one thing he does well, that he loves doing, is the one thing that actually requires him to be in contact with other human beings.
House is just one of the possible ways of using the Divine Hero archetype. And an excellent, off-beat one.
Star Trek Trinity
June 24th, 2009
The release of the 2009 Star Trek movie re-sparked my interest in the character archetypes of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. I made some initial comments about them as a guest blogger on Colleen Doran’s blog. But that was comparing Kirk and Picard.
A well constructed character will have at least one archetype at the core. When multiple archetypes are blended, you can create very interesting dynamics.
Let’s start with McCoy. In this particular trinity of characters, he is firmly in the position of sidekick. Sidekicks are often Trickster archetypes, for their job is to puncture the excesses of the principal hero. Cranky McCoy frequently does this to Kirk and to Spock. When Kirk pushes for some outrageous solution, McCoy puts the brakes on. “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!” He also relights the fire when Spock dampens things too much with logic. I read one critic who commented that McCoy was a bigot. One assumes the comment was inspired by McCoy’s comments about Spock as a “pointy eared hobgobling.” But I think it is an error to call McCoy a bigot: he has no such reaction to other Vulcans or other aliens. This reaction is specific to Spock. It is another manifestation of his function as a Trickster, to puncture the excesses of Spock’s logic.
As a doctor, of course, McCoy is also a Transformer, changing the things around himself. But this is often secondary to his function as a Trickster. In the film, when McCoy first arrives on the scene, he transforms Kirk’s situation from being solitary to having a friend.
Spock is in many ways Kirk’s Shadow. In being such, he also highlights the point I make in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth that a Shadow is not necessarily an evil figure. In this case, where Kirk is often passionate disorder, Spock is the opposite of that, emotionless (apparently) order.
But Spock is also a Threshold guardian: he oversees the possibilities of Kirk’s choices. In the film, he is the one who has constructed the Kobayashi Maru test which winnows out candidates for command. Kirk, of course, thwarts this judgement, so Spock plays the next checking move of questioning Kirk’s ethics. By doing so, he forces Kirk to become more than just contrary, to find the justification for his actions.
However, the one thing Spock is not, or rather is not best at, is being a Ruler. He treats his judgements as absolute, and so does not readily attend to the advice of his subordinates, at least not when he is in command. In the film, when Kirk (fulfilling his function as First Officer in putting forward his criticism of Spock’s choice and offering an alternate) counters him, Spock over-reacts. He uses his authority not simply to remove Kirk from the bridge, but to abandon his appointed First Officer on the inhospitable and nearly deserted planet. This is not wise leadership one would expect from a Ruler.
Kirk, however, is a Ruler. Although he frequently pushes the envelope of a circumstances (a manifestation of his being a Transformer and Trickster), he does pay attention to the skills of his subordinates. He delegates tasks appropriately.
This trio of characters provide balance and challenge to each other. The dynamic between them continually shifts about; it is never static. This is why they continue to be a fascinating set of characters.