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Ed
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« on: January 02, 2010, 05:18:31 AM »

We have been talking quite a lot about story structure in recent threads, both in the crit group and in the open forum. Most of the discussion has centred around the concept of the hero's journey (monomyth) as put forward by Joseph Campbell in Hero With a Thousand Faces.

The basis of the theory is that many of the world's myths and legends share the same basic structure and archetypal characters, and this somehow holds a universal appeal to the human psyche.

Campbell compares the structure of the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, and Jesus Christ. They are all essentially the same story.

Once we become aware of the concept we see the structure everywhere, in varying degrees of completeness. Dan Brown's DVC features this structure and characters. The film Avatar closely follows the formula, as did Star Wars. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game used the structure. We can apply it to Bram Stoker's Dracula, too.

While it all seems to make perfect sense, some people point to the fact that Campbell's categories are too vague and all encompassing to form the basis of a truly scientific study - further reading can be found here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth#Criticism


However, whether the monomyth is some kind of magic formula or not:

Quote
Thoughtless use of monomyth structure is often blamed for lack of originality and clichés in popular culture, especially big-budget Hollywood films.

-:-

However, since the peak popularity of cinematic monomyth narratives in the 1990s, some would-be blockbuster movies that have been seen as conscious attempts to follow the structure have met with indifference from critics and often disappointing performance at the box office.

Which might explain the mixed reviews Avatar gets.

Whatever you think of the monomyth concept, it's not a cure all. Use of the monomyth structure on its own is not a guarantee of success any more than it guarantees failure.

Should it be avoided or embraced?

Discuss smiley







Further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

http://www.skepticfiles.org/atheist2/hero.htm

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« Reply #1 on: January 02, 2010, 02:00:31 PM »

I think there are certain building blocks or fundamentals that govern the way humans interact with their surroundings with respect to all the arts--music, sculpture, painting, and storytelling. The Greeks discovered certain geometric ratios that are pleasing to the eye, and it doesn't seem to matter how much time or technology has intervened, we still tend to use those ratios in art and architecture today.

Joseph Campbell identified a structure in storytelling that provides a satisfying arc (or arch). It works because it provides an ending that resolves in much the same way that a final chord resolves a bar of music (delboy could give a better explanation of this than I). It "speaks" to us at a level that we're programmed to respond favorably to.

But like the resolving chord, it's only a tool. Resolved chords can be put in bubblegum pop as well as the most moving concerto. The hero's journey can be used to tell a million different stories. In the hands of a master storyteller, the reader or the listener or the moviegoer will still be moved by the experience at the end of the performance. In the hands of an amateur, the reader or the listener or the moviegoer will at best be momentarily entertained and at worst feel manipulated.
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« Reply #2 on: January 03, 2010, 05:53:28 AM »

I think Pharosian has nailed it nicely.

For me, the idea that an underlying structure can create some resonance within the reader, even at a subconscious level (as Pharo says, the same thing happens with music - I get a certain response, for example, when Girls Aloud appear on TV) is a possibility and a potential too strong to ignore.

That said, from a creative perspective, it's not the journey in its entirety that is so compelling, but the ideas that it generates. Reading about the stages and archetypes involved in the monomyth can give you inspiration for any piece of work, not just one that adheres to the entire monomyth.

I actually don't think that the Hero's Journey should be viewed in isolation in a discussion around structure, either. How about the quest, the rags to riches story, defeating the monster, and all of the other plot cycles that over the years have been equally as analysed as the journey? I think you have to (or could, if you're interested!) go back and look at kids' stories, especially the ones they like to hear over and over again to find the tales (and structures) that resonate deep within. There are many novels and movies that adhere to such simple structures. Using this stuff - or at least being aware of it - and knowing when (and why) you're deliberately avoiding it and when you can tap into it can only give you a much stronger structure for your own pieces.

All of that said, I reckon one day it would be nice to attempt to take the journey 'as is' and write a story based upon it, rather like Lucas supposedly did with Star Wars.

Del
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« Reply #3 on: November 09, 2010, 11:23:33 PM »

Story structure--or pattern in anything--has always fascinated me.  Back in college I fell in love with the literary criticism of Northrope Frye.  He attempted to organize stories according to archetypes (he seems to be attempting to find those original patterns that form the first stories and all that have followed).  Of course this will lead to oversimplifying everything, but his work is a good and informative read...But, for writers, whether its Campbell's monomyth or even Reader Digests resource books on types of stories, we should be familiar with them as much as we can. Pharosian put it quite well when suggesting we should know when to follow the pattern and when to stray...I just want to add that there are so many resources we could dig into to find patterns (fairytales being one of my favorites).  But it is just a tool.  By the way, has anyone looked into the Dramatica Theory of story?  I'm curious as to how others feel about it--based on the idea that all story is a mental problem situation in which characters sum up particular modes of thinking (I simplify of course)...I find it like all the others: interesting but too restricting if taken as gospel...
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« Reply #4 on: November 10, 2010, 02:51:29 AM »

The Dramatica theory sounds interesting, JS. Haven't heard of it before. It rings true, though. There's a thread here somewhere with a definitive list of all stories on it -- man vs self, man vs machine, the quest, etc. And I think the best advice ever given, in terms of creating dramatic fiction, is to give the MC a (difficult) problem to solve.
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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