Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Volger

The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
by Christopher Volger
(c) 1998
Michael Wise Productions (www.mwp.com)

From the Preface to the second edition:

In this book I described the set of concepts known as "The Hero's Journey," drawn from the depth psychology of Carl G. Jung and the mythic studies of Joseph Campbell. I tried to relate these ideas to contemporary storytelling, hoping to create a writer's guide to these valuable gifts from our innermost selves and our most distant past. I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more; a set of principles for living. I came to believe that the Hero's Journey is nothing less than a handbook for life, a complete instruction manual in the art of being human.

The Hero's Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.

Volger is a story consultant who has worked with major motion picture studios, including Disney and 20th Century Fox. He has evaluated thousands of novels and screenplays and conducted workshops. He was introduced to the ideas of Joseph Campbell in film school and saw the Hero's Journey Campbell described in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, as a practical guide to the art of storytelling as time after time it helped him diagnose what was ailing a story and supply the fix.

Shortly after going to work for Disney he wrote a seven page memo laying out the principles with examples from past and current films and distributed it to executives and colleagues for feedback. He later expanded that memo into a longer essay and began teaching courses and workshops with it from which he acquired more feedback with which he continued to expand the work that eventually became this book. Long before he set out to publish it in book form for a general audience though, his memo and essay had been circulating among the insiders of the storytelling industries around the world and among those who'd attended his workshops who spread it on to their own friends and colleagues. It had attracted an almost cultish following.

I was excited to learn about this book on a web site around the first of the year and disappointed it wasn't in our library system when I checked. I put it on my ever expanding wish list. Then a few months later saw it pop up in the new acquisitions list on the libraries web site. I got in line. My turn came three weeks ago. There is, of course, a line formed behind me and my turn was supposed to be over yesterday. I'm not quite done with it so I hung on for a day or two more. I might have finished on time if not for how much time I put into the book giveaway last week.

I was so excited when I learned about it because I am already a devotee of Joseph Campbell's work. I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces in the early nineties as I was struggling with the devastating break-up of the religious community I was raised in and my own repudiation of most of its rigorous and rigid doctrines. From that experience I know personally the Call to Adventure out of the Ordinary World, the initial Refusal of the Call, the Threshold Crossings and their Guardians and so forth.

Just as important as the stages in the Hero's path are the archetypes of the various characters encountered along the way. Mentors and Threshold Guardians. Allies and Heralds. Shadows and Shapeshifters. Below I have listed the steps of the Hero's Journey and the most ubiquitous archetypical characters.

This is not a formula. It is form though; structure. It is the DNA of story and has the ability to support as many variations on a theme as does DNA. Though a better metaphor might be skeleton with infinite adjustability in size and shape and infinite variations on how it is fleshed out and dressed up. Several steps can be compressed into a single scene or a single step can take over a hundred pages in a novel. One character can be more than one archetype either simultaneously or alternately. The enemy can be the hero's own neurosis, or character flaw. The journey can be across the room or across the universe or into the hidden recesses of the hero's own psyche.

The Hero's Journey:

  1. Ordinary World--status quo
  2. Call to Adventure--the Herald can be a person or event that announces an irrevocable shakeup of the status quo.
  3. Refusal of the Call--excuses, fears, apathy
  4. Mentor--encouragement, advice and gifts needed for success.
  5. First Threshold--accepting the call and stepping onto the path
    --end of Act One
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies--acquiring the skills, tools and companions for the quest and encountering resistance and adversaries.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave--more thresholds with their guardians encountered and overcome on the way to the stronghold containing the most necessary thing--a person, object or idea needed for reestablishing balance and harmony in the world or the psyche.
  8. Ordeal: a high stakes challenge. Life itself or something equally precious is on the line.
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword) the key to victory or transcendence.
    --end of Act Two
  10. The Road Back--sometimes involving the Refusal of Return
  11. Resurrection--acquiring the ability to live in both worlds though forever changed
  12. Return With the Elixir--the boon that heals self, community or world.


  • Hero
  • Herald
  • Mentor
  • Allies
  • Shapeshifter
  • Shadow
  • Trickster
  • Threshold Guardians

This book is still on my wishlist. I have barely scratched the surface of what it offers. But while I'm waiting for another turn or a chance to own it, I'm going to put a re-read of Campbell's Hero high on the list of my TBR for a re-read--I'll have to order it from the library. But meanwhile I can return to delve into the depths of his four volume Masks of God--an examination of story from the most primitive myth to the most modern novels. I own those and they've been languishing on the shelf because they have no due dates to goad me.

0 tell me a story:

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