It’s easy for a traveller to lose his way, without the sun to guide him, without his family or friends supporting him as he might have hoped. Shrouded by problems, ill-health or misfortune. At such desperate times, he may indeed come to the end of his tether and even depend on divine inspiration to guide his thoughts and actions, in the hope that, gradually step by step, he can begin to steer in the right direction. This inspiration can come from many sources; but often it comes from learning how his heroes have coped in their own similar situations, from their stories, their experiences.
Bringing a brilliant analysis of what makes a great story is Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey. Inspired by Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Vogler breaks down all the elements which stories, whether they be age-old or modern day, comprise to captivate their audience. I have always wondered what makes a great story but never really understood till now. Why is it that the original Star Wars was such a magnificent movie? Why was the death and destruction in Titanic so compelling? And what made movies such as Pulp Fiction and The Full Monty such great successes? We, seemingly, are drawn to these stories by some inner mechanics that make us identify strongly with the characters, their behaviour in the context of the situation they are in, and the particular conflicts they may or may not be able to resolve.
According to Vogler, every story since the dawn of time contains certain elements which drive them and, indeed, make them eternal in their essence. These elements include the archetypal characters, such as the hero, the herald, mentor, shadow, shape shifter, threshold guardian, ally and trickster. Over and over again, in seemingly endless repetition but always with fresh re-interpretation, archetypal characters are created to drive a plot, to grace a story’s stage for its duration, leaving us with memories which continue to inspire us for ages. The story may not have a hero but rather a tragic anti-hero. But that can be equally inspiring because we may identify with the positive qualities of that kind of hero, making the lesson of his or her ultimate death have a lasting impact. The energy of all the characters in a great story can contribute towards something far greater than the sum of their parts in a climactic resolution, just as a karate champion uses the energy from any offensive move against him to his advantage.
Together with the archetypes, Vogler defines clear stages in a hero’s journey, whether that journey be literal or metaphorical, feminine or masculine. All stories have a hero entering a special world, like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, in which they learn what they need, to overcome the specific challenge they may face. So first of all, in Vogler’s language, we need to learn what Dorothy’s ordinary world is like. How is she conflicted in that world? What is the spark that will cause her to reject that world, or cross over in to the new world in the story? Will she refuse a call to adventure from a herald at first? Will she subsequently change her mind for some reason and cross the threshold to this special world? Will she receive any gifts or knowledge from meeting a mentor to help her navigate this world? Will she meet allies on her journey to help her? What kind of tests and enemies will she have to overcome as she approaches the inmost cave? How will she survive the central ordeal? Upon seizing the sword, how will she travel on the road back to Kansas? Will a major transformative, life or death, resurrection experience reward her with the elixir she ultimately returns with?
In addition to this knowledge of the archetypes and of the stages of the journey, Vogler also describes other key elements of a great story. Firstly, the structure is not a formulaic one. There are numerous creative combinations of the archetypes and the journey that continue to bring new fascination to audiences worldwide to this day. Secondly, it should affect us physically when we’re experiencing it. If our organs, muscles, fibres, every cell in our bodies are not being taken through any kind of emotional ride, the story is not a powerful one. Thirdly, there should be polarity in the story, a co-existence of opposites such that there is scope for conflicting forces, represented by the protagonist and antagonist, to contrast, collide, be transformed, even unite at some stage of the narrative. The writer is like a shaman in mythic times, taking their audience on a journey in which they can learn great truths about life. The images painted on cave walls thirty thousand years ago were a precursor to the modern movie today—these principles of narrative have been around for ages and will outlive us all.
I feel extremely grateful to Vogler for providing his compelling blueprint for a successful story. It’s compelling to me because I see this pattern, with all its re-interpretation, as being true to life. In the past, sometimes I used to think that I was wasting my time watching a movie or reading a book. Was this the stuff of life? Wasn’t there something more valuable I could be doing? But The Writer’s Journey has helped me appreciate the central and pivotal role storytelling has in inspiring us as human beings. Here in Australia, the tall poppy syndrome may make our heroes restrained somewhat, but they’re still there; Hoges, Farnsey, King Wally, Border, Boony and Merv. But beyond the hyperbole perhaps everyone is on a hero’s journey, with flaws, no better than anyone else. Part of the mission of such a hero may be to help awaken the hero in others. Without understanding the heroes journey, a traveller can lose sight of where they are in their own journey and fail in their quest.