The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Origins of Lifewriting #4

Origins of Lifewriting #4

Campbell’s study of world mythology produced a specific “step outline” of the total arc.  And his contention was that no matter where you went, in what genre or form, no matter what culture or time, you would find the same things.

Was it true?  Well, in my opinion it is, if you are willing to grasp that most fiction is not a full “myth pattern” but rather a smaller “degree of arc” it fits just fine.   Others are minimalizations, reversals, abstractions, repeated steps, and so forth.

But viewed that way, I know of no “story” that has any level of recognizability or  longevity that doesn’t fit in the pattern.  I’m not even sure what such a thing would look like: a random collection of events or images, perhaps.

I decided to interpret Campbell’s pattern in a specific way: I wanted it to relate to the STRUCTURE AND MEANING of story, but also to the PROCESS of creating a work.

I mean, there are countless plots.  The simplest are things like “Someone wants something, and something stands in his/her way.”  If you’ve ever taught writing, even at the university level, you’ll know that there are plenty of literate, intelligent would-be writers who don’t understand that.   

The first plot pattern I heard that was professionally useful was the one in Dwight Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer”
Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster.

That, in combination with his “Motivation-Reaction Cycle”   (Goal-conflict-disaster-reaction-dilemma-decision) was my first real insight into how to consciously phrase what I already knew unconsciously (in fact, most “structure” books and courses seem to be left-brain approaches to teaching things that “natural” writers simply absorb by watched movies and reading books).   It was great.  But I wanted more.  I wanted elegance.  A single pattern that related to BOTH the product and the process.

And my interpretation of Campbell’s model came out like this (and I’ll use STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE as an example.   Note that you might interpret the steps differently.  That’s fine.)

1) You have a character in a situation with a problem. (“Come with me, Luke.  Learn the Ways of the Force”)

2) Initially, they will reject the challenge of solving it. (“I promised Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru I’d work on the moisture evaporators.”)

3)  The Hero  is forced, or allowed, to accept it (The Empire conveniently toasts said aunt and uncle, leaving Luke free to do what he wanted to do in the first place)

4) The Hero begins the Road of Trials—either a geographical or psychological (preferably both) journey to fulfill his intent. (Mos Eisley, Alderaan, The Death Star, etc)

5) The Hero collects Allies and Powers.   Generally, if the Hero had met the challenge at the end of the story at the beginning, he would have failed.  If Luke had been plunged into the attack on the Death Star without the intervening experiences, I doubt that film would have had a happy ending.  Allies?:  Chewy, Han, Leia, R2D2, etc.  In fact, knowing that the “Star Wars” cycle is actually the story of the Skywalker clan versus the Emperor, even Darth Vader is actually an ally.

6) Hero confronts evil—and fails.  There is always a point of maximum stress in a story.  I’m going to say that, for me, this point is when Obi-Wan is killed. He was the father figure who was supposed to take Luke all the way to the promised land.

7) Hero enters the Dark Night of the Soul.  This is the point where it feels as if all your innate capacities are insufficient to meet the challenge at hand.   I’m going to say that this point was during the attack on the Death Star when all his allies have been destroyed, and Grand Moff Tarkin is about to toast Leia and crew.

8) The Hero takes the Leap of Faith.  This is always faith in (at least) one of three things:
1) Faith in Self
2) Faith in companions
3) Faith in a Higher Power.
“Trust the Force, Luke”

9)The Hero confronts Evil again, and is successful. The Death Star blows up.

10) The Hero becomes the Teacher.   Also “return to the village with the elixir” and so forth.  Luke and Han are given medals by Leia.  Medals are given to reward and encourage exemplary behavior, or behavior the culture considers worthy of emulation.  In  other words: “learn by studying this good citizen.”

I’ve been asked if there is a “Heroine’s Journey.”  Well, sure.  But I believe it is subsumed within this pattern, just dealing more with the interstitial material, the emotions, relationships and “understructure” than the typical Bruckheimer epic.  But note: the shallowest “Blow-em-up” still needs to have SOME emotional thread, or it devolves into a SFX highlight reel.

And the stagiest, weepiest “understructure” piece still has to have SOME incident, or it’s audience shrinks to almost nothing.

Now…whew.  That was a big chunk.  The next step was applying that pattern to the process of writing itself.  And that I’ll talk about tomorrow.



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