Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Mythology Structure - Part 1

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars)

I’ve discussed three act structure frequently in this blog.  I find it incredibly useful, and it’s the language of the industry so if you want to work in Hollywood you better learn it.  But there’s another approach to structure I find equally useful:  The Mythology Structure.

The mythology structure is based on the work of Joseph Cambell who identified an archetypal myth that seemed to cross cultures and times.  I was introduced to the concept through the book “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler who put Cambell’s ideas into a practical methodology for writers.  If you like what I say here, I highly recommend the book. 

There are other books and classes that cover the structure in their own way, some good, some less so.  I’m going to describe the concepts I find most useful and describe how I apply them in screenwriting, using Vogler’s book as my jumping off point.  Because the discussion is long, I’m going to break it up into several posts.  I’ll use Star Wars (written by George Lucas) as an example film.  Other films that clearly follow the mythology structure are The Matrix and Wizard of Oz.

I liked mythology structure because it’s a character based way to approach plot.  In fact, the structure is also called “the hero’s journey.”  It is really a structure based on character arc.

The mythology structure is a little different than three act structure.  It’s more flexible, for one.  Some of the stages can be left out or done out of order or repeated, for example.  Also, the journey the hero goes on does not always have to be physical.  It can often be a journey of the mind.  For example, in a romantic comedy this might be an emotional journey.  The stages are often more metaphorical than literal.  It’s important not to feel constrained by the mythology structure.

With all of that in mind, I’ll start with the stages of the hero’s journey that generally fall within Act I of a screenplay. 

Inciting Incident – Something happens that sets the story in motion.  In Star Wars it’s Luke seeing the hologram of Leia.

Call to Adventure – The hero is asked to undertake the journey.  In Star Wars Obi Wan tells Luke he should come with him to Alderaan to return R2D2.  In a romantic comedy it might be the main character meeting the love interest.

Refusing the Call – The hero’s initial reaction is often to refuse the adventure.  In Star Wars, Luke tells Obi Wan he can’t leave – there’s too much to do on the farm.  This beat of reluctance can show us what’s influencing the character not to change.  Often screenwriters will leave this stage out of their initial story development (and sometimes this stage is left out of the final movie).  I always at least consider what impact having the character refuse the initial call to adventure will have on my stories.

Acceptance of the Call – If the hero has resisted, something happens which changes the situation.  In Star Wars this is Luke discovering that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by Storm Troopers.  The hero can’t avoid it anymore… he is going to have to go on this adventure.

Entering the Special World – I think the special world concept is the most important idea of the mythology structure.  The hero is going to enter an environment that is unfamiliar.  It can be an actual location, an emotional state, or an ideological situation.  Whatever it is, it is going to change the character.  In Star Wars the special world is the adventure of outer space.  Luke enters it when he goes to Mos Eisley, which is a sort of outpost of outer space adventure on Tatooine.  In a romantic comedy it might be when the loner embarks on a relationship.  Identifying the special world in your script is crucial to understanding the adventure your hero is going on.

Meeting the Mentor – The hero meets someone who teaches him about the special world.  This stage often shifts position.  In Star Wars it comes before the call to adventure when Luke meets Obi Wan (the mentor who teaches him about the Force and the politics of the galaxy).  It can also come after the acceptance of the call or even after entering the special world.  In a romantic comedy, a mentor might be a best friend who is wiser in the ways of love than our hero.

Next post I’ll cover the stages of the journey that usually fall in Act II.

1 comment:

Christopher Rice said...

Hey Doug - nice post! I'm a big fan of the mythological story stepping stones - you've covered the first few quite well.

I've always been a big fan of the call to adventure - not sure why ... perhaps because I'm always looking forward to my own call. Anyway - nice job going into detail here.

I'm also writing about the subject over at ScriptXRay - check out 12 Steps to Mythic Screenwriting: Part 1 - World of Origin for the first post.

Let me know what you think!