The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey
Why the F*%K do we do it?
Money? Fame? Love of the process? What is it? Why do we continue to write screenplays when aside from the outrageously arduous task of getting it even remotely right, the odds of then getting it sold and then made and then becoming a hit are…well, tremendously long and then… sustaining or repeating that success is, frankly, beyond daunting. Why do we do it? Whatever the answer is, as personal and complex as it might be, I personally find it not only rewarding to ponder this question, but it’s actually essential to ponder it as part of the (my) creative process.
I’ve been writing screenplays and plays professionally for over 30 years and I’ve been teaching the art and craft of screenwriting at among the best University Film Programs in the world (Tisch & Columbia) for nearly 20 years — and increasingly, though especially over the last decade, I’ve found myself with mixed emotions regarding the entire “screen-writing” enterprise, including teaching it. Aside from basic questions such as “how realistic is a life in screenwriting?” and “can one actually be taught creative writing?” I’ve been increasingly concerned about nonchalantly encouraging people (and especially young people) to learn how to write a screenplay…. if it blindly fans embers of unrealistic hope that they will eventually be able to make a decent living writing anything in the “Film Industry.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. Either way, for most people, including screenwriting stars that at least get monetary rewards, it’s a tremendously bumpy and sometimes thankless road. And yet, so many of us continue at it. Why?
So what is it? Among the answers – and there are as many as there are people asking the question – is the human need to tell stories. I’ve observed that there are those individuals that at sometime in their lives had that very specific experience of writing a story and, not unlike getting herpes, caught the writing virus – for life! And then from then on, to a greater or lesser degree, they have this bizarre desire and need to return to that state of writing a story. And when they are not writing (which is a lot of the time) there seems to be various degrees of craving (and guilt for not writing) that simply becomes part of one’s existence like a chronic nasal drip. When the craving begins to really act up it can be as visceral a sensation as falling in love and being separated from the object of your affection. The only cure, the only relief is to get back to your love-one; that state, that zone or womb of writing/creating. When you get right down to it creating a story peopled by unique characters going through an emotion-filled journey is about as powerful (religious?) an act as creation itself. No wonder it can be so damn addictive.
So “why we do it?” might be tied to the most elemental and existential questions mindful people have always asked: Why do we exist? What’s our purpose for living? As philosophers, poets and writers (among others) have tackled these questions, along the way they’ve — we’ve — left behind a path full of ideas and stories that continue to inspire and stimulate and entertain.
And meanwhile, as one ponders and comes up with various personal answers (that may change at various times in our lives), I’ve come to understand that for me, writing and teaching screenwriting has (must have) larger applications – and more meaning — beyond the typical definitions of “success.” Since the odds of any classical success (as in fame and fortune) are, by any standard, nil… by acknowledging this and still finding meaning in our screenwriting would nearly guarantee that no matter what happens to our scripts, the reward of the journey itself, of the writing process from beginning to end, will still enrich us. How? Why?
I’ve had many of my students apply what they’ve learned as screenwriters to other professions such as film editors, creative producers, print editors, lawyers, entrepreneurs creating narratives to sell their products, journalists, game makers, novelists, speech writers, political and business strategists, etc. etc. But aside from being able to apply screen narrative structure and understanding to other disciplines, one can also apply the actual process to self-understanding. In simple terms, one version of this might be to apply the Hero’s Journey*, as it’s often applied to screenwriting, to one’s own journey… suddenly, each foray into a new script project can take on personal meaning far beyond the singular act of writing. And if one can glean any insight let alone meaning in this process, then no matter what the outcome of the project is on a material level – on personal level it’s already a win-win victory. Then the question of why we do this might begin to have more of a tangible answer: because it’s meaningful to our lives.
*A little bit about “The Hero’s Journey meets the Screenwriter’s Journey.”
Supposedly, George Lucas had been consulting with Joseph Campbell when he created Star Wars. Whether true or not, what remains is Lucas’ mythic Star Wars trilogy that in fact follows the “Heroes Journey” as described in Campbell’s seminal book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” published in 1948, Campbell attempted to find and identify common threads and fundamental structural similarities that run through all myths and cultural narratives from every corner of the world. In some ways he was attempting to find a sort of “unifying theory of all stories.”
Nearly 50 years later, Christopher Vogler published the wildly successful “The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structures for Storytellers and Screenwriters.” Openly attributing his findings based on Campbell’s work, Vogler asserts that “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies.”
After writing and directing numerous filmscripts (for Hollywood studios and independents) and plays (regional theaters, off Broadway, national tours, PBS) and teaching Screenwriting and Script Analysis for the last 20 years, I’ve come to believe that the “unifying structural elements” are not always or necessarily applicable, and/or in the exact same order, to all stories – but, learning the basic phases of the Heroes Journey in what Campbell called the “Monomyth” can be a very valuable tool for screenwriters as well as in the writing and understanding of all narratives.
Similarly, what’s also interesting is to attempt to apply the steps/phases of this Monomyth to our own daily lives as people as well as to our writing careers. And frankly, what’s more important than that? When viewed from a mythic point of view, the narrative of our personal journeys is the stuff of gods.
During my workshop/lecture (at the Screenwriter’s Conference) I will cover the basic 12 steps of the “Monomyth” and how it applies to filmic stories. I will also break it down as how “The Heroes Journey” applies to the film The Fisher King.
But most importantly, I’ll discuss (and Q & A) how we can apply this Monomyth to our own daily lives and writing careers. And frankly, what’s more important than that? I look forward to seeing all of you there at The Screenwriter’s Conference at 10am, April 7.
follow me on twitter: @lpcaplin
follow me on twitter: @lpcaplin