The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler


“The Writer’s Journey” is a layman friendly version of The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The basic concepts detailed in Campbell’s book are presented in an easy to follow format here. It’s a book I pull out when I have a question about a basic concept and don’t want to wade through the more scholarly work of Campbell’s. It’s a great introduction to the Hero’s Journey concept, as well as a good guide for the components of story line and archetypes for writing purposes. The book is divided into two parts; “mapping the journey” (an introduction to the archetypes), and “stages of the journey” (the components that are vital to the primary story line formation). There is also a worksheet appendix that makes a useful story planning aide.

The introduction serves as a great account to the history that lead to this book being published. It also offers up a quick summary of the contents in the book. I feel like the practical guide is actually the introduction. It provides the full summary of the concepts, offers up diagrams (I really like the one on page 18), and explains the merits and values of them. It would make an excellent pamphlet to be handed out at meetings, workshops, etc.

The first section of the book is titled “The Archetypes.” There is a short introduction to them, with a great diagram on the emanations of the hero on page 35. The questions it closes with on how to identify archetypes are really great: “1) What psychological function or part of the personality does it represent? And 2) What is its dramatic function in a story?” (page 37). Each of the archetypes is broken down, beginning with an introduction, the psychological function, dramatic functions, and then further details specific to that archetype as well as a few examples from movies or occasionally, books.

archetypesofheroThe hero is the first archetype covered. “A hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others” (page 39). The different aspects of heros are covered, as well as varieties of heroes, such as willing and unwilling heros, anti-heroes, group-oriented heroes, loner heroes, and catalyst heroes. It also lists further references.

The mentor is next (also known as the Wise Old Man or Woman in Campbell’s books), and is defined as “A positive figure who aids or trains the hero” (page 51). There are a number of mentor types- dark, fallen, continuing, multiple, comic, shaman, and inner.

The threshold guardian acts to “keep the unworthy from entering” (page 63). The dramatic function of the threshold guardian is testing, and the second paragraph of this section is excellent.

Herald “issue[s] challenges and announce[s] the coming of significant change” (page 69). It starts with a well-written introduction to the classic position of herald in knighthood, and also has a small section on types of herald. The dramatic function of motivation is key as well.

Shapeshifter is a difficult archetype because “its very nature is to be shifting and unstable” (page 75). The mask of the shapeshifter is covered, as is the femme fatale.

Shadow archetype “represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something” (page 83). This is commonly presented in villains and enemies. The mask of the shadow and the humanizing of the shadow is covered here, and in-depth focus is given to the Star Wars series.

The trickster “embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change” (page 89). The basic aspects of the trickster is covered as well as the trickster hero.

herojourneymodelThe second portion of this book is “Stages of the Journey.” This section leans heavily upon The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, primarily because this guide is taken from that book. This is the first stage, The ordinary world, and the chapter details the importance of setting up the ordinary world for dramatic contrast, as well as the aspects of writing not commonly covered- the title, opening images, planning, order, and other important aspects that are writing focused. My favorite quote was: “The mythological approach to story boils down to using metaphors or comparisons to get across your feelings about life” (page 98). I found this section valuable- it offers a lot of insight and reminder into things that one often forgets, as well as different aspects that may lead to downfalls in a book. The Wizard of Oz is the primary example of each stage in this section. I also really like the page of questions that is included at the end of every chapter of this section. It offers another way to think about the information presented as well as how to apply it to your own writing.

Stage 2 is the call to adventure, and begins the true story. This section covers ways to get the story going, such as synchronicity, temptation, heralds of change, and reconnaissance. It also covers the situation when one has more than one call to adventure, such as those on different levels (ie. A possible romance as well as a hero call).

The next stage is the refusal of the call. It covers a variety of refusal methods, as well as the reverse psychology method (such as a secret door that one can never go into but eventually will). And of course, it covers willing heroes and threshold guardians.

Meeting the mentor is next, and this is a very rich chapter. Not only are the interactions of heroes and mentors covered, but so are mentors in mythology, in particular, chiron. The sections on possible misdirection, mentor cliches, and mentor as evolved hero are useful.

Stage 5 is crossing the first threshold, and is “an act of the will in which the hero commits whole-heartedly to the adventure” (page 149). This stage is important because it is the end of Act One (if you are writing a screenplay), and a major turning point in a novel.

The next stage is tests, allies, and enemies. It covers the importance of contrast between this new world and the ordinary world of stage one. The section on testing offers some great pointers, as does the allies and enemies, sidekicks and teams, and new rules sections. I also found the watering holes section interesting and useful.

Seven is the Approach to the Inmost Cave, and is outlined more heavily through the Wizard of Oz. It covers the aspects of Courtship, functions of approach, shamanic territory, complications, and reorganization, as well as the need to reevaluate the hero, and getting into the opponent’s mind.

The Supreme Ordeal is the eighth stage, and this is the major challenge. This is where the oh-so-important death and rebirth occurs, whether it is merely psychological or physical. The section reminding you that this isn’t the climax, merely the crisis is great, and the diagrams on page 183 and 134 can really help with a visual reinforcement of where things should be if you’re making a screenplay. I think the addition of how the number of words plays out would have been a nice touch, but with a simple google search you can find diagrams of that aspect that other writers have already figured out. The various possibilities for a supreme ordeal are laid out as well, a helpful aid. The point that “By the time you are done writing a screenplay or novel, you should know your characters well enough that you can tell the story from the point of view of everyone… each is the hero of his own story” (page 192) to be a truly important one. The coverage of the myth of Ariadne’s thread is also a nice touch. This chapter is full of great ordeal suggestions, particularly that of youth versus age.

Stage nine is the reward, and is the “ah-ha!” moment of success. This is shown through, celebration, campfire scenes, love scenes, seizing the sword, elixir theft, initiation, and epiphany. There can also be distortions.

Now we begin the road back, the sad leave of the special world to return to the ordinary world of the hero. The diagram on page 218 is a great aid in seeing where each portion of the story should take place- the ordinary world vs. the special world- and shows that time in stories is just as cyclic as they are in daily life. The chapter covers the motivation, retaliation, chase scenes, magic flight, villain escape, and setbacks that may present.

Eleven is the resurrection, and this is the climax. This often presents as a form of death and rebirth, representing “a field trial of a hero’s new skills, in the real world. It’s both a reminder of death and a test of the hero’s learning” (page 229). This can present as a physical ordeal, showdown, death, choice (of values, or romantic partners), and may even been a rolling climax. This section also covers the idea of catharsis, and character arc. There is an excellent section that compares the stages of a character arc to the hero’s journey on page 236 and a diagram as well, on page 237. This chapter also covers pitfalls that may occur during the planning and writing of this section.

The final stage is the return with the elixir, the final proof of a true hero. The term “denouement” is explained in this section, a beautiful term that reminds you of the weaving of a tale and the need to completely finish it, as well as the two story forms that branch here. One is called the circular story form, while the other is the open-ended story form. I personally feel that the circular form aligns closer to the norms of mythology, where a character is brought full circle. However, the open-ended form has this benefit: “the story-telling goes on after the story is over; it continues in the minds and hearts of the audience” (page 250). The explanation of the elixir is well done as well, offering food for thought as to what kind of elixir is the one that fits your story best. It also describes the epilogue options as well as pitfalls of the return that may occur.

The book closes with an epilogue, subtitled “looking back on the journey.” This is an active demonstration of applying the Hero’s Journey to film and writing. He starts out with the reminder that this is merely a guideline, and that “form follows function.” He lays out several different methods of applying the system, such as index cards, and then applies the analysis to last of the mohicans and death becomes her. He closes with the reminder that “writing is magic,” (page 282) and compares writers to shamans.

This book is an excellent reference for the hero’s Journey, or for anyone looking for some pointers on writing a great story line. I find it to be an excellent reference while I write (it saved my novel during NaNoWriMo), and hopefully now that you’ve heard of it as well, you do too. Whenever I am asked for a book recommendation on writing, this is the book I reply with. It’s a much friendlier introduction to the ideology behind Hero with a Thousand Faces.


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