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The Hero's Journey - Screenwriting Structure Explained

By Author: Russell Foster
Total Articles: 39

The Hero's Journey - Screenwriting Structure Explained
The Hero's Journey is the phrase used by Joseph Campbell to describe what he termed the "monomyth" - this is the concept that myths and stories from a wide variety of times, regions and cultures share fundamental structures and stages.
Campbell outlined the basic structure of these many stories thus:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
He analysed a variety of stories from times and cultures across world history to show how this basic pattern is repeated over and over again. But what interest is this to screenwriters trying to produce scripts that producers - and hopefully audiences - will love?
The key is in Campbell's assertion that audiences look for and enjoy these elements - as the story unfolds in a familiar way the audience is drawn in, becomes a party to the experience. By telling a new story in a familiar format you engage and delight your audience.
If you find you are truly fascinated by this, then by all means read Campbell's "Hero With a Thousand Faces." However, if you want a convenient short cut that will allow you to use this in your screenwriting, then the man to help you is Christopher Vogler.
In 1992, screenwriter and consultant Vogler wrote a seven-page memo to his studio bosses that detailed how Campbell's ideas applied to screenwriting. His memo became famous in Hollywood, circulated throughout the industry, and led to the publication of "The Writer's Journey".
"The Writer's Journey" takes Campbell's idea and expands it - with reference to numerous classic Hollywood films - to provide a tool that any writer can use to improve their story.
Journeying through 12 stages, it is a blueprint for a well-structured screenplay. If you've never read it, then go ahead and get a copy. It's the most useful book on screenwriting you will ever read.
If you have read it but aren't sure how to use it, I can offer as advice the way I use it myself to develop my stories.
As Vogler himself says, it is not a rigid format, a structure to be adhered to with slavish devotion. Rather, it is a guide, a way to check if you have all the elements in place.
When developing a new story, I start with my basic idea, then, with the story in my head, I read the 12 chapters on the 12 stages of the journey, using it as a way of asking myself story questions:
What is the ordinary world?
Is my hero reluctant?
In what way does he die?
There are no wrong or right answers, but I find it is like having a conversation with a wise and learned sage, someone who has been there, done that, and can sit back and offer objective feedback on my developing story. And that's something we could all benefit from!

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