The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler was a book I hadn’t heard of before finding it on this list, but I had heard of (and read) The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which the ideas in this book are largely based on/adapted from.
This is where things with this series of posts are going to get a little timey wimey because even though I’m posting my entries on these books in the order they appeared on the original list, I didn’t read them that way. So even though The Writer’s Journey is near the top of the list, it was actually the last one I read. And if I’m being really honest, I was feeling a bit burned out on writing advice and wasn’t expecting this book to be as long as it was. But there were aspects of this book I ended up really appreciating, even though it didn’t have much/anything to say about research. Below are some thoughts.
Addressing the shortcomings
My copy of the book happens to be the third edition, so there are some forewords and prefaces that Vogler added that I almost skipped over. I’m glad I didn’t. In these areas, Vogler really takes the time to reflect on and address some of the feedback he’s gotten about the book over the years, including that the “hero’s journey” concept that he borrows from Joseph Campbell has traditionally been very male-focused and that it also privileges Western styles of storytelling. None of that feedback seems to have changed his mind about anything but it’s nice that he has taken the time to actually grapple with these issues in a thoughtful way rather than ignoring them or dismissing them out of hand.
Storytelling versus writing
This book is less about writing than it is about storytelling. Rather, a specific storytelling template based on the work of Joseph Campbell. That’s an interesting distinction that I hadn’t thought about before. Other writing advice books have chapters on things like how to write dialogue or description. This book is more getting you to think what your main character’s goals are, what challenges they will face along the way, who will help them, who will hinder them, and what happens at the end.
No surprise, then, that research doesn’t really make an appearance except in the form of studying other works to notice the ways in which they follow (or break from) the recommended template. Although in this case, the recommended works are more likely to be movies than books.
The road not taken
Sometimes, the book falls a little too much into plot summary as Vogler demonstrates how the idea of the hero’s journey can be applied to different existing stories. For that reason, I mostly skimmed the parts of the epilogue where he examines different iterations of the hero’s journey in detail in a handful of films, including stuff like Titanic and Pulp Fiction even though I think it’s really effective to show the very different ways this framework can manifest itself in very different stories.
Then I came to Vogler’s discussion of the original version of The Lion King, which he consulted on. He has a lot to say about how the finished film compared to his own ideas about how the story should have gone and while I think his version would have been too dark for my child self when the movie first came out, it’s really interesting to read his take on this in part because it shows that there are a lot of different paths a story can take and that the final product is often the result of a series of choices based on factors like intended audience. The story you end up with may not actually have much resemblance to the spark that started the process in the first place.
He also has some interesting thoughts on the Star Wars prequels as well as some ideas about the sequel trilogy that are turning to be pretty prophetic. I’m not a fan of the Star Wars prequels, necessarily, but I’ve always thought they were an interesting subversion of the typical Chosen One story, one where things go terribly wrong. As Vogler points out, this puts the audience in the awkward position of having to identify with a character they know will turn evil by the end.
In one of the prefaces, Vogler is clear that, in his view, the word “hero” is not limited to men. I expected this to be kind of a token gesture but this is something he really does seem to follow through on throughout the book. For example, he uses the generic “he” and “she” equally and he seems to make a point of finding examples of character archetypes that are both men and women. I liked that, especially after Zen in the Art of Writing (#8 on the list—post coming soon!) which is a product of its time but also seems only to use the generic “he” when referring to writers while reserving “she” for muses. (Which, I recently found out, is actually much more in-line with Campbell’s own take on gender and the hero’s journey than Vogler’s view. Campbell pretty much said that the heroes can only be men because women have to be the prizes the men are trying to win. I don’t have any context for that quote, so there might have been more to his thinking than that. Also: product of the time blah blah blah. Still. Not great.)
I also liked that in choosing examples to illustrate his various points, Vogler did not just draw from Great Cinema or Great Literature. He also used examples from comedies or children’s movies or other works that probably wouldn’t be considered Required Reading in a college film class. Whether by design or by accident, he also uses movies by female directors as examples every now and then, too. A League of Their Own, for example, comes up a lot in some of the suggested exercises. I wouldn’t exactly call the book woke since it could use more examples of works by non-white people, but of the books on the list I was working from, it probably comes the closest.
Vogler obviously has a lot of admiration for Joseph Campbell and his work. He writes glowingly of how Campbell’s achievement was in identifying a common structure in storytelling that spanned across (Western) cultures and centuries but which no one before had recognized. Campbell told us “this is how stories work.”
As I read, I wondered what an even more updated version of this book would look like, with examples from more recent film and literature could fit the template that Vogler discusses. There must be dozens of examples!
But then I realized: of course there are.
The reason for this is that Vogler’s work, as he mentions in the preface, has become some kind of manual for movie studios (or at least it was at the time). In other words, those who write movies for big studios literally use this is a template to map out stories. I imagine this is even more true now that we live in the age of big franchises.
So while Campbell was identifying a pattern that already existed and probably happened largely by accident, Vogler’s work is being used to prescribe that same pattern to storytellers.
I say “Vogler’s work is being used” because I don’t get the impression based on what’s written here that Vogler himself believed that stories have to work this way in order to be interesting or successful. In a way, I think this might even be one of the least prescriptive books in the lot because while Vogler is giving you a template to use, there are a lot of different options within the template (a reluctant hero versus a noble hero, for instance) and there is some reference to the value of breaking the template in interesting ways. So while movie studios might use this information to create stories on an assembly line, it doesn’t seem like that’s how Vogler meant for it to be applied. His tone is much more “isn’t this interesting?” than “this is how it should be done.”
Honestly, I wish more writing-related books had a tone like that.