Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Writer's Journey, 10 books every writer should read

The Writer's Journey: This is book 2 of 10 books every writer should read. In this book by Christopher Vogler, subtitled “Mythic Structure for Writers,” the author describes historic techniques of storytelling.

Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, this is a valuable read. Okay, so maybe it’s a little more valuable for fiction writers. But, even nonfiction writers tell stories, and this book helps clarify the typical structure of a story.

I know what some are thinking: writing is an art form, don’t lock me in to some formula. You are exactly right. But this book is not a formula book. It is a concept book.

Some years ago I took a class from the prolific TV icon Bob Banner once (producer of the Carol Burnett Show, Garry Moore Show, Live at the Apollo and many others – winner of a number of Emmys.) In that class he described how even in a three minute sketch it was important to have the critical elements of a story present. His staff writers included the likes of Woody Allen, Neil Simon and a number of other greats.

Take the ingredients explained in this book and cook up any kind of story – but like a cake with the sugar or flour or baking powder left out – you’re going to have a hard time making your story palatable if you leave out critical elements of story telling. Its not impossible, just harder.

Where does this book get its information? The basic information is from the work of researcher Joseph Campbell. Vogel took Campbell’s academic work and adapted the concepts into a book for the modern writer. He takes common elements of storytelling from global cultures of the past and condenses similarities down to a few components. The theory is that we humans have developed in such a way that we understand stories that contain certain elements in them. This could be hard-wired into the human brain or developed over thousands of years of civilization – I don’t know the answer to that. Nevertheless, it is valuable information for any writer to know and understand.

Without going into the details of the book (you need to read it yourself) the premise is that a story is like a quest. There is a beginning – something that causes the quest to begin. There is a hero that is called on to do the quest. (Don’t get taken back by somewhat archaic labels – the “hero” is typically the primary character such as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz or Rick in Casablanca.) The quest is a problem to be solved – maybe personal, maybe earth shattering, maybe humorous, maybe horrific.

Once our hero sets out (or is forced) on the quest, he or she meets up with a variety people that either make the quest harder or easier. They are people such as mentors, rivals, opponents, people who aren’t who they seem, etc. Each of these people contributes to the movement of the story and perhaps to the development of the hero’s character. In the end, the hero finds some resolution to the story’s initial problem.

This is a crude and brief outline of the contents of the book. Inherently, you already know the structure of a story – you tell stories everyday of the guy who almost ran you off the road, of the person who broke in line at the Starbucks, of the friend whose boyfriend ran off with another girl (or guy). Even though you know the basics of telling a story, if you want to rise to a new level, to understand the components of storytelling then read The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler.

1 comment:

Alex Moore said...

Great post. I'm linking to it in today's blog.