A World of Speculation

I’ve been a fan of Christopher Vogler since, I don’t know, the ’90s, maybe. The second edition of his classic storytelling handbook, The Writers Journey, has been on my bookshelf for a long time. I had been thinking it was probably time to update, but wasn’t sure.

I picked up a copy last week so that I could get it signed when he spoke to the Oregon Writers Colony annual spring conference at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and the Newport Performing Arts Center in Newport last weekend.

It’s mostly the same handbook that it’s been — his streamlined approach to Joseph Campbell’s popularizing of The Hero’s Journey for storytellers of all kinds. He’s been a screenplay consultant for Disney Studios and all around Hollywood, but the principles work for novels also.

He’s also added sections on catharsis, polarity, how the body signals whether the story is working, and the importance of trusting the path.

I haven’t read those sections yet, however, because I got to page xvii of the introduction and ran across a concept that has revolutionized my approach to my own novel in progress. Here’s what it is. He describes the story as existing in four movements, and each movement has its own motivation and goal. For example, in Act I, the hero wants to escape his boring life. He crosses the threshold at the beginning of Act II, and now in Act IIA, he wants to become familiar with the new world. In Act IIB, he is trying to escape from the special world, and in Act III, he brings back the knowledge or the gift that he acquired there.

As I lay in bed thinking about how that applied to various plots, I realized I was describing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

More to the point of my story, it also worked with All the King’s Men, which I’ve been comparing everything to over the past few weeks. Jack Burden’s motivation — and very profoundly inner motivations at that — go through a metamorphosis that fits that description very well. In fact, divided along that pattern, it works out to a sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis — which was exactly the insight I needed to get through the Second Act Swamp.

It’s hard to get through to the new appendices in a book when one sentence in the introduction has you mulling the concept for a week. It’s like getting a bag of all-day suckers for Halloween.

Anyway Christopher Vogler is an affable, supportive teacher, and he’s talking about a return engagement in the summer of 2009.

And for another look at story structure — same concepts, different terminology — check out this workshop by Vogler’s fellow Hollywood screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge, July 12-13. See you there.