Friday, October 03, 2008


Good story tellers have always known one thing: people want to hear a story about the underdog who has to overcome huge obstacles against the odds, an underdog who has every evil twist of fate thrown at him to thwart his success, an underdog who looks like he might not actually make it to the end. And of course, every good story ensures that this poor, brow-beaten underdog is made of such indomitable spirit to overcome all the odds… In spite of it all our beloved underdog succeeds!

Oral story tellers relied on this formula for success; ancient mythologies used this recipe and even very good sport promoters use this outline… How many of us have cheered for the team which isn’t the favourite? For the player who has had the most injuries? Just think of South Africa and the 95 Rugby World Cup… Think of Lance Armstrong and his battle with cancer… Think of the South African cricket team… Actually, no. Scrap that last one. Perhaps the SA Cricket Squad is doomed forever to be tragic heroes! 

The point is that all good stories - the ones that keep you emotionally invested right until the end - usually have a hero or heroine we know and love in spite of his or her flaws, and who has to go through enormous battles to complete his or her journey of self discovery. Most religions and mythologies follow this pattern too. Just think of how abused Jesus was, how mocked and maligned. But his resurrection was a victory over the odds in the most supernatural way. 

In the early twentieth century, Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud, broke away from Freud’s sexual obsessions and devised his own belief system based largely on the idea that humanity shared a common set of symbols which are universally recognised. Jung studied dreams, mythologies, religions and cultures and asserted that humankind shared a common set of stock characters, to which all cultures related. He believed that there were standard recognisable characters which kept cropping up in stories and myths throughout the world and which played universally recognisable symbolic roles. He called these ‘Archetypes.’ Think of the Wise Old Man, for examples, a reoccurring figure in so many fairy tales and stories: Merlin, Gandalf the Grey, Dumbledore the Wizard, and wise old Sangomas. Think now of the young ingĂ©nue, the Innocent Virgin: Cinderella, Little Red Riding, Snow White. Think of the Wise Old Crones: the witches with supernatural insights in Macbeth, ancient female Sangomas. There are many more. But for good story telling purposes, the most important archetype is The Hero.

The Hero, who often has a flaw, overcomes many, many odds. He fights all the battles we wish we were strong enough to fight ourselves. He (or she) is one of our most powerful archetypes. Think of Ulysses, Moses, Hamlet, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Shrek and many, many more. 

Following in Jung’s footprints, a writer and academic named Joseph Campbell began to analyse the similarities between myths, legends and archetypes. He spent much of his life devoted to comparing common themes in world mythologies and great stories. Eventually he wrote a book which changed the way people viewed story telling. It was called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this he showed that there is a classic structure behind most, if not all, of the best stories in the world. He clarified this structure and wrote a blueprint which could be applied to most stories. In the 70’s a struggling first time writer/director discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This writer/director had been stuck in development hell for years with his story about fictional, futuristic worlds in which a young man called Luke had to find his way. Desperate for help he applied Joseph Campbell’s structure to his unwieldly story and, like magic, found his way into a classic hero’s journey. The young writer/director was George Lucas. And his story was a little tale called Star Wars. 

In 1992, Christopher Vogler adapted Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces into a simpler structure, specifically for use in films. As Vogler says, ‘Campbell had broken the secret code of story, with its set of principles which govern the art of story telling.’ As a story analyst for Walt Disney, Vogler wrote a seven page memo as a practical guide to writing story. Soon this memo became required reading for Disney development executives. It led him to write The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. 

It is this simplified structure I use to help the scriptwriting students I lecture at UKZN, and it’s the same structure I use to solve any problems I have with scripts I am working on. Apply this to your screenplay and it will undoubtedly help clarify problems you might be having with your story.  

Essentially, Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey blueprint follows this simple pattern. The terms Vogler uses are on the left of this blueprint. I have equated the usual scriptwriting or playwriting terminology on the right to show it follows the usual patterns of traditional play structure. The Hero’s Journey is just more sophisticated.  

I have found this blueprint has helped me so much in teaching (with two of my students in consecutive years winning the M-Net EDiT awards) as well as in my own work. Ever since I began using this blueprint my screenplays and plays have become much more successful. There must be something in that!


Chris Vogler

(Vogler's terms in Italics)

SET UP (beginning)

Ordinary World ACT 1

Call to adventure

Refusal of the call  

Meeting the mentor  

Crossing the (first) threshold (First turning point – at +/- 30 mins/pages)


Tests, Allies, enemies ACT 2

Approach to the inner most cave  

Ordeal CRISIS – 2nd Turning Point

Reward (Seizing the Sword)
(about 60 mins/pages)


The Road back ACT 3

Resurrection CLIMAX

Return with the elixir
(about 30 mins/pages)

For in-depth study of scriptwriting one should always go back to the source, Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I cover this in my scriptwriting workshops. 

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