My LSWF 2018 session on Endings is available on the Private Delegate Network of LSF Connect. Anyone who has attended a full in-person festival should have a login. Go to the video archive, select 2018 and scroll down to find the session. Also available as audio only.
Some Thoughts on the “Hero’s Journey”
“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.” Carl Jung
“The map is not the territory.” Count Alfred Korzybski
“There is no spoon.” Neo
The ordinary world is indeed absolutely insane. We all need to escape from it sometimes—now more than ever. Stare too long into the abyss without a guide and you’ll go mad. Even with a guide most can’t handle the void’s brutal truth. But when it comes to story there are three ways to effect an escape and they aren’t mutually exclusive. Anesthetizing entertainment has its place—no-one can be “on” all the time. Then there are those creative endeavours that are specifically political/agitational/provocative in nature: but have these really effected any meaningful change in humanity in the long term? And is this because they are attempting to change everyone else, rather than one’s own “Self”?
The third route is what we currently call the “Hero’s Journey”: a non-religious, undogmatic myth of pilgrim’s progress for the post-monotheistic world. Psychologically, it’s an invaluable evolutionary step and enables the reader/viewer to understand and contextualize their own inner journey or quest within that of a fictional character undergoing the same archetypal processes. Consequently, that reader/viewer can lay the foundations and build the temple for real change inside their individual psyche (but, caveat emptor: experiencing this journey vicariously does not in and of itself cause change).
Call to Adventure:
Screenwriters write for many reasons, but a working-through of their own psychology is often the single most important factor (though this truth is usually unconscious—at least to start with). A map that sees the act of writing as a journey equal to the journey of the protagonist is simply a psychological truism. Screenwriters go on a journey every time they sit down to write. And a writer making progress through the mythic terrain of their own psyche can indeed begin to effect change within it.
Refusal of the Call:
Being told that any one template is simply “wrong” can be extremely undermining and unhelpful for any writer, especially if that template has already proven beneficial to them. It’s really not for anyone to cry that any individual map is wrong—especially when there might be specific motivations to cleave to one particular map at the expense of all others.
Meeting with the Mentor:
We all crave the wisdom of those who have experienced what we have not, but there is no one single person who could or should ever be the sole “Mentor” to a screenwriter. Spread your net wide. Absorb everything. Take what works; dispose of what doesn’t. But then keep going around again—and again—because as you change, what works for you will change also.
As you progress from neophyte to practising writer, you’ll realise that you’ve naturally osmosed some techniques and maps while you’ve intuitively left others behind. There is no “wrong” or “right”. Accepting this means you’ll absorb the tools and templates that work best for you because you’re open to everything that’s applicable—and maybe even to that which initially does not appear to be applicable at all.
Tests, Allies, Enemies:
The greatest test is to keep an open mind. The more open your mind the more allies you will have—at least intellectually (though it’s also true that blind allegiance to one particular closed-minded system can often offer career advancement). The true enemy of the screenwriter is the closed mind: being convinced that the way one sees things is not just the only possible way to see things but consequently also the only one that is correct.
Approach to the Inmost Cave:
There comes a time when you need to shut-out all advice, theory and maps and simply sequester yourself in your screenwriter’s cave. At this point there are no gurus, systems or structures that matter—only your story world, the characters that populate it and the decisions they make.
When you emerge from your cave you will suffer another crisis, so you will be thankful for all the help you can get. This includes every single theory, system and structural paradigm on which you can lay your hands—because sometimes it’ll be the very last lens you look through that unlocks the solution to your story problem. Then you’d best get your ass back into your screenwriter’s cave for the first rewrite. And around and around till…
There is very little reward for being a screenwriter. Hardly anyone makes a living. The work that does exist is shared by a tiny pool of professionals and there’s only ever room for a few new screenwriters from any generation to break in. This means that you need very quickly to understand that screenwriting needs to be its own reward. And one of the most rewarding aspects of screenwriting is working-through a mythic journey (metaphorically one’s own) vicariously through a character. This is as valid—or perhaps more valid—than any other motivation.
The Road Back:
The interplay between writing and life is symbiotic. You’ll be on a constant journey between your imagined world and the real world—with one constantly influencing and mirroring the other. As one moves through life, different stories become more applicable, others less so. There is an ineluctable, biologically-encoded archetypal pattern to life and this has been brilliantly explored by Jung, Campbell, Stevens and Hillman, among others. If you are open to this pattern, the road back is always simultaneously the road forward.
The only true resurrection is the metaphorical one. This is what Jung called “individuation” (though it goes by many other names in many languages) and it’s a process that is never entirely complete. Most of us will never experience this, whether through poverty, ego, greed, psychopathy, psychosis or just sheer bloody-mindedness. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are among the most effective routes to this unattainable destination, but they don’t work for everyone and most people can’t afford either. Vicarious “resurrection”—the one that happens cathartically through engaging with a fictional character undergoing this process—is often all that’s available. But this process can be heightened if you are writing that process as well as engaging with it.
Return with the Elixir:
Screenwriting is perhaps more about psychotherapy for the writer than it is about an un-evidenced theory regarding the wider benefits of storytelling for the human race. Stories have been told since before language emerged—spoken or written—but humans are still the venal, fucked-up death-worshiping idiots they’ve always been. So much for the civilizing effects of storytelling. Best advice? Work on your own “Self” because that’s ultimately the only self that cares and the only self that will ever really listen to you (though you may have to shout—persistently). And if you attain true wisdom—what Jung called “acceptance”—you might one day be able to help effect this process in another.
LSWF Online 365 Mining for Meaning
I did a thing on theme for the London Screenwriters’ Festival Online 365 on May 17th 2020.
Here’s a précis deck with some tips…