Wednesday, June 6, 2012

MYTHIC STRUCTURE AND ME! ...I MEAN, AND YOU! How to Write the Way I Write, Part 3

Buy this book.
I had been getting paid to write for seven or eight years before I was introduced to the book you see up there: The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. It changed - profoundly changed - how I did my job. I wish I had found out about it much earlier. Like, when I was about six.

I was at a con (either Dragon*Con in Atlanta or MegaCon in Tampa, I don't remember which) when I met Scott Ciencin, another freelance writer. Whereas I had been concentrating on comic books, Scott had made a name for himself as a novelist, working primarily in licensed-property novels. Scott had read a couple of my comics and enjoyed them, and he and I started talking on the phone pretty regularly. During one of those conversations he asked me if I had read The Writer's Journey.

"Nope," I responded. "What's that?"

Very seriously and, as I soon came to discover, completely accurately, Scott said, "It's the keys to the kingdom."

I didn't know a single thing at the time about Joseph Campbell, or the work he had done combing through an entire civilization's worth of culture to produce The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I didn't know anything at all about how Christopher Vogler distilled Campbell's work and turned it into, essentially, a how-to guide for storytellers. But I would soon learn. And because of that, my productivity was about to skyrocket.

Let me see if I can break it down quickly here...

Basically, what Campbell and Vogler are saying in their respective books is that there are common elements in stories from every culture on Earth, as far back as culture has existed. From Gilgamesh to Little House on the Prairie to Star Wars (especially Star Wars) to My Cousin Vinnie, you can take the stories apart structurally and pinpoint each element. This structure - the "mythic structure" - applies not only to plot points, but also to characters. Vogler, in fact, lists and analyzes each of the character archetypes that show up again and again and again in stories across the globe.

The biggest part of what The Writer's Journey did for me was to facilitate writing stories quickly. There is a structure involved, an actual twelve-point story skeleton, that can help you figure out what happens in every single kind of story. It applies to action, and romance, and horror; whether your protagonist is facing a chainsaw-wielding maniac, or a tough new principal in middle school, or some grubby bastard that your mom just had to go and marry, Vogler's structure will guide you and help you put the meat and skin and hair on the bones.

I'm not going to list the points of Vogler's outline here, because I don't want to get sued for plagiarism, but if you're interested in writing, trust me on this. Get the book.

Here it is again!
Now, am I saying that you have to follow this structure in every story? Nope. You can leave parts out, or mix and match, or even ignore it entirely. There are plenty of examples of books and movies and whatnot that don't follow the structure. In fact, there are writers who turn their noses up at the whole concept of a codified "story structure" and consider it vulgar. I can't say they're wrong. Besides, you are your own writer. I can't and don't want to tell you what to do. (Okay, I told you to get a copy of the book, so I guess sometimes I do want to tell you what to do. I'm a contradiction!)

But the name of this column is "How to Write the Way I Write," and let me tell you, this is a GREAT BIG CHUNK of how I write.

Before Vogler, I'd come up with an idea, and then just start throwing stuff at it, and hope that what stuck looked like a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It might take me a day, or a week, or five years; I was basically at the mercy of whatever trickled out of my brain, at whatever pace it chose.

After Vogler, I had a plan. When an idea first sparked, I might have a really good first part, and a killer ending, but nothing for the middle. Or a really awesome beginning and the first part of the middle, but nothing after that. Without Vogler's help, sometimes I'd figure out what should go in the missing bits, and sometimes I wouldn't. Using his structure, though, I could see where certain parts should go - the parts that have worked in stories for thousands of years - and I had the confidence to follow his roadmap.

Using this structure, I learned to map out stories, break them down into their component parts, and get each part done in a reasonable amount of time. An amount of time, in fact, that got shorter and shorter the more I did it; another thing Scott Ciencin taught me is that writing is very much like lifting weights. The more you write, the more you can write, and the faster you'll become. You're building up your strength.

Because of The Writer's Journey, in 2004 when I was writing four monthly comic book series (Voltron, Micronauts, Firestorm, and Bloodhound) all at the same time, I had little to no trouble keeping up with the workload (and preserving my sanity). In 2007, when I started working on the first Alex Unlimited novel, I completed the first draft in about three and a half weeks. For a while in 2010, I was working on the video games Prototype 2, Transformers: War for Cybertron, and two different versions of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, again all at the same time. I never missed a deadline.

In fact, I've never missed a deadline in 21 years, and I lay a lot of that at Vogler's feet.

So, in short, Scott Ciencin was right. The Writer's Journey is the keys to the kingdom.

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