Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hero, Trickster, Threshold Guardian

As I was saying…good story-telling follows the pattern of mythic structure, and will stay with us because our minds are literally, biochemically, wired for story.   And Story has a universal language. 

Archetypes, for example, are part of this universal language, and represent recurring patterns of human behavior.  Writers routinely make use of these archetypes—Hero, Villain, Shadow, Trickster, Wise Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Ally—to convey a lot of information quickly and craft a good story.  Leave too many out and the story weakens. 

I say ‘quickly’ because our brains are ‘narrative organs.’  They are literally configured biochemically (at least, according to current brain science, which is admittedly in its infancy) for story.  No wonder we love the fairy tales and films so much!

Our brains have categories of thinking already set up to “receive” these archetypes, when they appear in a story, and so a lot of information can quickly be transmitted, without need for a lot of explanation.  In “Lord of the Rings,” for example, we immediately know a lot about Frodo, Gandalf, and Sauron, as each one is introduced.  We’re not sure about the Ents, and we definitely don’t trust Gollum!  Why?  Because these are the tricksters, the shape shifters—archetypes designed to keep you on your toes as the plot moves along, wondering if, where, when and how these characters might swing from Ally to Opponent.    

Through Vogler I learned about mythic structure; through Tolkien, I had visuals.  When it came time to write the curriculum, mythic structure became the framework and Lord of the Rings the visual aids.  The scheme worked; my students ‘got it’—to the point of showing up in class in superhero costumes and presenting me with a Gandalf staff for my birthday! 

It was a stretch to write my material in this framework, without manipulating the material—a good writing challenge.  My poetic brain, which craves silence and reflection, long contemplative walks and staring out windows, has cramped up on a regular basis as I researched, structured, and wrote in prose.  I passed the gruelingly wonderful rough draft stage and am in first revisions.  At the end of the workday, I am only too happy to pour the cab, watch the sunset, and switch back to poetic brain.   

One more Tolkien story in next post, and then onto other happy news…

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Tolkien in the Boatyard

In honor of J.R.R. tolkien’s birthday (which was Thursday), a few thoughts...maybe a few posts…
What has Tolkien got to do with the boatyard?
If you hang around me long enough, you will hear me talk about mythic structure.  Also known as The Hero’s Journey, mythic structure is known to many writers, especially screenwriters, as the pattern of story.  The Hero’s Journey is universal—a basic pattern found in narratives around the world.  You may not have heard the term, but do you recognize these elements of story?  A main character (the Hero), is drawn into some adventure, often by a Herald or Wise Mentor.  The Hero may be reluctant at first, but eventually accepts the call, and goes out to achieve some great goal, or get the girl, and/or save the universe.
Like any good art, a good story or film will capture you although you may not necessarily know all that’s going on technically in the story in terms of craft.  But you know when you’ve seen a good movie, and when you’ve seen a box office flop.

Back in the ‘80’s, a man named ChristopherVogler, one of Hollywood’s top story consultants (working in the Disney studios) took mythic structure and related it to contemporary storytelling.  He first drafted a memo for Disney that went viral (pre-internet) in the industry, then developed his ideas in a book called The Writer’s Journey.  

George Lucas, who was also discovering the Hero’s Journey, had almost completed work on Star Wars.  He intentionally rewrote the screenplay to incorporate all the elements of mythic structure in his film, which went on to become a blockbuster hit. 

Since Vogler’s work, and the release of Star Wars, Hollywood has used mythic structure with astounding success.   Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, became an essential text for screenwriters, novelists, and artists of all kinds who wanted to harness the power of myth. 

As the millennium turned, I picked up a copy of Vogler’s book, in order to improve my own skill as a writer.  Little did I suspect that I would soon be immersed in training and curriculum preparation—a reluctant Hero called to an Adventure?--and that this book would become key to laying out a course. 

For I knew I needed a framework, and I wanted to tie it to film.  Today's generation is highly interactive, and do I need to explain the popularity of films and video games?!  The right film could provide powerful images to support teaching.  It needed to be one suited to an international audience.   

Right on time, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was being released.  Enter Tolkien to the Boatyard.  I not only had the framework of mythic structure, but now I had three films to plunder for visual clips and story hooks.  And I could pretty much count on the likelihood that students from around the world would have watched these films.  A good story, with mythic structure, speaks a universal language. 
And as another old story-telling trick puts it: to be continued….