A story that no one knows they are in…
Like all bookish, film, tv and box-set-loving, literary, narrative bores and writer-types, I am very interested in Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure the hero’s journey, or monomyth, as it sometimes goes (a word borrowed from James Joyce).
In the monomyth, just on the rare off chance that you had a hangover on that day it was covered in your media studies class, there are 17 (or 12 in a slightly simpler version) stages for our hero to go on. If we ever read or watch something that we can’t retro-fit these stages to, like the sophisticated narratologists and Soviet folklorist wannabes that we are, it often means that we have endured an unsatisfactory narrative.
Of course, one aspect of comparative mythology and morphology that is often pushed to one side in order to work out/grind into the dirt what constitutes a decent narrative is that, because as humans we are innate storytellers, we don’t really need to be mindful of all of these stages in order to tell a story, or ever to refer to them – that stuff just exists in our skillset. The hero’s journey is there, etched in the dusty recesses of our drink-addled brains.
Dan Harmon, the large, drunken, baggy-eyed, outrageously bearded creator of Community and co-creator of Rick & Morty, has done an exceptional job of simplifying Campbell’s approach. His 8-stage, Trivial Pursuit-lookin’ story circles, used in the writers’ rooms of the stuff he works on, are paired down, super basic versions of Campbell’s more wordy effort, ridding difficult to remember phrases such as meeting with the goddess, ultimate boon and atonement with the father and replacing them with the much more digestible You, Need, Go, Search, Find, Take, Return, Change.
When I wrote at a desk, back when I had better posture as a writer, I’d have a visual of Campbell’s 17-stage monomyth, alongside Harmon’s easier on the eye 8-stage version, hanging above me. Just in case. If you apply either to every character in your work, rather than just the main protagonist, as Harmon and his writers very successfully do, you can head into some complex labyrinths and miss loads of deadlines. But the end result is layers and layers of quality. Of course, I never looked up from the keyboard to look at either. In the same way I don’t pore over a copy of John Yorke’s Into The Woods while I’m writing. If you’re a writer, it’s not your job to know this stuff because you’ve read it in the various re-iterations that exist, it’s your job to know you already know it and to fucking relax, because it’s going to be there as a coincidental byproduct of your ability as a storyteller. Or just give up.
I do like to read and watch things that disrupt and question this whole hero-quest think. While it’s clearly and obviously everywhere in Western/Hollywood/Netflix narratives, beyond the West and the mainstream multiplex exists a whole world of alternative approaches that do their damnedest to tell stories in a different manner. Existential narratives, magic realism, indecipherable art house films, tragedies.
There are alternative structures to the hero’s journey. A lot of them are shit and nonsense, mind, and a lot of them are very similar, and a lot of them are just the dreadful guidelines and rigid templates that lead to unsatisfactory genre fiction (unsatisfactory for the reasons outlined in paragraph 3).
Get yersen away from Western literature, mind, and risk-averse blockbuster-fixated Hollywood, and you’ll find works of art that suggest there are other methods by which we tell and share stories, alternatives to crossing the threshold, descending into a mess and coming out (or not) of the other side, and other stuff that is equally stashed in the Imagination, Salience and Executive Attention networks within our fat and arrogant heads. Go read some Japanese fiction for starters.
I got to thinking about this – again – because I was reading an unlikely source (rather than getting down and dirty with Vladimir Propp or Phil Cousineau for fun) – John Higgs’ biography The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, bought for some loose change from HMV. Where, as unlikely as it sounds given he’s attempting to get behind what made Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty tick, Higgs starts going on about Harry Potter and the peripheral characters in JK Rowling’s franchise.
For a page and a half, it said the kind of thing I wish I could have thought of as a response when someone or other – and there have been many – was giving me the bad dramaturgical questioning line that goes, “well, whose story is this?” Clearly, those asking the question are never looking for a response that is so complex and mind-curdling that they wouldn’t understand it and couldn’t convey it to a marketing department, or go on to make some casting decisions based on who’s playing the lead.
Anyway, I found it interesting and I am pondering, as Higgs was in 2012, if there is such a thing as a story that no one knows they are in, least of all the main characters. Here’s the bit in the book:
If you’re interested, you can read more about Dan Harmon’s approach to story structure here.