Reading the Writer’s Journey Part 3

In my last post, I planned to ‘discuss stages 6 and 7, which take the story to the middle of Act 2 and the first major crisis’.  I will be looking at stages 6 and 7, but I’m not so sure about the ‘standard’ 3 act structure. Also, the first major crisis seems to fit in with stage 8, so won’t be covered in this posting.

I’ve always had a concern about simplifying stories (and film) into – basically – the beginning, the middle and the end. I found a (hard to read, because he writes completely in CAPITALS) posting by the ‘HULK’ – the myth of the 3 act structure. I don’t agree with everything he says, or with the way he puts it, but he does have a point of view that is worth considering.

My understanding of Hulk’s posting, is that film has been simplified as 3 acts. In fact, he says it is actually usually 5, 7 or 9. He seems to be saying that acts finish when the hero/heroine takes a step forward that can’t be turned back.

However, Vogler does often seem to cover variations in the actual text of his book, rather than the (often shown) summary of the 12 stages – which are generally more appealing to read than a 370 page book. So, I may uncover more detail as I read further…

So, my slight rant over with, on to the next stages:

6. Test, Allies and Enemies.

Once the heroine has crossed into the other world, she will come across tests/challenges. This make complete sense to me, because the hero is now in a new environment and has to decide how he will cope with these changes – which may be by fighting or by avoiding the new challenges.

Interestingly, Vogler identifies saloons and bars as being common areas for test/challenges, which fits neatly with the Cantina in Moss Eisley, where Luke first comes across a very different world to the one he is used to. This is where Luke gets to see how Han Solo responds to challenges (though we as viewers see that his posturing is hopeful bluff). Luke also gets to see that Obi Wan is not just an old man, but has skill and experience of using his light sabre when necessary.

However, I don’t really see these as being particular tests of Luke, in the sense that he doesn’t get to take action himself.  This makes sense with his character and background. The test is there. He doesn’t step up to it, since he is inexperienced and trying to avoid trouble.  This shows how the heroine can fail the tests at first, and be saved by allies/mentors against the enemies.  Luke is also allowed to prepare himself, when Obi Wan gives him tests of his awareness of the force – i.e. when he wears the blast helmet to reflect the laser shots against him.

In Finding Nemo, after Nemo crossed the threshold (by touching the ‘butt’ against his father’s command and then being fished out of the sea), he drops into the other world of the aquarium and finds his new allies, including a mentor – Gil. He then has to face the challenges set by his allies, including the ceremony and later the swimming through the water pump to block the filter. He fails this test the first time, but passes it the second time, only to be thwarted by a new tank cleaner.

In Lord of the Rings, there are many tests set after Frodo takes on the burden of the ring.  He also encounters allies, including Boromir, who saves his life, but ultimately fails in his own tests. Again, it seems that Frodo is mostly passive and helped a great deal by his allies. In fact, if the crossing into the other world is seen as happening earlier – when he leaves the shire, then the putting on of the ring in the pub (ah – another bar) and the fight on the barrow, can both be seen as Frodo failing tests of his wisdom and resistance to the ring.

This seems to me to be one of the difficulties with Vogler’s stages. It is not easy to find consistent stages within works that you might know. This surely means that his stages need to be viewed is some way as being iterative, i.e. repeating themselves. This implies that the crossing into the other world is not taken in one step, but is taken in many, successive steps. Each step may then make it  increasingly difficult to return to the previous world. This fits quite nicely with the Hulk’s posting.

I guess this comes down to the reader. For some readers, Frodo will be seen to be committed when he first takes the ring from Gandalf. For others, his commitment is certain when he takes on the role of ring bearer.

I think this does offer a useful hint/tip/guide towards writing. It means that (and Vogler does say that the stages can be reordered) not only does the hero meet allies before crossing the threshold, but also that tests/challenges are given (and likely failed) before the threshold is crossed. Oh, and enemies can turn up at any time…

This seems to me to mean that you should introduce your allies around the same time as your mentors – i.e. the reader should encounter the heroine first, then the mentor and/or allies. Enemies can also be met at the same time, though they may be ‘shapeshifter’ archetypes in Voglers language.  (I hope to discuss Archetypes later).

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave.

This is probably where I find myself in the least agreement with Vogler. He identifies this stage as being the approach itself, to the most deadly place, often underground, where the quest object is held.

In Star Wars, this is the Death Star, including the prisoner block where Princess Leia is held, which really does mirror a dungeon in many ways.  The approach to the Death Star itself does seem to be a descent, even though there is no up or down in space.

In the Matrix, Nemo gets the opportunity to train and prepare before he approaches the cave. This is after his tests with Morpheus. The threshold he crosses can be seen as taking the blue pill, or possibly when he arms up and heads in to take on the agents and rescue Morpheus.

Vogler mentions that the approach is often characterised by the heroine defeating the guards to the cave. This fits nicely with Han getting everyone to hide under the floor and then dress up as storm troopers. In the Matrix, there is a full on assault with (the, to me, increasingly irritating) Trinity. In Lord of the Rings, this is the fellowship defeating the guardian to Moria and then entering in, and also  the fight with the goblins and the troll. The Lord of the Rings films don’t quite fit these stages as well, since the first film ends with two more yet to come. This isn’t the same as Star Wars or The Matrix, where they may have been more films (dreadful and best forgotten for the Matrix), but the first films do stand in their own right.

This stage is hard to work out for Finding Nemo and, I am sure, many other films/books.  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but that I’m not sure where the approach really happens. Blocking the filter feels more like a test, so the approach isn’t heading into the pipe – in fact, second time around, this scene isn’t even seen. It feels more to me as if the approach fits Marlin’s journey more, where he is approaching Nemo to rescue him. But if this is true, then the whole of Marlin’s journey is the approach.

Possibly this is because a good work will have many interleaved quests that are happening at once. Often, these will be resolved at the end, together, since that, apparently, makes for a more satisfying story. However, with many interleaved stories, it can be hard to decide which one to follow and therefore which is the approach.

I find that, more recent, films are increasingly likely to follow more than one character at a time. Finding Nemo is a good example of this. So are the later films in Lord of the Rings and also Star Wars. Personally, I remember finding the latter books of Lord of the Rings became more irritating as I was pulled away from following Frodo and Sam, who I liked, either to wishy washy, too good to be true, Aragorn or to annoying Merry and Pippin. Though I did like the Ents…

I think this is the real danger of splitting the story – that the reader will have identified with one character over the others and will resent being moved on to other, less interesting to them, characters.

Anyway, this post has now become too long and I should finish for now.  So next time, I cover stages 8 and 9.

Best wishes and happy writing

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3 Responses to Reading the Writer’s Journey Part 3

  1. I love that you keep mentioning Finding Nemo, which is my favourite animated film ever – I did a blog post about it a few weeks ago.

  2. Pingback: Reading the Writer’s Journey Part 4 | Steel City Writers

  3. Pingback: Reading the Writer’s Journey Part 2 | Steel City Writers

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