Books on Writing: The Writer’s Journey, Third Edition (Christopher Vogler 2007)

Writer's Journey.jpg

This marks my first non fiction review, although I suspect it may end up being more of an analysis. As part of my studying for my Final Major Project for university as part of my Professional Writing course I have been using this book a lot so it is fitting that I use this first. The book is a detailed analysis of the Hero’s Journey. Most writer’s who have done their reading will have encountered the Hero’s Journey, in some form. The journey in question is a structure for stories commonly used in fiction, with prime examples including Star Wars, the early Harry Potter novels and Lord of the Rings. Needless to say it is a very useful theory to have, and it is for that reason that I chose this book.

For a bit of background, the cycle is heavily drawn from the tropes and conventions found in mythology. A version of the cycle was first put together by Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces examined the theory of a monomyth, a universal structure that is found in the important myths from around world, even those which are thousands of years old. Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is an attempt to simplify the concepts in Campbell’s original work, which was a bit of a dense read, and relate them to a modern audience. I will say first off, it is very easy to understand this book and I found myself understanding the concepts far better since Vogler went out of his way to ensure his version of the theory appealed to a better audience. In fact throughout the various stages of the Hero’s Journey he makes sure there are film and book examples to help relate. As a result I believe his version of the theory is better than Campbell’s and is probably the best example I’ve read about so far.

vogsmall.jpg Yet, there are some things which may put off a new reader. The middle of the plot, which is arguably the hardest part of any work to write, gets skimmed over. As seen in the above diagram, Volger places the ordeal closer to the middle of the second act. This bugs me since it leaves a lot of room for interpretation for the latter half of the second act, which could cause problems. Yet, the general problem is that the stages following the Crossing of the First Threshold could go anywhere between the start of the second act and the end of the story. You could put the ordeal near the end of the second act, or even the third and the plot would still function. These stages will go in different places depending on the story you are writing, and as a result the second and third acts are much harder to plot than the beginning.

I also have a few minor gripes with the first act of the story, which starts with the Ordinary World Stage then the Hero gets the Call to Adventure then there is a Refusal and the Call before there is a Meeting with the Mentor before the first act ends with a Crossing of the First Threshold where the Hero fully enters the plot. The Refusal of the Call might not always happen and will depend on the protagonist’s personality. I also question The Meeting with the Mentor’s Place in the cycle since in many plots the Call to Adventure occurs hand in hand with the Mentor’s arrival, and if there is a Refusal of the Call it is usually after they meet the mentor. As a consequence a writer may find themselves having to play around with the order  to get the first stages of the plot to work for them. Not a major problem but a sign that the theory as a whole isn’t perfect.

I have a few gripes with the character archetypes present in the book also, as I feel they are awfully generic and at times their roles can overlap with one another, particularly with the side characters. The most bugging thing is that it offers no real advice as to constructing the antagonist, outside of a few lines in the Shapeshifter and Shadow archetypes. Not every villain will fit squarely into those two archetypes. In general though Vogler doesn’t offer much advice on constructing effective and unique antagonists. In fact, if anything, following his theory is more likely to result in generic antagonists similar to the ones seen before. A similar case can be made for his side characters as well, with characters who don’t fit into any the main categories getting lumped into allies category, which is rather broad ranging.

I am also not fond of his Jungian and Freudian themes, although this stems from personal reasons, since I feel they oversimplify the human character and as a consequence are not the best school of philosophy for a character. This may be in part because I studied Freud at school and am sick of stumbling across Carl Jung on the internet, but I do genuinely feel that there are better ways to develop characters than rely on such outdated theories.

Overall, the book is certainly great, though at times I feel like it is possible to follow the stages a bit too literally. Yet for a seasoned writer who knows to use the stages and archetypes as a guideline rather than as gospel, I am sure there will be no problems. When it comes to narrative structure I tend to prefer theories without the mythological themes attached to it, and the huge variance in the way once may choose to write the second and third act stages means it becomes harder to plot them using the Hero’s Journey. In my personal opinion it is also harder to create original content from the theory, particularly if you are familiar with its more popular adherents such as Star Wars, since it encourages you to follow the stations of the plots which come before rather than making your own. As a whole, I would recommend using this book but I would not rely on it on its own, since it is not my any means a perfect theory and at times I feel as though a classical hero’s journey can be a bit cliché these days, and a writer might end up being better off finding their own path using a theory that works them.

SCORE: 4/5




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