Here’s what Campbell did. Beginning around 1930, he broke his day into four four-hour periods, of which in three of the four-hour periods, he would be reading stories from all cultures and times. He studied Sanskrit, French, German, Japanese, Old French, Carl Jung, James Joyce, myths, and rites of passage. But mainly he read, hundreds and hundreds of stories, from ancient to modern. In the 1940’s, when he began to write about his decades of reading, you’d think he’d release “Campbell’s 101 Ways to Write a Story.” But he doesn’t. Instead he discovers the Monomyth. The Single Myth. The Lone Way. The One.
Where is the intake of breath, the dazed sense of awe and wonder? Let me repeat that. Campbell “analyzed the pattern of hero myths and stories from all ages and places…[and he uncovers] the ONE great myth that humans have told for centuries” (Clift and Clift 13). He finds in literature the equivalent of what scientists search for in the universe, The Theory of Everything, the one sentence that defines existence. To find that, Stephen Hawking writes in Brief History of Time , would be to know the mind of God. Campbell embarks on the mythic quest for The Chosen One—for the Grail—and the answer doesn’t elude his grasp. He succeeds.
Not a million ways. Not a hundred. Not a dozen. One. Campbell brings to light the embedded rites of storytelling. Consider the definition of ritual: “A solemn or religious ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed in a prescribed order.” Campbell founded “The Order of Storytelling.” Within this order, you have a story; without it, you have something else.
It’s not easy to believe Campbell—to take the leap of faith and belief in his Chosen One. But what if you did? Would it not erase some of your doubt? Would it not make sense of the chaos of the uncertain page, the unknown path of narrative? Would it not connect you to the writers and stories of all ages and places, past, present, and future? Campbell asks you to suspend your disbelief and open yourself up to the possibility that he has found something all writers hope to discover, a Holy Grail containing an elixir, the knowledge that will save them from some of the failure and waste all writers must go through. Imagine Campbell has discovered an ancient ritual, the religious rites connected to the mysteries of form and plot. Imagine every story reenacts the very first storytelling ritual. Imagine Campbell has discovered not how writers might structure a story, but how they must.
Here’s the monomyth mantra, also known as The Hero’s Journey: “separation—initiation—return” (30). Campbell refers to these as the nuclear unit of the monoymyth—what every story he read had in this precise order.
Here’s Campbell’s own summary of The Hero’s Journey, the one story: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30).
This entry is the first in a series that looks at each of the sections in depth, with a focus on how Campbell’s structure—inciting incident, actions, outcome—might be adapted for writing (short) short fiction. Today, an introduction to the One Way to Tell A Story.
FlashFiction.Net: Christopher Vogel, welcome to the site. Word is that your The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is mandatory for Disney writers. (Maybe that explains all those dead parents?). How would you explain Campbell’s work with narrative structure that is commonly known as The Hero’s Journey?
Clift and Clift, who looked at how the monomyth appears in dreams, note that this monomythic “search for wisdom, for wholeness, for integration, has been reflected in the stories of every culture, for it is the story of the experience of human development” (18). The monomyth, then is not only a way of telling stories, it is a “redoing of one’s theology,” a “journey toward truth” (192). Myths, Karen Armstrong argues in her Short History of Myth, captured “an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but also happened all the time” (7). Stories can be told again and again because we keep forgetting the essential truths of, not only our time, but of all times. “Each of us has his private, unrecognized rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream,” writes Campbell. “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change” (4). The monomyth is a way of revealing to our characters, our selves, and our readers what has become intolerable for all to face.
So, as we embark upon this journey together into the one way to structure narratives/stories, your job is easy. Just imagine it’s the only way stories can be told. And then leap to a computer and start typing. (And stay tuned for #2 in the series: The Inciting Incident!)
For Further Reading:
Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of Myth. New York: Canongate. 2005.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton/Bolingen Paperback Third Printing Edition. New York: Princeton University Press. 1973.
Clift, Jean Dalby and Wallace B. Clift. The Hero Journey in Dreams. New York: Crossroads. 1988.