Assignment 1 – Screenwriting 102
There are several parts to this week’s assignment:
- First, read over the notes below about the monomyth – and watch the video. In the notes, I’ve summed up the key points we were talking about in class, and added more examples from movies.
- Pick an idea for a screenplay you’re thinking about writing, and write short summary of what it’s about – i.e., a page or two describing who your main character is and what happens to him or her as the story moves along. (If you have several ideas, just pick one.)
- Try to sum up the heart of your story in a few sentences. (Who is your main character, and what happens to them?) Then write some additional notes describing them – what are they like in the beginning? Do they change as the movie moves along? What event or “call to action” draws them into your story? Does your character accept the call or try to get out of it (refuse it)?
- Write 5 or 10 pages of your screenplay. It’s fine if they are very rough. (You’re just getting something down on paper.) The scenes you write could be in the beginning of the movie, the middle, or the end. (You don’t have to start writing at the start of the movie; pick a scent that sounds fun and try writing it.)
- After that, if you have time, watch a movie – either one you’ve seen before or a new one. Then jot down some notes about it. Ask yourself how it would break down in terms of the three acts. What happens in Act 1 (the introduction, when we get to know the main character in his/her ordinary life)? What happens in Act 2 (the heart of the story)? What happens in Act 3 (the ending, in which there is the final conflict between “good and evil”, i.e., between your character and his or her antagonist?
- Then ask yourself whether it follows the structure of the monomyth. If so, what happens in the movie that corresponds with each of the 17 steps? (See list of steps below)
The heart of the Monomyth!
About the monomyth:
- The monomyth is a storytelling template
- It’s used as a guide or reference by many screenwriters
- Some use it consciously like a blueprint or outline. Others write their screenplay without worrying about it, but then use it as reference for solving storytelling problems
- It was developed by Joseph Campbell in ”Hero With a Thousand Faces.” (The word “hero” is not gender specific. Think of it as a job title, another word for protagonist or main character)
Why use the monomyth?
- You don’t have to use it. But you might want to consider doing so. It’s a sort of universal image of what many people in many cultures feel is a strong story structure. When we use it, in a sense, we’re honoring the work of generations of storytellers over the ages
- Movies are for international audiences. The monomyth is found in stories from cultures around the world. So movie viewers from around the world can relate to it.
- The monomyth is complex.
- It can be viewed in a number of different ways.
- One is in terms of five basic steps:
STEP 1: THE CALL TO ACTION OR CALL TO ADVENTURE
- The hero starts in the ordinary world (his or her ordinary, familiar life life).
- This is similar to the “setup” in a traditional story.
- Then he or she receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events.
- The call is similar to the “inciting incident” in a typical story.
- The hero may initially accept this call or decline it. If he or she declines it, there may be consequences.
STEP 2: THE ROAD OF TRIALS
- The hero is transported into an extraordinary world or situation, where he or she faces profound challenges.
- The hero may face these trials alone, or with help.
- He may succeed or fail at dealing with them. (Sometimes called “The Road of Trials.”)
STEP 3: ACHIEVEMENT OF THE GOAL
- After facing an increasing number of challenges and trials, the hero achieves what she set out to – victory!
- But the movie isn’t over yet...
STEP 4: RETURN TO THE ORDINARY WORLD
- This step may or may not happen easily, or voluntarily.
- If the “bad guy” in your story is still around, he/she may make one last ferocious attempt to stop the hero.
STEP 5: FREEDOM TO LIVE
- Using what he or she has learned.
- In this stage, the skills, abilities or insights the hero has gained, can be applied to improve his or her life or world.
A different way to look at the monomyth is to break it down into three stages:
1. DEPARTURE or separation deals with the hero beginning his or her quest. The hero is separated from her community and from her normal everyday life.
2. INITIATION includes the hero’s various adventures and obstacles as he moves through his journey (really just another word for the road of trials).
3. RETURN focuses on his or her return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.
- Another way to look at it is to break it down into 17 separate steps.
- Some myths, novels, films and screenplays contain all seventeen.
- Others may have most of them, or combine or omit some, but are still considered variations on the same basic story structure.
1: CALL TO ACTION (or call to adventure)
After a brief SETUP in which we get to know the hero in his or her everyday life, the ADVENTURE begins with the hero receiving a call to action, such as a threat to the peace of his or her family or community.
Or sometimes the hero blunders into an adventure – for example:
- Your hero goes out walking in the woods and sees someone getting shot.
- Your hero goes out to the garage and finds an alien extraterrestrial.
- Your hero goes into work and overhears someone plotting to kill her employer.
- When there is a call to action/adventure, it often comes from a character in the story who acts as a “herald”. The herald may appear dark or terrifying, or friendly and benign.
- (Note: The SETUP before the call to action may last anywhere from a page to ten pages, in a typical screenplay. In a novel, it can sometimes last several chapters. The call to action is similar to the “inciting incident” in traditional models of storytelling.) (By the end of Act 1, the hero will have accepted the call and be leaving their familiar life to take on the challenge).
- In the original Star Wars movie, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, is first seen as a listless teenager longing to leave home, to go out into the universe and do something meaningful with his life. The heralds are the droids who carry a recorded message from Princess Leia. (“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”)
- In The Matrix, the hero, Neo, receives a call from Morpheus and his followers who encourage him to question reality.
- In American Beauty, the protagonist’s wife urges him (calls on him) to come with her to see their daughter perform as a cheerleader.
- In Alien, a ship is moving through deep space with a crew in suspended animation, when a apparent distress call is intercepted by the ship’s com system.
- In Aliens, Ripley is offered an opportunity to return to space and pilot a freighter. (The sleazy lawyer in the movie rings her doorbell and physically calls on her to ask her to take the job.)
- In Bladerunner, Decker’s boss calls him on a cell phone to tell him he has a job for him (tracking down three replicants who have escaped from a labor camp).
- In My Best Friend’s Wedding, the heroine receives a phone call from her ex-boyfriend, telling her he’s getting married and urging her to come to the wedding. (“You’ve gotta come, Jules… I’ll never get through it without you.”)
- In the Little Mermaid, Ariel responds to an inner call, a strong inner impulse to see the surface world. The call leads her to the ocean surface, where she spots and falls in love with Prince Eric.
Step 2: Refusal (or acceptance) of the Call
- In some stories, the hero initially REFUSES the call. When this happens, he or she usually suffers somehow. There’s a price to be paid for refusing.
- In Aliens, Ripley refuses the invitation to go back into space, then later relents and decides to accept the job.
- In Star Wars, Luke’s uncle refuses to let him seek out Obiwan Kinobe. Shortly afterwards, the aunt and uncle are murdered.
- In American Beauty, the protaganist says he doesn’t want to go to his daughter’s cheerleading exhibition, but relents and gives in at his wife’s urging and goes with her.
- One way the other, the hero finally ends up accepting the call.
Step 3: Supernatural Aid (“a little help from my friends”)
After the hero has accepted the call, he or she encounters a protective figure (often elderly) who provides special tools and advice for the adventure ahead, such as an amulet or a weapon.
- In the Wizard of Oz, Glynda the Good witch appears to tell Dorothy to keep the magic slippers, i.e., not to surrender them to the Wicked witch of the west.
- In Star Wars, Luke encounters Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him a lightsaber and teaches him the Force.
- In American Beauty, the neighbor’s son sells the hero drugs which facilitate his inner and outer transformation.
- In Aliens, Ripley travels to the planet with a contingent of marines and a humanoid android with remarkable, more-than-human abilities, which end up being essential for her survival.
- Sometimes the hero finds a whole contingent (family or army) of allies to help along the way. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faces the Wicked Witch of the West, with the assistance of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. In Star Wars, Luke faces Darth Vader with the help of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Obiwan Kinobe and the Droids. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke seeks the help of Yoda. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s aquatic friends sing a song to try to get Prince Eric to “kiss the girl.”
Step 4: Crossing the First Threshold
The hero has been living in one world, living a familiar life, and must cross over into another world or situation, which is often strange or unfamiliar. Crossing over isn’t always easy. Often it entails facing a “threshold guardian”, whose goal is to prevent him or her from crossing the threshold.
- In Star Wars, Luke and Obiwan Kinobe don’t just fly off happily into space. They first have to travel to a place called Mos Eisley, and avoid capture by a group of stormtroopers. (the threshold guardians). (Luke escapes them with the supernatural aid of Obiwan Kinobe, who gestures and convinces the stormtroopers that “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”)
- In The Matrix, Neo swallows a red pill, which causes him to leave world he thinks is real (the Matrix) and wake up in a terrifyingly different reality.
- In The Little Mermaid, the threshold is the edge of the water (separating her from her world, the ocean, and the surface world where people breathe air). Ariel crosses it and emerges out into the open air, where she sees and falls in love with a prince.
- In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy steps through the doorway of her house when she arrives in Oz. It’s not just a doorway, it’s a symbol of her passing from a black and white world (her ordinary life in Kansas) into an amazing full color universe (Oz).
- In Alice in Wonderland, the rabbit hole that Alice falls down is the threshold that transports Alice from her mundane life into a world of madness and enchantment.
Step 5: Rebirth
Rebirth may be an alternative to the threshold, or may be an aspect of it. Death becomes the portal between one world and another, which transforms the hero and makes him or her ready to face the adventure ahead.
- In The Matrix, Neo takes the pill, goes under, and wakes up in a bioelectric cell where he is one of the humans being harvested by machines. He wakes up naked inside a sheath like a placental wall and has to tear free of it and be reborn to emerge into the new reality.
- In Alien, the rebirth is symbolized by the crew awakening from their cryonic sleep chambers. Cryo sleep is like death; they’re sluggish and dreamlike as they come out of it, and are shown wearing diapers, like babies, when they emerge from their “coffins.”
- In Aliens, Ripley sheds her fears of confronting the aliens, and is reborn as a warrior.
- In American Beauty, the hero, who has been dead inside for years, comes back to life emotionally in stages, as the movie progresses.
- In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is transformed and reborn as a human being. She washes up on the shore, naked as a newborn baby. Like a newborn, she can’t even speak, but has to find other ways to try to communicate.
Step 6: The Road of Trials
Once past the threshold, the hero encounters “a dream landscape of ambiguous and fluid forms.” (Pay attention to the words — they’re significant!) The hero is challenged to survive a succession of obstacles, learning and realizing new things, discovering hidden realities in the process. He or she is often aided and assisted by supernatural and other forces along the way.
- In American Beauty, the protagonist, played by Kevin Spacey, sets out to get into physical shape to seduce his daughter’s friend. (The protagonist’s goals don’t have to be laudable!) His wife senses something is up and opposes each step he takes to try to reclaim himself. His “helper” is the drug dealer next door, who gives him drugs that help transform his consciousness and move him further along the road to the inner transformation he is seeking.
- In The Little Mermaid, Ariel takes a drug given her by Ursula the witch-octopus, and undergoes a vivid hallucinogenic experience as she’s transformed into a human being. Later, when it becomes important that prince kiss her, her “helpers,” Sebastian the crab and the others, sing a love song, “Kiss the Girl,” to try to help get the prince in the mood.
- In Alien, we never quite see the alien that is destroying Ripley’s crew… we see bits of it, a thing lurking in the shadows.
- In the sequel, Aliens, Ripley and the others are trapped in a complex where they confront the aliens, represented as ambiguous, fluid shadows, often out of sight until they emerge from the dark to become terrifying enemies.
Step 7: Marriage (real or symbolic) (“The meeting with the Goddess”)
This step is sometimes represented as a marriage or union between the hero and a queenlike or mother-like figure (or a male figure, if the hero is female). The marriage can be symbolic, an emotional or intellectual bonding. (One interpretation of this is that the hero transcends his or her gender, and the limitations inherent in it, and experiences all that can be known.)
In The Matrix, Neo encounters the Oracle, who gives him information that helps guide him to his destiny.
- In Aliens, Ripley develops a romantic bond with one of the marines.
- In The Little Mermaid, Ariel marries a human, the prince.
- In general, the marriage is between characters with “masculine” and “feminine” aspects. But they are not always of different genders. Midnight Cowboy and Thelma and Louse are examples of movies in which two characters form a transcendent emotional bond that does not have to do with gender or sexuality. (One character is usually more traditionally masculine, the other more traditionally feminine, though they may be of the same sex).
Step 8: Temptation (sometimes the opposite sex)
In this stage, the hero is tempted away from his or her goal by a woman or man who seems to offer another path, but an inherently false and misleading one…. a temptation or diversion from the path or journey he or she is on.
- In Aliens, a sleazy company man tries to tempt Ripley into going along with his plan to bring the aliens back to earth as a bio-weapon, with the offer of money.
- In the first Star Wars trilogy, Darth Vader tries to tempt Luke with promises of power if he joins the emperor and the dark side.
- In Thelma and Louise, two women are on a journey of self-discovery and deepening friendship and reliance on each other; a sexy young guy played by Bradd Pitt tempts one of them away from her journey.
- Being tempted away from the point of the journey is not the same thing as the meeting with the Goddess. The Goddess is benign; the temptation is a negative force in the story.
Step 9: Atonement with the father
The hero achieves an understanding, reconciliation or atonement with a father or father-like authority figure. This may involve conquering the father in combat, or winning over his heart or mind. (For this to be meaningful, there has to be a conflict of some sort with the father figure earlier in the story, usually in the setup).
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke confronts Darth Vader and learns that Vader is his father and a former Jedi. He fights Vader using his light saber. He can’t defeat Vader physically but defeats his plans to have Luke join the dark side. In Return of the Jedi, he takes it one step further and wins Vader back to the forces of “good.” Vader loses his life, power and apparent immortality, but is saved by Luke spiritually.
- In The Little Mermaid, Ariel reconciles with her father, who had personified the obstacles to her transformation into a human being, at the end of the movie. The father comes around, realizes he had been wrong, forgives his daughter and welcomes her choice of marrying a human.
- In American Beauty, the protagonist is literally transformed from a seducer into a father figure, when he gives up his goal of seducing a fifteen year old girl and instead becomes her protector.
Step 10: Apotheosis (transcendance)
The hero’s ego (or limitations) are “disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness.” Quite frequently the hero’s idea of reality is changed. The hero may find an ability to do new things or to see a larger point of view. This sometimes leads to the hero sacrificing himself or herself, and experiencing death, either “really” or symbolically.
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke sacrifices his own life, or tries to, rather than turn to the dark side.
- In American Beauty, the protagonist is brought back to reality by realizing that the girl he has been aiming to have sex with, is just a child. He sees her as she really is, lets go of his aim of seducing her, and becomes a protective father figure to her…. and very soon after, dies. In death, he experiences an even greater expansion of consciousness, in which he sees both the beauty and stupidity of his lie and choices, and all human lives, from a transcendent enlightened view.
- In the final Matrix movie, Neo faces death in order to be reborn with the ability to end the war between humans and machines.
Step 11: The Ultimate Boon (or: “What have you learned, Dorothy?”)
If the hero survives, he or she may achieve a gift or “boon.”
- After capturing the broomstick of the wicked witch of the west, Dorothy receives the knowledge that her magic slippers will take her home to Kansas, if she clicks her heels together three times.
- In the climactic scene of Star Wars, Luke uses the profound intuitive knowledge he has connected with (the Force) to successfully destroy the Death Star by firing torpedos down a narrow ventilation shaft of the Death Star (which is also, of course, a sexual metaphor… but that’s another approach, for another class!)
- In American Beauty, the protagonist’s death at the end gives him a new awareness of the preciousness of every moment of life.
- In the Little Mermaid, Aerial achieves her goal of making the prince fall in love with her, and marrying him.
Step 12: Return (or refusal of the return)
- Having found enlightenment in the other world, the hero may or may not not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.
- (Or sometimes they are unable to return, which leads to stage 14)
Step 13: The Magic Flight (Or: trying to get home again)
If the hero does decide to return, he or she often faces challenges on the journey home. This may involve a chase, or pursuit. The hero often faces the most profound and difficult-to-overcome challenges in rapid succession, at this stage of the story.
- In Aliens, Ripley enters a nest of aliens to rescue a little girl and returns with her to the surface. But as she approaches the surface with the girl, her path is blocked at every turn by the vengeful alien queen.
- In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s first attempt to return to Kansas doesn’t work; the Wizard’s balloon flies away without her. This leads her to discovering the deeper truth about the magic slippers, and that she always had a way to get home.. she just had to learn how to use it.
Step 14: Rescue from Without
The hero may need to be rescued by forces from the ordinary world. This may be because the hero has refused to return or because he is successfully blocked from returning.
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is rescued by the Millenium Falcon as he hangs on an antenna beneath Cloud City after a battle with Darth Vader.
- In American Beauty, the hero is “rescued” from his own lust after a teenaged girl, by the realization that she’s really a child. His “return” is to his own basic goodness, to a grounded state of being.
- In Aliens, Ripley and Newt are rescued at the last possible moment by the android.
Step 15: Crossing the Return Threshold
- The hero returns to the world of common day and must accept it as real. (This isn’t always easy…. one movie which explores the difficulty of returning to reality after a profound experience is Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges.) (The whole point of Fearless is that the character is trapped in the transcendent world he has entered, and needs help to return to a normal existence)
- In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy clicks her heels together three times and returns home.
- In Aliens, Ripley’s ship, piloted by the android, flies away into space as the planet with the aliens is destroyed. The edge of space is the return threshold she has to pass through on her way back home.
Step 16: Master of two worlds
This is an important and sometimes misunderstood part of the journey. In a sense it renders everything that has gone before meaningful:
Due to his or her experience, the hero may now perceive both the ordinary and extraordinary, or human and divine, worlds. She sees things other people don’t see.
- In Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes a Jedi. He has mastered the force and defeated the temptation of the Dark Side. At the end of the movie, he sees the spirits of Darth Vader, Yoda and Obiwan Kinobe. Luke is the one who was changed most by the movie, so he’s the only one who can see them; they are not seen by Han Solo, Leah, or others in the story who have not shared his transformation.
- In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has her memories of Oz, and what she learned from the experience, and is back home with her aunt and uncle and farmhands who represent figures from her experience (human versions of the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man).
- In Dorothy’s Return to Oz (a sequel to the Wizard of Oz), Dorothy goes off to Oz again, then returns to Kansas at the end but can see into Oz when she looks into a mirror. (No one but her can see it)
- At the end of Aliens, Ripley is both a mother/caretaker, symbolized by her relationship with a little girl, and a warrior who has been “through the fire.”
- In Alien Resurrection, Ripley is left with both human and alien DNA in her body…. she’s no longer just human, she’s something more.
- This stage equates with the aspect of most stories, that the audience expects the hero to have been transformed in some way by his or her experiences. (If your character isn’t changed, audiences may ask what the point of the movie was.)
Step 17: Freedom to live
- The journey is over. The hero has accomplished his or her goal, and brought the benefits of his or her quest home.
- In Return of the Jedi, Luke has overcome the Empire. The “rebellion” is free to live, grow and thrive.
- In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julie has given up on her attempt to break up her friend’s wedding. He and his wife have the freedom to live their lives, and she has the freedom to live hers.
- In Aliens, Ripley, Newt and the other survivors fly off happily into the sunset (until the sequel, anyway).
- In The Little Mermaid, Aerial is free at the end of the movie to begin her new life with the prince.
- In Alien Resurrection, Ripley has accepted that she’s not fully human anymore, and is ready to begin a new life on an earth she’s never seen.