Say what? Ignore Joseph Cambell? Blasphemy!
But… if you want to dispense with formula, if you want to tell your own story your own way, you’re going to have to shun the crowd and show Mr. Campbell the door.
Campbell Was An Academic, Not A Novelist
Of course saying that Campbell was an academic is soft-pedaling the truth, he was a highly-accomplished, highly-regarded academic, a teacher who later in life found his ideas embraced by Hollywood.
Did you know that Campbell wrote fiction? He did, early on in his career, but that’s not what he’s known for. He’s known for his studies in comparative mythology and the hero’s journey, and it’s his scholarly work that’s been embraced. And misued. His ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’ book – published in 1949, let’s remember – forms the foundation for almost every big film coming out of Hollywood today.
If Campbell’s ideas had stayed academic, I wouldn’t have a problem with him.
Campbell’s Ideas Have Become Dogma
Joseph Campbell showed us one way to tell one kind of story, God bless him, but Hollywood turned that into the only way to tell every kind of story. And that’s what’s wrong with Hollywood story telling today.
The Hero’s Journey works fine for Star Wars – and by that I mean the first movie, Star Wars, not the rest of them – but with that movie’s overwhelming success, Hollywood glommed onto the formula as the surefire way to box office gold.
The fact that most Hollywood movies actually lose money is lost on those who insist that The Hero’s Journey is the One True Path. If you step back and take an objective look, using Campbell’s myth outline to tell a story about revenge, or about a love affair, or about anything other than a myth is a straight path to Hollywood failure.
Which doesn’t keep people from trying over and over again to apply a formula to the kind of success that defies categorization. As they say, there is a lot of stupid money in Hollywood.
Mediocrities Write To Formula
Notice I didn’t say ‘unsuccessful mediocrities.’ There are some very, very successful folks – monetarily speaking – churning out very, very formulaic, very, very stupid stuff. You could become a one-percenter doing very, very bad work. But you probably won’t.
Your story needs to spark wonder in you. It needs to make you eager to tell it to other people. It needs to get you excited. Writing to a formula won’t do that at all. Especially if the formula originates with bean-counters trying to factory-produce financial success. If you get to page 50 in your manuscript and you turn to a checklist wondering what you need to include and which story beat comes after that, you’ve lost. You’re never going to sell what you’re working on because you don’t believe in it. You’ve become an assembly-line worker instead of a writer.
Here’s the one storytelling formula you absolutely must know, embrace, and practice: Beginning – Middle – End. Everything else is optional.