Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hero Project #10: First, You Have to Not Want to Change

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

Two long weeks ago, I started with Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. This checklist greatly influenced Syd Field, the first guru to codify three-act screenwriting structure. Like all screenwriters, I have my own tweaked version of Field’s model. Generally speaking, this structure should apply to any kind of movie, from romantic comedy to horror and beyond. Here’s the blueprint I’ve used for years:

  1. Act 1 (First 25 min): Hero discovers problem (The Call to Adventure)
  2. About 25 min in: Hero commits to solving the problem. (The Crossing of the Threshold)
  3. Act 2, Part 1 (Next 25 min): Hero tries to solve it the easy way.(Tests and Allies)
  4. About 50 min in: Big disaster. Low point. Admits that the easy way doesn’t work. (The Ordeal)
  5. Act 2, Part 2 (Next 25 min): Tries to do it honestly. Fails again twice more, but because he admits that he’s his own worst enemy, he slowly acquires the tools he really needs, both external and internal. (In the Cave Finding the Special Weapon)
  6. About 75 min in: Time’s up. Realizes how to win just as the final crisis begins. (Sacrifice)
  7. Act 3 (Final 25 min): Epic confrontation. Hard-won victory or hard-fought loss. (Return with the Elixir)

And that’s done me just fine over the years. But over the course of the Hero Project, I’ve charted my growing doubts. I realized that my model usually starts with an everyman, without the skills he needs, who transforms himself into a hero in order to solve a problem. But people kept telling me that my heroes weren’t sympathetic enough. They seemed like losers in the first act, and their transformation by Act 3 was too big to be believable.

I realized that most movie heroes don’t start as an everyman. Most types of heroes start with skills and rely on those skills throughout the movie. This was a somewhat depressing realization for me. I liked the idea that a story was a generic blueprint for improvement that anyone could follow. This, I now see, is a very Freudian idea (though Campbell considered himself equally indebted to Freud and Jung). My model is about fixing yourself. You have to want to change.

Could it be that there was a different model? Could it be that most journeys are not generic checklists that would improve anyone, but specific journeys that fit the skills of one hero? I’ve been developing a new structure based on a more Jungian model. I call this one: “Wanting to change is the whole problem”:

  1. First 25 min: Hero discovers new goal
  2. About 25 min in: commits to achieving it.
  3. Next 50 min: Tries to achieve it by changing himself
  4. About 75 min in: Big disaster. Low point. Admit that changing himself doesn’t work.
  5. Final 25 min: Learns to rely on the skills he started the movie with.

Of course, as with most structures, these two aren’t either/or. They can be two different ways of looking at the same thing. The movie most associated with Campbell is Star Wars. Lucas famously based Luke’s journey very precisely on Cambell’s steps, then flew Campbell and Bill Moyers out to his ranch to film a series of PBS specials about heroes, lavishly illustrated with clips from Star Wars that Lucas provided free of charge.

But this new model seems to be equally relevant to Luke’s journey. Luke doesn’t really win by gaining new skills. (As James Kennedy pointed out in the comments here, his major new skill, using a lightsaber, never gets tested in the first movie) Instead, he learns to revalue the skills he already had.


Luke didn’t get to go off to rebel flight school with his friends because he was held back on the farm. Still, he has taught himself to fly anything and shoot at tiny targets, in his own way, long before the movie begins. Up until halfway through the final crisis, Luke still thinks that his life experience makes him deficient to the other pilots. He doesn’t even have much experience with a targeting computer, after all. But it turns out that the targeting computer isn’t helping anyway. He has to learn to be a farm boy again, not a computerized pilot. Only by trusting his pre-journey skills can he hit his goal.

So am I going to throw away my old structure? No, but I’ll keep developing this new structure to remind myself that there’s more than one type of heroic journey, and they’re not all universal.

So that’s the Hero Project, for now. I’m sure I’ll return to it as new ideas hit me. Unlike the Storyteller’s Rulebook, where I try to stick to proven advice, this has been an attempt to think about a new idea in real time. I didn’t know that I was going to end up here two weeks ago, but I think it’s been a productive trip. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I’ve actually returned with any sort of elixir. Next week: some underrated movies, like it says in the logo!

4 comments:

Geoff Betts said...

Well... may the force be with you on future screenplays. Seriously though, this is an extremely thoughtful analysis. Great job.

Judy said...

Bravo! This has been a thought-provoking series, one that will continue to bear new fruit as I return to it from time to time with new problems and plans to hold up against it. Solid stuff!

James Kennedy said...

I loved this whole series. More like this, please.

Monica Edinger said...

Matt, terrific series. I'm with James --- more like this one!