Structuring your Story part seven; The Lion King and Voglers Journey

BYS

Christopher Vogler is widely recognised as an expert on story structure. His ground breaking work, fully entitled ‘The Writer’s Journey; Mythic Structure for Writers’ has become definitive reading for both screenwriters, students of both film studies and mythic structure, and novelists alike.

The book was born, believe it or not, out of a memo, circulated by Vogler while working at Disney Studios. The memo concerned Joseph Campbells’s work on the hero’s journey within various world mythological cycles, and the ways in which Vogler saw this ‘hero’s journey’ playing out in the structure of on-screen stories. Vogler’s ideas caused quite a stir, and were the basis for the eventual book, which is now translated into eight languages.

Vogler himself has since worked as a consultant for various Hollywood studios, and helped advise on blockbuster movies such as Fight Club, The Lion King and Black Swan. In his latest course ‘the Essence of Storytelling’ Vogler discusses how the use of powerful story structure grounded in myth can turn a film from merely ‘mindless amusement’ to conscious story-telling that triggers powerful emotions in the viewer, resulting in a ‘healthy catharsis’ (first described by Aristotle when discussing the impact of the Greek tragedy plays upon their audience). Powerful stuff.

Although aimed at screenwriters and moviemakers, Voglers work is also enduringly popular with novelists. After all, story is story. The best novels, too, follow a similar structure and result in a ‘healthy catharsis’ on the part of the reader.

So what does this ‘mythic journey’ consist of? Vogler’s structure is similar to the eight point arc we looked at in the previous chapter, though rather more expanded; progressing through twelve stages based upon Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’.

  • Ordinary World – the beginning ‘stasis’. We see our hero/ine in their everyday environment. To take ‘The Lion King’ as an example, we see Simba’s world and his role within the pride and the ‘Circle of Life’.

  • Call to Adventure – the ‘trigger’. The problem or challenge that sets our hero off on his journey. Simba is growing up and must prepare himself to be King.

  • Refusal of the Call – any well-rounded protagonist is likely to have some initial debts about the problem facing them. A further push, either internal or external, is needed to send them on their way. Simba has no wish to grow up and be sensible.

  • Arrival of the Mentor – this is usually where the mentor character steps in – someone who advises and urges on the hero at various stages in their journey – often when they are about to give up. Initially King Mufasa and then wise monkey Rafiki play this role for Simba in the Lion King. The mentor may often at first appear bizarre, annoying, or even an adversary until their true role becomes clear.

  • Crossing the Threshold – the hero is off along their journey and overcomes the initial obstacle. Simba goes off into exile after his father Mufasa is killed by his brother Scar, which Simba thinks he himself has caused.

  • Tests, Allies, Enemies – the conflicts and obstacles that will make up the majority of the ‘second act’. Friends and foes appear, and the hero must overcome various setbacks and challenges.

  • Inmost Cave – our hero is facing the ultimate ordeal and takes some time out to reflect, or wrestle with their inner demons. This may be a dark time for the hero. Often the mentor figure will pop up to help them through.

  • Ordeal – the hero faces his greatest fear, test or adversary. Things may seem hopeless. Simba gets up his courage to face Scar, only for Scar to reveal Simba’s (unwitting) role in his father’s death.

  • Reward – in spite of the horror of the ordeal, the hero has managed to grasp some kind of token (physical or otherwise). In facing Scar and admitting his secret, Simba is finally in possession of his full courage and ready to become King.

  • The Road Back – the final chase or confrontation. Simba vanquishes Scar.

  • Resurrection – the hero, before he finally ‘returns’ or takes on his new role, must undergo a final redemption or transformation. Simba shows mercy to Scar (who then gets conveniently torn apart by hyenas) and takes his rightful place as King.

  • Return – the hero is back, the reward has been achieved, and the ordinary world resumes, but with important changes. The rightful King has been restored and the Circle of Life is once again in balance.

Mini-exercise – With the above in mind, watch – or re-watch – Disney’s most popular film The Lion King.

To help clarify how this fits in with the planning of your novel, Vogler’s 12 steps fit into the basic three act structure as follows;

Set-up

  • Ordinary World

  • Call

  • Refusal

  • Mentor

  • Crossing the First Threshold

Conflict

  • Tests, Allies, Enemies

  • Cave

  • Ordeal

  • Reward

Resolution

  • Road Back

  • Resurrection

  • Return

The 12-steps also expand on our basic eight point arc as follows;

Stasis = Ordinary World

Trigger = Call

Journey = Refusal, Mentor and the First Threshold

Obstacles = Tests, Allies and Enemies

Choice = Inmost Cave

Climax = Ordeal and Reward

Reversal = Road Back and Resurrection

Resolution = Return

Mini-exercise – Take one of your synopses of your own work from the earlier exercise and incorporate Vogler’s 12 steps. You can also add them to your mind-map from the exercise at the end of Chapter One.

Exercise; Going to the Movies

The first part of this exercise should be enjoyable! Get a stack of Hollywood blockbusters, including two films Vogler consulted on (which are less straightforward than The Lion King in their use of the twelve step structure, yet nevertheless incorporate it perfectly) Fight Club and Black Swan. Get watching.

Choose your two favourites and draw up a twelve point story structure for each using Voglers designations. Can you identify the different stages in your chosen films?

Now apply Vogler’s twelve steps to one of the novels you examined in the first exercise from the Introduction. Then apply it to a work of your own.

Extract from ‘Building your Story’.

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