The Titanic Role of Myth in Modern Scriptwriting

James Cameron said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1998, the movie, Titanic, intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived.

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The Hero’s Journey is the foundation upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Some successful writers subscribe to the notion that there is really only one story; what James Joyce named the “monomyth.” Every great story essentially alternates situations and superimposes them over the same structure. The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Brokeback Mountain, Gladiator, Annie Hall, Shrek, The Fighter, The Shawshank Redemption and other successful stories are all one and the same – various situations built on the same foundation. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Cameron all use this structure. Shakespeare used this structure. Stories in the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah and the Koran use this structure.

As the late great script writer Stewart Stern said: “Structure is inevitable.” William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, among others) says it even more strongly. He says: “Screenplays are structure.” Structure is more than simple three or four acts or plot points etc. Structure is a consistent, complex process through which your characters are led that results in their resolving their initial challenges; battling past their historical and personal limitations.

By familiarizing yourself with mythic narratives, you will see character archetypes in action and avoid making caricatures or stereotypes of archetypal images. You will be introduced to enduring mythic themes that showcase the human condition. You will see where these concepts that originated from the study of myths have been utilized in film and how to apply them to your story. Understanding myths helps writers better execute and deepen their stories.

Your story is uniquely yours.  The structure of the Hero’s Journey is a tool.  Tools in the hands of a master create art where the tool is transparent to the viewer. The toolbox then becomes a launchpad for freedom.  In the hands of a novice it can help get your hands around those random ideas and get them on the page. Structure is not a dirty word.  As quoted above “structure is inevitable.”  Your job is to harness it and utilize it to give voice to your story.


Where’s the Sign Post?

One of the reasons for my interest in the Hero’s Journey is because I think I am living it.  In fact, I think it is a great schemata and metaphor for this journey we call Life.  However, if I am living the Hero’s Journey, then where exactly am I?

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There are indications that I have been at the mid-point turn or “Ordeal” for quite some time; well beyond the three days and three nights of death and resurrection in many myths.  Wouldn’t it be great if I were about to begin the Return?!  Unfortunately, well, at least unfortunately from my ego’s point of view, I may still be in the Descent and have not yet reach the nadir.

In the language of the Hero’s Journey, the choices we face require us to leave the Ordinary World; a world that is familiar although possibly unpleasant.  The content of the “familiar” may be an attitude, a value, a behavior, some stance we hold in our life. Uninvited and unwanted, we feel stirrings. Because of this quickening, these familiar things that we never thought to question become curious, even odd.  In the language of Robert McKee, we reach a point of intolerable imbalance.

There are many ways to cope with this quickening we feel: deny, anesthetize, avoid, or heed. “The real choices in life will always involve the conflict between competing values, each of which has some considerable claim upon us.  Or there would be no difficulty in the first place.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life).

“Choices” and “conflicts”, words common to any screenwriter.  How do we choose between competing values that we hold dear?  Only one of the various coping mechanisms in this crisis of the Call leads us to take the most courageous option: Leave the Ordinary World and head into the Special World; that unknown and therefore frightening world.  To enter the Special World we are called to tolerate higher levels of anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity.  What do we risk by taking this journey?  Everything.  What do we gain by taking this journey?  Everything.

Well, guess what?  I am very clear that I have passed the first threshold and have entered my version of the Special World.  Wherever I am on this path, I can look back and see growth.  But that growth has been painful, challenging, and confusing.  And, I wouldn’t go back for any price.

“To know what is true for us, to feel what we really feel, to believe what makes sense of our unique journey—this is the essence of living a life of spiritual integrity.  Not easy, not common. Much harm is done when the integrity of one’s personal experience is violated on behalf of the group’s neurosis.  Damage is done to those who are denied permission to take a journey of personal discovery.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life)

Spiritual integrity is a new concept to me, but integrity is not.  In a world where honor is often equated with pride, integrity is losing to efficacy.  If you feel these stirring that I have been talking about, you will intuit the truth of your own spiritual integrity.  You discern that your journey to wholeness demands that you must step back and test the majority opinion.  To quote a famous song title: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

And equally true: I cannot abandon the search.  Regardless if I am still in the Descent or have completed the Initiation and am about to begin the Return, I must see this through.  It is, after all, my life.

The Monomyth – aka Hero’s Journey

Interest in Joseph Campbell’s work continues to grow.  In a highly compressed whirlwind trip of world mythologies, Campbell shows us that many commonalities exist in our human family through a breathtaking sampler of mythological narratives across an expanse of time and location in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That is not to say that differences are absent.  Rather, he attempts, through this work, to balance the extreme and extremist focus on the differences that appear to be the dominant view now for centuries, if not millennia.

Campbell quoting James Joyce says: “The monomyth is an everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique way.”  That is to say, fundamentally, there is one narrative.  However, this form demands of us that we live our unique narrative out.  We cannot live someone else’s narrative.  Campbell was insistent that we enter the woods alone where it is thickest and where no path exists.

The monomyth is the journey each of us is on.  “Myth commonly is an allegory or metaphor of the agony of self-completion through the mastery and assimilation of conflicting opposites.  The process is described in the typical symbolic terms of encounters, perils, feats, and trials [in myths].”  This comment was made in The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell) before Campbell put to pen the monomyth.  Myths are metaphors to assist us in the confusing business of living life.

The common understanding of myth is as a story.  The content of myth as stories is important but there is something behind the content of the story: mythic form ( Dennis Patrick Slattery on The Relevance of Myth in our Lives). Slattery asked himself: “What kind of energy field gathers itself to coagulate or constellate that has this particular type of plot?  It’s not that myth as story is wrong; it is just insufficient.  There is something behind the narrative that each of us is living out.  To merely discuss the plot of our lives is to sidestep the form.”  The Universal emerges through unique local and individual expression.

For writers who use the Hero’s Journey as structure to guide them in their writing, the greater truth of the monomyth may be overlooked.  There are those who try to capitalize on the form saying things like there are 510+ stages of the hero’s journey. There are in fact uncounted stages of this journey as each of us “inflects in particular ways” the reiteration of unchanging principles.  Do not be taken in by jargon.  There is something very basic to the human condition here.  Jargon muddies these waters when clarity is desired.  Also, I suggest you do not dismiss the form because it appears simple.  Do not confuse simple with simplistic (and simple often does not mean easy).  The potency of the underlying truth is not diminished by the simplicity of the structure.  Another common error is to think of the form as if it were a formula.  If the writer does this, the story most likely will feel formulaic to the audience.

The story you writers tell (and the story that each of us must live) is uniquely our own.  If we do not follow the call, the story that only each of us uniquely has the capacity to live will go unlived; a vacuum will have been created because that gap cannot be filled by any other.  The everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique ways is simultaneously a grueling demand to rise to the challenges that are presented to us and a gift, elixir, joy, and experience of the wonder of Life.

The Character Archetype “Hero”

The Hero’s Journey refers to a structure of story.  According to Christopher Vogler (see The Writers Journey), the Hero’s Journey is peopled with a small set of character archetypes. One of these character archetypes is that of the Hero.

The word “hero” comes to us from the Greek via Latin.  The Greek word literally means “protector” or “defender”.  The Latin term also includes the meanings “to preserve whole, save, deliver, protect” and possibly from an older word meaning “to keep vigil over.”

In Greek mythology, the “hero” referred to a type of being: someone semi-divine or a demi-god.  A hero was often the offspring of the joining of a deity (such as Zeus) with a mortal.  These demi-gods had super human powers and often were significant to combat scenes (e.g. Achilles in the movie Troy or the book The Iliad).

In dramatic writing, the term “hero” is often used synonymously with “protagonist.” A protagonist is the primary character. She or he is the lynch pin of the story. The protagonist is the doorway through which the audience typically enters the story, around whom the action is centered, and through whom the goal of the story must be accomplished.

One of the most well known of the Greek heroes was Herakles (Hercules in Latin).  We often think of him as the epitomy of the heroic because of the superhuman feats he accomplishment through the famous Twelve Labours of Herakles.  We tend to forget that these assignments were to redeem his heinous crime of murdering his own children.

Dara Marks (Inside Story) reminds us that “If hero were to be defined the old-fashioned way, by characters who earned it through the service of redeeming their self-worth, then not just astronauts and superheroes would get the accoleades.  Little old ladies who struggle to raise themselves from the ashes of a failed marriage could be considered heroic as well.  If fact, any human being–young or old, weak or strong, timid or brave–would be a contender for this honor because the potential to be heroic lies within everyone.”

The archetype of the Hero is not necessarily equivalent to the hero of dramatic writing. Frequently in modern stories the protagonist is not even heroic in the mythological sense.

Today’s writer has myriad heroes from which to choose: from the Savior Hero of Neo in the Matrix

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to the antihero of Wyatt (“Captain America”) in Easy Rider who went in search of America and couldn’t find it . . . anywhere.

If you familiarize yourself with mythology, you will be rewarded with an deeper understanding of the character archetype, Hero, and you will be able to differentiate between the dramatic function of a protagonist and an archetype.

The Hero’s Journey – Descent

The Descent of Inanna: Primary characters:

Inanna – Goddess of Love, aka Queen of Heaven or Great Above
Ereshkigal – Goddess of the Underworld or the Great Below
Enki – God of Wisdom
Ninshubur – faithful companion to Inanna
Dumuzi – shepherd and King
Neti – guardian of the seven gates
Anunnaki – judges of the underworld

Back Story

Through trickery, Inanna takes from Enki the gifts of the me, the arts pertaining to kingship, priesthood, warcraft, speechcraft, lovemaking, agriculture, and the trades or techne necessary for commerce and community.  Enki allows her to keep the me when he sees she has added to it.

The journey to the Great Below is implicitly connected to the rejection of her lover, Dumuzi and his misuse of the me which Inanna has bestowed on him. She departs for the Great Below to restore balance.


She adorns herself with her queenly robes, jewels, and divine decrees (me) that she fastens at her belt.  She readies herself to enter the “land of no return,” the nether world of death and darkness, governed by her enemy and sister goddess, Ereshkigal.  In fear that her sister might put her to death, Inanna instructs Ninshubur, her messenger, to go to heaven and send out a cry for her in the assembly hall of the gods if after three days she should have failed to return.

There are seven gates through which Inanna must pass. Ereshkigal instructs Neti to open the seven gates to the queen of heaven, but to abide by the custom and remove at each portal a part of her clothing.

“Come, Inanna, enter.”

Upon her entering the first gate,
The shugurra, the “crown of the plain” of her head, was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the second gate,
The rod of lapis lazuli was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the third gate,
The small lapis lazuli stones of her neck were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fourth gate,
The sparkling stones of her breast were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fifth gate,
The gold ring of her hand was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the sixth gate,
The breastplate of her breast was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the seventh gate
All the garments of ladyship of her body were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Naked, she was brought before the throne. She bowed low. The seven judges of the nether world, the Anunnaki, sat before the throne of Ereshkigal, and they fastened their eyes upon Inanna; ­the eyes of death.

At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
The sick woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.

Descent to the Great Below

Descent to the Great Below

The Commentary

The story of the Descent of Inanna exemplifies, in a poetically vivid way, the “descent” of the Hero’s Journey as presented by Christopher Vogler  (click for description).  Imagine being stripped of everything you have; of everything you know about yourself; of every artifact that represents your life as you know it.  This is what Inanna experiences in her descent.  This is what rites of passage successfully do to the initiate.  One phase of life is radically cut away.

If Joseph Campbell is correct and the Hero’s Journey parallels the structure of rites of passage, this portion of the journey is where the hero enters into a womb-like environment to be reborn symbolically; or in rites of passage, the initiate faces a similar descent so as to be reborn psychologically.

The descent is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold and the question is still in balance: Can the ego put itself to death? Inanna arrives naked before the throne of Ereshkigal and the seven judges, the Anunnaki; they fasten their eyes upon her and she is turned into a corpse which is hung upon a stake. She loses everything and is left dead; a naked corpse hanging on a meat hook. That is descent.

Another well known descent is Dante’s Inferno


Often, if a meaningful story is well constructed and well told, the hero goes through this process in the course of the narrative intertwined with the plot and theme.  If you use the Hero’s Journey as a tool to structure your story, a comprehensive understanding of what is meant by “descent” will inform and enrich your characters and their actions as they descend in their story.  Stories such as Descent of Inanna and Dante’s Inferno provide a rich resource to assist you in this endeavor.

Post Script

Inanna’s story does not end here.  To finish the story see Descent of Inanna or The Harps that Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation.