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.

Reflections on “Cinderella”

Folklorists collect and categorize folk- and fairy-tales.  There are stories from all over the world that are in the same category as the story we typically know as Cinderella.  There are specific characteristics of a story that qualify it to be placed in this category.  Some of these include:

I      Persecuted Heroine
II     Magic Help
III   Meeting the Prince
IV    Proof of Identity
V     Marriage with the Prince

Item IV, Proof of Identity, piques my curiosity. A common structure of stories is: loss, journey, test and return. In the  structure of the Hero’s Journey, the Hero commonly is tested before he or she is granted victory (e.g. facing and slaying the dragon). Frequently observers of tests (readers / listeners / viewers) can see the test and that the character is being tested. However, the test may designed in such a way that the character does not see it as a test.  The Hero merely acts according to a predisposed natural response (i.e. his or her true character). In the Cinderella variants I have read, the only “test” I could detect was this one of “Proof of Identity”.

If her only (or at least significant) “test” is Proof of Identity then she must have some innate character that when recognized and confirmed elevates her to a deserving status. Cinderella’s prince is of a higher economic, political and social status and probably a higher intelligence as well. However, the Proof of Identity and subsequent marriage implies that she is his equal in all these aspects. That is to say, she had it in her all along to be his equal.

In several of these stories Cinderella was not forbidden to reveal her identity.  She has ample opportunity to do so, but does not. There must be something about this Proof of Identity (Recognition and Authentication) at the preordained moment by the appropriate person that is critical to this story.

Sometimes she is recognized prematurely and by the wrong person. She then has to trick that person into believing that she was not at the ball at all. Here we see that who recognizes her is significant. In fact in these cases, she was recognized as the “Ash Girl,” where the desired outcome is to be recognized as the “Queen of the Ball.”

So what you are recognized as and who is doing the recognizing is pivotal. Recognition at the right time by the right person and the authentication of identity are significant aspects not only of Cinderella stories, but upon reflection, I think you will see that these are significant in each of our individual life as well.

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If I look at who “recognizes” me, often there is a corresponding “identity.”  Observe in your own life who “identifies” you and what “identity” you portray: the “Ash Girl” or the “Queen of the Ball”?  Do you have some innate quality, that when recognized and confirmed by the right person at the right time, might also elevate you to a more deserving status?