Friday, 5 August 2011

Why The Monomyth Doesn't Work

I'm doing some work at the moment with the heroic journey structure of writing (not particularly by choice) and one of the documents I'm working with makes the rather annoying claim that there is essentially only one way of writing, and it follows that structure. You have no idea how angry that makes me, because it not only isn't true, but I actually suspect that the approach proposed will make it less likely for an individual writer to produce good work.

Let's start with a couple of claims made for the method. The big one is that everyone, whether they know it or not, writes like that. Shakespeare used this, apparently. Except that he didn't. Or at least, there's no evidence I know of for him doing so, because we simply don't know enough about him to make that sort of comment. What's true is that you can look at his work and impose this structure over it if you try, just as you could impose almost any other conceptual structure as a tool of analysis.

That's one of my other big issues with it. Highly detailed structures are about analysing literature and picking it apart. They do not provide a guarranteed route to producing great, or even good, work any more than a painting by numbers set makes you Van Gogh. Far too many people make the claim for their story structures that because they can pick apart a bunch of famous films, you can automatically write things just as well by reversing the process.

Then there's the claim that all stories are basically this journey. Yes, if you stretch the idea like a rubber band. If you do that, of course, you're moving a long way from the simple point by point outline proposed.

And there's my final issue with it, which is far more practical. I spent much of today (and will spend much of the weekend, probably) messing around trying to come up with an outline that hit every point in order, the way the job in question wants me to. I have just read the results. I would NEVER write that story. It's awful. It's far, far worse than anything I have plotted in those ways I normally find comfortable, and I can't see a way to make it better without ripping all the annoying framework out of my way and doing the job properly.

If you're using this with success, I'm happy for you. I'm happy you have a method that works for you. I just get annoyed when people make over inflated claims for their methods, while simultaneously being unable to tell the difference between a construct for human understanding and the real essence of something.


Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

Everything about this kind of "structure" scares me. Claiming that this model is the only way to write can mean only one thing - Booooooooring!

They've just thrown a damp rag onto a raging fire and all it will yeild is grey smoke! Ya, okay, maybe that wasn't a great analogy.

The processes to creativity should be as varied and many as there are writers and stories to tell. This is one of the main issues I have with traditional publishers and agents. It's that kind of narrow-minded focus that will turn us all into flesh-eating zombies.

Nice post.

Donna Hole said...

You can manipulate any research material to make it suit your premise. Why should writing be different :)

I was hoping to see what the formula was though.


Susan Kane said...

Wendy is right--processes of our creativity are individual and unique.

David Jace said...

Based on your reference to the Hero's Journey, I assume you're talking about Campbell's Monomyth. You're completely correct. Campbell didn't know how to count. His "structure" is not one, but many outlines with options at every stage. On top of that, as you pointed out, people stretch the monomyth like a rubber skin to fit around any plot they want. It defeats the entire premise. Well done, Stu.

stu said...

David, I don't necessarily have such a problem with Campbell's original monomyth, although everything you say is true. As far as I can tell, his work was in finding an approach for understanding story rather than presenting a how to method. The ones that get to me are the ones who say that this is how we have to do it, presenting incredibly detailed (over five hundred points in some cases) step by step instructions.

Tessa Conte said...

Weeeelll... if you get general enough with the structure, it's sure to be true.

I mean, most stories start somewhere and stop somewhere else, right? There! Universal story structure!

That said, I rather like the Hero's Journey (which is more like a city map with all the detours and variations of route he puts in, like David Jace said). I think it is interesting how certain things seem to reflect across cultures and myths all over the world.

Doesn't mean we all have to write it, though.

Sarah McCabe said...

Well, you can look down on the method all you want (and I'm not necessarily advocating it) but until you're rolling around in George Lucas' money I don't think you can validly say that it doesn't work. I think it's pretty obvious that the Monomyth is something that resonates with people.

Also, where exactly have you seen it said that everyone HAS written this way and everyone HAS to write this way to produce a good story? Because I've never seen anyone say any such thing.

stu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stu said...

The claim in question was explicitly made in a 510 point work on the structure sent to me by a client who wanted a synopsis written according to it, and this post was largely a reaction against that.

You're right in suggesting that my title overstates the case, but titles often do, and I make the point that it's entirely possible for people to like and legitimately use the method in my last paragraph.

You're also right that I don't have George Lucas' money. I don't feel that alters the flaws in the reasoning of some proponents of the method, however.