Tag Archives: Joseph Campbell

How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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