Your novel blows because... well, the monomyth structure, really
I read a lot of books. Some a great, many are decent and some are either terrible or nondescript, like they have no soul. Point is, I see the same patterns repeating all the time and it's not always pretty. I want to help you get it right. In this series, I will tell you what I hate reading and why I hate reading it. Because if you get it right, my life become instantly better.
Today, I'm going to talk about everybody's favorite idea when they start writing, which becomes the worst fucking idea when you start figuring out what you're doing. A narrative structure that always shows up in mainstream movies and sometimes features in novel: Joseph Campbell's monomyth. Better known as The Hero's Journey.
The monomyth is a narrative structure that was first mapped out by Joseph Campbell in 1949. It is supposedly inspired by Jesus and Ghandi, but it sounds like bullshit. It first had 17 steps, but in its latest, most Hollywoodian iteration, written in 2007 by Christopher Vogler, it had eleven: the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the meeting of the mentor, the crossing of the first threshold, the road of trials, the approach of the inmost cave, the ordeal, the reward, the road back, the resurrection and the return.
This narrative structure is fucking everywhere and it needs to be put to rest.
The problem with the monomyth
When I say the monomyth is everwhere, I'm not kidding: it's in Star Wars (every single one of them), Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man movies, MCU movies in general, the Matrix movies, every fucking Pixar movie you've ever seen, every fucking Disney movie you've ever seen (animated or not), etc. It's so fucking mainstream that storytellers think they need to use it to be successful. I mean, if you watch all these movies without understanding they come from well-crafted marketing plans, what is the common thread you're going to find?
The fucking monomyth.
I mean, it can work. It did in the first Star Wars because it was not expected and it fit the epic ambitions of George Lucas, but when it becomes formula, an eleven steps narrative structure become cumbersome and predictable, like your neighbor's mastiff taking a dump on your lawn. And it doesn't fit every narrative. Here's what the basic structure a story needs:
There's five steps. Not eleven, so let's review why the monomyth's eleven step story structure is shit:
Call to Adventure
Also called the inciting incident in conventional narrative theory. Move along. That step is mandatory in every story.
Refusal of the Call
Hold on. How does that fit a fucking murder story? How does it fit a sports narrative? A romance? How would it even fit in a Star Trek film, for example? Sometimes it's nice to see destiny force its way on a protagonist, sometimes it's a fucking waste of time. Nobody wants responsibility in real life. We're reading stories in order to vicariously live through people who do.
Meeting with the Mentor
As recently seen in the Han Solo movie trailer, where Woody Harrelson plays the role of Woody Harrelson playing a random mentor character. There's also Yoda, Gandalf or Tony Stark in the latest Spider-Man movie. You get the gist. The mentor is a gimmick that, I find, deprive the protagonist of agency over his own destiny. There will be an usher character in every story, dragging the protagonist into action, but it doesn't need to be a benevolent presence at all.
Crossing the first threshold
This one symbolizes departing from the safe and ordinary world and entering adventure, where there are less rules and danger, like when the Hobbits left the shire in Lord of the Rings, for example. You want to do it in your story? Sure. It doesn't need to call attention to itself, though. It can be expressed in two lines in a novel or in ten seconds of a movie. It can foreshadow the upcoming change in your character alright, but don't make it a going away pizza party for fuck's sake.
The Road of Trials
Otherwise known as : telling the fucking story. Move along, next.
The Approach of the Inmost Cave
I fucking hate this step of the monomyth. It's the part where it gets worse before it gets better and your protagonist is confronting his inner demons. In many mainstream narrative, it's also where he loses most of what he has acquired in a story. Why the fuck does it need to ever happen? Isn't a story supposed to be about someone confronting their inner demons anyway? This is where I roll my eyes and/or fall asleep if I'm watching a Pixar movie. The inmost cave bullshit will slow down any narrative, drain it out of its life and made it seem cardboard-ish. No more inmost cave, guys. Ever.
Otherwise known as the climax or the final confrontation. This one's necessary. Next.
The Reward, the Road Back, the Resurrection and the Return
These are so antiquated, they're actually compounded in one segment in most contemporary mainstream narratives: conclusion. I mean, Lord of the Rings, had them all at the end of Return of the King and it literally took 50 minutes of the movie. Rare are the endings that live up to their tale and this is where you need ask yourself: do my protagonist needs to be rewarded and if so, does he needs to transcend his life or just to acquire powerful knowledge that'll help him become a better person? Every story needs to end, obviously, but knowing how to end is mystical art and trumpeting your character's achievements for 100 pages.
There you go, I said. it. Fuck the monomyth and everything it stands for. You don't need it to write a compelling story and you don't even need it to write a compelling epic story, so let that antiquated narrative structure fall into oblivion and do your homework. There's no shortcut to writing something successful. You won't become the Nickelback of storytelling by copying what the big studios do, all you'll do is to perpetuate the boring-ass monomyth.
This column will be going a slight retooling in the next couple months. It might show up again in the summer or in September under a new name and more ambitious format. In the meantime, feel free to tell me what YOU hate coming across when you read a novel or watch a movie.