How to Tell a Story to Save the World 1Toby Litt

Toby Litt
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Toby Litt has published novels, short story collections and comics. His most recent book is Patience, a novel. He runs the Creative Writing MFA at Birkbeck College, and blogs at www.tobylitt.com. He is a member of English Pen. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing.

In the next five months Writers Rebel is exclusively serialising Toby Litt’s How to Tell a Story to Save the World, a short book about storytelling, heroism, climate collapse and hope.

 

Normally, when people come along to a creative writing class, they are hoping to learn how to write better stories, not how to stop the planet being killed.

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a Guardian Masterclass on ‘Storytelling Secrets’. Among those attending were three representatives of an international environmental activist network. They were young, casually stylish, energetic and exhausted. To save a few words, I’ll call them the Greens.

When the time came to speak individually to the writers, the Greens asked if I could speak to the three of them together but for three times as long. ‘Fine,’ I said.

We met, and the Greens explained the reason they were attending – they felt their message about climate change was no longer getting across. They needed to change that message into a story, and a good story, a moving, powerful story, in order to grab people’s attention. Specifically, they had a story about polar ice-melt.

I really wanted to help them. Environmental degradation horrifies and preoccupies me. That changes in the timing and nature of the seasons have happened within my short lifespan is appalling.

Where some of this thinking has lead me is into what might be call ‘Storytelling’s Dirty Secrets’. That’s what the bulk of this book is about, and I’d already thought a small part of it through back then.

I tried to give the Greens a shorthand version of my reasoning.

The problem any environmental group faces is this: In order to create moving, powerful stories, they need to create sympathetic central characters. In order to change people’s behaviour, they need Heroes and Heroines to act as role models.

But – and it’s one of the biggest ‘buts’ I’ve ever laid down – it seems to me that the most environmentally degrading force in existence is Heroism.

It seems to me that the ultimate cause of environmental degradation is that almost all of us, whatever we do and whyever we do it, regard ourselves as sympathetic central characters.

Here is a trivial example. Another kind of butt.

Meet Paul

As he drives back from work, Paul enjoys a well-earned cigarette. When it’s mostly gone, he winds the window a crack and flicks away the butt.

It doesn’t matter where Paul’s cigarette butt lands – on Streatham High Road or in a field of summer-dry corn in Sussex. The act may have different consequences, the cigarette could smoulder out in the gutter or start a forest fire that burns a town, but for Paul it’s the same act.

Once the cigarette is out of the moving car, it is out of Paul’s story. And the only reason – I would argue – that Paul has no problem with flicking away the butt is because it feels to him a Heroic act.

You hate Paul, don’t you? You can see no defence for what he does with that butt. But Paul doesn’t hate himself. He might feel guilty, but not for long. He has more important things to do.

If you stopped Paul to ask whether he was proud of what he’d done, he might admit that it was probably a bit out of order or he might tell you to fuck off and mind your own business. But, at the moment he performs it, the act is incidental to his Heroic onward journey. He may not even notice what he’s doing. His chosen soundtrack plays. Paul is not stopped, not questioned. Paul’s story, in which Paul is the sympathetic central character, flows onwards.

Paul is his own sympathetic central character because everything in the culture surrounding him is always telling him that he is a sympathetic central character. Every advert. Every story.

The only reason the world functions at all, Paul is told, is because of Heroes like you. Councils, companies, corporations, countries – all groups of people, however internally organised, need Heroes to lead them. Without a leader, any group will collapse into uselessness.

Heroes go on quests. The quests of Heroes are righteous. It is righteous of Paul to return from work. Paul’s work pays for things Paul needs. Paul may have cute children. Paul’s children need things. Paul’s partner may also go to work. Paul’s partner goes on quests.

Now, let’s relocate Paul. He’s no longer driving his car down the road. He’s now in charge of a truck that’s at the frontline of deforestation in Brazil. Once the trees have been felled, by other Pauls, our Paul drives the huge dead trunks away down dirt roads.

In this case, rainforest-Paul may not be so comfortably off as cigarette-Paul. He may have very little chance of employment other than for the logging company. However, when he justifies his actions to himself, it will be in terms of Heroism. Either he is Heroic enough, in providing for himself and his family; or he’s not Heroic enough – not Heroic enough to refuse to take part in massive environmental destruction.

Let’s put Paul somewhere else. The virus has arrived, and Paul – who lives in a big city – is deciding what to do. From what he’s learned from all the stories he’s consumed, now is the Hero’s time to step up. It’s possible that Paul will go straight out and panic buy pasta and toilet rolls. He’ll do the tooling up montage. It’s also possible (though I think less so, given his cigarette-chucking) that Paul will put notes through his neighbours’ doors, and ask if he can do anything for them. What Paul is unlikely to do, in either case, is first of all join together with other people in order to respond to the crisis collectively. He will believe that groups are an inefficient way to get things done. He’s a lone wolf. He’ll fly solo.

Solution

As I was speaking to the Greens, who weren’t looking particularly happy, this is what I tried to say:

In order to get their message about polar ice-melt across to Paul they will need to speak to him in a language he finds sympathetic. They will need to avoid alienating or angering him. And so, they will try to tell him the most moving, powerful story they can. They will tell him the story of a different kind of Heroism. That it is Heroic not to flick your cigarette butt out of the window of your moving car as you return from work. It is Heroic to put it in the ashtray. Or more than this, that it is Heroic to give up smoking. Or even more than this, that it is Heroic to take the bus. Or even, that is Heroic to change your workplace, so you don’t have to commute. Or even, that it is Heroic to change the kind of work you do and to change the kind of society you do it in.

What the Greens should do right now, but cannot, because it risks being so undermining, is say to each of us directly:

You are not a Hero. Your acts are not righteous. Neither are ours, individually. Our individual illusions of Heroic righteousness are catastrophic.

What they should say, but cannot, because it would alienate almost everyone, is what needs most of all to be said:

You are not a sympathetic central character because exactly what centre are we talking about? There are either seven billion equally important centres, in which case if they all behave like you we are screwed, or there are no centres, in which case we might just stand a chance.

Backstory

This book is an attempt to say what needs to be said.

I am writing it now because, more and more, I have come to see stories as the source of the problem.

As Climate Change has become Climate Crisis and then Climate Emergency, I have been unable to forget my exchange with the Greens. It was, at the same time, the most I’d managed to say and entirely not up to the job.[1]

On that day, I’d been employed to teach people to tell better stories. But on what basis was I doing that? My own experience was in there, and other things contributed, too. If I advised a student to cut this character or speed up this section, in order to make their whole story better, what kind of better was I guiding them towards?

Where do the ideas that dominate What Makes a Good Story come from?

The answer to this question was obvious: Hollywood.

The greatest investment that has ever gone into telling stories that satisfy the largest possible audience has taken place within a very small area, and has been conducted by a very small group of people. They have all been working, directly or indirectly, for the Hollywood studios. Their simple aim has been to create blockbuster movies, to repay the investors who have financed those movies. They have had other aims, some of them noble, but what the studios have paid these people for has been to entertain.

I’ll give you three examples of where Hollywood storytelling has influenced all storytelling. These have become the truisms of script conferences and creative writing classes. You have no doubt already come across them:

  • “Give me someone I can root for.”
  • “Get into the scene as late as you can, and get out as early as you can.”
  • “Show, don’t tell.”

By now these are lazy things to say, but they are not terrible pieces of advice. Bad stories have become mediocre because of them, and mediocre stories have become okay. But I doubt that in following them any okay stories have become great, and I suspect that quite a few potentially great stories have become mediocre.

Who the hell are you?

You could ask why I’m the person to write this book? Although I’ve written half a dozen scripts, and have worked on drafting and redrafting them with directors and producers, and have read and learned from the screenwriting gurus, I’m not a professional screenwriter.

But this, I think, is my advantage. I don’t exclusively come out of that tradition of storytelling – although it was absolutely formative for me.

In the summer of 1978, I was ten years old. For my birthday treat, my parents took me to the huge cinema at Marble Arch. There, in a huge and comfortable seat, like kids the world over, my world was rocked as the Imperial Star Destroyed rumbled over my head. Before Star Wars (as we called it), my friends and I had played ‘war’, afterwards we also played ‘space’. We used branches for lightsabers. We formed a band called Space Band, partly based on the group in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Star Wars became our culture.

I loved the story it told, and I wanted more. There weren’t any more films, yet – and the ones Hollywood chucked out (The Black Hole?) were terrible. So I was forced to read books. I read Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, E.E. “Doc” Smith – anything with a spaceship or a robot on the cover.

I started to read other books as if they were science fiction. When I read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, the main character – Joseph Knecht – was essentially a trainee Jedi.

Then I moved on from SF, partly through the books I had to study at school. And I came across lots of different stories told by dozens of different writers – some of which seemed to be written to be deliberately obscure, confusing, frustrating or weird. But they changed me, and I came to love them.

So, I am not a professional screen writer. I haven’t made Hollywood movies. What I have done is written hundreds of stories in screenplay and other forms. I’ve written novels, short stories, flash fictions, opera libretti, comics, radio documentary scripts. I have won, and been long and shortlisted for, national short story competitions. I have edited a Penguin Classic and an anthology with Ali Smith. And most of all, I have taught Creative Writing in universities and elsewhere for about fifteen years. I think about stories a lot. I think about what makes a good story, and how can I help other writers make their stories better.

Gurus

As I said, the most concentrated thinking on stories has taken place in Hollywood over the past hundred years[2].

There is now a canon of books – screenwriting manuals – that, often very prescriptively, lay down the rules for telling a story that will play globally. For telling a good story.

Let’s be clear. I am not blaming screenwriters for the Climate Crisis or for coronavirus. Well, not entirely.

I’d like to tell the story of five screenwriting manuals and their authors, and how they invented, refined and reinforced the idea that only a Hero can save us now[3] – because only a Hero can do anything worthwhile.

It may seem obvious to point out, but none of the five screenwriting gurus is a top level screenwriter – in terms of box office success, critical acclaim or influence on other screenwriters.

Syd Field wrote three episodes of the TV series Men in Crisis (1964-5); Christopher Vogler, had an ‘Additional Story Material’ credit on The Lion King, a co-writing credit for Jester Till (2003), and most recently has a story credit for Abe (2019); Robert McKee, wrote one episode each of Mrs. Columbo, Double Dare, Spenser: For Hire and two of Abraham (1993); Blake Snyder, co-wrote Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (starring Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty, 1992) and co-wrote Blank Check (1994); John Yorke wrote two episodes of Casualty and four episodes of Red Rock.

This is not in any way to undermine their authority as teachers. But that is firstly what they are; only secondly, or thirdly, are they high-level practitioners.

They are not George Lucas (the Star Wars Universe), James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), John Hughes (Pretty in Pink), JJ Abrams (Armageddon, Lost, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Howard’s End, A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day), Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye). But, then, none of these movie makers have written screenwriting manuals.

And it is five screenwriting manuals that have come to dominate our ideas of What a Good Story Is. And more importantly than this, they have explicitly come to dominate our ideas of what stories we should tell ourselves about our lives and how to live them.

J’accuse

I am not accusing the great screenwriting gurus – Syd Field, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder and John Yorke – of destroying our ecosystem.

I am not accusing the authors of The Writer’s Journey and Save the Cat! of making us hugely vulnerable to pandemics.

I am accusing them of something much worse –

I am accusing them of creating the people who are capable of destroying the ecosystem, because those people have a really strong motivation to do so…

and because they are facing powerful antagonists…

and because they are Heroes.

I am accusing them of creating the people who, in the face of coronavirus, are selfish, irresponsible, exploitative and completely incapable of seeing why they should be otherwise…

because they have seen, again and again, that only the Hero is guaranteed to survive – only the Hero counts.

How did the screenwriting gurus achieve this?

They convinced generations of storytellers – in film and elsewhere – that there is only one story: the story of a strong Hero who goes on a perilous journey to save a sick and ineffective community.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell (a brilliant American academic) published The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a work of comparative mythology. Campbell wasn’t telling anyone how to tell stories to save the world; he was telling everyone that all great stories were about saving the world – including their own great story – their own Heroic story.

‘The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage,’ he said, ‘is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale.’

In the early seventies, George Lucas discovered Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and famously used the hero’s journey – the monomyth – as a way to structure the first Star Wars films.

Because these films made such a vast amount of money, Hollywood executives wanted to know how George Lucas had done it, so they could do it, too.

Memorise

In the mid-eighties, Christopher Vogler – working as a story consultant at Disney – turned Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ into a seven-page memo.

Vogler reduced, distilled, purified and monetized Campbell’s claim.

This seven-page memo made an epoch in Hollywood, and the world beyond: today, we live not just in an individualistic culture, but in a culture of Heroes. Of Superheroes. The monomyth is told and retold – in bestseller after bestseller, blockbuster after blockbuster.

What is so bad about this? Why is it so damaging? Why is it so potentially fatal to so many millions of people?

Consequences

There are two consequences of the monomyth:

  • Consequence One, by making everyone a Hero, you make everyone feel justified in consuming whatever they need in order to achieve their aims, to save their world.

Every trip to bulk buy toilet paper becomes a Hero’s journey.

Even more importantly, the heads of governments and large corporations make decisions every day based on the assumption of their own Heroism. Because appearing to be Heroic was why they were elected in the first place.

  • Consequence Two, by elevating the Hero, you denigrate the community that bore and nurtured them.

Communities are seen (by definition, in their essence) as weak, indecisive and incapable of acting in their own defence. This belief is what the alt-right is founded upon. Communities dither, delay and disintegrate in the face of external threat. This belief is what petrochemical corporations rely upon.

If we accept the monomyth, then the world can only be saved by a Hero.

And there is no Hero to save the world – not Trump, not Boris, not even Greta.

Consequences One and Two are deadly. They cause panic buying and profiteering. They cause overconsumption and fatalism, hedonism and depression.

As writers, as storytellers, we have to be more ambitious, more inventive and more responsible.

To start with, we have to go back and see how the monomyth overtook the world of storytelling, stage by stage.

And then we have to think bigger – beyond the ideology of individualism.

 

THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is not a screenwriting manual, nor a guide to creating a dynamic and visionary corporate structure; it is a wild book of comparative mythology. Although more sober, Campbell’s book has a similar world-confidence to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess – which became very popular during the Age of Aquarius. Both men are very happy to generalise – to universalise – from the particular.

Graves’ based his universe on a poetic moon-magic; Campbell on Freud and Jung. Alongside his accounts of myths from around the world – travelling through the Mayan Empire and First People of Australia to Christianity and Buddhism – Campbell places the dream-accounts of ‘ordinary people’. In these, he discovers the same archetypal stages on the Hero’s Journey.

If you’ve read any recent screenwriting manual, these stages will be familiar to you. The classic example of their application is George Lucas’s first Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope. But they’re also there in almost every Hollywood movie made since 1990, and in many made before.

We’re not going to begin with Star Wars. That’s not the beginning of the story. In Blake Snyder’s terms, it’s the break into Act Two. For not once in his entire 400 page book does Campbell mention a movie. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a book about myths and deep mind, not about getting bums on seats.

But the basis of all of that follows is Campbell’s defining statement of the monomyth.

(It is worth pointing out that, when I went searching for serious academic writing either supporting or opposing Campbell, I found very little. No major anthropologist has bothered to write a critique of Campbell’s theory, for the simple reason that almost no anthropologist took it seriously. When you spend your life examining the nuances of other cultures, you know that world-spanning generalisations are meaningless.)

Joseph Campbell mini-biog

Of all the six screenwriting gurus, Campbell was the most remarkable man, and lived the most remarkable life, and wrote the most remarkable books. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) – which went on to have such an influence on Hollywood storytelling – may not even be the most remarkable of them. In 1944, Campbell published A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. This is a great work of literary understanding, and still the most useful starting point for would-be readers of James Joyce’s recursive masterpiece. For those wanting to know more about Campbell, there is an official biography: Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind by Stephen Larsen. He was born White Plains, New York in 1904. When he was seven years-old, his father took him and his brother to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Campbell was delighted by the cowboys, but “became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.” Eventually, this led Campbell to his studies of the myths of the world.

Campbell, as himself, is a minor figure in the history of storytelling. The Hero With a Thousand Faces did not have a major influence on the kind of stories told in the 1950s and 1960s, the years that followed its publication. He was much less influential than Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or even James Joyce.

It was as Lazarus, as a resurrected man, brought back to life by George Lucas and then by Christopher Vogler that Campbell became completely central.

The basis of all of that follows is Campbell’s invention of the idea of a “monomyth”:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dream like mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find…

As this opening paragraph of the Prologue (‘The Monomyth’) will already have shown you, Campbell writes densely, clunkily, with erudition, and from a position of assured cultural superiority. These amusing and bizarre natives may have come up with this stuff, but it’s us Westerners who’ve really understood what it’s about.

What gives Campbell his great confidence that the monomyth appears in all human cultures is psychoanalysis – which, in the 1940s, was the great new way of understanding the world. Alongside his source myths, Campbell quotes the dreams of his fellow Americans. These, he asserts, take the exact same archetypal shapes.

Here is what Campbell calls ‘The Adventure of the Hero’:

The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition of the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinisation (apotheosis), or again – if the powers have remained unfriendly to him – his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).[4]

This is brilliant, skyscrapingly ambitious, seductive and – I am sure – entirely partial.

Campbell is like the character Casaubon in Middlemarch. He seeks the Key to All Mythologies, and finds it everywhere he looks. Because he believes he already has the Master Key.

What is obvious here, from his summary of the adventure, is that Campbell emphasises myths with single male heroes, and de-emphasises myths with groups. The myths are those of going out into the wild and adventuring, not staying at home and defending or nurturing or organising.

Perhaps the most powerful critique of the Hero’s Journey comes from a feminist perspective. In the simplest possible way, by insisting upon its uniqueness, Campbell’s monomyth ensures that male stories are prioritised and female stories either sidelined or omitted entirely.

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image argue that a deliberate suppression of the original goddess myth has taken place over a long period of history.[5] But it’s in the last thirty years, monomyth has threatened to become monoculture.

An alternate approach to story, beginning from different mythic sources, always remains to be rediscovered by any storyteller who comes along. But it’s certainly not front and centre in Hollywood. It’s nothing like the commonplace idea of ‘a good story’ – even when that idea is being put forward by a female screenwriting guru.

Christopher Vogler officially sanctioned, and wrote a panting introduction, for Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening. However well intentioned, this has had negligible influence in the world of screenplay writing. That may be because the approach seems more self-help even than Vogler’s later editions.

I’m aware that I am writing from a limited English perspective. The situation may be different where you are, but Hollywood presents itself as global culture – even if there are cultures resistant to or uninfluenced by it.

Hollywoodisation

Campbell’s book is an argument for religious pluralism (but quite disposed towards Buddhism) and against Christianity or sectarianism of any sort.

It is clear throughout The Hero with a Thousand Faces that the journey is a religious quest of self-transcendence, not a social quest of self-realisation. Campbell writes about losing oneself, not finding oneself. He writes about disappearance into oneness, not kicking ass.

The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachments to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realisation of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment.[6]

There are Hollywood movies that follow this template very closely. For example, Neo’s becoming ‘The One’ towards the end of Matrix: Revolutions (2003). But there are many more in which the Hero, at the end of their journey, has only had their stubborn individuality reinforced. I’d suggest this ego-machismo is the ultimate message of the Die Hard movies, of the James Bond franchise, of John Wick. I may be a hard bastard, but I get the job done.

One notable feature of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, something that might be easily missed, is that it is not a writing manual of any sort. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. These are the myths and stories that have already been written, it says. You may try your hardest not to rewrite them, but you will fail. Knowing them better may help you understand them, and yourself, better. But there’s no need for me to tell you how to write – you’re human, whatever you write is going to be a human story. And there’s only one human story.

If you’d like to keep reading, part 2 is right here.

 

Footnotes

[1] I wrote about it to promote an anthology of Climate Change-related short stories. The title was Beacons: Stories from our Not So Distant Future. It came out from Oneworld Publications in 2013, and was edited by Gregory Normington.

[2] You could also say that Bollywood, and the Advertising Industry, have done a great deal of thinking. However, I’m not familiar enough with either to write about them.

[3] The German philosopher Heidegger famously suggested in a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel magazine that ‘Only a God can save us now.’ This was only published in 1976, after Heidegger’s death. “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Rudolf Augstein, Georg Wolff, Martin Heidegger, Der Spiegel, 31 May 1976, p 193-219.

[4] Campbell, p 212-213.

[5] The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, 1991.

[6] Campbell, p 203.

 

Toby Litt has published novels, short story collections and comics. His most recent book is Patience, a novel. He runs the Creative Writing MFA at Birkbeck College, and blogs at www.tobylitt.com. He is a member of English Pen. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing.