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How to Tell a Story to Save the World 2Toby 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.

This time, I’m looking at two hugely influential screenwriting manuals – Syd Field’s Screenplay and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

Through the gap between them, we see the idea of heroism emerge and start to dominate the very idea of ‘a good story’.

Like all film producers say, ‘The audience needs to knows who to root for.’

(If you haven’t read part 1 of the book, which explains what I’m up to, it’s here.)







We’re going back now – back to before the resurrection of the Hero. I hate to say it, but it is a more innocent age. It was an age when very few people knew very much about the business of film-making. And it was certainly an age when almost no-one would have expected to take life-advice from the person who wrote the lines for the actors on the TV.

It’s easy to see why Syd Field’s Screenplay was so influential – perhaps “formative” would be more accurate – in its time, and just as easy to see why it has been so completely superseded.

The screenwriting manuals that have followed seem to say a lot more, and they say it more get-atably, often more schematically. (Field is, in retrospect, almost comically light on diagrams, and his diagrams are comically simple.)

John Yorke’s Into the Woods contains the gist of Screenplay, but it doesn’t capture the attitude. Field’s approach to writing a film is relaxed, unneurotic; you’re not going to come away from Screenplay angsting over having missed this mythological beat or not having inserted this emotional hook in the viewer. Field’s view of writing is one of sincere application to the basic craft, rather than wily manipulation of the available means.

I like Field. Not as much as I like Robert McKee – Field’s a much more limited teacher than McKee – but I like him. He’s an affable, slightly grouchy zen uncle-type – great uncle, now.

Field was a pioneer, an explorer of the territory, and shouldn’t be sneered at by people who arrived in the landscape when it had paths and public conveniences. Even so, as a founding father, he had his limits. His eyesight was clear, but he was only interested in certain outstanding features. It’s not that he got lost, or needed to be rescued, more that the map he brought back was fairly sketchy.

Syd Field Mini-biog

Syd Field was born in 1935, in Hollywood, California. He took a B.A. in English Literature at University of California, Berkeley, in 1960. It was at the suggestion of the director Jean Renoir (Grand Illusion, Le Regle du jour), that he entered film school, also at the University of California. Here, he hung out with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. His early work in the film industry was for David Wolper Productions, the company later responsible for Roots, The Thorn Birds and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Field became, in his own words, a jack-of-all trades. He published Screenplay in 1979 – introducing the ideas of “three act structure” and “plot points”.

If you were cynical, you might say that Field profited a great deal from of saying that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. It shouldn’t be ignored, though, that lots of wannabe screenwriters had and still have no idea what a screenplay looks like, what it should and shouldn’t do. Field gave away that mystery of the craft. He let people see what the producers were arguing over when they were deciding whether or not to greenlight the project, what the actors had in their hands when they were learning their lines, and what the cinematographer and the gaffer were consulting while they were figuring out where to place the key light.

Syd Field’s book covers basics, and does them very well. You just always feel – at every juncture – that there is more to be said.

Some of Field’s virtues are negative. He’s laid back rather than pushy; he’s the Dude, not a Little Lebowski Urban Achiever. Screenplay is pragmatic where Save the Cat! is dogmatic.

Screenplay observes:

When you are writing your screenplay, the plot points become signposts, holding the story together and moving it forward.[1]

Save the Cat! gives you a direct order:

Page 12 – Catalyst. Do it.[2]


The B story begins on page 30.[3]

It’s noticeable that Field isn’t ideologically pushy, either. Screenplay wasn’t written in Mao’s China, but it’s no a hymn to unfettered individualism – as are The Writer’s Journey and Save the Cat!

Field gives practical advice about the writing life:

If you’re a housewife and have a family, you may want to write when everyone’s gone for the day, either midmorning or midafternoon.[4]

And collaboration:

If you’re married and want to collaborate with your spouse, other factors are involved. When things get difficult, for example, you can’t simply walk away from the collaboration. It’s part of the marriage. If the marriage is in trouble, your collaboration will only magnify what’s wrong with it.[5]

He’s wry:

Many of my married women students tell me their husbands threaten to leave them unless they stop writing; their children turn into “animals”.[6]

But, as far as pushing the viewer towards individualism, Field isn’t a culprit. Field doesn’t deal in Heroes and Heroines. In the whole book, the word “Hero” isn’t used. Instead, Field writes about “main characters”.

What does your main character want? What is his or her need?[7]

He writes declaratively:

Without conflict there is no drama. Without need, there is no character. Without character, there is no action. “Action is character.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.[8]

However, Screenplay is still mostly about writing films with a single strong main character. Field doesn’t really deal with ensemble pictures – or he dodges dealing with them. Even so, his examples are better than those of Vogler and Snyder:

What about Nashville? Is that an exception? Let’s take a look. First, who’s the main character of the film? Lily Tomlin? Ronee Blakley? Ned Beatty? Keith Carradine?… Joan Tewkesbury… the screenwriter… realised the main character of the film – that is, who the movie is about – is the city of Nashville. It is the main character.[9]

Then he says:

There are several main characters in the film and they all move the action forward.[10]

He says the same of Network (1976).

The “network” is the main character. It feeds everything, like a system; the people are parts of the whole, replaceable parts, at that. Network continues on, indestructible; people come and go. Just like life.[11]

Although he doesn’t require Heroes, Field does want main characters who make stuff happen. The world, at least in his cinematic version of it, moves forwards because of individual dilemmas and decisions:

Many new or inexperienced writers have things happening to their characters, and they are always reacting to their situation, rather than acting in terms of dramatic need. The essence of character is action; your character must act, not react.[12]

Screenplay doesn’t seem anything like a get rich quick manual. The sale is important, but it contains nothing about pitching. Field’s engagement with money is more from the moviegoer’s perspective:

After the lights fade, and the movie begins, how long does it take you to make a decision, either consciously or unconsciously, about whether the movie was worth the price of admission?[13]

Field includes some pages from one of his own screenplays, for an unmade film “The Run”. It is sadly expository and uninspiring. I expect it encouraged some writers by being obviously out-doable.

Nearing the end of the book, I felt that Field had held it together. Although he hadn’t written a manual for writing pluralistic stories, he hadn’t ruled them out. He was handing out the tools like a benign foreman. It was all going so well. If not anticapitalist then not rabidly pro-.

And then, at the very end of the book, quite bizarrely, Field quotes a poster produced by the McDonald’s Corporation entitled “Press On”:

Nothing in the world can take the place

Of persistence.

Talent will not, nothing is more common

Thank unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius

Is almost a proverb.

Education will not;

The world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone

Are omnipotence.[14]



In one leap, we go from humble craftsperson to divine being – simply by not losing heart between the seventh and eighth drafts?

Even in his wildest moments of mythologizing, Vogler doesn’t suggest the screenwriter will become a god.

But, as we’ll see in the next chapter, Vogler has a pretty high idea of himself.









but also:









Re-enter the Hero.

The theme of the hero myth is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time…[15]

In 1985, Vogler resurrected Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He did this in a famous seven-page memo.

Vogler tells the story in a pdf he shared on his website:

It was written in the mid-1980s when I was working as a story consultant for Walt Disney Pictures, but I had discovered the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell a few years earlier while studying cinema at the University of Southern California. I was sure I saw Campbell’s ideas being put to work in the first of the Star Wars movies and wrote a term paper for a class in which I attempted to identify the mythic patterns that made that film such a huge success. The research and writing for that paper inflamed my imagination and later, when I started working as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, I showed the paper to a few colleagues, writers and executives to stimulate some discussion of Campbell’s ideas which I found to be of unlimited value for creating mass entertainment. I was certainly making profitable use of them, applying them to every script and novel I considered in my job.

The language here is that of the mid-eighties – “unlimited value” and “profitable”.

In 1992, Vogler expanded his memo into what is probably the single most influential screenwriting manual, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Since then it has gone through three distinct editions, and has just been published in a fourth – the 25th Anniversary Edition. Each new iteration looked more authoritative, and chi-chi, and more like a guide to tarot reading, than its predecessor. Each has also made greater claims for itself as a work not just for writers but for everyone seeking meaning in their life.

The 2nd edition contains a Preface that walks back a number of claims made by the 1st edition. Here you can find Vogler’s answers to some of the world’s questions (and mine). He directly takes on the charges of ‘Cultural Imperialism’ and ‘Gender Problems’ (Sexism). But he does so in a spirit of deflect or assimilate.

However, it was the 1st edition, and the 7-page memo that birthed it, that were the most influential versions of the Hero’s Journey – and they are unrepentant in their championing of individualism. (Rugged American optional.)

Here is where Syd Field’s “main character” is replaced by “the Hero” capital H. Vogler doesn’t write anything about ensemble pictures. The films Field chose – Nashville, Network – to talk about collective stories don’t appear in Vogler’s world-view. The implication must be that these kind of movies are outliers – a minority interest. The closest he gets to dealing with non-Heroic movies is to talk about “Group-Oriented” Heroes.

They are part of a society at the beginning of the story, and their journey takes them to an unknown land far from home. When we first meet them, they are part of a clan, tribe, village, town, or family. Their story is one of separation from that group (Act One); lone adventure in the wilderness away from the group (Act Two); and usually, eventual reintegration with the group (Act Three).[16]

The clear implication here is this – no separation, no story; no aloneness, no adventure.

Vogler is consistently helpful, and useful, but he is always pointing you down the same narrow track: the Hero’s Journey.[17]

Christopher Vogler mini-biog

 A self-described ‘farm boy from Missouri,’ Vogler was born in 1949. He studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, the alma mater of George Lucas. It was here he encountered Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. ‘There it was – the answer to what I was looking for: the unwritten rules, the super-outline that all stories appear to be connected by.’ Vogler turned this into his famous memo. Since then, he has worked for Disney studios, Fox 2000 pictures, and Warner Bros. He has a moustache and looks like a weather-beaten walrus.

As with most gurus, the biggest trouble is with the followers, not the guru themselves. Many movies since Vogler’s seven-page memo have been a reduction of what was already a reduction.

Though Vogler is a sincere evangelist for Campbell’s ideas, he seems more widely open. He wants to ask all the right questions:

Where do stories come from? How do they work? What do they tell us about ourselves? What do they mean? Why do we need them? How can we use them to improve the world?[18]

He wants to help the wannabe writer – more than that, he wants to give them the means to self-help.

The Hero’s Journey, I discovered, is more than just a description of the hidden patterns of mythology. It is a useful guide to life, especially the writer’s life.[19]

Vogler goes quite a long way with this. He doesn’t always resist the urge to present The Hero’s Journey as a panacea, a cure-all. He also has an imperial urge to assimilation. This is illustrated by an anecdote he tells in the Preface to the 2nd edition.

At the time Vogler’s memo was becoming a force in Hollywood, “two articles appeared in the Los Angeles Herald-Observer”. In these, an unnamed critic claimed the memo:

had deeply influenced and corrupted Hollywood storytellers. According to him, lazy, illiterate studio executives, eager to find a quick-bucks formula, had seized upon the “Practical Guide” as a cure-all, and were busily stuffing it down the throats of writers…[20]

Vogler’s initial reaction was to be “flattered” but “devastated”.

I had thought about challenging the critic to a duel (laptops at twenty paces) but now reconsidered. With a slight change in attitude I could turn his hostility to my benefit. I contacted the critic and invited him to talk over our differences…[21]

Taking this into Campbell’s Heroic language:

Instead of fighting my Threshold Guardian, I had absorbed him into my adventure.[22]

Vogler never claims to take Campbell on his own terms. The Writer’s Journey is a work of applied mythology; one in which mythological/psychological insights are put to practical use (to help make movie scripts better so they please more people so they earn more money). For there to be a wider moral behind this would be, for Vogler, ludicrous. But the moral is there anyway:

All must be assimilated.

There is one story, and the one story is the story of one man.

The clan, tribe, village, town, or family is in need of the cure[23] which the Hero goes off to seek. The tribe cannot cure itself, with its own means; the tribe cannot send off a scouting party, or travel en masse (as nomads would) in order to be healed. It is only the lone Hero who can succeed – according to Campbell, according to Vogler, according to Hollywood.

When this is put together with the basic Hollywood screenwriting advice to improve the scene by reinforcing the conflict[24], it is easy to see how the depiction of any group will tend to show them as dysfunctional. If there are more than three characters on-screen, two of them must disagree – often violently. If there six or seven, they must start bickering and fighting while time runs down. If there are a hundred or two hundred, they are likely to be a panorama of sleepwalking drones, an applauding crowd, an army of obedient slaves or a rampaging mob. The Hero, meanwhile, detaches from them to sort things out. If he didn’t detach, things wouldn’t be sorted out.

It’s not difficult to see how ideological this is. In a profitably individualistic age, we are given stories of individuals. Instead of “The meek shall inherit the earth” or “Workers of the World Unite” we are told “Just Do It” and “Because You’re Worth It”.

For Vogler, the Hero’s Journey is secular. Where it inevitably tends is towards self-realisation not self-annihilation, not ‘at-one-ment’. There is no mention of the void. The cure brought back to the ailing community is not a spiritual boon, but the solution to a social problem (even if that problem is so total as to become existential).

At the moment, with the Coronavirus, COVID-19, the world – collectively – is seeking a cure. There are Heroic individuals everywhere. They are not going off on individual journeys. Instead, they are working together to save as many lives as possible, to preserve the tribe, to manifest from their collective knowledge (rather than just head off and steal) the cure.


In the next section, I look at how two more screenwriting manuals have changed our ideas of what it is to be an individual, to be a hero – and how that involves doing anything but really saving the world.

You can cut to the chase here.





[1] Screenplay, p 122. Which doesn’t work at all, as a metaphor, because signposts hold nothing together, except themselves, and move nothing forward – only point the direction something else should move or be moved. Screenplay is a slackly written book.

[2] Save the Cat!, p 77.

[3] Save the Cat!, p 79.

[4] Screenplay, p 169.

[5] Screenplay, p 238.

[6] Screenplay, p 170.

[7] Screenplay, p 11.

[8] Screenplay, p 25.

[9] Screenplay, p 122-3.

[10] Screenplay, p 123.

[11] Screenplay, p 124.

[12] Screenplay, p 161.

[13] Screenplay, p 71.

[14] Screenplay, p 256.

[15] “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Christopher Vogler, pdf download, p 3.

[16] The Writer’s Journey, p 46.

[17] ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ Raymond Chandler.

[18] The Writer’s Journey, p 3.

[19] The Writer’s Journey, p 3.

[20] The Writer’s Guide, p 4.

[21] The Writer’s Guide, p 4.

[22] The Writer’s Guide, p 5.

[23] Later on, we’re going to be looking closely at World War Z, as both book and movie. One of the reasons I chose it is because the cure in it is literal. At the climax of the film, the Hero (Gerry Lane) Brad Pitt returns with the cure. It’s a lump-in-throat moment.

[24] “Just as in every story a protagonist battles an antagonist in pursuit of a goal, so scenes replicate that structure… For drama to occur, a protagonist must be confronted with an equal and opposite desire. The goals of protagonist and antagonist in every scene are in direct conflict…” Into the Woods, p 91.


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.