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How to Tell a Story to Save the World 5Toby 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 He is a member of English Pen. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing.


In this final couple of chapters, we find some signs of resistance to the dominance of Heroism in two of the most successful films of all time.








Unlikely as it may seem, the two recent Avengers films give signs of possible hope. (I’m going to refer to them as The Snap films, after Thanos’s fingersnap that kills exactly half of all existing beings.)

But do I really need to summarize what happens in these films? – surely you’ve seen them already? They are among the highest grossing movies of all time (Endgame at number 1 and Infinity War at number 5, as far as I can tell).

More importantly, they are the culmination (though not the conclusion) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films – which began with Iron Man in 2008, and so far numbers 23.

These interconnecting movies are based on the “crossovers” that comics have been doing since the 1960s. The idea is, if you can get a Batman fan to buy a Superman comic, by putting Batman in it – you can sell more comics.

What is important about the Snap movies is that the overall story has become so extended, so distended, that it has – by default – turned into that of a community rather than of an individual Hero.

Also, almost every Hero within the Snap movies is – at some point – saved by another Hero; and if they weren’t saved, they wouldn’t have been able to make their later contribution.

Let’s take just one example. If the Guardians of the Galaxy hadn’t saved Thor from the vacuum of space in Act I of Infinity War, he couldn’t possibly have arrived in Wakanda to save just about everyone (Hulk, Captain America, Black Panther, Falcon, Black Widow, Okoye and others) from the space dogs in Act III.

Just as all of us everyday humans owe our continued existence to other everyday humans, so each Superhero owes their continued existence to other Superheroes.

And this is only within the compass of Infinity War; within the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each Superhero has been saved from non-existence (or brought back from it) multiple times by multiple other Superheroes.

The only Hero not saved by another Hero during the course of Infinity War is Gamora. This is because Gamora is killed by her adoptive father Thanos (in exchange for the Soul Stone). If another Superhero had been around at that point, say Doctor Strange, for an epic battle with Thanos, a stand-off and an interdimensional escape, then Gamora wouldn’t have died. (Because Superheroes rarely die, there are usually battles, stand-offs and escapes.)








The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have started as a series of films about individual Heroes on individual journeys. But in the end, it has become so big, so interconnected, that it has turned into a story about a diverse community coming together to make good, quick decisions, to show restraint, and ultimately to save itself[1].

This ‘mature’ moral isn’t so far from Karl Marx’s slogan:

From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs[2].

Within any individual film leading up to the Snap films, any individual Superhero can be seen as following the Hero’s Journey. But, with the whole thing brought together, they can only be viewed as part of a much larger, universal story in which they are, at most, one of many main characters.

It is Thanos himself, not the protagonist but the antagonist, who is granted the Hero’s Journey narrative within Avengers: Infinity War. The writers mentioned this in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

“This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” said Stephen McFeely. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants[3].”

They elaborated even further elsewhere:

“No, the idea was to reinforce that this was a kind of reverse hero’s journey and we wanted to tag that it’s not a cliffhanger,” [McFeely] said. “Everything ended, and in fact it ended really well for the guy who was driving the story [Thanos].”

[Christopher] Markus agreed. He said that Thanos is the hero of his story. And he wins. “The hero won, and he got to retire to his shack — just like every cop who’s one week away from retirement [in a movie] and usually gets killed,” he said. “Thanos made it all the way. He got his little fishing post[4].”

To say that the Hero gets what he wants in the Campbell Hero’s journey is a bit dumb. Campbell’s point is exactly that the Hero, in their apotheosis, no longer has an integral self to want anything.

However, the writers did what they did – for whatever reason they did it. And they seem to know it. That, I think, is what they mean by ‘very mature’ in the next bit of the BuzzFeed interview:

“Put it this way,” [Stephen McFeely] said. “I think [Infinity War] is a fairly mature movie for a blockbuster. It’s got a lot of fun in it, obviously, but boy, it gets very mature. The second one is also mature[5].”

I would decode this as meaning: A mature message is that you, the viewer, should not model yourself on the lone Heroes of the previous movies. You should grow up and realise that without a collective response to a collective threat, you’re doomed.

Even if that means you have to put up with the all-round world-class dickery of Captain America.



The Past

Is it possible any longer to tell a good story that isn’t the monomyth?

I think there’s a clue in Robert McKee’s stern, now deleted welcome to his website:

We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.[6]

McKee is suggesting a return from Blake Snyder’s typology of film types to something more like the Greek genres. These, however, weren’t vaguely ‘dramas’. They were Satyr Plays (not satires as we would recognise them), Tragedies and Comedies.

All of these, I think, could be good stories that didn’t just reinforce a Heroic ideology. They all exist in different relations to it.

The Satyr Play upends the values of the Heroic narrative. Fat, horny creatures play out the same scenes as, say, Odysseus. But they do so not for virtuous but for venal purposes. They are motivated by thirst and lust rather than a quest for justice.

In a Tragedy, the consequences of Heroism pursued without concern for the collective good are dramatized. Almost always the Tragic Hero brings devastation to the community and land that has nurtured and elevated them.

Within Greek Tragedies, it is always left to the chorus (a form of collective expression that we have lost) to point the moral. This tends to be something like:

Envy not the very great

or you’ll meet their awful fate

Humility is the ultimate lesson. Here is the final chorus of Sophocles’ “Antigone”:

Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,

and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.

The mighty words of the proud are paid in full

with mighty blows of fate, and at long last

those blows will teach us wisdom[7].


And here is the end of Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King”:

People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.

He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,

he rose to power, a man beyond all power.

Who could behold his greatness without envy?

Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.

Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,

count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last[8].


This, as you’d expect, is an even more ‘very mature’ message than Avengers.

But it’s annoying, in books this one I’ve been putting together, to read a conclusion that is backwards-looking. It’s also embarrassing to see conclusions that vest their hopes in something modish. Nothing ages worse than prophecy.

I’ve been present for one of the American writer Robert Coover’s presentations on hyperfiction, or computer writing. What he showed the audience, on a small big screen, looked like an embarrassing early iteration of DOOM, when – in five minutes – he could have logged on to his laptop and played World of Warcraft. He was looking in the wrong place, and the audience had already moved on.

I won’t repeat his error. It would be easy, but pointless, to say, “I think it’s possible to discern more networked genres emerging.” I am not the person to know how technology will inhibit or allow different kinds of good story.

The challenge we face is, to make the stories we tell – using any means – as emotionally satisfying to the viewer or reader as The Hero’s Journey.

The audience isn’t (unless they’re Australian) going to take to parables of Tall Poppy Syndrome, or to being incessantly reminded (as the Japanese say) that, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

An individual human face (particularly a beautiful one suffering great emotion) makes more impact on the big screen than a crowd of thousands in which no individual can be picked out. Almost no film has followed the doings of a vast crowd, although some have depended on their implied presence throughout. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example.)


The Future

It would be hypocritical of me to present myself as a Hero, come back with a cure for the sick community of writers. There’s no monoanswer to the monomyth.

But you might rightly ask where can you see my ideas in my writing?

Well, in a novel called Patience. In Patience, I have tried to write a story that is a good story but a completely different kind of good story to The Hero’s Journey. How it undermines the singleness of the Hero is by making it very clear, at the Crisis and Climax of the book, that whatever is achieved is done so not uniquely by one person but equally by three. The main character, and also narrator, is called Elliott. He is thirteen years old, has cerebral palsy, and is only able to move the fingers on one hand. Elliott lives in a Catholic Children’s Home. But he wants to go outside. He wants freedom. In order to achieve this, he has to team up with two other children – Lise, a long-term inmate, and Jim, a new arrival. Their escape can only take place by each using the other as a kind of prosthesis.

I am not offering Patience as a single solution, just as the best I’ve managed to do so far. Instead, I am going to pluralize.

Here are seven different suggestions about how we can collectively tell a story to save the world.

  1. Political action. You’re not going to change your thinking about storytelling without changing yourself. And taking part in collective action, whether successful or not, is the best way to undermine your ideas of individual Heroism. There are many people in many organisations working for climate justice. You should find what is closest to you. For writers, there is Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion. That, as well as the Green Party, is the organisation I have joined. Don’t just change the story of stories, change the story of the world. Read the writer Jay Griffith’s defence statement, from her trial in January 2020. It will get you.
  2. Action on the self. One of the reasons writers are able to continue re-telling the monomyth is that they are convinced, on some deep level, of the priority of individualism – of their own individuality. A way to subvert this is through practices that undermine the sense of definite individual self. Christianity only reinforces this form of selfishness, with its message of resurrection in the individual flesh, and individual salvation of the unique soul. Buddhism and other religions that dissolve the sense of selfhood, through zazen or other forms of meditation, are a better answer. Ironically, this is where Campbell’s Hero’s Journey ended up – with at-one-ment.
  3. Action as a moviegoer. An easy criticism of anti-Heroic arguments would be that asking Hollywood blockbusters to do without Heroism is like asking amusement park rides to do without acceleration. As providers of guaranteed fun, these movies are going to mash the obvious buttons – and mash them hard. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to turn out to watch and – in between yawns – gasp. Nothing will change storytelling in Hollywood like some big flops. It was Star Wars that supercharged the Hero’s Journey. Box Office will dictate what’s made in future. A movie like Parasite could start to nudge things.
  4. Watch like a loser. One of the most telling critiques of Heroism I know is Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche. He attempts to undermine the seductiveness of Nietzsche’s arguments (which back up a lot of neoliberal and alt-right thinking) by suggesting we ‘read as a loser’. This can easily carry over into watching movies as a loser. Rather than thinking how great it is that the Hero wins the day, think about the massive collateral damage they’ve inflicted. Greek Choruses watch as losers. Watch critically, and think about how you could tell a better story.
  5. Don’t be lazy. The lazy way to make a scene work is to increase the conflict – to default to escalation. This is corrosive of any sense of humans just being able to get on with stuff, in couples, groups and communities. There’s enough external conflict, enough challenges to think through, without always showing bickering, disagreement, argument and violence. At points, for realism, this might be necessary. But don’t be lazy. All you’re doing is ratifying despair.
  6. Don’t be evil. The simplest way to success is to do something someone else is already doing, but to do it cheaper. With movies, the equivalent is to give the viewer more of the same stuff within the same period of time. More action, more volume, more violence. Very few beginning screenwriters, who doubt their own talent, aim for more laughs, more depth or more truth. If you play the existing game, rather than attempt to change it, you’re more likely to win by the existing rules. If you write a script that flatters rich people who live in L.A. and drive big cars, your script will stand more chance of being made than if it suggests the movie industry is a corrupting influence on American society, and that big petrol-sniffing cars must go. Laziness means taking the first solution offered by your screenwriting guru of choice. Evil means trying to play the market whilst being cynical about the public’s morality and intelligence.
  7. Write without gurus. This book has been about screenplay gurus, and their influence on the idea of what is a good story. But there are many forms of story that are fairly immune to the gurus’ influence. The contemporary short story would be one example. New approaches to cinema can emerge from these different forms. In fact, I would say that the formal tendency of cinema isn’t towards strong narratives but towards strong images, viewed in succession. These successions have become extremely conservative. From your own storytelling background, make something radical.

Now tell me your suggestions. I’m sure there are more, and better, out there.


This book has attempted to go back and see how the monomyth colonized the world of storytelling.

Right now, writers and storytellers of all sorts have to think bigger – beyond the ideology of individualism.

I believe these necessary stories, these bigger stories, are already being told – even by those writers brought up devotedly following the screenwriting gurus[9].

There is no one story, there are a thousand stories – and they are all interconnected. We see this every day.

I’d like you to ask yourself a few questions relating to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There have already been numerous Hollywood takes on this story[10]. It’s commonplace to say it feels as if we’re living in a dystopia. Thousands of people have been sitting at home watching Contagion (2011), after seeing Kate Winslet doing her real-life video on the importance of hand-washing.

Stop for a few seconds. Think of what’s happening at the moment. Think of how massive and significant it feels. Think of how socially nuanced it is – and how profoundly political. Think of the difference.

My question is this: Will the way the pandemic is spreading and being coped with be truly or adequately told by another Hollywood movie that feeds it through the Hero’s Journey? Will giving a pretty face, or eight or nine faces, to some spurious war-metaphoric “fightback” against the “onslaught” do anything other than utterly falsify what is a collective global response – a response that involves countless individual actions of restraint, generosity, creativity and love?

Aren’t the most ‘Heroic’ responses to the pandemic exactly the most dangerous, wrongheaded and selfish? From panic buying and hoarding to Donald Trump’s particularly American brand of magical thinking, from billionaires who could make a vast financial difference self-isolating on private islands to egotistical individuals[11] thinking social distancing is for everyone but them. And aren’t the most genuinely brave but also helpful and practical responses those of the many cleaners, drivers, carers and a thousand others who are doing the work of keeping people safe and alive?

In this situation, just as before, there is no Hero with a Thousand Faces, instead there are a Thousand Faces without a Hero – there are a Million Faces – there are Seven and a Half Billion Faces – without a Hero.

And they are what will save us.




[1] Given the complexity of the multiple stories involved, and the number of screen hours it takes to tell them, The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become something like a very big television series. For various reasons, I’ve decided not to cover TV. This is mainly because I think that although screenwriting gurus have a huge influence on writing for TV, their influence is most obvious on the big screen. And it’s from movies, rather than novelistically complex TV series on HBO and Netflix, that most people derive their idea of what it is to be a success, to be a worthwhile person. I think there’s a basic difference between TV and cinema. Cinema is about the deep glamour of life; TV is about the essential crapness of the world. Where each goes wrong is when they try to cross over and do the other’s job.

[2] Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875.

[3] “Your Burning Questions About “Avengers: Infinity War,” Answered, by Adam B. Vary, last accessed 17 February 2020, 11:00.

[4], last accessed 17 February 2020, 11:05.

[5], last accessed 17 February 2020, 11:00.

[6], last accessed 13 Mar 2020, 09:00

[7] ‘Antigone’, translated by Robert Fagles, in Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, 1984, p 128.

[8] Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, 1984, p 251.

[9] Among other, more recent movies, Rogue One stands out as a clear attempt to show a different kind of heroism. The mainstream reaction to it revealed a dawning realisation that the closest thing we have to ‘the Empire’ is the U.S.A. If so, who does that make the ‘Rebel Alliance’?

[10] “Exposure therapy: why we’re obsessed with watching virus movies”, Charles Bramesco, Guardian,, last accessed 6 April 2020, 11:53.

[11] Or as twitter had it, whilst trending their stupidity, #selfishpricks.


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 He is a member of English Pen. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing.