Monday, August 23, 2010

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey, at the RWNZ conference

It’s 9 o’clock on Friday night. The Harlequin/Mills & Boon “Romance in Red” cocktail party at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference has just ended. Despite the theme, I was ill prepared for the brilliant blast of scarlet that assailed my eyes as I stepped off the elevator. One hundred women in red make quite a statement, even if, like me, you don’t drink. I grabbed my signature Coke Zero and schmoozed.

We’d all just spent the whole day at a workshop with Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey, so everyone had something to talk about. Thinking, hah, this could be material for at least one blog, I took copious notes.

The neat thing about Vogler was that in addition to being a delightful speaker --piercingly honest, often self-deprecating and always humorous – he also presented lots of material that wasn’t in his book. He grew up on a farm, but ended up one of the top story gurus in Hollywood – a job known as a Story Analyst, the person studio relies on to tell them whether a movie script will fly.

I’ll talk a little in later blogs about how Vogler adapted Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythical structure to constructing fiction. For now I’ll share some of the ideas and principles of storytelling that Vogler is passionate about.

Vogler strongly believes in the power of stories. “Stories have healing properties,” he said. He emphasized that he thinks stories take on a life of their own. What happens in a story needs to follow “what the story needs”.

“It’s better to be clear than pretty.” Vogler said that in this applies to the tendency to be so poetic the audience can’t really figure out what’s going on. For me, this brought back memories of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Sure it’s a movie landmark, but I could never make heads nor tails of it.

He talked about reading as an altered state of consciousness and used the example (with slides) of how molecules of unmagnetized iron fresh out of the forge look (randomly distributed) and how they look after they’ve been magnetized (all lined up in neat lines positive charge to negative charge.) He said the unmagnetized condition is like the reader’s mind when they open a book. The magnetized condition is what the writer wants to happen after the reader’s mind is exposed to the results of the writer’s craft.

Later, as Vogler talked, it became clear to me why we want to “magnetize” the reader. First, successful stories resonate with the reader. One of the ways they do that is by touching on universal truths we all share, no matter what our culture. Another is through the emotions the story evokes. As writers, we magnetize our readers through the themes we choose (those universal truths) and through making our readers experience the same emotions our characters feel.

Another way is how we orient our readers to the story. Readers have an instinctive feel for story patterns. They know, at the very least, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end, as Aristotle put it. Today we use more sophisticated words, such as introduction or set-up, development, crisis, climax, turning points, black moments. Vogler’s Writer’s Journey introduces a parallel way to structure your work based on the stages of a quest. But no matter which structure you use to label the parts or stages of your story, readers have an instinctive feel for “this is where we are”. A story that lacks or hides that structure throws the reader, one of the reason, I guess, why films like Pulp Fiction are so disorienting until you take the time to figure them out. Structure guides our readers through the story, giving them clues as to what to expect next. The successful story teller takes what they expect and turns it on its head in a way that the reader says, “Oh, wow, I should have seen that coming.” (One of the reasons why in a really successful work, readers go back and read it again.)

Chris Vogler also gave some advice about the successful pitch: “Make the person you’re pitching to think it’s about them.” He gave the example of pitching to a top level Hollywood woman producer: “It’s a story about a woman who’s the most powerful person in the world.” The story sold.

His advice makes me realize how important it is with a query to know as much as you can about the person you’re querying and really tailor your query to them.

OK. I’m up at 6:00 am tomorrow for a special session in which you submit the first page of your manuscript in an open session, someone reads it out loud, and the editor/agent critiques it before the whole group (a little scarey, but it’s a good way to learn). So that’s it for tonight.


  1. Good stuff, Vicki. I replay my "The Hero's Two Journeys" DVD over and over because they (Chris and Michael Hauge) offer so much it takes a while to sink in.

    Sounds like an incredible time and a little birdy says your agent and editor interactions went pretty well...

  2. They went great! I've got my nose in the computer now to do a little more polishing before I send stuff off.

  3. Hi Vicky,
    I've been following your Blog and find the information about swordplay and battle fascinating.
    Sounds like your Conference is moving along swimmingly. And any chance to meet Vogler is a thrill! I have not read his book and I own the novel. Crazy, I know. An organization posted the simplified breakdown of his work. I had just finished my first draft of my first ms. Once I realized I had intuitively followed Vogler's Writer's Journey, I felt satisfied. After reading your post about his presentation, I want to delve in!
    Really looking forward to more of your Blog.
    PS-Quick tip, if I may be so bold (USA & worse Jersey-home of Soprano's)
    type the your Blog link below your signature line, it may bring more e-traffic your way. Do you even have real traffic in NZ, lol!