Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Memo From The Story Dept. (Christopher Vogler and David Mckenna, MWP, 2011)

This is one writing manual which is guaranteed to attract a lot of attention, as it's the follow-up to Chris Vogler's seminal The Writer's Journey. But Mr. Vogler's not alone: He brought his friend David Mckenna (stage director, script reader, acting coach and educator, among others) along for the ride.

Unlike Journey, this book doesn't focus on one theoretical construct but is more of a grab bag of techniques, theories and experiences which Vogler and McKenna have found of great value over the years. They explicitly state the book is a toolbox, and it will only reveal its full value if these tools are actually applied to writing.

There is some revisiting of the Hero's Journey, but not too much and one of the things people sometimes struggled with is addressed explicitly, namely how to apply the Hero Myth to mainly psychological storylines. Vogler and McKenna also make it clear that the Hero's Journey is a structural model that works for many stories but isn't the only option and may in fact not be the ideal choice in some cases. This type of information is very important for beginning screenwriters to have, because they might otherwise feel 'obliged' to shoehorn every type of story material into one structural model. (And the original Memo that updated and streamlined Joseph Campbell's work for screenwriting purposes is also included.)

So what else is in here? Chris Vogler goes beyond Campbell to include the work of Vladimir Propp, the Russian structuralist who focused on the morphology of fairy tales. This is interesting stuff which could have been expanded upon, as a sort of alternative to the Hero's Journey.

Vogler also delves into the roots of Greek comic plays by presenting Theophrastus' The Characters, sketches of archetypes dating back to Ancient Greece which have been used in comedy ever since. In keeping with the theatrical/comedy theme, he also includes a chapter on vaudeville, of all things. But he manages to draw a clear connection between the lost art of putting together a succesful vaudeville bill (deciding which performers go on when, how to alternate the intensity and the emotional curve of the evening's entertainment) and creating the emotional roller coaster of a succesful screenplay.

David Mckenna's contributions stress the importance of knowing what your characters want and need, and environmental facts (date, location, social environment, religious environment, political environment, and economic environment) which he recommends analyzing in depth. Now, this the work a director does to interpret a script, and personally I find these exercises running counter to the writing process. Your mileage my vary, however, and it's certainly possible to apply these techniques to a finished first draft in order to get a clearer view of the themes and connections you've put into the material. Or, to discover that you can actually strengthen the internal unity of your script by reinforcing themes on all of these levels.

The book is well-written, clear and a comfortable read. Each chapter is followed by a response from the other co-author, which establishes a conversational style. However, very little of importance is said in these responses, so frankly I could have done without them.

This book isn't the gamechanger Writer's Journey was, but then it isn't supposed to be. It's very good supplemental material, tackling some important points which weren't touched on in the original book. To be fair, many of these topics have already been treated in other screenwriting manuals, so this book will be most valuable to beginning students of screenwriting. However, the chapters on Propp and Theophrastus are new and worthwhile additions to screenwriting lore.

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