The Future of Story Interview Series: Christopher Vogler

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Christopher Vogler is one of Hollywood’s premier story consultants for major film companies such as Disney and 20th Century Fox, a respected teacher of filmmakers and writers around the globe, a popular speaker on screenwriting, movies, and myth, and the author of The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd edition and Memo From The Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character (co-authored with David McKenna). He has influenced the stories of movies such as The Lion King, Fight Club, The Thin Red Line, and Courage Under Fire. He wrote the screenplay for the animated feature Jester Till and was executive producer of the independent film P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. He is president of Storytech, a literary consulting firm to help writers, producers, and studio executives shape their projects.

Ann: In your newest book, Memo from the Story Dept., you discuss techniques that teach writers to become good story detectives by using their Environmental Facts, what are these and can you give us an example?

Chris: The idea is simply to encourage writers to examine their characters through six different lenses or points of view. We ask them to consider the following questions:

What are the unique conditions of Time for the characters?
What is the unique influence of the Place?
What is the Social environment of the characters?
What is their Political environment?
Economic environment?
Religious environment?

So for Luke Skywalker, the first two questions are partly answered by the first lines of the Star Wars saga, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Luke is discovered as a teenager at a critical moment in his galaxy’s history. He lives on a remote frontier planet. His social environment is that he is an orphan being raised by his farmer aunt and uncle. His political environment is that his planet is on the edge of a great struggle between a cruel Empire and a noble Rebel Alliance, supported by remnants of an order of Jedi Knights. Luke’s economic environment is that he and his family are struggling while there is the potential for great wealth and power in space travel and trade. The religious environment is one of widespread belief in “The Force” which has a positive, light side and a negative dark side, though some, like Han Solo, are skeptical of ancient religions and hocus-pocus.

All of these conditions are choices that had to be made by George Lucas when he wrote his story. The “Six Environmental Facts” are actually a set of writing exercises to get people thinking about how those elements will shape the characters and influence the outcome of the plot. If you look at your characters in this systematic way, it can have a “crystallizing” effect on your story, where all these elements begin to work together to create a complete, multi-dimensional world for your characters to exist in.

Ann: Can you explain the importance of alternation and contrast in creating a good rhythm and balance for a story and the audience?

Chris: Here’s the truth – human beings are easily bored! We need to continually refresh the audience’s attention with vivid contrasts. Visual artists know that the eye is automatically attracted to areas of high contrast in a composition. A dynamic composition is one in which there is a lot of range, exploring the extremes of possibility. Alternating between light and dark, funny and sad, quiet and loud, allows us to enjoy both ends of a spectrum and compare the two experiences.

Ann: Can you share with us one of the writing exercises in your book, Memo from the Story Dept., regarding newspaper clippings and the different kinds of daily writing for writers and their benefits?

Chris: We encourage writers to develop the HABIT of collecting raw material for potential stories, whether it’s clipping intriguing news articles or bookmarking websites. I have kept a file for years of visual inspiration in the form of cards, magazine photos, images from the Internet and so on. Its part of a general effort I made years ago to CAPTURE as much of my story thinking as possible. A very important step was to start writing down story ideas as they came up and DATING them so years later I had some idea of how long that idea had been simmering.

I keep faithful to something I call my Work Diary which is my first stop in any day’s writing routine. I simply jot down the writing tasks I have to do that day, maybe some story problem I have to fix or a rough outline for an article. It’s my warm-up exercise and it helps me gets my thoughts in order. Often I have many things I could be working on and I find I need to prioritize.

Ann: In your book, The Writer’s Journey, you discuss how writers are like shamans and why writers need solitude and concentration; what can you tell us about this?

Chris: Shamans are the wise men and women of tribal cultures, and they are sort of like emissaries to the spirit world, traveling there to find out what’s on the spirits’ minds and then bringing back the answers to tribal problems in the form of dances, songs, or stories. I believe there is something very close to travel in the writing process. We have to go deep into another country, the world where the story takes place, and it takes time and energy to get there. It’s hard to be yanked back to the Ordinary World where everyone else lives. Once you’ve made the trip to the Special World of the story, you want to stay there a while. 

Ann: What are “The Rules of Polarity” in stories such as rule #1 Opposites Attract and rule #2 Polarized Conflict Attracts the Audience?

Chris: Polarity in stories seems to follow some of the rules of magnetism and electricity. Characters with opposing qualities or objectives can make entertaining stories when they are forced to work together, and may even be attracted to one another, as positive and negative magnetic poles are drawn to one another, because each side has something the other wants. Audiences seem to enjoy watching this kind of attraction of opposites and are almost magnetically attracted to such stories.

Another rule of polarity is that polarized values sometimes reverse themselves. For example, a comedy team of a tough hero and a sensitive sidekick might reverse polarity under pressure, producing a situation in which the hero has to show a rare sensitive side, and the sidekick has to take over the job of being the rugged action protagonist. It allows characters to empathize with one another and can provide lots of comedy and drama.

Ann: How can stories heal us?

Chris: Stories give us metaphors that help us process and manage our life problems. They give us examples of human behavior against which we can compare our own performance. I’ve found stories very comforting when I am ill or stressed, giving me someplace else to go. Stories can be vehicles for expressing ideas, and sometimes these ideas give us new frames for understanding our challenges and healing our emotional wounds.

Ann: What is your favorite room in your home and outside environment? Can you describe them and tell us why you like them?

Chris: Over the years I’ve made a nice office space for myself, with an L-shaped desk that is like a starship control center with different areas dedicated to the current projects. For inspiration I have many models of medieval castles and a wall of shelves covered with toy soldiers from different time periods.

Outdoors, there is a golf course near my house and I walk around it to clear my head.

Ann: Do you have any special quotes or sayings that you keep visible in your work environment to help inspire, motivate, and encourage you?

Chris: I like to pick a visual image to focus each project and I keep that within my field of vision somewhere on the desk. As for motivating quotes, my favorite is posted above the computer screen, and comes from the English sailor Sir Francis Drake, who said “There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.”

Ann: What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?

Chris: I am continuing to develop material for future non-fiction books about story and character, but I also have some fiction projects in the works. I want to revive a book series I started called RAVENSKULL, a fantasy based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel IVANHOE. The first part was published as a Japanese style “manga” or graphic novel, and I want to continue the story in some form. I love working with artists to add a visual element to my storytelling.

Ann: Can you tell us about The Future of Story conference coming up in Los Angeles and what your role is?

Chris: The Future of Story conference is an exciting new project which developed out of yearly gatherings of authors who have been published by Michael Wiese Productions. We discovered we all felt the same impulse to share what we learned in our careers, and it seemed a natural step to open the doors to the writing public. We all have the same feeling – let’s empower artists by giving them the insights and information we gained over years in the business.

My role has been to help develop a sense of the MWP “brand”. I’m interested in how companies and individuals brand themselves by identifying the essence of their product or service. The essential theme of the MWP brand is the generous sharing of expert knowledge for the betterment of everyone. Branding is closely related to storytelling and in both fields you have to identify a theme in order to effectively move an audience.

At the conference I’ll be heading up a panel on the future of story development. We’ll be talking about the evolving development process of the major studios as well as how individual writers and producers will develop stories in the future.

Ann: What special benefits will writers get by attending this conference?

Chris: They’ll hear from experts in a wide variety of fields, all turning their minds to the future of our craft. They’ll get the latest techniques for improving their writing and advancing their careers. Most of all, I think they’ll get a boost of energy and inspiration from a remarkable gathering of smart, successful and generous-minded professionals.

Ann: What ideas are you excited to share at this upcoming conference?

Chris: I stand right between past and future, as someone who has excavated some ancient story patterns and tried to adapt them to modern books, movies, and games. I have a science fiction fan’s interest in peering around the corner to imagine what will happen next. I confidently predict some things about storytelling will change so radically we won’t even recognize them, but many of the old, tried and true techniques will find new and unexpected uses in the future. One of the most exciting new areas to me is pulling useful story ideas from unorthodox sources, such as computer science, physics, dance, psychology, and anthropology. Everything is fuel for the storyteller’s imagination.

Ann: Thank you, Chris, for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights with us.

To learn more about how you can meet Christopher Vogler and over 30 other MWP authors of some of the best-selling books on screenwriting and filmmaking in the industry, sign-up today to attend The Future of Story Conference in Los Angeles.

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