In writing a screenplay, we go into the story. That’s critical in order to connect with the characters and immerse ourselves in the story universe. But we also need to balance that by stepping outside the story universe and take a meta view of the narrative.
I like to do that by thinking of five ‘passages,’ broad movements in the Protagonist’s or key characters’ experience. Those are:
- Life before FADE IN
- Life after FADE OUT
The middle three come straight from Joseph Campbell and his articulation of the Hero’s Journey:
“The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit to the monomyth.” — Joseph Campbell
The monomyth is another term for the Hero’s Journey. The comparison to a rite of passage is instructive. Campbell claimed the whole point, symbolically and psychologically, of the Hero’s Journey is transformation. The person passes through the “test of fire” and in that process is made “new”. To accomplish that, they need to go through a separation.
In an increasingly secular world, more and more removed from nature and the ‘tribe,’ the very idea of initiation may seem arcane, even ridiculous. But strip away what we may typically associate with a rite of initiation and look at it from a strictly psychological perspective, and the concept comes alive because each of us goes through initiations multiple times in our lives.
Birth. Childhood. School. Adolescence. Sex. Drugs. College. Sports. Cliques. Hobbies. Job. Clubs. Relationships. Broken Relationships. Travel. Marriage. Parenting. Divorce. Relocation. And so on…
Each one of these represents a life-passage. And along with that passage, we find ourselves ‘initiated’ into a club.
When you lose your virginity, you are no longer a virgin. Welcome to a new club!
When you join a religious group, you are no longer an unbeliever. Welcome to a new club!
Likewise when you drop out of a religious group, you are no longer a believer. Welcome to a new club!
When you become a parent, you are no longer a non-parent. Welcome to a new club!
During our lives, each of us is ‘initiated’ into dozens of new ‘clubs.’
In a movie, whether the scope of the story is big or small, a Protagonist goes through an initiation which is in effect a powerful experience. Their unconscious presses up and out into consciousness. Secrets of the past, present and future get revealed. Destiny made known.
“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth… As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form-all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” — Joseph Campbell
Per screenwriting, thresholds are complications, roadblocks, and reversals. Dragons are characters and situations which most profoundly represent a projection of the Protagonist’s fears and/or shadow. Divinity is the True Self. The void is the All Is Lost moment where the Protagonist has come so far and is near their goal, but they have a major setback. Do they go forward or turn back? It is the height of their existential journey. They have nothing to rely upon except their connection to their emerging Need and what they’ve learned from Mentors, Attractors, Tricksters, all the characters with whom the Protagonist intersects.
This is the stuff of initiation. It works with big hero epics and broad comedies, chaotic road trips and intimate character studies. The language may sound sprawling, but the narrative scope can be quite constrained. And yet initiation, no matter how big or small, is a powerful experience. It lies at the heart of a Protagonist’s metamorphosis.
For Part 1: Life Before FADE IN, go here.
For Part 2: Separation, go here.