Storytelling Lessons From Film School

The Hero's Journey in Star WarsWhen it comes to content marketing, the concept of storytelling has become more and more the focus when crafting new content for clients and consumers alike. While the basic ideas of storytelling are easy enough to pick up, there are deeper ideas worth looking into that can help you build a better storytelling plan for future content. At the end of the day, a better story is a better story, and it’s one that lasts longer for those who enjoy it.

As a graduate of a big, fancy film program that specialized in writing, I’m pretty well-versed in these storytelling ideas, so I figured I’d use my otherwise-useless film degree and talk story for a bit. Since a lot of great content today relies on telling stories, these lessons can give your editorial calendar a boost.

The Hero’s Journey, aka Every Story You Like

The first storytelling concept worth learning about is the Hero’s Journey, an idea made popular (and given that name) by Joseph Campbell. Campbell was essentially an archaeologist of stories, taking apart various myths and legends and seeing how they worked, becoming an expert in the how of telling a great, lasting story.

The Hero’s Journey, or “monomyth,” works by creating a rising path for a hero, a series of trials that hero will need to deal with, and a path to the end of their story from there. When it came time for George Lucas to put together Star Wars, he followed the rules of the Hero’s Journey and built the original trilogy.

The first Star Wars film from the 1970s, later subtitled A New Hope, works as a perfect telling of the Hero’s Journey: Luke finds R2-D2 (a bleeping, blooping call to action), is trained by Obi-Wan to become a hero, loses Obi-Wan, beats all odds and destroys the bad guys.

The later two stories of the original trilogy then essentially bind A New Hope into a larger telling of the story, with Empire Strikes Back becoming the “things go bad” middle section of the legend and Return of the Jedi acting as the triumphant final battle of good vs. evil.

In fact, the six films of the combined original and prequel trilogies work as a sort of wanna-be Journey for Anakin Skywalker, the man who would be Vader. Mind you, there is an awfully large stopover in the dark place for Anakin, what with the voice change and the black leather.

Other stories that follow the path of the journey include The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games (at least the first book of the series, it gets a bit weird from there), the 2009 Star Trek movie, and most books, comics, movies, and video games. The Hero’s Journey is essentially the “cheat code” to writing a solid story.

Am I well-versed enough to try to boil the complicated idea of the Hero’s Journey down into a simple chart that will make everything super-clear and easy to figure out for the future? Sadly, no.

Luckily, there’s a smarter guy who already did it.

The Story Circle and You: A Love Story

StoryCircle C0mmunityCommunity creator and former showrunner Dan Harmon has spent a good chunk of his storytelling life preaching the gospel of the story circle, or “embryo” as he calls it. The circle came to prominence thanks to a Wired profile on Harmon released before the premiere of the third season that delved deep into the writer’s history and various hang-ups.

What Harmon has done is to “boil down” the complex nature of the Hero’s Journey into eight simple steps. He’s also been extremely open about the process, posting the “embryos” of Community episodes, like the Hugo-nominatedRemedial Chaos Theory,” which delved into various alternate universes based on the roll of a die.

While it is important to understand that the story circle is simply a guide and framework for stories, there are plenty of independent bloggers who have loved the idea and incorporated it into their own methods. Personally, I’ve shifted my entire fiction-writing process to accommodate the concept of the embryo. It’s a simple tool for a complex process and anything that can streamline storytelling is well worth looking into.

There are plenty of valuable lessons from film school that are relatively easy to pick up, but one of the keys for building better stories is knowing how they are put together. Hopefully, the story circle can be a first step into the deeper world of storytelling.

What’s your favorite story based in the Hero’s Journey? How do you use storytelling in your blog?


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Michael is a graduate of New York University’s Film and Television program. He specialized in writing, channeling a passion for storytelling, no matter the medium. In addition to his work at CEM, Michael primarily works in web content production, including projects like Geek Crash Course, a geek-educational series, the Ansible, a comics-based interview show, live performance series The Next Lab Sessions, and many more. In addition, he’s written and edited for the digitally distributed Champion! Magazine.

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