I get it. It works. You find your archetype, change a few characters around and BAM you’ve written Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. If only it were that simple. Screenwriting coaches like Robert McKee suggest that the primary task of a writer is to follow an archetypal narrative structure. In his book Story, McKee draws on Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell to claim that plot, all plot, follows an archetype of some sort and that the primary consideration in writing should be in constructing this plot. He suggests this is a surefire way to success in the fields of screen and novel writing. It worked for George Lucas, for example, who heavily relied on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s quest in the writing of Star Wars. According to this line of thinking, writers should approach their work primarily thinking about plot; this element of writing supersedes other considerations such as technique and style.
I’m not against plot, nor am I against the use of myth or achetype as the basis of plot. Every film or book (other than a few experimental works) have some kind of conflict, and it’s not as if I write meandering plotless monologues or something. It’s just that as a writer, I first ask myself, “What do I want to say?” “What kind of a character do I want to explore?” “How will I convey the message?” Only then do I ask, “What will happen in the story?” Other writers approach writing, as McKee suggests, first with a narrative premise and then find characters, voice and technique to match it. But this has never been my method of working.
This is also reflected in the fact that I’m a sucker for films and books with distinct style and technique. So take, for example, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a film that some would say is too stylish, too contrived, and too lacking in narrative. But, for me, that’s the appeal. It’s about the feeling; it’s about the mood, as even the film’s title suggests. Anything at all could have happened in the story and I would still be impressed with Wong’s technique and the mood he sets through the visuals, music, and so on.
In literature, too, I’m always more impressed by how a writer writes and what they have to say, then whether the plot was engaging. I recall Miriam Toews once saying that her acclaimed novel A Complicated Kindness was praised by one critic “save for the sheer lack of plot.” Personally, I never noticed. The voice of Nomi Nickel was so compelling that the fact that “not much happened” didn’t really bother me. I picked up Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch because I had heard of its unconventional structure, not because something about the story interested me. The same could be said of my attraction to the work of Dave Eggers and Italo Calvino – it was technique and style that drew me to their work.
Still, I’m well aware that, as McKee says, many of the most successful films and books in our society are more narratively-driven. I’m aware that many readers don’t notice style. Many film-goers don’t focus on cinematography or mis-en-scene. You might say that our society is “addicted to plot,” as plot is the primary element that many people discuss when finishing a book or exiting a theatre. They tell their friends “what the movie was about,” rather than “how was the story told.” They’ll discuss story elements much more readily than technique or even the message of a book or film.
If this is true, then should a writer bother with unconventional technique or distinct voice. Why bother if no one will notice them? Can I write effectively if I make the plot fit the style, rather than the style fit the plot?
I think perhaps McKee and others are a bit too simplistic in their understanding of what appeals to people. While people may not comment much about technique, it does have an impact. I would argue it is as impactful as your selection of genre or archetype. A poorly written book will not be well received even if it follows every plot point of the monomyth.
Likewise an author can be fairly certain that while some will only focus on plot, there are others who will notice technique and style and voice. If Wong Kar-Wai can find an audience, then so can any of us, even if, perhaps, we are not as supremely talented as the master of Hong Kong art cinema.
So while I find McKee’s ideas interesting, and I’m actually quite the fan of Northrop Frye, I cannot agree with his dogmatic adherence to plot and plot alone as the task of the writer.