The word “myth” conjures up images of grandiose classical society, or in general terms anything unreal. The same exaggerated proportions and escalating steps that worked for Homer’s The Odyssey also have a place in modern movies.

Myths are about themes—repeated symbols that allow us to make sense of our surroundings. Myth-based movies work because they rely on human commonalities and the way we all think.

For example, we all grow old and pass on our roles to new generations. The tri-generational cycle is the succession myth, the basis for such movies as The Lion King.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, is a Hollywood story developer. Vogler has served as a story expert on successful movies including Black Swan, The Wrestler and Hancock.

The same structure that made these movies successful can work for you too.

1. The World is Full of Patterns

The world is a well-designed system of reciprocal motifs and patterns. Through these we gain a sense of familiarity and better understand new situations.

The opening scene to a myth-based movie is a two-minute introduction to the hero’s life and world. Visuals are crucial—we learn about the hero through the hero’s appearance, and the opening scene also gives clues to the hero’s background. We learn what comprises the hero’s “Ordinary World.”

In 1994’s The Lion King, directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, Chris Vogler provided additional story material. Nature is the master of recurring patterns. The Lion King’s opening panorama introduces us to the varied savanna creatures, but they all have common movements. Immediately we see too Simba’s significance in his world.

2. Epic Tales Have Epic Impact

In our extremist age, myth works because it is fatalistic and incredible. Myth-based movies are not based on the facts as much as they are on the legendary.

In any myth-based movie, a definite “Call to Adventure” occurs early on. The hero commits to a quest and the audience involves itself with the hero’s journey.

In tales of epic proportions, epic reactions result. Myth-based movies leave viewers stunned and offer full catharsis.

Chris Vogler consulted on the story for I Am Legend (2007), Francis Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic feature. The title says all. We are enthralled because human nature is curious about the trials facing the “last man on earth.”

3. Everyone Wants Something

Human beings are avaricious creatures—we want. We want what we can’t have. We want what others have. We want what we used to have. Most of all we want our lives to be different, better.

The quest is about specific desires. For the hero, the “Crossing the Threshold” signifies change coming, and the hero’s commitment to the journey. We identify with the hero’s search—it reminds us of something we too seek.

Vogler consulted with director Terrence Malick about the story for his 1998 war movie, The Thin Red Line. In protagonist Witt’s letter to his wife at home, Witt enumerates his wants—to see her, but also to “stay changeless,” which he and the audience both know is impossible.

4. We Can’t Always Win

Life is hard and sometimes we fail. Since childhood we have known sometimes the other guy gets the best of us. The hero’s ultimate test, the “Ordeal,” should be so difficult he should fail.
We empathise with the hero because we too have been in situations when no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t come out on top.

The challenge is so demanding the hero questions himself and his life is often endangered. The audience believes the hero has died or failed.

Vogler was a story consultant on David Fincher’s 1999 hit, Fight Club. The movie works because its nameless hero is the everyman—beaten down by society and about to face the greatest challenge of his life.

5. The Takeaway Lesson

Good movies change how we view our own lives. In this sense, we share the hero’s lesson. While the hero’s quest may be for a tangible reward, the real reward becomes the moral realisation.

The takeaway is the culmination of the two cinematic hours that came before. The takeaway lesson could be as brief as a single emphatic image, or it could develop into a full scene.

Vogler worked on the story of Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film, The Wrestler. While The Wrestler has been criticised on the grounds that it recycles old stories, so does almost every film. Myth is the collective of human experience.

In The Wrestler’s final scene, “The Ram” accepts his identity and decides his fate. He belongs in the ring, he concludes, the only place where people care for him.

Fade Out

Myth-based movies contain themes of death and resurrection. The death may be figurative, but as Tyler says in Fight Club, you have to go all the way down before you can do what you never thought you could.

Myth is the most reliable and time-tested secret to a strong story. Myths have been around since the first words were spoken, and will be as long as the human race.

To learn more about how to make the myth structure work for your story, look into Chris Vogler’s master-class, hosted by Raindance in Toronto and London. I wish you the best of luck on your quest to make a successful film.