Is Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” relevant or useful when writing erotica?
I’ve been using the monomyth or the hero’s journey, as it’s also known, as a writing aid, and more specifically as a plotting tool, for longer than I’ve been writing erotica. I’ve been writing erotica for about four years now, but I’ve always written fiction—literally for decades—and the fact that I really learned a lot of my writing craft as an aspiring script writer should give some clue as to why I continue to refer back to the monomyth on a regular basis.
If you’re new to the whole idea of the Hero’s Journey, let me explain.
What is the monomyth and who is Joseph Campbell?
Joseph Campbell was an American academic who worked in the field of mythology and comparative religion. He postulated the theory that all great narratives were versions of a single great story, which he wrote about in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He cited the stories of Buddha, Moses and Jesus as examples of the monomyth, and the concept has been widely studied in relation to thousands of traditional and modern stories that can be seen to follow the monomyth’s structural framework.
More recently, Hollywood development executive Christopher Vogler brought Campbell’s theory to a fresh audience in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This was developed from a legendary 7-page memo he sent out to Disney screenwriters as a practical guide to narrative structure. (Got the connection now?)
Campbell outlined 17 steps, while Vogler compressed these into 12—but essentially, both men suggested a three act structure that should be followed to create a successful and satisfying story arc. I won’t outline the steps in this article—if you google either the monomyth or the Hero’s Journey, you’ll find literally hundreds of articles and graphic representations of the work of both men, and if you’re not familiar with the concept, I’d suggest you take a look, as it’s a fascinating theory about what makes a story resonate with its audience.
In a nutshell, the idea is that the main protagonist is drawn out of his/her ordinary world or comfort zone and undertakes a journey that incorporates challenges and trials. At the midway point there is a revelation or death/rebirth experience that transforms the hero before his return, rewarded, to his ordinary world. Fairy tales, myths, religious texts and blockbuster movies can all be shown to follow this universal structure.
But what about erotica?
The monomyth in relation to erotica
What’s the difference between erotica and porn? For erotica writers, the answer to this question should be obvious. We tell stories that involve emotional depth and growth, while porn recounts sexual acts in graphic detail. Porn deals with the physicality of sex, while erotica, though often detailing the physical action, concerns itself with the connection and conflict between its protagonists. (Yes, there’s plenty more that could be said on this subject, but that’s not the point of this post.)
What I’m really saying is, that if you want to write erotica, rather than just porn, you need to concern yourself with the story you’re telling. This particularly holds true if you’re moving out of the area of flash fiction and shorts into novellas and longer works. To keep your readers reading rather than simply using your sex scenes as wank-fodder, you need to take as much care about your story development as the writers in any other genre.
Using the monomyth as a writing tool is all about creating page-turners. It’s not something that you would apply to flash fiction, vignettes, poetry or experimental writing. It’s about crafting the narrative journey that you take your readers on in such a way that they’ll be compelled to ride it right to the end. It will help you to create a story that resonates with and satisfies your readers. The type of story that will have them clamouring for your next book and the one after that, because reading your work ultimately gives them what they’re looking for.
So, yes, if you care about a getting a good storyline into your erotica, there’s room for the hero’s journey in your writer’s tool box.
But how do you apply the monomyth to an erotic novel?
Now, you’ve looked at the stages of the hero’s journey, and it’s all about adventure and challenges, the belly of the whale, crossing thresholds, ultimate boons, magic flight and resurrection… What does any of that have to do with erotica or erotic romance?
The thing is, the monomyth is a template. You can either use it to structure your story from the start (this, if you’re a plotter), or you can refer to it when you run up against plot problems while you’re writing (the pantser option!). The 12 or 17 steps (depending on which version you’re using) are not all compulsory and as often as not don’t quite fit your outline, or seem to work in a different order—but if you can learn to interpret these plot points in relation to your erotic scenario, you’ll should discover where your plot weaknesses are and how to make your story telling more robust.
For example, in the very first Star Wars movie (which incidentally fits brilliantly into the monomyth structure), the first step—the Call to Adventure—is Luke’s discovery of Leia’s appeal for help. A quite literal call to adventure. In the less gung ho world of erotica, your call to adventure might be a chance meeting with a potential lover, an invitation to a party or a club, a relationship break-up that forces the protagonist back on the dating scene, first day at a new job…or any of a thousand other prompts that pushes your hero or heroine into a new situation, out of their comfort zone.
Then the second step, the Refusal of the Call. Luke makes excuses not to get involved with the rebels. Your protagonist comes up with a good reason not to go to the party or have lunch with the new boss. And so on through the stages.
In other words, it’s just writing to a formula?
If you take the steps and build your plot from them, then yes, you’ll certainly be following a formula. But that doesn’t mean you have write something formulaic. Let me liken this to building a house—just because you put in the same solid foundations as the other houses in the street, doesn’t mean the building above them needs to look the same—you can build it as different or avant garde as you want. But your foundation will give you a secure footing. Sure, you don’t need the monomyth to write red hot, sizzling sex scenes. However, practically all the epic stories that have come to us down the centuries, and the tales that we’ve come to love in our own lifetimes can be interpreted in terms of the monomyth. It’s a universal story template that you can use to your advantage.
Look at the stories you’ve already written and see how they fit the template. The good stories will follow its structure to a certain extent, the less successful ones, not so much. There’s no need to be a slave to the monomyth—but if you make it your tool, you can use it to improve the underlying foundation of your story, either before you start writing, when you stumble in the middle or when you review it at the end. It will help you to understand where your plot is working and where it’s floundering.
And that’s something all of us, as writers, can benefit from.
By RegHarris4Wiki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Robot image : Caleb Roenigk via flikr