Hero’s journey or Procrustean bed?

Posted: November 9, 2011 in thoughts
Tags: , , , , ,

Procrustes is a man after my own heart in certain circumstances.

In case you haven’t heard of him, he’s the ancient Greek who stretched people or cut off bits of their legs to fit them into his bed, which was standard size. They had to do it his way!

The main place this Procrustean habit shows up is when my other half and I are doing a crossword and are unsure how to spell an esoteric word. Yes, I know, I could get out the dictionary or improve my spelling in numerable ways. But sometimes, it’s just easier to say, “Oh leave out the S, then it’ll fit!”

People do all sorts of things in life in this way – hence the phrase Procrustean bed. It implies making something, or some property of something, fit into an arbitrary standard.

Wikipedia gives this lovely example:

“A Procrustean solution is the undesirable practice of tailoring data to fit its container or some other preconceived structure. A common example from the business world is embodied in the notion that no résumé should exceed one page in length.”

So where does the hero’s journey come in all this? (You can check out the detail here.)

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

Well I had the wonderful experience again last Saturday of meeting up with lots of other SCBWI members in York, who are part of NE SCBWI. It was such fun to not be alone, to hear from other writers and illustrators of children’s books, to mix and be accepted (thanks, all!). And on Saturday, we were discussing – or in my case disputing – the fitting of stories into the stages of the hero’s journey. Let me say up front that  Maureen Lynas (@MaureenLynas on Twitter) was a brilliant leader for the discussion and her own stories are great, so this is not an “argument” with her topic for the day but about the idea of formula.

There’s no point disputing that this kind of story has appeared in all cultures all over the world throughout time. But if we then decide all stories must fit in this form, if we jiggle the bones and sinews to make it so, are we not stretching toes or cutting off legs simply to feel the safety of “fitting the bed”?

Something in me rebels against this. Not because I don’t think there’s some sound evidence. But because we are human beings. Not only can we manage to invent things that work even when they hang over the bed, but we have an instinctual need for certainty and safety. And this is the danger zone: gaining a warm, secure feeling because we’ve made our story fit the one-size bed, the hero’s journey.

I just can’t do it. It’s great to realise that elements of my story do indeed seem to reflect this pattern. And I’ll be certain to think about that hero person if my story starts to look uncomfortable in its bed. But otherwise, I’ll stick with what I’ve got and shout out for diversity.

  1. kmlockwood says:

    Well expressed, Eleanor and I appreciate your zeal for innovation. In fairness to Maureen, though, I think she was just promoting a useful structure because, without a doubt, we need shape to our stories.


    • Thanks for stopping by. I knew Maureen didn’t mean all stories but we were struggling to fit some of the named ones in! Mind you, we named them, so that’s maybe our fault. I think I’d have liked to halt the struggle and agree it didn’t work for some stories, that’s all! Shape is dead important. Agreed. I might write about a strange “shape” I dreamt up in my next post actually…


  2. Karen Laing says:

    Nice to meet you on Saturday! Yes, I do agree with you, I think most stories have elements of The Hero’s Journey, some to the letter (e.g – Star Wars) they weave in and out taking what they need from the structure. I think it’s just the natural order of storytelling and can and does move around depending on the tale. I don’t have a mentor as such in my book, the one that can loosely be labelled that comes way further down in my sequence of events! I guess the advice (which I ‘think’ Vogler states himself) is to use it as a guide only!!! Great topic though, and really useful to know, if only to reject it. 🙂 🙂


    • Yes, I can accept it as a guide! Perhaps I’d better get Vogler’s book and see what he really said. At Key Stage 2 they teach the “mountain” version of structure and that has too many post-worse-problem scenarios for me. That sort of structure would suit a Scott Mariani book (or similar) I guess. And cosy crime dramas must respond to something else altogether I reckon. It’s an interesting topic.


  3. Sam Zuppardi says:

    Sounds like Saturday provided some hearty debate!
    I guess knowing rules and templates can be useful – whether you find using them helps your writing or whether you decide to break or subvert them. They are just guidelines after all, not dogma.
    I’ve always liked the story of Procrustes, thank you for reminding me of him.
    Oh, and your blog looks great!


    • Yes, I rather like him too – so inventive! Yet stuck in his rut – or bed… Thanks for your comment about the blog – afraid the credit goes to WordPress designers! They’re good, aren’t they?


  4. […] Hero’s Journey vs. Procrustean Bed – a great post from a blogger that understands the difference between guide and doctrine. Instead of top-down normative thinking, play with bottom-up descriptive. The journey starts with each and every one of us as individuals, having to take individual, personal steps. […]


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