Deconstructing “City Slickers”

vogler 2Chris Vogler was ACFW’s Early Bird speaker, and an impressive one at that. Mr. Vogler has quite a list of creds attached to his name, particularly with Hollywood. His book, The Writer’s Journey, is a best seller among writing manuals, especially for screen writers. And it was from this book that he taught our four-hour course.

The class was basically about story structure, something we’ve all studied–or should have, if you’re a writer. But some of the things he said resonated with me better than other structure studies, and his paradigm really hit home, even if some of his terminology confused me (something I’ll discuss more when we get to it).

city slickersAlthough he used The Wizard of Oz for his example throughout the study, I couldn’t help thinking how well his paradigm fit City Slickers, maybe because I’d seen it recently. For fun, I watched the movie again and sketched its structure using Vogler’s charts. This week, I’ll lead you through what I learned. Perhaps it will help you like it helped me, but believe me, it won’t replace getting Mr. Vogler’s book and studying it yourself.

If you haven’t seen City Slickers before, or if it has been a while, check it out. It’s a fun movie, though there is some language, and there are a few places some of my readers may find offensive or at the very least embarrassing. I taped it off TV long ago, so some of the more awkward things were edited; but some of the good parts were edited, too, particularly parts that help with characterization. It’s what I had though, short of renting it from Amazon or something, so I just went with it.

Here’s Mr. Vogler’s first chart:

early bird 2You may not be able to see that very well, but what it depicts is that Act 1 and Act 3 happen in the same place–the hero’s Ordinary World. The bottom half of the circle, Acts 2A and 2B, shows the Special World we thrust him into. Act 1 is called “Separation,” Act 2A is “Descent,” Act 2B, “Initiation,” and Act 3 is “Return.”

In his second graph, Mr. Vogler showed what specific things are to happen in each quadrant of the circle:

early bird 1I’ll show this again with each post, and probably each act I present, but you can see that Act 1 carries a heavy load. This is what others call “the set-up.” This includes showing the character’s ordinary world, his call to adventure and retreat from the call, meeting the mentor, and crossing the threshold.

The first thing we have to do is illustrate the character’s Ordinary World, so let’s see how it’s done in City Slickers.

The movie starts with a prologue that takes place in Pamplona, Spain, for–what else?–the running of the bulls.

city slicers pamplona

In this scene we meet the characters and learn a bit about them. In the red beret, we have “Ed” (Bruno Kirby),  then “Mitch” (Billy Crystal), and “Phil” (Daniel Stern). This isn’t their “ordinary world,” but going on daring and adventurous vacations is an annual event for them, so we’re establishing what’s customary.

Mitch is the main character, a run-of-the-mill, reluctant, accidental hero, as is indicated by the fact he lasted longer in the bull run than his friends–but got a horn in the butt for his trouble. That’s one of the first nibbles we get at Mitch’s character. He’s quick witted, but ordinary. He’s the stable one, the one with his feet firmly on the ground–when he’s not flying through the air after a bull tosses him. Phil is married to Attiliana the Hun, a very demanding diva who has him totally cowed, and Ed landed a beautiful woman we later discover is a lingerie model.

city slickers sonWhen we move from the prologue into the first scene, we learn a bit more about Mitch’s Ordinary World and discover his self-image. He’s 39, married with two kids, and it’s his birthday. Another annual event is for him to be depressed on his birthday. He’s in a rut and failing at his job (he “sells air” for a radio station).

Phil works for his father-in-law as the manager of a grocery store. He feigns sleep to avoid talking to his wife. He had been cheating on her with one of the store checkers, and she discovers this during Mitch’s birthday party in a wonderfully explosive scene.

Ed is the thrill-seeker, and the next adventure he lines up for his pals is a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. He gives this opportunity to Mitch as his birthday present. This is our “Call to Adventure,” #2 on the chart. Mitch balks at the notion (“Refusal of the Call,”#3), which takes very little time–a simple “I can’t go,” followed by an excuse: he has to go to his in-laws’ house in Florida. His wife is counting on him.

But his wife, Barbara, doesn’t back him up on this. According to her, she’s not saying, “It’s okay if you don’t go with us.” She’s saying, “I don’t want you to go with us.”

Here, his wife is serving as the Mentor. According to Mr. Vogler, a story can have several mentors, or it can have only one. Ordinarily, the mentor does his job, then disappears–maybe to reappear later, or maybe another mentor will come along. But the job of the mentor is to give the character the push that motivates him.

Barbara gives him the push and a mission: “Go find your smile.”

Wednesday, I’ll show him on his quest to fulfill his mission, using Act 2A and 2B of Mr. Vogler’s chart.



About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing How-To Books, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Deconstructing “City Slickers”

  1. K.M. Weiland says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Vogler uses City Slickers as an example in his book (or maybe it was Hauge’s). At any rate, good analysis!


  2. jeanlauzier says:

    I LOVE this book. It’s the one writing book every writer should read…often.


  3. Lynn Mosher says:

    Linda, I find this very interesting. Even for me! 😉 (If anyone else reads this, I write non-fiction!) Thanks for this. Look forward to the next installment! 😀


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