A popular post from February 2008
by Annette Lyon
I've discussed elements in Vogler's book The Writer's Journey, which is all about the classic mythical structure of "The Hero's Journey" here and here.
Those earlier posts discussed character archetypes and one particular element of the journey (death and rebirth, or the "Resurrection" scene). I thought it was time to discuss the journey itself.
Each step along the way could take up several posts (and indeed takes up its own chapter in Vogler's book). Every story won't use every step, and they aren't always in this order. But I've found the mythic Hero's Journey to be a great guideline, a template that you can refer to when creating an infinite number of brand new storylines.
The mythical story structure has helped me to pack a greater punch in my own writing. If you can read some of Vogler's work, I highly recommend it. I know I'll never read books or watch movies the same way again. Note that The Writer's Journey is out of print, but Vogler has published other works since, and you can likely find a used copy of this one.
Using the classic movie Star Wars, here are the basic elements of the Hero's Journey:
The Ordinary World
We are introduced to the Hero and his/her circumstances. We learn who he is, what he stands for, and possibly what problem is bothering him. Very often the problem we learn about in the beginning isn't the same one we end up solving by the end, because the final problem usually has much higher stakes.
SW: Farm boy Luke Skywalker living a releatively peaceful existence. Although he's an orphan, he lives with his loving aunt and uncle.
Call to Adventure
We learn that the status quo is being upset and that our Hero must take action and go on an adventure. Often a person delivers this call (Gandalf), but sometimes it's an object (the letters from Hogwarts).
SW: We have two calls. First is for the audience, where we learn that Princess Leia has been kidnapped. The second is when Obi Wan wants Luke's help with C-3PO and R2-D2, because they hold the plans to the dangerous Death Star.
Refusal of the Call
The Hero declines the adventure, whether from a character flaw or other reason. He lacks the motivation to leave the Ordinary World, and the call must be issued again.
SW: Luke refuses to help Obi Wan. Luke's motivation changes when until Storm Troopers destroy his village and kill everyone in it, including his aunt and uncle. Now the stakes are higher, and he has a reason to fight.
Meeting with the MentorThis may happen earlier if the Mentor is acting as the Herald and delivering the Call to Adventure. Alternately, the Mentor can give the Hero a "kick in the pants" (as Vogler puts it) to get the Hero movitated and the story off to its real start.
The Mentor trains and/or teaches the Hero and often bestows a tangible gift to the Hero as well.
SW: As a Jedi himself, Obi Wan trains Luke to use the force. He give Luke his father’s light saber.
Crossing the First Threshold
The Hero leaves the comfort of the Ordinary World and enters the unfamiliar territory of the Special World. Once he crosses over, he has committed to the adventure, life (and The Ordinary World) will never be the same again.
Often the Hero will be tested by a Threshold Guardian (a character or situation) blocking his path, which he must get beyond to prove that he's committed and worthy of being the Hero. Arriving in the Special World can be another test, as we see how quickly the Hero adapts to the rules of the new World.
A "Watering Hole" scene is common after arrival, where the Hero meets locals in a tavern or other public place of food and refreshment. A brawl or other test may appear.
SW: Luke travels to find a pilot to help, and he meets Han Solo in a tavern.
Test, Allies, EnemiesThis portion covers a good chunk of the middle portion of the story. The Hero is tested in increasingly challenging ways. He learns who are his allies and who are his enemies.
SW: Han Solo & Chewbacca become Allies to aid in the rescue of Princess Leia. They get through an Imperial blockade, discover that the Princess's home planet of Alderaan has been destroyed by the Death Star, etc.
Approach to the Inmost CaveThe Hero is given an even greater test as he gets through more obstacles and must use his recently-learned skills as he approaches the darkest place that will hold the greatest danger and his ultimate Ordeal.
SW: They are pulled into the Death Star.
ResurrectionThe Hero dies or appears to die and is "reborn" with new life and determination, new lessons learned. This propels him into the final act.
SW: Luke appears to die in the Death Star's trash compactor, but reemerges triumphant and ready to fight again.
OrdealA true test of the Hero, that challenges him to draw upon all the lessons he's learned and all the skills he's acquired on the journey. He often battles the Shadow (the villain) and will have to sacrifice, often allies.
SW: The huge battle at the Death Star.
Reward—Seizing the SwordThe Hero emerges from the Ordeal triumphant, carrying the "sword," or whatever symbolizes that success, whether it's accomplishment of a mission or capture of a treasure.
SW: The Death Star is destroyed
The Road Back
The Hero begins heading back to the Ordinary World, but encounters new struggles along the way (chases are common here). He must cleanse himself of the battles he's been through.
SW: Darth Vader & his henchmen chase the heroes as they try to make their escape.
Return with the ElixirThe Hero returns triumphant, having proven himself a true Hero. He has the Elixer, which is a something valuble he has learned, acquired, or accomplished that he shares with others.
SW: Luke has (for now) defeated Darth Vader and restored peace to the galaxy.
That's a brief overview, but it should be enough to get you thinking of some of the plot structures in your own work. Do you have a death/rebirth? What is the Elixer your Hero will return with? Does your Hero have enough Threshold Guardians, blocking his way and proving his mettle?
Play with the forms and analyze some of your favorite stories to see what elements fit where. It's a great structural exercise that will enhance your writing.