When we read a book or see a film (and love it), we instinctively know it had a formula that worked. What we don’t consciously realise is that the formula used is one that has in fact, run endlessly on repeat. A magical writing potion utilised in the majority of films and books we have loved. An intrinsic tool in successful novel and script writing for generations.
Ladies and gentlemen I give you…… “The Hero’s Journey”.
What? Like the Prince kissing Snow White when she’s in her glass coffin?? She wakes up, spits up some apple and defeats the Wicked Queen??? He’s a hero.
Well not exactly, but you’re in the ball park.
This ‘formula’ was identified by Joseph Campbell, who outlined his theories in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1949). Campbell sets out that the great historical myths and stories all share an underlying structure he names the ‘monomyth’. When I first read the odd quote from Mr. Campbell I went….. meh. It was all a tad Dungeons and Dragons for simplistic me. However, I studiously started looking into how it works as it is so widely recognised and used. The steps have been clarified by smart people for the, ‘I don’t have time to wade through all that’ kind of person. Such as myself. I read through those steps – and then thought about many of the films and literature I love.
Revelation! Mr. Joseph Campbell was bang on.
Of course it’s easy to look at a work retrospectively and think, I see what they did there. As a writer, the challenge is to create characters and plot that seamlessly integrate the theory. You can’t just put together a pile of badly written hooey following the steps, and expect success. One writer who came into my mind as soon as I had my mini revelation was the magnificent Tolkien.
Now, my classroom teacher in Grade 6 was rather an idiot, but I can thank him for one thing. Once a week he sat us down and read us a chapter from “The Hobbit”. I was enthralled. Little Bilbo Baggins and his epic journey. Gollum, Gandalf, Smaug the dragon, a collection of dwarves and a magic Ring that made you disappear. What ten year old wouldn’t be enraptured. To me, it was simply an incredible story and I recognised it as really well written. What I didn’t recognise was that I was being read a rather expert version of the “The Hero’s Journey”. As the book was written in 1937, Tolkien wasn’t even using the template. He was just a damned fine writer.
So what are the steps? There are various interpretations available. I give here a nice, clear version from What is the hero’s journey? (screenwriting.io). They give us the twelve step model.
1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
7. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
8. where they endure THE ORDEAL.
9. They take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on the ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.
It’s still a tad Dungeons and Dragons because of Campbell’s emphasis on mythology. So is “The Hobbit”, which makes that classic little book an excellent study. Tolkien nailed it all again with stunning expertise in “The Lord of The Rings”. (Which isn’t so little……..) ..
The steps themselves can be adapted and tweaked for almost any setting and most genres. The hero must have capacity for change and must face an ordeal. Considering no-one really enjoys a book or film where the protagonist is static and learns nothing, “The Hero’s Journey” is quite an intrinsic part of good storytelling. I’d been chucking it about in a clumsy kind of way for years before I consciously knew what I was doing.
In the case of Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton, his ordinary world is his little home in the Shire. His call to adventure is the arrival of the dwarves and the unexpected invitation to go on their quest as a burglar. He refuses to go but, with Gandalf as his mentor, crosses the first threshold and sets off. Thus begins his tale of tests, allies and enemies as he travels. He crosses the second threshold and encounters both Gollum and Smaug as his ordeal. His reward is the infamous Ring, and recognition as an honoured member of the party and successful burglar. His party are pursued but victorious and he crosses the third threshold resurrected and changed by all his adventures. He will never be the same little domesticated, sheltered hobbit of old. He returns home to the Ordinary World with the treasure of the Ring.
Snaps for Tolkien. Magnificent effort.
I unconsciously learned much, hearing this tale in Grade 6. Sadly I didn’t ‘unconsciously’ learn any maths at the same time, a subject which still eludes me to this day.
Once you know the drill, you can merrily analyse all your favourites. From “Aliens” to “Gladiator” (both by Ridley Scott who is a master) the steps of a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary are all set out. The first is in outer space and the second is set in Ancient Rome. Makes no difference. Sometimes that final journey and victory can be pyrrhic. At the end of “Gladiator” Maximus doesn’t make it out alive. Yet he is rewarded and resurrected through his journey into the Afterlife to join his murdered wife and son. He restores Rome to the people through the Emperor’s death, thereby giving the Ordinary World a treasure through his actions. “The Hero’s Journey” is a versatile and wonderful device.
So there you have it.
Just thought I’d leave you with a picture of Russ. Not for educational purposes. The man has many faults, but it has to be said….. Whilst sitting on a horse in a skirt looking sexy growling, “What we do in Life, Echoes in Eternity”, he has a certain something that makes me go all thing. Academically, I’ll put it down to his portrayal of a great character in a film epitomising “The Hero’s Journey”. In truth, I think it’s mostly the burly buff biceps. Good storytelling with heroic, gruff allure. Five Academy Awards can’t be wrong.
I’ll just pretend I never watched “Les Miserables”, wipe that troubling memory and keep the Crowe magic alive………
What is the hero’s journey?
#writing #herosjourney #novels #screenplays #journalism