Friday, October 11
Plotting With the Hero's Journey
On Monday we talked about the Three-Act Structure, which leads perfectly into the next most popular narrative structure--the Hero’s Journey. (And we'll move on to the next two shortly, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat and Michael Hague's Six Stage Plotting Structure) You can pretty much overlay any story onto these two structures.
The Hero's Journey is an archetypal narrative structure created by Joseph Campbell to describe the basic myth format used in storytelling for centuries—the hero on an adventure. It covers classic turning points and elements of the journey that are the basis for most modern storytelling formats.
These elements are metaphoric in nature. For example, "the reward" doesn’t also mean literal treasure or wealth, just a victory of some type. The hero “wins” something and is “rewarded.”
I’ll add in [brackets] where this aligns with the Three-Act Structure for comparison since we just talked about that. It should make it easier to show how these structures work together. I'll also mention areas where this overlaps the Save the Cat Structure (which I'll cover next week).
The Ordinary World: The hero is introduced to readers within the setting of his typical environment and life in a sympathetic way. There’s a problem, and he’s being pulled in multiple directions, uncertain how to proceed. [The opening scene]
This is what folks are talking about when they say start with the protagonist in the normal world. It doesn't mean show a boring life, it's that "things are about to happen" moment that allows for contrast between the life the protagonist lives and what he's about to be thrown into.
The Call to Adventure: Something happens to trigger the hero to act, or the hero is dragged into something that is happening. This call is the beginning of change for the hero. [The inciting event]
Something gets the protagonist into the story. If this isn't the inciting event itself, it'll be the catalyst that gets the protagonist there.
Refusal of the Call: Out of fear, the hero refuses the call (tries not to act). Other characters might also express fear or concern over the adventure as well, setting up the stakes and all the reasons why the hero shouldn’t go on this adventure. [Beginning of character arc]
This is when you show the flaw or weakness of the protagonist, and establish the stakes. It's all the reasons why this adventure is a bad idea. (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is called the debate section)
Meeting with the Mentor: The hero runs into someone who will give him training, guidance, or wisdom that will help him on this journey. This inspires him to answer the call and start the adventure.
Not every story will have a mentor, and those that do might not be the "wise old man" character the word mentor makes brings to mind. A best friend with good advice can work as this archetype. Think of it as anyone who gives the protagonist advice or help that will aid them on the adventure.
Crossing the Threshold: The end of act one, where the hero leaves the ordinary world and begins the journey into the unknown, facing unfamiliar rules and situations. [Act one choice]
The protagonist leaves the normal world and jumps into the chaos of the plot. It's a choice to act, even if it's a choice where there "is no choice." (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is where the protagonist's world gets turned upside down and things change)
Test, Allies, and Enemies: The hero undergoes the trials and tests as he learns how to navigate the new, unfamiliar world. [First half of act two]
It's all about the struggle here. The protagonist tries to achieve things and stuff keeps getting dumped on him. Often, the tests and struggles are more "fun" here, because the stakes haven't been hiked up to serious levels yet. (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is called the fun and games section)
Approach: The hero prepares for a significant challenge in the unfamiliar world.
Things start getting serious and the protagonist can see something pretty big that has to be done or dealt with.
The Ordeal: The hero confronts death and faces his greatest fear. [Midpoint]
No matter what the structure, the middle has something significant going on.
The Reward: The hero is rewarded for facing death. Celebration may occur, but the risk of losing the reward is also there. [Second half of act two]
Instead of a loss (which is common in both the Three-Act Structure and Save the Cat), the protagonist achieves a small victory. The trick is holding onto that "reward."
The Road Back: The hero is racing to finish the adventure and return home with the reward, often with adversaries chasing him.
Things start off looking good for the protagonist, but then he realizes that people are after him and he might not get to keep the reward. He thinks he's won, but then things start falling apart. He has to figure out how to keep the reward. (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is the bad guys close in section)
The Resurrection: The climax, where the hero is tested once more. He resolves his inner conflict by facing death or making a sacrifice, and emerges purified. [The climax]
The climax, with a metaphorical "dies and is reborn" element. This correlates with digging deep and figuring out that last piece needed to finish the character arc and become the person the protagonist wanted to/needed to be.
Return with the Elixir: The hero returns home or continues the adventure, with the newfound power or belief that can transform the world as the hero was transformed.
The wrap up, the aftermath, the closing where you get to see how the protagonist was transformed and is now the person he always wanted to be.
It should be easy to see how similar this is to the Three-Act Structure, and even the Save the Cat Structure. At their core, stories follow a basic structure, and while there are subtle difference in how different people interpret or define then, they're all very interchangeable. The differences might make one model more appealing for a particular genre or type of story, so it can be helpful to change the structure depending on what type of story you're writing.
For example, any type of mythic or adventure story can work well with the Hero's Journey, while a romance might be better suited to the Three-Act Structure, and a thriller or suspense is great for the Save the Cat Structure. You can mix and match as you see fit. But you can also use any structure for any story if you prefer one over the other.
I like aspects of all of them, so I created my own custom structure template using elements from all three. It helps me pinpoint the elements I like to have in my novels.
Any questions or thoughts regarding the Hero's Journey?