The Hero’s Journey
As noted in earlier blogs, in June and July of 2020 I set out to do a series of seminars on some of the basic concepts of novel writing. This is the third segment of a three-part blog post from the notes on the first seminar, The Hero’s Journey.
Over the next several weeks I’ll share with you the notes from those seminars – some of the most essential building blocks I’ve learned for writing a work of fiction. The seminars were very basic and certainly not comprehensive. But my goal is to give you a few good building blocks to get you started.
The first seminar started with the rudimentary and bare bones elements of plot development – The Hero’s Journey. Additional blogs will concentrate on the other seminars: The Plot Skeleton; Structure for Gardeners; Bit Players Steal the Show; and Character Development.
In Part II of The Hero’s Journey seminar, we looked at the work of Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler which revealed that all storytelling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories can be understood in terms of the hero myth. And we looked at the first six stages of The Hero’s Journey.
Today we will look at the final six stages.
Everything that I’ll be sharing with you today comes from those two sources – Campbell and Vogler – who deserve all the credit.
7 – APPROACH TO THE INNERMOST CAVE.
The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of the quest is hidden. In many myths the hero has to descend into a cave to fight a dragon and gain a treasure. In STAR WARS it’s Luke and company being sucked into the Death Star where they will rescue Princess Leia. Sometimes it’s just the hero going into his/her own dream world to confront fears and overcome them.
8 – THE SUPREME ORDEAL The hero endures.
This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He/she faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it’s a black moment. In STAR WARS, it’s the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the sewage and is held down so long that the audience begins to wonder if he’s dead.
This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and be born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero’s return from death.
9 – SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD.
Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, our hero now takes possession of the treasure he’s come seeking. Sometimes it’s a special weapon like a magic sword or it may be a token like the Grail or some elixir which can heal the wounded land. In seizing the reward, the hero may settle a conflict with his father or with his shadowy nemesis. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both, as he discovers that the dying Darth Vader was both his father and enemy.
10 – THE ROAD BACK.
The hero’s not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure. This is the chase as Luke and friends are escaping from the Death Star with Princess Leia and the plans that will bring down Darth Vader.
If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile with his father or the gods, they may come raging after him at this point.
11 – RESURRECTION.
The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his/her experience. There is often a replay here of the mock death-and-rebirth of Stage 8, as the hero once again faces death and survives. The Star Wars movies play with this theme constantly – most, if not all, of the films feature a final battle scene in which Luke is almost killed, appears to be dead for a moment, and then miraculously survives. He is transformed into a new being by his experience.
12 – RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The hero MUST change. He or she comes back to the ordinary world, but the adventure would be meaningless unless he/she brought back the elixir, treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with the elixir or some boon to mankind, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does.
Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. Sometimes it’s just coming home with a good story to tell.
Christopher Vogler writes:
“As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is the danger of being too obvious. The hero myth is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself. The order of the hero’s stages as given here is only one of many variations – the stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically re-shuffled without losing any of their power.
“The values of the myth are what’s important. The images of the basic version – young heroes seeking magic swords from old wizards, fighting evil dragons in deep caves, etc. – are just symbols and can be changed infinitely to suit the story at hand.
“The myth is easily translated to contemporary dramas, comedies, romances, or action-adventures by substituting modern equivalents for the symbolic figures and props of the hero story. The Wise Old Man may be a real shaman or wizard, but he can also be any kind of mentor or teacher, doctor or therapist, crusty but benign boss, tough but fair top sergeant, parent, grandfather, etc. Modern heroes may not be going into caves and labyrinths to fight their mythical beasts, but they do enter and innermost cave by going into space, to the bottom of the sea, into their own minds, or into the depths of a modern city.
“The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama. It grows and matures as new experiments are tried within its basic framework. Changing the sex and ages of the basic characters only makes it more interesting and allows for ever more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them. The essential characters can be combined or divided into several figures to show different aspects of the same idea. The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic, and it will outlive us all.”
If you are interested in watching the video from the Facebook Live seminar on The Hero’s Journey, click here: