All writers are storytellers. Today’s bestselling authors share this with the creators of the ancient myths of human kind. In fact, the best stories seem to incorporate the principles of myth in ways that are dramatic, entertaining, and true to the human experience.
Joseph Campbell was perhaps the most prominent “mythologist” of our time. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell distilled the components of the myths of widely varied cultures from all over the world and from ancient times to the present. Campbell’s book laid out the components that he argued were the underlying code of all mythology. It was as if Joseph Campbell had unlocked a secret code to great storytelling! Not surprisingly, Campbell’s ideas sparked a lot of interest among the screenwriters in Hollywood. Soon after Campbell’s rise to prominence, Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood screenwriting guru, published a guide to Campbell’s theories of mythic structure entitled The Writer’s Journey. AlthoughVogler’s book is geared particularly to screenwriting, the ideas it contains can be translated easily to any type of fiction writing.
As always, this is simply a theory of writing, and not a formula. (If you’re still searching for the magic formula, please let me know when you find it!) If after reading this post, you find you would like to further explore Vogler’s writing theory, the third edition of the book is available from Michael Weise Productions.
In essence, Vogler takes Campbell’s theories and creates what he refers to as The Hero’s Journey. Although not all stories contain every step, the detailed elements of the journey are described below. I also borrow examples of each element from Vogler’s book, so you’ll see I make a lot of references to the original Star Wars trilogy. (After all, who hasn’t noticed the undeniable mythic structure of Star Wars!) Also, for the purposes of this post, the term “hero” should be taken to be without gender, applying equally to the journey of Katniss in The Hunger Games as to Harry in the Harry Potter series. In fact, wherever possible, I’ll make non-spoiler references to The Hunger Games as examples. I’d encourage you to think of examples from your own favorite book, or even your current work in progress!
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
- The Ordinary World – Most stories start out by giving us a glimpse of the hero in his or her home element. In Star Wars, we find Luke Skywalker as a bored farm boy before he goes off to fight the Empire. Likewise, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is at home in the Seam when the first book opens, untouched by the wider world.
- Call to Adventure – When the hero receives the call to face a challenge, solve a problem, or undertake an adventure, she finds that she can no longer stay indefinitely in the Ordinary World, and must face the Special World. In a romance, the Call to Adventure often takes place when the would-be lovers meet. In Star Wars, the Call is contained in Princess Leia’s desperate holographic message pleading for help from Obi Wan Kenobi.
- Refusal of the Call - Frequently, the hero is reluctant to answer the call, not yet totally committed to the cause. In Star Wars, Luke originally refuses Obi Wan’s invitation to join the rebels and returns to his family’s farm. It isn’t until he finds that his family has been murdered that he commits to the call. In the first installment of The Hunger Games, there is an equally clear moment when Katniss can no longer deny the call. I’m sure if you’ve read the book you know precisely what event compels Katniss to answer the call!
- Meeting with the Mentor – The example of this step in The Hunger Games is obvious; a specific character is actually referred to as the Mentor! In Star Wars, Luke’s original mentor is Obi Wan. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s Gandalf.
- Crossing the First Threshold – This is the point where the hero has fully committed herself to the journey. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s the moment when Dorothy (after meeting with her mentor, Glinda the Good Witch,) sets off on the yellow brick road.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – Once across the First Threshold, the hero naturally runs into new Tests, and makes Allies and Enemies. In The Hunger Games, the Career Tributes create an alliance early on in the Games, and Katniss is left wondering what alliances would be best for her, or if she should consider all the other tributes to be her enemies. In Star Wars, the scene in the cantina marks the beginning of the alliance with Han Solo.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave – Eventually, the hero finds himself at the edge of the most dangerous place, where the object of the quest is hidden. In a romance, it might be as simple as a bedroom door! Often it’s the location where the hero will face her greatest enemy. It could also be represented by an event, like a sudden change in the rules of the game that makes the journey much more dangerous. (Of course danger can be physical, such as a risk of life or death, or it can be emotional, such as the risk of a broken heart. Many of the best stories contain multiple “Inmost Caves.”)
- Ordeal – Here the fortunes of the hero have hit rock bottom and she is directly confronted by her greatest fear. This is the moment where the reader/audience is held in suspense and tension, not knowing if the hero will succeed or fail. In Star Wars, it’s the moment when Luke, Leia, and company are trapped in the trash compactor. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy is held prisoner by the Wicked Witch, and the sand in the hourglass is running low.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword) – Having survived the Ordeal, the hero has cause to celebrate. The hero often takes possession of the treasure he’s been seeking, be it a magic sword, a token like the Grail, or a figurative “elixir” that leads to greater understanding or reconciliation. In Star Wars, Luke and company escape with the plans to the Death Star. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy escapes the castle with the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.
- The Road Back - The hero isn’t out of the woods yet. The Road Back usually begins after the climax and opens Act Three or the denouement. The hero is forced to address the consequences of the Ordeal. In a romance, this step might involve reconciling the issues that opposed the central relationship. The Road Back can also be marked by pursuit. In Star Wars, Luke and Leia are pursued by Darth Vader as they escape the Death Star. In The Hunger Games, many issues are still being confronted on the train back to District 12.
- Resurrection – In ancient myths, warriors had to be purified before they returned to their communities, because they had “blood on their hands.” The hero who has been to the realm of the dead has to be reborn and cleansed through one more Ordeal and Resurrection. The original Star Wars trilogy plays with this element constantly. All three of the original films involve a scene in which Luke is almost killed, appears to be dead for a moment, and then miraculously survives.
- Return with the Elixir – The hero Returns to the Ordinary World, but the journey is meaningless unless she brings back some Elixir, treasure, or lesson from the Special World. Dorothy returns to Kansas in The Wizard of Oz with the knowledge that she is loved. Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader (for the time being!) and restores peace to the galaxy.
Obviously, not all stories contain all of these steps, but it would be difficult to imagine a good story that didn’t contain at least some of these classic elements of myth.
Can you think of examples from your favorite books? Do you see parallels between these story elements and your own writing?