Saturday Morning Version of “The Hero’s Journey”

Two words: hand sock.  You’ll see.

Really, we need to take storytelling more seriously than this… which in an ironic twist means, this IS serious.  Even when it’s hilariously rendered.

It’s also potentially confusing as hell.  Which is why I write about it using what I believe to be more accessible, clearer terminology and modeling.  It’s the same stuff.  And why I’ve added some clarifications of my own at the end of this post.

You’ve heard of The Hero’s Journey.  

Chances are you’ve studied it.  Joseph Campbell gets credit for it (calls it a Monomyth, a term borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake), as presented in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949… it didn’t hit the bestseller list until 1988 — there’s always hope — when PBS aired a special entitled The Power of Myth).

This is how it’s done, no matter how you label the parts.  Notice that it’s flexible, something you can spin to your own needs (ie., some of the players in this story model can be embodied by a single character, serving different catalytic purposes).

The more we see it from different angles, the deeper it sinks in.

Thanks to Storyfix friend and frequent contributor Art Holcomb for this one.  Watch, laugh and learn.

Here’s what The Hero’s Journey looks like as a graphic (from Wikipedia).  The story begins at the top (12:00 noon position), progressing clockwise… literally.

This chart outlines the monomyth.

A Few Thoughts on This
This model is not infallible or absolute, it is like most principles, general in nature.  For example, the video says that the HERO is just an Average Joe.  Not always true.  That’s limiting, and you can come up with a library full of exception.
The HERALD has a role, and this mission trumps it actually being a character… it can come into the story in non-character ways.  Because… the HERALD is the FIRST PLOT POINT.  That mission IS a firm principle… how it enters the story is your call.
The MENTOR character… great idea.  Hard to pull off, though, when your hero is a lone wolf.  Don’t force this into the story because Joseph Campbell says to.
THRESHOLD GUARDIANS… are some combination of the villain and the villain’s henchmen, and/or any other form of antagonistic force.  These often star in your Pinch Points.
SHAPE SHIFTER… when any character either reveals a hidden truth about themselves, including your villain.  Useful as a mean of delivering a Plot Point or, more often, the Mid-Point, which is a great place for this.
SHADOW… that’s easy, that’s your main antagonist.  The bad guy.  The villain.  The term applies when that character’s true nature and agenda has been veiled through the course of the story, only to be revealed when it matters.  Which is often at the Second Plot Point.
As food for thought goes, you now have a virtual banquet of flavors and courses in front of you.  Bon appetite!
*****
The video shown here is from the great Glove and Boots Puppet Blog (I know I know, sounds… kinky… it’s not that), which posts most of its content on Youtube.
As you might have guessed, the guy in the framed picture on the wall behind the puppets in this video is Joseph Campbell.

38 Comments

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38 Responses to Saturday Morning Version of “The Hero’s Journey”

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    The heroes journey in its most literal translation is used to tell a specific type of story (Lucas followed it to the letter when he wrote Star Wars, for example). You’ll see it a lot in standard epic fantasy, but it certainly doesn’t fit every story. However bits and pieces of it can be stolen to great effect.

    For anyone who wants a longer version, but written with a modern storyteller audience in mind instead of the academic version Campbell crafted, look into the book The Writer’s Journey. The way it breaks down the archetypes and shows ways to have characters take on different parts of the journey at different points gives a lot of great material for new ways to look at the craft. An excellent addition once you get the core concepts of how to shape a plot as shown here at Storyfix 🙂

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  3. Thanks Larry! This makes things so clear. For anyone who wants to read more about this in detail, I found some great (free) downloads that talk more about the heroes journey:
    http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm

    http://www.peerzone.info/sites/default/files/resources/The%20Heros%20Journey.pdf (This one is written by a life coach, but it still has an excellent explanation of the hero’s journey from the hero’s perspective.

    Hope that’s helpful!

    BTW Larry, bought Story Physics- it is fantastic. I highly recommend it. Plan to write a review soon on Amazon, it made such a difference in planning my story. And I thought Story Engineering was good…

  4. Martha

    And of course . . . there’s Chris Vogler’s immensely helpful “The Writers Journey”, which translates and demystifies the hero’s journey for writers. Apparently it started out as a memo circulated to Hollywood screenwriters on the principles of a good screenplay.

  5. The Campbell book is great, has lots of interesting discussion around stories. And there’s a LOT more detail to things that can be included in the hero’s journey – stuff like ‘atonement of the father’ and incidents with water, I kid you not. But in the book, Campbell doesn’t identify a single story that includes all the features that can be there. It’s a bit like an ‘a la carte’ menu’ – or a pick and choose / smorgasbord. If you try an shovel everything in, and stick to a specific order, you’ll likely to end up looking pretty formulaic. And that’s where the Hollywood blockbusters enter the story….

  6. Morgyn

    After all the friggin’ highlighters, pages of notes, brain-busting let us all be educated, heavy duty literary tomes, (really, better than most of them is Walt Disney’s lengthy essay on this topic, available in a few versions of the book by the same name), a few minutes of hilarity and these zen masters nail it.

    Geez, the KISS principle at it’s finest.

    And immersed in revision, the laughter and reminder could not have come at a better time.

    Thank you, Larry, again~

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  8. Good read, Larry. Your comments are right there, too. In the spirit of Joseph Campbell, Martha and Patrick mention The Writer’s Journey.

    I’ll add one more, Myth And The Movies by Stuart Voytilla with a forward by Chris Vogler. Stu breaks down movies according to Campbell. It’s a fun resource to cruise through.

  9. Love the video. Great job of breaking down the main characters in a novel or movie. I always use Star Wars in my examples because it so rigidly follows the classic plot line as well a the hero’s journey. It proves the basic story structure is still the best way to best-seller status.

  10. The frog puppet showing up in all those movies was just awesome 🙂

  11. I love everything I can read about The Hero’s Journey. Can’t get enough.

    BTW: Ever think about adding your 2 cents to Wikipedia’s entry? They are always looking for experts to make the entries more accurate and helpful to readers.

  12. Love that video! Oh if only they used stuff like that in college, things would have made a lot more sense. AND been more fun. Thanks for sharing this, I never made it through Campbell’s stuff but THIS I get.

  13. Elaine Milner

    Great video! With the notes you’ve added, at least for those who have read your books or follow Storyfix, it is a fantastic explanation of something that seems complex at first. It helps to put together both ways of seeing story.

  14. That was fun!

    After I watched the video, I set about identifying these people in my own novel. As the video points out, my Herald is an event, but they were all there, although “mentor” seems to wander around through several characters. My official “mentor” is an alcoholic, so sometimes the hero is mentoring him.

    I tried this with a few of my awful previous novels. I was usually missing one of these. In the last one I completed, I had no shadow. Seriously, no villain for my hero to strive against. No wonder it was so boring! Looking back, though, I’ve always liked “the average Joe” as a hero, and the current one sticks to that trend, but I found one exception: one of my books had no hero. Don’t ask me how I didn’t catch that one while writing an entire novel.

  15. Robert Jones

    Jason–ever consider recycling some of your old ideas and expanding, fleshing them out better? It would seem you have a nice stockpile of stories. Is there nothing of value that might be salvaged, combined with other characters, elements, etc…?

    I had an art teacher who once told me to hold on to everything. Because you never know when some of it might be useful to you.

  16. @Robert Jones — The nine really awful novels are where I learned to write and where I created my science fiction universe. #10 is set in the same universe and has a lot of depth and references thanks to the first nine awful novels. Actually, the hero of #10 turns out to be pivotal to a much larger story that is going on in the background of the universe. That wasn’t planned, but I think my subconscious was working.

    I will probably recycle parts of my previous attempts: characters, places, and some story elements. One in particular has been in my head a lot lately with a striking horror element that was not in the original. My “real job” as a science teacher actually gave me the horror element. But, the original plot will not work.

    But, even if I never use any of these books, I learned to write, and, more importantly, I learned how NOT to write. I also developed a science fiction universe with all of its politics, technology, and history. This will flavor my writing going forward. It wasn’t nine wasted novels. It was nine practice novels with #10 hopefully the lucky one.

  17. Robert Jones

    @Jason–If it all came together and formed something good, then I suppose looking at it as nine drafts to find your story isn’t any worse that some some drafting tales I’ve heard. Larry has said it many times…no matter what route you take, it’s a search until your story is found.

    My motto is that as long as there is growth/progress, there is hope.

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  19. Stephanie

    The HERALD is the FPP????

    If that’s true then I have to rewrite a years worth of story…(face palm)….because now that I think about it…it makes sense. The sad thing is, I studied Hero’s Journey AND the Power of Myth….sigh.

    Love the video. Reminded me that I’m suppose to have fun (more often than not) while writing.

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  21. Michael

    Well-written post. Larry. I agree with almost everything. Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” works well IF we’re only going to write that kind of story (i.e. Star Wars was written specifically to that paradigm). The problem begins with the mental gymnastics we have to use to cut and smash other successful stories into the Campbell (and Vogler, et al) paradigm’s mold when they simply aren’t that type of story. Many aren’t. Silence of the Lambs, Chinatown, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind, immediately, but there are others.

    To put his work in context, Joseph Campbell was a mythologist and a professor of comparative mythologies and religions, not a novelist, and not a creative writing teacher. When we’re writing a mythic story, it works, but extrapolation of his work into more general storytelling just doesn’t hold up. When we dogmatically try to use that paradigm to analyze every story, the result becomes cumbersome. The problem is that the stages are generalized enough that, with enough mental gymnastics, we can almost argue most stories into the template, but that same generalization leaves us with discussions that amount to “how many protagonists can dance on the head of a plot point” (sorry for the analogy, but Campbell did teach mythology and comparative religions).

    As you’ve so often said, Larry, “if this writing stuff was easy, anybody could do it.”

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  23. Robert Jones

    Larry,

    In terms of shape shifter revealing something at mid-point, might the reader see something about the villain like a character flaw the villain may not know (or want to know) about himself? I’m thinking here in terms of motivation for the villain being something other than the villain believes it to be.

    It is certainly a look behind the curtain, but is it planting too much too soon? Or could a flaw the villain is unaware of be used to good effect in progressively making him look unstable?

  24. @Robert — fair question. Good question. A “villain reveal” at the mid-point can certainly fulfill the criteria for that major story milestone. I think it’s one of those things where, if the author understands the story physics in play, they can use the story point any way that works to advance the narrative. The key is really knowing that it’ll work, versus simply doing something in a vaccum. That’s good news for writers like you, who DO know. Thanks, as always, you add so much to these threads. L.

  25. Sara Davies

    The book “Jung & Tarot” is kind of cool, tracing the hero’s journey through the major arcana of the tarot deck, from The Fool to wherever it ends up – The Universe, or The Aeon. I think Campbell got a lot of his material from Carl Jung’s “The Archetypes & the Collective Unconscious.”

  26. Robert Jones

    Thanks, Larry…and you’re welcome 🙂

    I’ve applied your structural guidlines to almost everything I’ve read and watched (unless I really need a break and to stop thinking for a while) since discovering Storyfix. I’ve seen some interesting variations on some of the major milestones, but still fall within some level of the given criteria. The FPP and PP2, however, are never messed with. If anyone has discovered a variation on these, I would like to hear about it.

    My own reading/viewing has planted those major tent poles as follows:

    FPP: Always begins the argument, battle, contest, between hero and villain. The way it goes down may take on many forms, but once the FPP has arrived, the two main characters, light and dark (shades of gray notwithstanding) players, have engaged one another in a way that establishes the game between the opposing sides has officially commenced.

    PP2: Again, the circumstances may differ, but the hero has always turned the tables in some fashion at this point. Where the hero may not exactly be winning, yet, we see a move here that switches things in favor of the good guys. Or at least gives them strong reason to rally and continue fighting with hope, or renewed spirit. It’s the moment where Rocky is beaten to a pulp (lull), and suddenly finds something within himself to come back swinging.

    Pinch-Points 1&2: Is where I’ve seen several variation. They mostly involve the villain trumping the hero, or making the battle look hopless in terms of the good guys winning. But I’ve seen pinch-points that involve the hero’s side of the battle in some way. Usually making his/her key want, need, or goal that much harder to attain because some problem or obstacle has made the situation much worse. The pinches involving the hero can indirectly involve the villain, or it might mean something like the hero’s bank accounts all got frozen when he needed desperately to get at his assets. But even when they don’t involve the villain, they always effect the outcome of the core story in an important way. In the previous example, if the hero was indebted to the villain, and the fact he can’t get to his money deffinitly worsens his problem and raises the stakes significantly.

    Mid-point: Again, the main problem is always worsening here. It could stem from the key want of the hero, it could impart further insight into the villain’s plans, or a look behind the curtain of either hero, or villain (the focus can be interchangeable), allowing us to see something about one or the other that makes us realize what we previously thought about that character was wrong. We didn’t have a complete picture, or the picture has suddenly changed. Thus, it also effects the outcome significantly. And the game from that point onward will be played with this new knowledge that makes the reader edgy, uncertain of what they previously thought, puts new stakes in place.

    This may be covering old territory on some level. We’ve covered interchangeable plot points back when we were discussing the movie “Side Effects.” A discussion that I wished would’ve gone on a bit longer, but hey…. But as Larry has stated above, you have to know if such things are working and effect the core story outcome in an important way, or possibly create shifts toward an outcome that is innevitable, or cannot be changed. I suppose they key phrases to keep in mind is that all things have to build towards a payoff. Knowing what that payoff is, and calculating each move for the desired effect that hopefully make the ending resonate with emotion, is what we are after. In planning, all we can do is keep switching pieces of the puzzle around, change POV, fine tune this and that until we say, “Yes, that makes it all come together much better.”

    Then pray we’re right!

  27. There’s also Kal Bashir’s 2000 stage hero’s journey – more detailed and insightful than Vogler or Campbell IMO and you can see it at work when you watch his youtube video breakdowns of films.

    He makes a good argument for it being applicable to all stories too.

    Sooo many movies use the hero’s journey, you have to wonder why.

  28. MikeR

    @Mary –

    One reason might be: “it very-predictably makes good MOVIES.” A hero’s-journey tale in its simplest and most straight-ahead form works well in the context of a Screenplay, which by the nature of the media can only put one thing in front of your face at one time. All of these characters will naturally “play well on-screen,” or, as was the case thousands of years ago, “on-stage.”

  29. Robert Jones

    Archetypes can work well for novels. In the Dramatica Pro writing program you assign such roles to your cast of characters while developing them. And once you begin doing it, you’ll see most of those archetypes are already present. Other times by assigning this type of role to characters, it helps to give a purpose to some characters who may be floundering.

    Whether they fit the standard archetype mold, or not, within a novel, I think it’s a very good idea to give each of the main cast a distinct purpose. Or, if I might steal a page from Larry, assign them each a mission. Even lesser characters have lesser missions. If not, what are the doing cluttering up your story? In understanding the mission each role is to perform, characters can be understood better. Therefore each time they surface in the story, we know exactly what they are trying to accomplish, what their mission (or goal) is that they are trying to fulfill…and we will know how they should be responding within a given scenario.

    I believe that’s the greater lesson to be taken from this.

  30. Sara Davies

    What is the archetype of the writer? Magician? Priestess? Hermit?

  31. Robert Jones

    It’s a short line between the Emperor and the Fool…LOL!

  32. Sara Davies

    I wasn’t going to mention the Fool. That goes without saying.

    😉

  33. One word: AMAZING! Thanks for sharing, Larry.

  34. Great post! You covered one of my favorite structures. I love the hero’s journey and the video! I used it to explain the archetypes to my daughter. I use the hero’s journey in all my stories and sometimes expand on it using Dramatica. My first novel utilizes both, although it has a very strong hero’s journey feel to it on the surface.

  35. Stephanie

    Will there be a post of how to Outline a story that starts “In Medias Res”, because that would be extremely helpful. Two story lines going at once. One in the now and the other showing how it got to where they are now. I thought about emailing you this, Larry, but thought maybe the answer would also help others doing the same.

  36. Daniel

    Hi

    I found this website four days ago and have had little sleep since.

    It’s not that a penny has finally dropped, but more a continuous dropping of pennies, as if the slot machine of novel writing I’ve been pumping coins into for years with little joy has finally coughed up it’s jackpot. Or something like that…

    I have gained so much from each article. The threads and comments provide more nuggets of insight and explanation.

    I first discovered Joseph Campbell when working in a book warehouse. A ‘Power of Myth’ book had fallen on the floor and I dragged my foot across it thus rendering it only fit for the staff bookshop where I purchased it at the end of the week. A copy of the Hero with a Thousand Faces encountered a similar destiny.

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this place in my search for story structure-I’ll try to spend my time here wisely.

    Cheers!

    Daniel

  37. Joe

    It amazes me just how much people STILL praise the Hero’s Journey. Not only is it a complete rip-off of the Fool’s Journey displayed in the Major card of Tarot, but many ‘steps’ are simply outdated, but for some reason people kiss its ass like its the bean all end all for writers. Well, it’s not. This isn’t an insult so much as an observation: how dumb can one be to think that something created so long ago can’t be improved over YEARS of use? Again, the Hero’s Journey simply took the Fool’s Journey and changed/improved it, just as Blake Snyder’s beat sheet took the Hero’s Journey and changed/improved it. Look at MMA as an example: Yeas ago people fought with one particular style, THEN fighters started adapting, taking everything that worked and throwing out all the rest into what we know as MMA today. Same thing with the Hero’s Journey. The original is simply outdated, so sicking with the original is just a recipe for a bad story. Praising the Hero’s Journey as the BEST and NUMBER ONE plotting scheme is like saying, “Well, the pyramids of Egypt were well build to last so even though we have our advanced technology of today, let’s continue to build our houses as pyramids just because we’re told that’s how it should be done. Evolve, and so will your writing =-)

  38. @Joe — I tend to agree with you on this. Much about THJ is either outdated or not relevant. The core principles at its heart still apply — a four part story structure, for example — but I always found it soft (imprecise) and hard to access in terms of actually laying out a story.

    I liked the puppet show, though. And because so many abide by THJ, thought I’d share it here, after a friend (Art Holcomb) sent it to me. L.