Monday, January 11, 2010

Story Structure Part XII: Return With The Elixir

Victory This is the twelfth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from“The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Return With The Elixir

The End. The Dénouement. The Conclusion. The Epilogue. The Resolution. The Verdict. The Payoff. Whatever it’s called, we’ve come to the final chapter of our Hero’s Journey. We know what’s going to happen, and finally, our Hero is back home in the Ordinary World. But, it’s not the same world he started in. It’s changed. He’s changed. He’s undergone a traumatic transformation, and now returns home forever changed. “The Elixir” is the essence of this change, the lesson, the arrest, the anti-virus, the deciding vote, the surrender of the Enemy, the winning score, the hard-earned victory against incredible odds. Something he can carry with him for the rest of his life, and improve the lives of everyone he cares about.

It’s nice to show how your Hero has changed, to cement his transformation. In the initial Ordinary World, he was pushed around, taken advantage of, alone, in debt, or whatever problem he couldn’t overcome. Now he handles bullies with ease, is wise to the world, rife with friends, loaded with riches, and a master of his destiny. Of course, you don’t have to wrap up everything—don’t forget about that sequel—but make whatever final points you want to make.

I think this brings up the entire purpose of writing the book. The “Return” is where you draw your conclusion and illustrate your lesson. “Marriage is hard work”, “You must lead by example”,  “Grief is how we move on”, “Don’t ever cross a ghost”, etc. Did you make your point? Did your character experience enough consequences to warrant this ending? The ending justifies the meaning.

football win Now to conclude our Benchwarming Quarterback story. One final play, one last chance to prove himself, and he leaves the game. On the drive back to the hospital, he confesses his sins. He’s been a terrible son, a lousy quarterback, and a poor boyfriend. The cheerleader never meant to hurt him, but he seemed disinterested, so she strayed. He understands, and forgives her. Everything he’s done lately has been a failure, and even his attempt to redeem himself was false.

Now for the Lesson part. He must do the hard things. He can’t just waltz through life. When he arrives at the hospital, he has the Elixir. He’s back in his Ordinary World. Turns out—his father is fine, and in fact, is conscious. They found the game on the local cable channel. They beg him why he left the game and he tells them because his responsibility lay here…with the people he loves. Suddenly he has his father’s approval, and his girlfriend sees him in a new light. Turns out his Ally on the team caught the winning touchdown, so everything worked out in the end. It’s not a perfect ending, but we leave the story with the sense that things will work out.

Return With The Elixir Goals

  • Clearly demonstrate that the Lesson has been learned.
  • Tie up most loose ends, especially major subplots. If the airplane is going down, either crash it or save it.
  • It’s fine to leave a teaser for the sequel, but at least resolve something. I’ve read some books that just stop. Bad. How do I know there will be a payoff in the sequel, or will it just stop as well?
  • This is the part of the story where you show that you appreciate the time the reader spent reading your novel. Give them something to talk about. Make them wish the story never ended.

Non Goals

  • Don’t tie everything up. Note that in the QB story, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the girlfriend’s baby. We only know he’s be there to support her.
  • Don’t introduce more conflict here. This is the one point of your book where it’s fine if everyone agrees for once. There can be a implied conflict, such as “the whole city has burned and we need to rebuild, but at least we’ll do it together.”
  • Endings don’t have to be happy. They need to be conclusive. In “Paranormal Activity,” the ending is the credits (or lack thereof). But the Lesson is clear: Some people are just doomed. Get over it.

Next Installment: How to Apply the Hero’s Journey to your own writing, what it is and what it isn’t.


  1. I'm rubbing my hands together for the next installment!

  2. The end of a good book always leaves me wanting more. Usually in the way of characters whom I've fallen in love with.

    I despise endings that leave everything to the sequel or, converserly, tie everything up so tight I can't envision a life beyond the last word. Both are disappointments.

  3. This has been a wonderful series. I'll have to give some thought to my elixir. I know it, and now I just have to make sure the reader will, too.

  4. Great post.

    Paranormal Activity had me up for two days! I think this is the part I have the most trouble with, the end.I agree they don't have to be happy, they just have to be.


  5. @Laura: Hopefully Monday
    @Cat: I sometimes allow the sequel thing if it's Book 2 of a trilogy...those traditionally leave a lot hanging for some reason.
    @Tara: The elixir = why you wrote the book :)
    @Erica: I slept OK after PA but Avatar kept me up all night. I kept dreaming I was on Pandora. Have you seen the news reports about the "Avatar Blues"? I can relate.

  6. I love that line where you say endings don't have to be happy, just conclusive. SO TRUE!

  7. Nicely done. I have the book and the updated version of the book and the only way I really GET IT is by watching the DVD(The Heros Two Journeys with Haugue and Vogler)...however, your interpretation is much more palatable.


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