Monday, January 18, 2010

Story Structure Part XIII: Why Hero’s Journey?

This is the last(for a while) 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.

Why Hero’s Journey

herosjourney First of all, thanks to all who have endured participated in my Hero’s Journey posts. Your input has been wonderful. If you ever have questions about using the Hero’s Journey in your own manuscript, I’d be happy to take a look and offer my input.

You’re probably asking yourself, “okay, I understand the various parts of the Hero’s Journey. How do I use it in my own writing? And why is it important?”

I think there’s a common moral behind every story that embodies the Hero’s Journey, and it’s change is hard, but worth it in the end. Not only that, but that you can’t change the world, you can only change yourself.  Let’s look at the main themes of the Hero’s Journey.

  • Change is hard. Otherwise there’s no story. A story is about overcoming obstacles. No obstacles, no story.
  • People will oppose you, or at least have conflicting goals. We live in a finite world, and no one gets everything they want. Therefore, we have conflict.
  • Change is worth it. Otherwise, what would be the point?
  • You cannot succeed alone, and you cannot succeed at other’s expense if you care about them. We are social animals, and although many a story has been written about an individual’s struggles against the elements, no one lives in a complete vacuum devoid of human contact. Even in Cast Away, Chuck Noland(Tom Hanks)’s one goal is to return to the Land of the Living, because he’d rather die than live alone.
  • Each character experiences their own Hero’s Journey, including the Villain.
  • True change only comes from within. It’s not enough just to want to change.
  • You must risk Death to achieve your goals. This is a bit deeper than simple self-sacrifice. It’s about abandoning closely-held beliefs about yourself and your world, and knowing that real change is more than just changing your clothes. It’s a fundamental change in how you see yourself and your place in the world.

The reason the Hero’s Journey succeeds in captivating audiences again and again (Avatar is its latest glowing example) is that it captures the experience of human emotional growth and change. Almost all of us have “left home” at some point on some kind of adventure. Whether it be a vacation, going off to college, joining the army, marriage, birth of a child, starting a new job, or dealing with the loss of those things,  we’ve all had to make a meaningful change in our lives and experienced opposition and conflict. The question is, what makes these experiences heroic? What makes them worthy of a story?

The answer to that is, “how hard was it?

For example, I’ve been thinking about writing a memoir screenplay about my college experience (who hasn’t?). I went to college for four years and landed a good job. That’s not a story, that’s like saying I went to the supermarket and bought some food. A Hero’s Journey is more than just an experience. I learned Computer Science and how to live away from home. Hmm, still nothing. It’s not just about learning. A lot of things happened over those four years. Which one was the hardest? Well, I suffered a lot of depression. This hindered my ability to form relationships. I was socially awkward. I didn’t date much. I chose the wrong major to start with. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. I had issues. We see my overarching goal—to graduate and find a good job. That’s why I started this journey. But I also wanted to not feel depressed and alone, I wanted to be part of society. The question is, what happened? How did I start out in the wrong major and lonely and wind up successful and (somewhat) socially confident? That’s what makes it a story.

I could write this memoir as a series of vignettes and incidents, each interesting it it’s own right, like an anthology. But it doesn’t quite capture the experience as a whole. Were there any truly defining moments? What risks did I take? How did I change on a fundamental level? Which did I learn about myself? So instead of a pure memoir, listing all these events in order, including the dull unimportant ones, could I create an allegorical story based on real incidents to illustrate my growth? Could I distill a four year experience down to its essence, and create a narrative compressing those years into only a few weeks? Create my own Hero’s Journey?

That’s how to think of the Hero’s Journey. It’s illustrative of how people solve problems and achieve their goals, how they learn about the world and adapt to it, and how people will try to stop you every step of the way. I was graded. I was rejected. I was yelled at. I felt like quitting more than once. But I endured. The Hero’s Journey reflects the transformations all of us have experienced, and gives hope and inspiration to those facing their own obstacles.

The Hero’s Journey is not just a story, it’s also about a profound experience. A world-changing revelation about ourselves. The realization that Life Itself is a journey, and that sometimes the toughest experiences are the most rewarding. When you think about your writing, think about the emotional journey your characters are working through, about how they feel lost, depressed, or discouraged. How must they change? How does the Villain point out their weaknesses and their flaws in their thinking? What kind of growth will they undergo, and how hard will it be to swallow, and how great will it feel to finally push through?

Caveats. Some people use the Hero’s Journey as a template for their story. I think that’s a great idea. Some use it for reference. Is there a Mentor? Check. Is there a Crisis point? Check. But I think the Hero’s Journey is only a part of what makes a work great, so here are some other things a writer needs to do:

  • Create likable or believable characters. If the reader can’t identify with your characters, you won’t be able to relate your key messages.
  • Write in a confident style. Grammar, spelling, comprehensible sentences are all critical.
  • Invent an interesting world that challenges your characters.
  • Utilize accepted story structure. Plot points are implied in the Hero’s Journey, but other plot structure may yield better results, such as three- and five- act structures, etc.
  • Figure out the actual lesson and/or moral of the story. Think about the contrast between where the character starts and where he ends.

Here’s the real secret. Nobody really, truly changes. I’ll never be a woman, a person of color (in America), or a space alien. I’ll never be an gregarious used-car salesman kind of person, no matter how many journeys I undergo.However, what I have learned is that sometimes, it pays to be a salesman, and I can do it if I have to. Somewhere deep inside me, I’m friendly and outgoing, and I had lost touch with that person. Your Hero has always been a Hero, but experience has taught him that heroism is frowned upon and is punished. The Villains in our lives have made it clear that if we speak up, if we’re different, if we dare to alter the status quo, then expect to be challenged, put down, and even killed. But when you want something badly enough, you’ll find a way. You’ll find something inside yourself that will allow you to conquer those fears and Villains along life’s journey. Because, like Dorothy found out, she could have gone home at any time—she just didn’t want to, or she wasn’t ready. Or like in the Circle of Iron, the greatest Villain in the world, the hardest master to defeat, is the one looking at us through the mirror. A Hero must look inside himself to find that magic Elixir, because it’s been there all the time, otherwise he would have never taken that first step. I went to college because I wanted an education, I interacted with people because I wanted friends—I just never knew how hard those things would be, and what I’d have to give up to achieve these goals.

Writing. What about this shared journey we’re on, the road to publication? Somewhere deep inside us lies a great writer, but we need to strip ourselves down to find that person, to remove decades of experience to find the core of our emotions, and then learn the skills to bring that to print, and become the writer we were born to be. The writer we are meant to be. That’s the Hero’s Journey we’re all on. Use that knowledge to identify what’s holding you back from grabbing the golden Elixir of a book deal.

Good luck!



  1. I have to tell you... I've really enjoyed this series! Every writer should read every post in it... From the beginning, where we write our MC into their ordinary world (where/whatever that world might be) all the way through to bringing that elixer home to that (changed) ordinary world.

    I hope you do another series for us :-)

  2. Great post and great series. Extremely helpful information. Thank you for sharing them with us :o)

  3. Good analysis. I liked the way you gave an example of the typical kind of book people might write - who hasn't thought of writing a college memoir, but how would you make it seem worthwhile to anyone who wasn't there with you!

  4. I've enjoyed this series. You broke it down with real-life examples so that I could follow along and learn. Thanks!

  5. Great post. I like the ideas of implementing the Hero's Quest into our own stories. Thanks.

  6. Thanks!

    I don't know what I'm doing next. Maybe some more posts on Critiquing. Or something random.
    I know I need work on World Building, so maybe I should tackle a couple books on it and write out my takeaways.

  7. thanks for the follow and great blog post!


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