Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Hero's Journey

Last week some of you asked me to write a blog on the hero's journey-what it is and why and how to use it.
From wikipedia: Joseph Campbell's...the hero's journey, refers to a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world. Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Basically Campbell and other scholars detected a pattern in story telling that crossed cultures, times and regions. Writer's can make use of this pattern when plotting their novels no matter what the genre. It is, in fact, a great plot device and a way of looking at the overall character arc for your book. Campbell lists 17 steps. My goal is to show you those steps and to break them down into writing plot points and ways of looking at your overall story arc. (Next week we'll use the steps to look at your overall emotional arc-something that works well for romance authors.)
All 17 steps can be found at maricopa.edu.
I am not going to list them here because it would make the blog to long. So click on the link and take a look.
In the hero's journey, a story is broken down into three acts. The first act has five stages, the second act has six stages and the third act has six stages. Think of each stage as turning points in your book. If you like to outline, you'll love the hero's journey. If you don't like to outline, you can use this information to revise your book and write your synopsis or help you through a sagging point. I am going to paraphrase from here on out.
Act one is the first third of your book. As I said last week every good story begins with the ordinary world, but at a point where hints of the need for changes to come appear. Think of Harry Potter and how it opens with the morning of his cousin's birthday. Harry is roused from his tiny closet under the steps to cook breakfast and then it's off to the zoo where Harry reacts to his cousin's teasing a snake by making the glass disappear and reappear. (Hints of magic to come.) We see not only Harry's ordinary world, but why change has to happen in the way he is treated and hints of things to come in his uncontrolled magic and being able to understand the snake. The next step is the call to adventure. This is clear in the letters that appear for Harry from Hogwarts. The refusal of the call brings tension to the story and the letters remain unopened. So a magical helper appears and Harry chooses his adventure and is whisked off to school. The next step is Diagon Alley where Harry clearly leaves his ordinary world and discovers a whole new world. The first act ends in a low point or a point of terrible transformation which holds the potential for what will come next. Remember you want the reader to keep turning pages.
Act two has more stages and should be the next third or perhaps a full half of the book depending on your personal structure. This is where the main action happens. If you are plotting an outline these stages will keep you from the dreaded sagging middle. In this portion of the book are tests and trials (Plan them in sets of three) for your hero/heroine-often the hero fails these tests creating tension. The next step is when your hero experiences or encounters an unconditional love-it could be love of self or love of friend or true love depending on your story. It gives the hero a reason to continue and a reason to change themselves. (Think about Harry's new friends.) Next are temptations that may lead your hero off his chosen path. These can come right after the failure of a test creating tension and making the reader wonder if the path will change or be given up all together. Next your hero must confront whatever holds the ultimate power in their life. George Lucas did this quite literally in the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader and discovers the villain is his father. This is a necessary step and the lowest point in your book. It is the heart of the character's transformation. Follow this monumental moment with a period of rest of the character and a time for the reader to catch their breath. The second act ends with our hero achieving the ultimate goal of his quest. The hard work pays off but the story is not over yet.
Act three can be the last third of the book but should move very quickly. It begins with the refusal to return to the ordinary world. Why go back? Sometimes there is a compelling reason to return- our hero must bring his new achievement back to save his baby brother from death. Sometimes our hero is compelled to return by guides because the hero himself doesn't understand the need to return to ordinary world. But the return must be made to complete the circle. The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom you have learned on the journey. Remember when Harry returns to his aunt's house he is no longer living in the cupboard under the stairs. He is too powerful now and things have changed. The final steps show our hero now comfortable with his new self and living his happy ever after...until the next call to action. The end.
Many speakers will give examples from classic movies, i.e., The Wizard of Oz and the original Star Wars. I used bits from Harry Potter. If you really want to understand the hero's journey, print out the steps and watch these movies and try to identify the steps in the acts. Then return to your work in progress and see where your plot and character development fit the pattern or fall short.
Remember: this is only a useful tool for plotting NOT a rule that must be followed. Steps can be skipped and/or rearranged to suit your individual story. Cheers~


MaryC said...

Hi Nancy,

Thanks so much for doing this blog. I've been looking forward to it. We've got a serious thunderstorm working through here so I'm going to print it out to read. Be back later.


Houston A.W. Knight said...



I really enjoyed this post!


Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Mary, hope it helps. Curiously enough it gave me some ideas for the new story that's been rattling around in my head. So I'm glad I was asked to write it. Cheers~

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Thanks for clearing up the hero’s journey – it makes a lot of sense. I'm printing it out for future reference.

Jessica Nelson said...

I'm not a plotter but I'll be thinking about this. I knew about the three act thing but didn't realize each act had stages. Very interesting! Thanks Nancy!

MaryC said...

Hi Nancy,

Thanks for the refresher. I'm a visual person so to see it outlined with references to real stories is very helpful.

After we discussed this last week, I dug out my copy of Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey. I have a new story idea I'm working on and I think I'm going to try something new - deliberately plotting it according to this outline. We'll see how it goes.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Hawk,
Thanks, *blushes* I'm glad it made sense. :)
Hi Jane,
Great! next week, I do plan on writing the steps using an emotional bent for romances and beyond.
Hi Jessica,
Glad you liked it. I'm so happy to find good things to post that hit a cord.
Thanks everyone! Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi MaryC,
Let me know how that works for you. I think every writer- and perhaps for every book- needs to try craft on to see how it works. If something doesn't fit- discard it. If it does fit, then keep it in your writer's wardrobe.

Linda Kage said...

I'd never heard the term "The Hero's Journey" or seen this diagram before, but I knew these steps...mostly. This makes it so clear though...or maybe you make it sound so clear and understandable. WOW. Thank you so much!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Linda,
I first heard it at a MARA workshop. But the speaker acted as if we should all already know what this is and I hadn't a clue. So I was a bit lost. Since then I've been to two or three more and it slowly sunk in. lol.
What I find interesting is that this pattern appears to be universally human in story telling. Isn't that cool?

Marilyn Brant said...

Nancy, you are amazing to be able to encapsulate this journey/writing tool this way!! I use it, too, but can't explain it nearly so well--thanks! Must send some people over here to read your post...