Why do writers like the Hero’s Journey and why does it make story’s work?
It gives stories a flair of reality. Storytelling is an extension of experiencing. Storytelling allows us to experience situations we don’t want to go through ourselves and that mother nature can’t prepare for us.
The Hero’s Journey is the abstraction of the series of events souls go through when they experience something new. Our lives are heroic journeys. Relationships are heroic journeys. Careers are heroic journeys. Every time we deal with a challenge we go through a heroic journey.
Many writers use Christopher Vogler’s twelve phases from the Writer’s Journey:
- Ordinary World
- Call To Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Test and Trials, Friends and Enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- Return with the elixir
Here is a graphical representation of Vogler’s map:
I have worked with this map for a couple of years and found that it has a few issues. First of all, not all phases are phases, some are milestones or landmarks:
- Ordinary World – Scene(s)
- Call to Adventure – Beat
- Refusal of the Call – Beat
- Meeting the Mentor – Scene or part of a scene
- Crossing the Threshold – Scene or part of a scene
- Test and Trials, Friends and Enemies – Scenes
- Approach to the Innermost Cave – Scene(s)
- Ordeal – Scene
- Reward (Seizing the Sword) – Beat or scene
- The Road Back – Scenes
- Resurrection – Beat
- Return with the elixir – Scene
Mind that many writers avoid describing the ordinary world in one or more scenes. Instead, they sprinkle backstory over many scenes and use exposition as ammunition.
Could it be that the Hero’s Journey has its own heroic journey and moved on since Christopher Vogler wrote his book?
Holes in the Cause-Effect Trajectory
The first stages have a sound cause-effect trajectory: Call to Adventure -> Refusal of the Call -> Meeting the Mentor -> Crossing the Threshold -> Test and Trials, Friends and Enemies.
After that it gets blurry. Where does the ordeal come from? Is it another test or trial? How do the tests and trials cause/lead to the ordeal? What about the gift? On first sight, it feels like a deus ex machina. Road Back makes sometimes sense, but why a resurrection? Does the hero hit rock bottom on the road back and why?
Last but not least, what is the elixir? I used to think that it is the gift, but why giving it a different name? Or did the gift metamorphose into an elixir? Is this another deus ex machina?
I know that you and Vogler have answers to these questions, but mind that in this article I look at the Hero’s Journey from a purely logical perspective. The Heroic Journey template should not be in need of explanations, it should be obvious and feel natural. It is the writer’s job to complicate and disguise it.
There are three big blanks on the map.
The first blank is between Meeting the Mentor and Crossing the Threshold. Important things happen there, the Forced Call to Adventure, the Acceptance of the Call, and the Formulation of the Want.
The next big blank is between the Reward and Taking the Road Back. To fill the hole, many writers add a stand-off with the antagonist and an All-Is-Lost moment to the third quarter of their story. I shall return to that.
These blanks are one reason why writers struggle with the second Act.
Some Phases Feel Unreal
I fail to correlate some of the stages with the way real life experiences unfold.
Have you ever read a story or watched a movie that follows all stages but feels unreal? That’s what I’m talking about.
This is the way, we deal with challenges:
- We ignore them as long as we can
- We apply a fix/workaround and live with that as long as we can
- We find a solution
The Hero’s Journey is a dramatized version of this cycle.
The task at hand is redefining the stages of the Hero’s Journey so that they:
- Concord to a simple and strict cause-effect trajectory
- Follow the same logic as real-life experiences
A Revised Hero’s Journey
All successful stories begin with antagonisms, e. g. problems, challenges, or misfortunes. No antagonism, no story. A journey without antagonism is just a vacation inside the ordinary world.
Antagonisms rise in two ways:
A) Misfortune – They throw us into a hole from which we have to climb out
B) Temptation – They lure us into a hole (Eve’s apple)
1. The Ordinary World
The protagonist lounges in his ordinary world with his talent and flaw.
Example 1: Pete sits on his couch and watches TV.
Example 2: Margot does overtime and works on her presentation.
Example 3: Rocky is a sub-par boxer and loan collector in a bad area of Philadelphia.
2. Rising of the Antagonism
An antagonism arises (internal or external).
Example 1: The kitchen faucets drips.
Example 2: Margot’s body reacts to accumulated stress.
Example 3: Apollo Creed hand-picks Rocky for a fight with a no-name local.
Remark: Kung Fu Panda 3 starts with the rising of the antagonism and then describes the ordinary world. Nice!
3. Call To Adventure
An event exposes the protagonist to the symptoms of the antagonism.
Example 1: Pete hears the dripping in the kitchen.
Example 2: Margot’s feels a poking on the inside of her forehead.
Example 3: Rocky gets a call.
4. Refusal of the Call
Because of his flaw, the protagonist ignores the symptoms of the antagonism.
Example 1: Pete is lazy. He rationalizes, “Someone didn’t close the faucet properly.” He continues watching TV.
Example 2: Margot worries she is running out of time. She rubs the poking spot on her forehead and continues working on her presentation.
Example 3: Rocky lacks courage in the face of resistance. He rejects the fight since he figures he has no chance of winning.
5. Arrival of the Mentor/Herald
Someone or something sensibilizes the protagonist to the antagonism. Although the protagonist knows now that something is wrong, he still refuses to act.
Example 1: His wife tells Pete, “The sink is leaking!” “I take care of it after the game,” he responds and continues watching TV.
Example 2: A colleague mentions, “You look tired.” “I’m fine,” Margot responds and continues working.
Example 3: Trainer Mickey begs Rocky to train and fight.
6. Forced Call to Adventure
The antagonism reaches a critical mass and forces the protagonist to react.
Example 1: The dripping turns into a flow and floods the kitchen floor.
Example 2: The poking turns into a headache.
Example 3: Not applicable.
7. Acceptance of the Call
The protagonist decides to do something against the symptoms of the antagonism.
Example 1: Pete decides to call the plumber.
Example 2: Margot decides to do something about her headache.
Example 3: Rocky gives in to Mickey’s begging.
8. Formulation of the Want
This plot point is so important that it deserves its own stage in the Hero’s Journey. The Want is a means or tool the protagonist wants to acquire to remedy the symptoms of the antagonism. This is what we all try first since it is the line of least resistance in the face of adversity.
Example 1: No plumber is available. Pete decides to look for a tape to stop the leaking.
Example 2: Margot decides to get some aspirin.
Example 3: Rocky decides to endure the fight and survive as many rounds as possible. The means: toughen up his body.
Remark: The protagonist also comes up with a plan on how to use the tool. Usually, the plan is simple, like wrapping the tape around the pipe, popping a pill, or train hard.
9. Crossing of the Threshold
The hero ventures into another world to acquire the tool he needs to remedy the symptoms of the antagonism.
Example 1: Pete drives to the hardware store to buy a tape.
Example 2: Margot walks to the pharmacy.
Example 3: Rocky goes to various (strange) places to train.
10. Test and Trials, Allies and Enemies
As the protagonists pursue their tools, they meet tests and trials and make allies and enemies. The protagonist banks on his talent to do so.
Example 1: The car is low on patrol and Pete takes the bike. On the road, he meets friendly and unfriendly traffickers. He is good at asking for help and finds a friendly assistant who points out a plumbing tape.
Example 2: Margot meets friendly and unfriendly people in the street. Aspirin is sold out. She is a quick learner and googles for alternatives. Ibuprofen it is.
Example 3: Rocky puts his head down and trains. He meets a girl that motivates him.
Remark: In case of a personal antagonist, this is the time, the antagonist becomes aware of the protagonist and pursues him and/or sets up roadblocks.
The protagonist meets the climactic test/trial with his talent.
Example 1: At the hardware store, only one tape is left. Pete fights for it with another customer.
Example 2: At the pharmacy, only one pack of ibuprofen is left. Margot fights for it with another customer.
Example 3: Rocky faces the hardest stage in his training (meat locker)
Remark: Now, the ordeal makes complete sense. It is the ultimate test or trial with the hardest struggle in the most adverse location. In real life, we face progressive complications or ordeals too. I give you an example below.**
The ordeal is the story’s global Turning Point and usually placed at the story’s midpoint.
12. Seizing the Tool
The protagonist survives and escapes the adverse location with the desired tool. At this point, the protagonist is most tempted to get involved, since he feels that the tool empowers him.
Example 1: Pete snatches the tape from the other customer’s hand and runs to the cashier.
Example 2: Margot begs till the other customer gives in and hands her the ibuprofen.
Example 3: Rocky seizes confidence in his physical strength (running up the stairs and jumping up and down).
Remark: Now the Reward makes sense too. The gift is the tool (sword), not some random thing that drops out of the sky. It is an integral part of the cause-effect trajectory.
13. First Stand-off with the Antagonism
With the tool and his talent, the protagonist takes on the symptoms of the antagonism.
Example 1: Pete wraps the tape around the leaking faucet. The tape doesn’t stick and the faucet keeps leaking.
Example 2: Margot throws in the pill. The headache turns into a migraine.
Example 3: Rocky goes through the first rounds and is beaten to a pulp. His determination hits rock bottom.
I left out the phase Road Back, because it doesn’t mean much. Also, many stories keep heading away from the ordinary world and protagonists end up in new homes, like in the Avatar. In many stories, a common Returning Home doesn’t make sense.
In the case of Rocky, the protagonist does not use his Talent (the Southpaw) since Mickey forbade him to do so.
14. All-Is-Lost Moment (Dark Night of the Soul)
The protagonist fails to eliminate the symptoms of the antagonism.
Example 1: The tape doesn’t stick and the faucet keeps leaking.
Example 2: Margot’s headache turns into a migraine.
Example 3: During the first rounds, Apollo Creed beats Rocky to a pulp. Rocky’s determination hits rock bottom.
Remark: Most stories have personal antagonists who are, by now, fully aware of the hero. They know about the tool and the protagonist’s talent and have prepared themselves for the stand-off. The protagonist hits rock bottom and experiences an All-Is-Lost moment.
In real life, All-Is-Lost moments are rare. The higher self orchestrates them to turn our lives around. They are painful but turn out to be blessings in disguise.
The protagonist resurrects from the All-Is-Lost moment and decides to have a re-match with the antagonism.
Example 1: Pete notices that his wife is getting pissed.
Example 2: Margot comes to the realization that she won’t be able to finish the presentation with her migraine.
Example 3: Rocky realizes that he has a chance of winning.
Remark: Now, the resurrection makes sense. It is the resurrection from the All-Is-Lost moment.
16. The Reflection
The protagonist reflects on two things:
- His flaw
- The nature/essence of the antagonism
This is real-life logic: Every problem contains its solution. After gaining a deeper understanding of the antagonism or at least a vulnerable aspect of it, we find a solution.
In the beginning, we concern ourselves with appearances and the remedy of symptoms, now, we get to the bottom of the antagonism. That enables us to uses the tool (and/or other tools) to solve the root cause.
Example 1: Pete curses his laziness and youtubes how to fix faucets. He learns some basics of plumbing, takes the leaking faucet apart, and gets to the bottom of the problem.
Example 2: Margot decides to take her time to figure the cause of her migraine. She realizes that she over-strained her eyes. She googles how to relax and regenerate eyes.
Example 3: Rocky realizes that Apollo’s body is weary too and that determination will decide the fight.
17. Second and Final Stand-off
With his new understanding – of the antagonism’s inner nature and his flaw – the protagonist resolves the antagonism and unroots it.
Example 1: Pete learns how to apply the tape with the proper procedure and in the right place.
Example 2: Margot meditates to relax her eyes and goes home. The presentation can wait.
Example 3: Rocky lands a few surprising punches with his left and the fight takes a turn.
Remark: In Rocky’s case, his talent experienced a resurrection – his southpaw. Nice!
18. Leveling Up (Elixir)
The protagonist realizes that his ordinary world became too small for him. He builds a bigger and better one.
Example 1: With his new understanding of plumbing, Pete can now fix any leaking pipe or faucet. He even thinks about how to upgrade the pipe system of his house to get more water pressure at the upper bathroom. He shares his new understanding with family and friends.
Example 2: Margot avoids stress and protects her eyes from too much strain at work. She thinks what else she can do to improve her health. She shares her new understanding with family and friends.
Example 3: The fight ends up a draw. Rocky experienced how to get through the rounds with a champion and that made him a champion too. This new state of mind allows him to take on more championship fights. He buys a house and marries.
Remark: Now, the Elixir makes sense, it is the deeper understanding of the antagonism.
Gift = The tool to remedy the antagonism’s symptoms
Elixir = Understanding the antagonism and how to transcend it
The Revised Phases and Events
- The Ordinary World
- Rising of the Antagonism
- Call To Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Arrival of the Mentor/Herald
- Forced Call to Adventure
- Acceptance of the Call
- Formulation of the Want
- Crossing of the Threshold
- Test and Trials, Allies and Enemies
- Seizing the Tool
- First Stand-off with the Antagonism
- All-Is-Lost Moment
- Second and Final Stand-off
- Leveling up
Now, the map looks more comforting:
There is still a big blank in the third quarter of the story. I will revisit this in one of the coming articles.
** The real-life example/anecdote:
I used to maintain a German bank account while living in the Philippines. I paid something for my parents with my German credit card and they ran late depositing the payback. An overdraft happened and the bank closed my account. Although the bank had my email address, they chose to write me a letter to inform me of the fact.
While the letter was on the way – it took one or two months – I bought an ebook on Amazon with my German debit card. It cost around three dollars. The payment was declined. Amazon fined me for the declined payment (two dollars or so) and gave me a deadline for wiring the price and penalty to a bank account in Luxembourg. Amazon threatened to hand over the issue to its crediting department and enforce the payment. I was pissed.
Reluctantly, I went to my bank to issue the wire (wiring cost ~ 10$). The clerk looked at the recipient and said, that it is against government rules to wire money to Amazon, since Amazon is not a registered taxpayer in the Philippines.
I contacted Amazon and asked them if I could pay with my credit card. They declined. Wire it or leave it. I protested and requested for an escalation. I was fuming and refused to accept the fact that I was powerless.
While waiting for a response, the deadline passed. No mercy. Some computer program handed the case to the crediting department. They charged me with another penalty of around 50$, gave me another deadline, and threatened me with legal actions. I realized that I was trapped in an ordeal.
I succumbed to my fate, contacted my daughter in Germany and asked her to pay on my behalf. I wired her the money (cost: 10$). Accumulated costs for the ebook: 3+2+10+50+10 = 75$.
The lesson: Shit happens. Turn it into fuel and use it for your writing.