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Book Notes: “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler

Summary

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler (2007, 3rd Edition) explores the hero’s journey monomyth. The hero’s journey is the narrative pattern that follows a hero who is thrust into an adventure and must deal with a crisis. The hero overcome the crisis (through some combination of adaptability and resourcefulness) and emerges victorious but fundamentally changed.

Vogler, a screenwriter, credits Joseph Campbell as a key influence. In the early 1980s, Vogler drafted a memo for storytellers and screenwriters titled “A Practical Guide to the Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.” He subsequently expanded on the original memo and published the first edition of “The Writer’s Journey” in 1992.

The first part of the book details the common character archetypes in heroic myth. Archetypes are recurring patterns in stories that represent universal human traits. Aside from the hero, common character types include the mentor (e.g. Obi Wan Kenobi), the ally (e.g. Sancho Panza), and the trickster (e.g. Loki). Archetypes serve a combination of psychological and dramatic function in story and can be combined and reinterpreted in wonderfully creative ways.

The second part of the book explores the twelve stages of the hero’s journey. Vogler demonstrates how this journey, which takes the hero from the Ordinary World through a path of discovery and growth into a new and different Special World, is compatible with the familiar three-act structure. The journey can be external (physical world) internal (emotional or spiritual world), or a combination of both; the model can be adapted and remixed in an endless number of ways. Through it all, Vogler advises writers treat the hero’s journey as a tool, not as a rigid formula: “The needs of the story dictate its structure. Form follows function.”

The Writer’s Journey is a rewarding read for anyone interested in learning the intricacies of storytelling. Upon finishing this book you’ll find yourself regularly identifying the archetypes and motifs described by Vogler in works of fiction. It has earned a prime position on my reference bookshelf.

Pros: Concepts are explained clearly with vivid examples from film and literature. Book is information-dense which makes it a solid reference volume.

Cons: Overlap between archetypes and the stages of the hero’s journey results in some redundant passages.

Verdict: 7/10


Notes & Highlights

Book One: Mapping the Journey

A Practical Guide

  • Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. “His concepts are a welcome tool kit, stocked with sturdy instruments ideal for the craft of storytelling.”

  • The myth of the hero is an endlessly varied retelling of the same story (a “monomyth”).

  • Carl Jung and the idea of archetypes: Repeating characters in myth, dreams and stories of all cultures.

  • Myth deals with universal questions like:

    • Who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go when I die? What is good and what is evil? What must I do about it? What will tomorrow be like?
  • Vogler’s summation of the hero’s journey vis-a-vis 3-act structure (covered in greater detail later in the book):

    • Act One: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold
    • Act Two: Tests, Allies, Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, Ordeal, Reward
    • Act Three: The Road Back, Resurrection, Return with the Elixir
(Image from The Writer's Journey)
  • “Despite its infinite variety, the hero’s story is always a journey.”

  • A story can take a hero on an inward journey as well: change of mind, heart, spirit.

  • Summary of the 12 steps in the Heroes Journey:

    1. The Ordinary World: The story takes the hero from their normal, mundane world into a “special world” that is new and alien (“fish out of water”). To contrast the special world, the author must establish the mundane world first.

    2. The Call to Adventure: A problem, challenge or adventure presents itself to the hero. This call will take them out of the comfort and safety of the ordinary world. The call will establish the stakes of the story and help establish the hero’s goal.

      • Detective stories: The investigator is asked to take a new case.

      • Revenge plots: A wrong must be set right.

      • Romantic comedies: A first encounter with a special but annoying love interest.

      • What’s at stake can be expressed as a question posed by the call:

        • “Will E.T. get home again?”
        • “Will Luke rescue Princess Leia?”
        • “Boy meets girl, but does boy get girl?”
    3. Refusal of the Call (The Reluctant Hero): The hero balks at adventure. Fear, reluctance. Insufficient motivation. The hero is not fully committed. Another event, influence or change must occur to push the hero past this point.

      • Detective stories: Turns down a case only to take it later against his better judgement.
      • Romantic comedies: Hero is reluctant to get involved.
    4. Mentor (the Wise Old Man or Woman): The mentor is someone who will prepare the hero for the unknown. It represents the relationships of parent-child, teacher-student, doctor-patient, god-man. The mentor can only go so far with the hero. At some point the mentor will need to face their challenge alone. The mentor might also help push the hero into accepting the call.

    5. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero commits to the adventure and enters the special world. The hero will now deal with the consequences of answering the challenge presented in the call to adventure. Often signifies the end of Act 1 (in 3-Act structure).

    6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: New challenges arise in the special world and the hero begins to learn the rules of this new world and gains more insight into it. This is an opportunity to see how the hero responds to stress.

    7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero comes to the boundary of a dangerous place. This might be where the object of the quest is hidden or it might be the stronghold of the hero’s enemy. Entering this place is a second important threshold the hero will cross. The approach marks the hero’s initial plans and preparations before entering this place.

    8. The Ordeal: “Here the fortunes of the hero hit bottom in a direct confrontation with his greatest fear.” The hero faces the possibility of death. This is a stressful and tense point in the story (will the hero live or die?).

    9. Reward (Seizing the Sword): The hero survives death and beats his or her enemies. Now the hero can take their treasure (their object of desire). The treasure might be an object or it might be important new knowledge.

    10. The Road Back: The hero must deal with the consequences from the ordeal. Further challenges may still confront the hero before the end of their journey.

    11. Resurrection: “The hero who has been to the realm of the dead must be reborn and cleanses in one last Ordeal of death and resurrection before returning to the Ordinary World.” The hero is transformed in this moment and will complete their journey with new insights.

    12. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world but he brings something important back from the special world. It might be an object but it also might be knowledge or new wisdom.

  • The Hero’s Journey is a framework that can help with story-crafting. But each story must deviate from the pattern as the author sees fit. Moreover, the structure should not be visible to the audience.

The Archetypes

  • Common characters, symbols and relationships are archetypes.

  • “Archetypes are part of the universal language of storytelling.”

  • An archetype need not be a fixed role. It can operate as a temporary function. In other words, a mentor character doesn’t need to always act as a mentor. A character can fulfill the role of mentor in the necessary part of the book and then take on other functions as needed.

  • Single characters can manifest multiple archetype functions.

  • The most common archetypes:

    • Hero
    • Mentor
    • Threshold Guardian
    • Herald
    • Shapeshifter
    • Shadow
    • Ally
    • Trickster
  • Fairy tales have many other familiar archetypes: Wolf, Hunter, Good Mother, Wicked Stepmother, Fairy Godmother, Witch, Prince, Princess, Greedy Innkeeper.

  • Genres also have their own specialized character types: Whore with a heart of gold, arrogant West Point officer, good cop/bad cop pairing, tough but fair Sergeant.

  • Two important questions to ask as you identify your archetypes:

    1. What psychological function or part of the personality does it represent?
    2. What is its dramatic function in the story?
      Hero
  • Word “hero” is Greek from a root that means “to protect and to serve.”

  • The concept of a hero is tied to the idea of self-sacrifice.

  • Psychological function:

    • Represents the “ego” (the part fo the personality that considers itself distinct from the rest of humanity).
    • The Hero’s Journey represents the separation from family or tribe (equivalent, in Freudian terms, to a child’s separation from its mother).
    • This archetype represents the search for identity and wholeness.
  • Dramatic functions:

    • Audience identification:

      • Provides the audience with a window into the story.

      • Gives the audience someone to identify with through a combination of universal and unique characteristics.

      • Propelled by drives that we can empathize with: desire to be loved, desire to be understood, success, survival, freedom, vengeance, truth, justice and self-expression.

      • Qualities a hero should possess:

        • Admirable qualities (that the audience aspires to).
        • Universal qualities (that the audience can relate to).
        • Unique qualities (so that they are differentiated and interesting).
        • Conflicting qualities (to generate interest and tension).
    • Growth: The hero demonstrates a capacity to learn or grow (at least over time as part of the journey).

    • Action: The hero takes decisive actions and makes decisions that drives the events of the story.

    • Sacrifice: the hero will give something up of value on behalf of an ideal, person, or goal.

    • Confrontation with death: literal or symbolic death should be faced by the hero.

    • Character flaws: humanize characters and give them a starting point on their journey of growth. Also provides an internal journey to overcome and an obstacle that, to overcome, will make them whole.

  • Varieties of heroes:

    • Willing heroes are active and committed to the adventure.
    • Unwilling heroes are hesitant and need to be motivated or compelled by outside forces. The unwilling hero can become a willing hero later in the story,
    • Anti-hero: May be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society but is someone with whom the audience is in sympathy. Audiences like outsiders.
    • Loner heroes: A hero estranged from society. These heroes prefer solitude. Their journey is one of re-entry into society, alongside others followed by a return to isolation. This is a common theme in Westerns.
    • Catalyst heroes: These are heroes that don’t change much themselves. Their story function is to enable change in others. Catalyst heroes are frequently found in episodic TV shows.
      Mentor: Wise Old Man or Woman
  • The mentor is a figure who aids or trains the hero. Often the mentor will give the hero gifts that are important to their quest.

  • The word comes from a character in The Odyssey that helps Telemachus. The character “Mentor” is secretly the disguised goddess Athena.

  • Psychological function:

    • Mentors represent the self, the god within us.
    • “This higher self is the wiser, nobler, more godlike part of us.”
    • Mentor figures stand for the hero’s highest aspirations.
    • Mentors may be former heroes who are now passing their knowledge on to others.
    • The mentor archetype is closely related to the image of the parent.
  • Dramatic functions:

    • Teaching is a key function of the mentor.
    • Gift-giving: May come in the form of a magic weapon, a key, clue, piece of advice. “The gift or help of the donor should be earned, by learning, sacrifice, or commitment.”
    • Mentor as inventor.
    • Some mentors function as a conscience for the hero.
    • Motivation: The mentor can help the hero overcome their fear (this can be seen as a kind of gift as well).
    • Planting: The mentor is often used to plant information or a prop that becomes important later in the story.
    • Sexual initiation: “Seducers and thieves of innocence teach heroes lessons the hard way.”
  • Types of mentor:

    • Dark mentors: Some stories use the mentor to mislead the audience. Some characters use the mask of a mentor to lure the hero into danger.
    • Fallen mentors: Some Mentors are on their own Hero’s Journey but are experiencing a crisis of faith or fall from grace.
    • Continuing Mentors: In episodic series mentors may give assignments and set stories in motion.
    • Multiple Mentors: The Hero may learn specific skills from different individuals.
    • Comic Mentors: Often appears in romantic comedies. A friend or coworker that offers advice to the Hero.
  • Mentor archetype can be a function fulfilled by many characters.

  • Some stories use a character’s “code” or set of principles as a kind of “Inner Mentor” (common in Westerns).
    Threshold Guardian

  • Serves as an obstacle on the journey.

  • Guardians prevent unworthy from entering a new world.

  • Guardians are not the main villain or antagonists in a story. They can be lower level minions of the villain but they can also be neutral characters. Sometimes the guardian is an ally placed to test the hero’s worthiness and ability.

  • Psychological function:

    • Guardians represent the obstacles we face constantly throughout life.
    • They can also represent our internal demons: neuroses, emotional scars, vices, self-defeating ideas, etc.
  • Dramatic function:

    • Testing the hero is the main function of the threshold guardian. The test helps determine that the hero is ready for change.
    • Signals of new power: Heroes often recognize guardians not as enemies but as potential allies.
      Herald
  • “Herald characters issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change.”

  • Psychological function:

    • The herald announces the need for change.
    • The herald isn’t always a person, but the function is the carrier of a new idea.
  • Dramatic function:

    • The herald provides motivation or a challenge and helps get the story moving.
    • The herald can be a force or an event (like the crash of the stock market or a declaration of war). A telegram or a phone call can also function as a herald.
      Shapeshifter
  • An archetype whose true nature shifts during the story forcing the hero and audience to question and guess at the shapeshifter’s true allegiance and objectives.

  • Example:

    • Fatal Attraction: The shapeshifting woman who changes from a passionate lover to an insane murderous harpy.
    • Harry Potter: Snape as the cunning, loathsome professor who turns out to be loyal and heroic.
  • Psychological function:

    • Expressions of the energy of the animus and anima (Jungian terms).
    • Animus: The male element of the female unconscious.
    • Anima: The female element of the male unconscious.
    • “People have a complete set of both male and female qualities which are necessary for survival and internal balance.”
    • Shapeshifter characters are an expression of this internal dualism in all of us.
    • Projection: People project onto others what they want to see and what they want to believe.
    • Animus and anima may be positive or negative forces for the hero. E.g. they can help or destroy the hero.
  • Dramatic function:

    • Shapeshifter creates doubt, uncertainty and suspense in a story.

    • “Is this character an ally or enemy? Will they betray me?”

    • The femme fatale is a common shapeshifter type: A mysterious but alluring woman who leads the hero into dangerous and deadly situations.

    • Shapeshifters often wear a mask or disguise to hide their true nature and intentions or to gain access to information.

    • Certain archetypes like mentors and tricksters are also prone to shapeshifting.

      • Athena in the Odyssey assumes the appearance of different people to help the hero.
      • The wicked queen in Snow White assumes the guise of an old crone to trick the heroine.
        Shadow
  • “The Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something…the home of suppressed monsters of our inner world.”

  • Shadow archetype manifest in villains, antagonists and enemies.

    • Villains and enemies desire to defeat or destroy the hero.

    • Antagonists are less hostile shadows.

      • Allies who desire the same goal but disagree on the methods are one manifestation of this.
  • Psychological function:

    • The power of repressed feelings.
    • Fears, struggles, bad habits can embody the archetype.
  • Dramatic function:

    • Shadows create conflict and bring out the best in the hero by putting them in dangerous situations.
  • Shadow can be combined with other archetypes.

    • Common combinations: shadow/mentor and shapeshifter/shadow.
  • “Shadows need not be totally evil…it’s better if they are humanized by a touch of goodness, or by some admirable quality.”

  • Important to remember that the villain is the hero in their own story.

  • Internal shadows involve the redemption or reconciliations of a flawed character.

    • Darth Vader in Star Wars
    • The Terminator becoming the protector in the sequel.
      Ally
  • The ally serves many functions: companion, sparring partner, conscience or comic relief.

  • The ally gives the hero someone to talk to, confide in and reveal important questions about the plot.

  • The ally can help humanize and enrich our understanding of the hero.

  • Allies need not be human. Many books use animals as well as supernatural or spiritual protectors like ghosts or angels.

  • Psychological function:

    • Allies are reminders of the unexpressed or under-used parts of human personality.
    • Allies represent powerful internal forces that can come to our aid.
  • “Allies in fiction suggest alternate paths for problem-solving and help to round out the personalities of heroes, allowing expression of fear, humor, or ignorance that might not be appropriate for the hero.”
    Trickster

  • The trickster embodies mischief and the desire for change.

  • Psychological function:

    • “They cut big egos down to size, and bring heroes and audiences down to earth.”
    • They point out folly and hypocrisy.
    • They are the enemies of the status quo.
  • Dramatic function:

    • Comic relief.
    • Tricksters can be allies for the hero, allies for the shadow or independent agents with their own agenda.
  • The Norse god Loki is one of the best examples of the trickster.

  • Trickster heroes are a popular subtype.

    • The trickster hero demonstrates quick wits to outsmart stronger, more dangerous enemies.
    • The Trickster hero typically gets a comeuppance where they are outwitted.
  • Can function as catalyst characters: Characters that affect the lives of others but are unchanged by the story.

Book Two: Stages of the Journey

The Ordinary World

The opening moments are a powerful opportunity to set the tone and create an impression. You can conjure up a mood, an image, or a metaphor that will give the audience a frame of reference to better experience your work. The mythological approach to story boils down to using metaphors or comparisons to get across your feelings about life.

  • The title of the book is an important clue about the story. A good title can become a rich metaphor for the condition of the hero or the story’s setting.

  • Ordinary World is established at the start:

    • Contrasts with the special world that will be entered when the threshold is crossed.
    • May foreshadow the special world: conflicts and moral dilemmas.
    • Introduces the dramatic question for the story: will the hero achieve her goal, overcome her flaw, learn the lesson needed?
    • Establishes the hero’s relationship with he audience. What do they feel? What are they like? What are they doing at the moment of entrance?
  • Hero is introduced to the audience:

    • See the world through the hero’s eyes.

    • Hero doesn’t need to be likable but they must be relatable.

    • Hero needs an inner and outer problem.

      • Inner problems: A personality flaw or moral dilemma to work out.
      • Examples: How to get along with others. How to trust themselves. How to see beyond outward appearances.
      • Inner problems allow characters to grow.
  • Opening scene should create identification between hero and audience.

    • Give heroes universal goals, drives, desires, or needs.
    • Examples of these needs: recognition, affection, acceptance, understanding.
  • Hero is lacking something at the beginning:

    • Fairy tale heroes often have lost family members.
    • Orphans and single people are tropes for a reason: they are seeking a missing piece in their lives.
    • Personality elements can be “missing.” Examples: missing compassion, forgiveness, love.
    • “It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story.” By story’s end they are able to perform the act.
  • Flawed heroes

    • Flaws are weaknesses or faults that make the heroes real and relatable.
    • “To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or a deep emotional wound.”
  • Establishing what’s at stake:

    • “What does the hero stand to gain or lose in the adventure?”
    • What are the consequences for the hero, society, the world if the hero fails (or succeeds)?
  • Backstory: Relevant information about a character’s history and background.

  • Exposition: “The art of gracefully revealing the backstory and any other pertinent information about the plot…everything the audience needs to know to understand the hero and the story.”

  • Theme

    • What is the story about? Examples:

      • Love conquers all.
      • You can’t cheat an honest man.
      • We must work together to survive.
      • Money is the root of all evil.
    • “The theme of a story is an underlying statement or assumption about an aspect of life.

    • Often established in act one of the story.

      • Can be expressed by an offhand remark or statement of belief.
      • This belief is then tested over the course of the story.

Knowing the theme is essential to making the final choices in dialogue, action, and set dressing that turn a story into a coherent design. In a good story, everything is related somehow to the theme, and the Ordinary World is the place to make the first statement of the main idea.

Call to Adventure

  • An event, catalyst or trigger that gets the story moving.

  • The call can arrive in different ways:

    • A message or messenger (could be via the herald archetype).

      • Example: News about a declaration of war.
      • Example: Telegram reporting that outlaws have been released from prison and are coming to town.
      • Example: A legal summons.
    • A stirring within the hero.

      • This is a kind of message from the unconscious.
      • Dreams, fantasies and visions are one way to express this.
      • Hero just gets fed up with his/her current life and is finally pushed over the edge.
    • A form of loss or subtraction from the hero’s life or world.

      • Example: The film Quest for Fire begins when a Stone Age tribe’s last bit of fire is extinguished.
      • Example: Kidnapping of loved one or loss of something precious.
  • ‘The Call to Adventure can often be unsettling and disorienting to the hero. Heralds sometimes sneak up on heroes, appearing in one guise to gain a hero's confidence and then shifting shape to deliver the Call.”

  • Heroes can receive more than one call. Sometimes the multiple calls embody the internal conflicts and choices that the hero is caught between.

The Call to Adventure is a process of selection. An unstable situation arises in a society and someone volunteers or is chosen to take responsibility. Reluctant heroes have to be called repeatedly as they try to avoid responsibility.

Refusal of the Call

  • The refusal serves multiple dramatic functions:

    • Signals to the audience how risky and daunting the adventure is.
    • Gives the hero a chance to weight the consequences and reflect.
    • Adds realism to the story and the decisions the hero makes.
  • Reasons for avoiding the call:

    • Past lessons and experiences have colored the hero’s belief systems (this can be an opportunity to address an internal flaw/belief of the hero as part of their inner conflict).
    • Weak excuses to delay the inevitable.
  • Persistent refusal may result in tragedy.

  • Hero may have to choose between conflicting calls. The Refusal can express the hero’s difficult choice.

  • Sometimes the hero is willing and one of their companions is reluctant (and pays the price for the hero’s willingness).

  • A threshold guardian may block, test or dissuade the hero from starting the journey. They are testing the hero’s commitment.

  • Secret door: This is a place or thing that is described as forbidden to the hero by others (e.g. “don’t open the box,” “never enter the forest at night).

Meeting with the Mentor

  • “Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the hero’s journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure.”

  • Even if there is no character present, the hero often finds some source of wisdom to draw upon before their journey.

  • “A good teacher or Mentor is enthused about learning.”

  • Mentor-student relationship isn’t always benign or without conflict:

    • Sometimes the student is ungrateful or harms the mentor.
    • Sometimes the mentor turns villain or betrays the hero.
    • Mentors can disappoint the hero.
  • “Mentors can be regarded as heroes who have become experienced enough to teach others.”

Crossing the First Threshold

  • “Crossing the First Threshold is an act of the will in which the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.”

  • This step in the journey is often the result of an external event:

    • Villain may kill, harm, threaten or kidnap someone the hero cares about.
    • Hero may be given a deadline for an assignment.
    • Hero may run out of options, forcing his/her choice.
  • Threshold guardian often appears in this phase of the journey to block or test the hero.

  • Border between ordinary world and special world often represented by physical barriers or features: doors, gates, arches, bridges, desert, oceans, rivers, etc.

  • Leap of faith: The courage needed by the hero to jump into adventure.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

  • “The audience’s first impressions of the Special World should strike a sharp contrast with the Ordinary World.”
  • The special world has a different feel, rhythm, priorities and rules.
  • The initial entry into the special world is a period of adjustment for the hero.
  • Testing: Putting the hero into challenging situations to prepare them for the big ordeals in the final act.

Another function of this stage is the making of Allies or Enemies. It's natural for heroes just arriving in the Special World to spend some time figuring out who can be trusted and relied upon for special services, and who is not to be trusted. This too is a kind of Test, examining if the hero is a good judge of character.

  • Rival: Special type of enemy that isn’t out to kill the hero, but to defeat him in competition (love, sports, business, etc.).

  • “The new rules of the Special World must be learned quickly by the hero and the audience.”

    • Hero might learn about different social norms or practices.
    • Hero might learn about preexisting hostilities between two groups.
  • Watering-holes are a common trope at this point in many stories: bars, saloons, gambling parlors, etc.

    • Volatile mix of different people.
    • Good place to obtain information and new opportunity.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

As heroes near the gates of a citadel deep within the Special World, they may take time to make plans, do reconnaissance on the enemy, reorganize or thin out the group, fortify and arm themselves, and have a last laugh and a final cigarette before going over the top into no-man's-land. The student studies for the midterm. The hunter stalks the game to its hiding place. Adventurers squeeze in a love scene before tackling the central event of the movie.

  • The approach can function as a microcosm of the special world with its own threshold guardian, special rules, agendas and tests.

The Ordeal

  • This is where the hero faces their greatest challenge and opponent at this point in the story.

  • “Heroes must die so that they can be reborn.”

    • The hero must face death or something like it: their greatest fears, confronting failure, end of a relationship, death of their old self.
    • The hero is literally or symbolically reborn.
  • The hero is changed by this experience in some fundamental way.

    • Example: Arrogant hero might become more cooperative and less egotistical.
  • The ordeal is the crisis but not the climax of the story.

    • Crisis: The point in the story where opposing forces are at the tensest state of opposition.
    • Climax: The big moment of act three and crowning event of the story.
  • Some stories employ a witness—another character’s point of view—to experience the apparent death of the hero.

  • Some stories have the hero witness the death of their mentor at this point in the story.

  • Most common ordeal is a battle or confrontation with an opposing force: villain, antagonist, force of nature, greatest fear.

    • The confrontation can be external, internal or both.
    • The hero’s greatest opponent is his own shadow.
    • Villain may die or escape at this point.
  • “The Ordeal in myths signifies the death of the ego. The hero is now fully part of the cosmos, dead to the old, limited vision of things and reborn into a new consciousness of connections.”

Reward

  • The hero experiences the consequences of surviving literal or figurative death.

  • A moment of celebration or reflection may occur.

  • A love scene following the trial of the ordeal is common.

  • The reward can come in many forms:

    • Taking possession of a special item or object (e.g. treasure, a magic sword, etc.)
    • Love or acceptance is one kind of non-tangible reward.
    • Becoming the thing the hero always wanted to become.
    • Initiation into a group/society.
    • New perception, understanding and even new powers.
    • Self-realization or epiphany.
  • Elixir theft: Hero may need to steal the reward. Theft may carry a heavy price to pay at a later time.

The Road Back

  • After the short celebration and ebb of the reward, the road back is the final stage before returning to the ordinary world or continuing to a new locale or destination.
(Image from the Writer's Journey)
  • “In psychological terms this stage represents the resolve of the hero to return to the Ordinary World and implement the lessons learned in the Special World.”

  • The hero is still fearful and the end is in doubt, but the Hero is determined to make the attempt.

  • The hero rededicates themselves to the adventure via inner resolve or external force:

    • Internal force: A rallying cry, a promise, a spirited speech or pep talk.
    • External force: Alarm going off, ticking clock or renewed threat from an enemy.
  • The road back causes the third act.

  • Another moment of crime can emerge that forces the hero through a final set of trials.

    • Sometimes the forces “defied in the Ordeal now rally and strike back at them.”
    • If an act of “elixir theft” occurred, the hero may have to deal with the repercussions.

The Resurrection

  • “For a story to feel complete, the audience needs to experience an additional moment of death and rebirth, similar to the Ordeal, but subtly different. This is the climax, the last and most dangerous meeting with death.”

  • The writer must show the change in their characters behavior or appearance.

  • Hero emerges with a new personality that combines the best parts of their old selves along with the new lessons learned from the journey.

  • The ordeal and the fesurrection complement each other:

    • The ordeal (crisis) show the hero the path to success.
    • The resurrection (climix) shows that the hero has retained the lessons from the ordeal.
  • The resurrection often involves the final, decisive confrontation with the villain or shadow (in many genres this is the showdown).

  • The hero can get help from allies, but it’s important that the hero be the one to perform the decisive action (heroes should be active not passive).

  • Resurrection of the hero can take many forms:

    • The hero can survive their brush with death.
    • The hero can die but live on the memory of the survivors/friends.
    • The hero’s legacy might live on in a student or another who takes up the mantle, persona or special weapon of the hero.
    • The hero can finally shed their old selves or old value-system and emerge as a new, changed person.
  • Catharsis: A purifying emotional release or an emotional breakthrough. In the climax of a story this is where the Hero achieves a level of clarity and awareness.

  • The stages of the hero’s hourney map to a meaningful character arc:

    1. Ordinary World: Character’s limited awareness of a problem.
    2. Call to Adventure: Character’s awareness is increased.
    3. Refusal: Character is reluctant to change.
    4. Meeting with the Mentor: Character tries to overcome reluctance.
    5. Crossing the Threshold: Character commits to change.
    6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Character experiments with change.
    7. Approach to Inmost Cave: Character prepares for big change.
    8. Ordeal: Character attempts big change.
    9. Reward: Consequences of the attempt (improvements/setbacks).
    10. The Road Back: Character is rededicated to change.
    11. Resurrection: Character’s final attempt at big change.
    12. Return with the Elixir: Character has mastered the change.
  • Sacrifice is a common theme in the Resurrection:

    • The hero’s life might be sacrificed.
    • An old habit or belief might be sacrificed.
    • The hero’s ego might be sacrificed.
    • Something must be surrendered.

Return with the Elixir

  • “Heroes return to their starting place, go home, or continue the journey. But they always proceed with a sense that they are commencing a new life, one that will be forever different because of the road just traveled.”

  • “If they are true heroes, they Return with the Elixir from the Special World; bringing something to share with others, or something with the power to heal a wounded land.”

  • Two story forms of ending:

    • Circular: Narrative returns to its starting point.

      • Provides an opportunity to contrast the ordinary world with the special world.
      • Shows how far the hero has come.
      • Story may repeat a line of dialogue or scene from act one to show how the Hero has grown.
    • Open-ended: Loose ends allow the audience to explore the ending and the consequences in their own imaginations.

  • Surprise should be used in the return:

    • Neat/clean resolutions are not as believable or enjoyable.
    • Something unexpected, a sudden revelation is desirable.
    • The revelation can be positive or negative.
    • The “twist ending”: Misdirection that leads the audience to believe one thing only to learn of a different reality.
    • Irony is one way to achieve surprise.
  • The elixir can be literal or metaphoric. It can be for others in the story or for the audience.

    • Examples of elixirs: love, responsibility, tragedy, wisdom (aka “wiser but sadder).
  • “If a traveler doesn't bring back something to share, he's not a hero, he's a heel, selfish and unenlightened. He hasn't learned his lesson. He hasn't grown. Returning with the Elixir is the last test of the hero, which shows if he's mature enough to share the fruits of his quest.”

Epilogue: Looking Back on the Journey

  • “To force a story to conform to a structural model is putting the cart before the horse.”
  • “The needs of the story dictate its structure. Form follows function.”
  • “The stages, terms, and ideas of the Hero's Journey can be used as a design template for stories, or as a means of troubleshooting a story so long as you don't follow these guidelines too rigidly.“
  • “Don't mistake the map for the journey.”
  • “Any element of the Hero's Journey can appear at any point in a story.”
  • Book finishes with 5 in-depth analyses:

    • Titanic (1997 film)
    • The Lion King (1994 film)
    • Pulp Fiction (1994 film)
    • The Full Monty (1997)
    • The Star Wars Saga


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