The Heroic Journey 2: The Journey
This article is by guest poster, David Sims, author and former WriteAtHome writing coach.
The late great Doctor of Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, once said he stuck to reportage instead of writing (outright) fiction because when he made up a story he was really never sure if it’s any good.
I know what he meant. After a few false starts on novels, I too wondered if there was any objective way to know that a novel was good. There seemed to be, as Hollywood script consultant Christopher Vogler says, some “hidden structure” to successful stories, something those authors knew how to do that I didn’t.
There is. There exists a specific structure common to the enduring stories from cultures in all places and times – Hitchcock movies, Australian Aboriginals and the Eskimos, Pixar movies, ancient Sumerians and Japanese, Disney movies, Hindu mythology and the Bible, The New York Times bestselling novels, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Greek myths and Star Wars because, as Vogler says, “They are all basically the same story.”
This “same story” was outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his landmark 1949 work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It’s called the Hero’s Journey.
Vogler wrote in a classic Hollywood memo that the Hero’s Journey is “older than the Pyramids, older than Stonehenge, older than the earliest cave paintings … and it will outlive us all.” James Bond, The Godfather, Stephen King’s Carrie, African Queen, High Noon, The Matrix, myriad romance and detective novels, movies and TV shows are all based on the Hero’s Journey. Cinderella is every bit the mythic hero Indiana Jones and War and Peace’s Pierre Bezukhov are. Watch a Saturday morning cartoon and you’ll most likely see a 24-minute version of a Hero’s Journey.
Story analyst Robert McKee says “In essence we have told one another the same tale, one way or another, since the dawn of humanity … all stories take the form of a Quest.”
Campbell distills it thusly: “A Hero ventures forth from the World of the 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.”
This is the distillation of man’s observations of how the world around him works, the story man tells himself about himself. Nobody sat down and more or less arbitrarily decided what the rules for good stories would be, the principles of the Hero’s Journey arise from examining what’s common to the stories people have always told each other. These common elements boil down to the Hero’s Journey, which is “neither ancient nor modern, Western nor Eastern; it is human,” McKee says.
Not all stories follow the pattern of the Hero’s Journey to a T, but the timeless ones, the best ones, draw heavily on it. Stories that don’t generally fall under the category of “experimental” fiction — they’re not really trying to be widely accepted, they’re trying to be different. It’s difficult to think of a classic, well-loved story that is essentially a departure from the Hero’s Journey.
Learn the elements of the Hero’s Journey. This series of blog posts will introduce you to the elements of the Hero’s Journey and the general structure it takes. Once you have a firm handle on them, play around with them, combine them according to your own personal style and needs. But you will have the tools you need to build what you know will be a good story.
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