This post is part of a series exploring the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell studied hundreds of world-wide myths, finding patterns to virtually any story. This basic framework gives the stories we tell a universal, timeless appeal and resonate deeply with our audiences. This series is not about a “five steps to perfect stories” method, nor does it claim a best way to tell stories. Today, we continue with plot.
The Journey Continues
In the last installment of this series, I talked about the plot or journey of the Hero’s Journey broken into five steps:
- The Hero and the Ordinary World, Broken
- The Hero and the Quest
- The Hero and the Passion
- The Hero and the Moment
- The Hero and the Repercussions
We talked about the first three, but only in general terms. Today, we will look at specific plot elements from the Hero’s Journey as they move from the call to adventure (The Ordinary World, Broken) to the Climax (The Hero and the Moment). This is about all those steps that can be in the Hero’s Quest from the moment they leave their front door to the moment of decision at the climax.
Please note: a lot of these elements can be moved, changed, and even dropped. Some stories may be better sticking to a strict Hero’s Journey (like Tolkinien Fantasy), while others may want some more leeway (like Romantic Comedy). In any case, these elements will create a sense of timelessness for any story.
Call To Adventure and Refusal
As we mentioned in the last post, the hero’s ordinary world is broken. Something is thrown out of whack. The village is poisoned, or the guy meets a new girl, or the detective lands a strange case. Whatever the case may be, the balance the hero enjoyed is no longer, well, balanced. People like balance. The call to adventure is some force (or person) who calls the hero to set the world right again: find the village cure, get the girl, solve the case.
Sometimes, the call to adventure is what breaks the ordinary world. A young man is bored with his life at home. When a friend calls him to a road trip, the monotony of life is unbalanced. This is what gets your story rolling. The call doesn’t have to be so overt, or even external. A simple stirring in the character’s conscience can do. Whatever it is, it drives your hero to action — because protagonists are willful characters.
There are many different kinds of calls to adventure. Synchronicity involves a progression of coincidences or throwing two people together as if by fate (think of all those “stuck in an elevator” types of stories). Temptation for something exotic or hard to find can spur an adventure. Or, there may be a herald who literally calls the character into change. This may be the mentor, like Obi Wan Kanobe asking Luke to come with him. If exploring these types of calls interests you, comment below and I may go into more depth in a dedicated post.
More often than not, the hero refuses the call. Just for a moment, at least. This refusal could be an outright, “not a chance I’m leavin’ home!” or something as subtle as “I have other plans.” It could even take the form of hesitation. If the call is never spoken, it is felt. This connects with the reader: we are all hesitant when embarking upon something new. Perhaps we’ve tried and failed in the past. Maybe we’re unsure of ourselves. Possibly, we don’t even believe in the cause. Whatever the reason, very rarely does a hero dive in with gusto immediately.
The mentor serves as a guide from the call to adventure onto the road, and possibly beyond. I know this is cliche, but don’t think of this person just as the wise old woman or the seasoned boxing coach. The more creative the mentor, sometimes the better. The mentor serves many functions: protecting, guiding, teaching, training, testing, and even providing gifts. This archetype is common, and savvy audiences know them well. Do whatever you can to flip them around, shake them up, and make something new. Give conflict between mentor and hero. Mislead the reader. Misdirection. These will keep your story fresh. More about the mentor in the archetypes post.
Once we have stepped onto the road (or decided to talk to the new guy), we are committed in some way to the journey. The story could go: boy meets girl, boy talks to girl, everything is great, but our story sense screams for something more. The journey must include conflict, and Thresholds are one of the keys to that conflict. These are turning points along the path. They are meant to twist the central goal and test the hero’s resolve. How badly does she want it? These thresholds can also be great ways to give bones to your outline, dividing it into acts or sequences. We will discuss Threshold Guardians with Archetypes.
Along the Road
In between thresholds there are many adventures. Depending on what kind of story you tell, these adventures may be office parties, swashbuckling sword fights, or quiet moments of self reliance. There are allies, tests, moves forward and backward, and shapeshifters who both help and harm. These steps are too varied to discuss in detail here, but remember that everything is about the need and the want. The hero moves toward his or her goal, and will always to the least amount possible to claim it. That’s where good conflict comes in. Each turn, each moment, pushes the hero further from the goal and deeper along the path to balance.
In the next installment, we will dive into the climax.