If you made it past high school English (and if you're reading the blog of a literary agent, I'm guessing you did), you probably spent a week or two on the notion of the Hero's Journey in literature and mythology. You know, the one made popular by Joseph Campbell in his book of the same name -- the book that establishes the same basic motif for a story protagonist overcoming a conflict. For those that need a refresher on the Hero's Journey, this is a condensed cheat sheet with Star Wars examples:
Call to adventure: The thing/event that pulls the hero into his journey Luke Skywalker gets the two droids)
The mentor: The spiritual adviser that mentors the hero, often with a gift (Obi-Wan Kenobi and the lightsabre)
Refusal of adventure: The moment that the hero hesitates, unsure of himself (Luke commits to home chores rather than blowing up Imperials)
Point of no return: The moment the hero is sucked in and he can't go back (Luke's aunt/uncle are killed)
Challenges and temptations: Various challenges that test the hero, often overcome with new allies and friends (Han and Chewie help out Luke)
The abyss & transformation: When everything goes wrong but the hero changes into a higher self (Luke's wingmen are shot down in the Death Star trench, but he commits himself to the force)
Atonement: The hero triumphs (Luke uses the force to blow up the Death Star)
Journey home: The hero's resolution (Luke gets an ugly yellow jacket and a snazzy medal -- and doesn't get to kiss his sister...yet.)
This was probably most famously used by George Lucas as his inspiration for the original Star Wars trilogy. Lucas has said the same thing in a billion different interviews about the Hero's Journey and Star Wars: that he examined the structure presented by Campbell, looked at common themes of heroes and triumph throughout various classic and modern myths, then painted over it with a pulp sci-fi veneer. And since George Lucas has more money than God, Zeus, and Vishnu combined, maybe he hit on something.
What does that have to do with you, loyal Nathan Bransford reader? Well, us writers get stuck in so many places: dialog, prose, character, etc. In areas of plot structure and pacing, though, the Hero's Journey can be a spectacular resource for un-blocking the blocked writer. Think about it -- this is THE Supreme Model of Storytelling, a time-tested template that's produced #1 hits dating back to the days of non-Geico cavemen. It works, and it works in just about any context, even for you literary folk out there. Here are some examples, starting off with a personal anecdote.
Back in 1996, Ms. Foncell (my AP English teacher at Leigh High School -- see, I told you it's all about high school English) had us study the Hero's Journey. Our final project that year was to take the Hero's Journey and apply it to something modern. Being a bunch of snarky dorks, we picked Transformers: The Movie. This was the 1985 animated classic that appeared way before Michael Bay destroyed modern cinema. And wouldn't you know it, the darn story fit. The hero was a transformer named Hot Rod, the mentor was a beat-up Autobot truck named Kup, and the point of no return was when the Deceptacons blew up the Autobot base. Hot Rod and his Autobot pals met weird robots and faced challenges, but ultimately a giant planet-eating robot attacked everything in sight (abyss) and only Hot Rod could save things by opening the Matrix of Leadership (transformation -- pun intended) to become a new form that even gave him a little trailer when he turned into a car. Hot Rod rescued everyone, blew up the giant planet-eating robot, and celebrated to a rockin' hair metal version of The Transformers theme (journey home). The end.
(Aside #1: I'm sure that made no sense to 99% of you out there barring anyone who was a child in the 1980s. Sorry 'bout that.)
(Aside #2: We got an A on the presentation for "sheer nerve," even after the school principle walked in while we re-enacted key plot moments with old Transformers toys.)
See how easily this plot structure plays out? Now, we don't always have ass-kicking heroes like Hot Rod; in fact, hero might be too strong of a word here. Instead, let's consider it as the protagonist's journey, and the peaks and valleys are more focused on conflict without the subtext of Good vs. Evil. Consider how it applies to a more dour story like Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire:
Louis is a depressed landowner who comes across the mysterious vampire Lestat (call to adventure, mentor). Lestat turns him into a vampire but Louis refuses to engage in the vampiric lifestyle (refusal). Lestat turns Claudia, a little girl, and Claudia and Louis form a bond (point of no return). They try to kill Lestat and seek out other vampires (challenges and temptations), but eventually Lestat catches up with them and aids other vampires in killing Claudia (abyss). Louis gives in to his dark nature (transformation) and exacts vengeance for Claudia (atonement) before eventually coming back to New Orleans in the 20th century (journey home).
Think about that in terms of the protagonist, not the mythical Hero. If you look at each plot point simply as an event in an outline, you can see how this structure works even though this isn't heroic in the traditions of, say, Superman or Hulk Hogan. Similarly, things like "adventure" and "journey home" shouldn't be taken literally, but more as analogies for plot events.
Let's try one more example -- Charlotte Gilman's classic short story The Yellow Wallpaper:
The narrator is a 19th-century woman confined to bedrest in a room filled with yellow wallpaper due to her post-partum depression (call). The woman notes how ugly and hate-filled the room is (refusal), then starts hallucinating a figure trapped in the wallpaper (mentor). The woman decides to free the figure (point of no return) and begins peeling the wallpaper away (challenges). Upon realizing that the last day of her stay has arrived (abyss), the woman commits to stripping away the rest of the wallpaper by locking herself in the room (transformation). She "frees" the imaginary figure (atonement), and when her husband finds her, she is circling the room in belief that she is now the imaginary figure (journey home -- not literally, but the notion of resolution works here).
The Yellow Wallpaper can be an obtuse piece of literary short fiction but it still hits the Hero/Protagonist notes when it comes to action and conflict. If it can work here, it can work just about anywhere -- including your own manuscript.
I'm the type of writer that works well with outlines and writing out of order, and the Hero's Journey is one of the templates I use to try and look at how to space out that structure. Some of it is square-peg/round-hole forcing, but it generally provides a good skeleton for plot and pace. The challenge, then, is for the writer to adapt the structure and make it his or her own, either through character, prose, or a twist that elevates the story above a simple plot outline.
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