Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay or memoir, plotting your story can be overwhelming. How can you make the main character active? What are some strategies to create rising conflict that leads to a satisfying climax? How do you weave in all the subplots and supporting characters?
One way to approach structuring your story is to use The Hero’s Journey. Identified by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and used in all kinds of contemporary fiction, film, and memoir, this structural model can help you map out your narrative in its simplest, most basic form.
The Hero’s Journey takes as its premise the notion that the hero or heroine must travel to the land of the “dead” (actual or metaphorical) and back again, reborn as a new being with fresh knowledge and insight. This knowledge or insight usually has the power to heal.
Here is the Hero’s Journey in its most simple incarnation. Remember, all of this must be revealed through ACTION in your book or screenplay.
We see the hero/ine in their ordinary world and get a clear sense of what they want and don’t have.
CALL TO ADVENTURE
They are given some challenge or quest to undertake.
REFUSAL TO THE CALL
The challenge is either emotionally or physically dangerous, so the character refuses the call. Usually something happens to force them to take action.
CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD
The character commits to the adventure/achieving the goal. They step out of the ordinary world, into the foreign “special world.”
TESTS ALLIES AND ENEMIES
As the hero/ine pursues his or her goal, some people help them and some people try to stop them.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE
In order to achieve the goal, the hero/ine must enter the “cave.” The cave contains their greatest fear, but they have to go inside to get what they want. In this section of the narrative, the story gets darker and darker (as if they are literally walking into a cave)
In a series of events, it all falls apart for the hero/ine. It looks like he/she will never achieve the goal. It’s over. (This is the first “death.”)
SEIZING THE SWORD
The hero/ine discovers something that gives them hope. They have one more chance to go after their goal in a new way. They decide to go for it one more time.
THE ROAD BACK
The hero/ine races to face the bad guy and makes one last attempt to achieve the goal.
They come face to face with the Shadow (dark force trying to stop them.) It looks like they’re going to fail again (second death) BUT, they take the lessons they’ve learned on the journey and do something they never could have done at the beginning of the story. (transformation/rebirth.)
They achieve the goal.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The hero/ine returns to the ordinary world with this new knowledge and insight. It usually has the power to heal.
That’s it– 12 simple phases/steps to help structure your narrative!
TAKE ACTION! Could you use the Hero’s Journey to brainstorm your outline? Could you establish what your main character wants through action, understand their fear, then force them into the cave? What’s their low point (The Ordeal?) What do they see or hear or figure out that allows them to make one more attempt to achieve their goal? (Seizing the Sword) How can he or she do something they’ve never done before in the climax? (Resurrection)
The Hero’s Journey is evident not only in the most powerful ancient stories, but in most every book and film you’ve read or watched in the past month.
Next week, I’ll break down the film STRICTLY BALLROOM so you can see how this shakes out in a romantic dance movie. And then the following week, I’ll use it to break down a novel.
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