Do you ever look at story structure models and think, “Wow, this is boring,” or, “This template is a breeding ground for cliches.” Or, “Really, in the climax she has to face ‘death’ one more time and overcome it?”
After years of working with narrative structural templates, these thoughts constantly cross my mind. For example, The Hero’s Journey. In the 1950’s, Joseph Campbell, a mythologist, studied the structure of myths and fairy tales (across all cultures and recorded history) and discovered they are basically the same story. He called this narrative pattern The Hero’s Journey, and it really came to the forefront of American consciousness when George Lucas used it to structure the Star Wars films.
I’d been locked in my own death battle with this model for several years. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it. I hated it.
I was finally able to fully embrace it, and recognize its genius, when I understood that it was a FORM, not a FORMULA. That the elements in The Hero’s Journey could float around to different spots in the story without losing any of their juice.
The universal power of this structural model lies in the fact that it springs from our collective human unconscious; our powerful need to have a story told such that the hero (our stand in) can face all the everyday “deaths” of life, and somehow, in the end, be transformed and become whole.
You can fight this model. You can say it’s old fashioned, that it’s programmatic, that it’s “by the numbers.” But what you can’t do is deny its power to create an emotionally satisfying experience for the reader or viewer.
Case in point– this past weekend, I went with my family to see the new Rocky film CREED. I’m not a huge fan of sports movies, but I went because that’s what my sons and my father (who was a college basketball coach) wanted to see. At the end of the film, I was cheering and crying, and I knew why.
CREED is a beautiful script that fully embraces The Hero’s Journey in all its deep psychological, rising from the dead theatricality. It LEANS IN to the moments that most writers would fear becoming cliche. Its hero, Adonis Creed (yes– son of Apollo, from the early Rocky films) is a young man who does not accept who he is. And only by connecting with his mentor, Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone in a truly remarkable comeback performance) can he embrace his own father and his own separate self.
At one point in the middle of the movie, Rocky says to Adonis, “The biggest opponent you have is yourself.” This is the heart of The Hero’s Journey– that in the climax of the story, the hero must face his/her own shadow. In Adonis’s case, it’s that he believes his father didn’t love him and that he was a ‘mistake.’
In its most rudimentary form, here’s The Hero’s Journey in CREED….
ORDINARY WORLD— Adonis is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (who abandoned him.) He’s stuck in an office job he hates, and secretly boxes in Mexico.
CALL TO ADVENTURE— He quits his job, leaves Apollo’s wife (who raised him) and goes to Philly. He wants to become a boxer under his own last name, “Johnson.”
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR– He approaches Rocky to train him, but Rocky says no.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD— Adonis trains on his own, but keeps trying to win Rocky over to his side. Finally, Rocky agrees to train him,
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES— They work together, and bond. Adonis improves his skills.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE— A champion British boxer (“Pretty” Ricky Conlan,) who is about to go to jail, needs one big fight to support his family. His manager approaches Rocky and Adonis and asks for a fight. People have found out that Adonis is Creed’s son, and there’ll be huge interest.
REFUSAL TO THE CALL— Rocky doesn’t want him to do it, but Adonis convinces him he’s ready. They start to train for the big event.
ORDEAL— Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. He doesn’t want to do chemo and Adonis is upset. Rocky basically says to him, “Leave me alone. We’re not real family.” Upset, Adonis goes to his girlfriend’s concert (she’s a singer) and gets mad and fights a guy there who calls him “Baby Creed.” Because he acts like such a jerk, she breaks up with him. Adonis is alone (abandoned again.)
SEIZING THE SWORD— Rocky comes to Adonis and apologizes. Rocky says, “If you fight, I’ll fight.” Adonis agrees. (they literally fist-bump here)
THE ROAD BACK— Adonis trains like crazy, while Rocky starts his chemo. They both are fighting their own battles.
RESURRECTION— The big fight. It’s a done deal that Adonis is going to lose against Conlan, who is a beast. He’s getting killed in the ring, but he struggles to hang on and fight. After getting pounded and pounded, Conlan knocks him out. He goes down. Flashback… His mother, his girlfriend… He stays down. But when he flashes on his father, Apollo, in the ring… Bam! He wakes up and struggles to his feet. He staggers to the corner. Rocky tries to give him advice, but we know now that Adonis is going to prove that he’s not an illegitimate ‘mistake.’ He continues to fight and though overmatched, stays upright and gets in some great jabs. Conlan wins, but gives Adonis his respect.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR— Adonis walks to the top of those famous Philly stairs with Rocky. Rocky is old, tired, and out of breath, but Adonis helps him and they make it to the top. They are family.
Seriously, guys, I was crying. AT A BOXING MOVIE!
Thus, is the power of The Hero’s Journey. I could see the emotional beats coming, one by one, from a mile away, and yet was helpless against them.
Take Action! Don’t stop questioning your use of story structure models, but think of them as forms, not formula. How can you use their very powerful emotional elements and narrative twists and turns to deepen your story? How can you get over that ego part of your brain that is telling you to reject this model, because you are smarter or more special?
Face it. We are not smarter than The Hero’s Journey. It’s deep, powerful, and speaks to our hearts and collective unconscious in a way that can’t be denied.
And if I can get weepy at a boxing movie, it’s MAGIC.
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