Some people tell me they don’t want to use The Hero’s Journey as a structural model because it’s not “contemporary.” They say, “I’m not writing about dragons or labyrinths or buried treasure!”
But oh dear writers, really, they are.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Hero’s Journey, it’s a story structure model identified by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. In his exhaustive study of myths and fairy tales, he discovered that they are all basically the same story, retold endlessly. The Hero’s Journey plays out in 12 phases, with the hero traveling to the land of the “dead” (actual or metaphorical) and back again.
To prove how relevant, up-to-date, and awesome this model is, I’m breaking down PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, the biggest 21st Century stoner movie of all time, into the 12 phases.
DALE DENTON (played by Seth Rogen) is our hero. And in this movie, the death he has to face is the death of “friendship.” This is the treasure in the story.
ORDINARY WORLD (this is where we see the hero in his regular world before the adventure begins.) Dale is a process server. He’s a huge dope smoker, doesn’t have any friends and is dating a girl in high school. Basically, he’s a loser. He goes to the house of his dealer SAUL (played by James Franco) to score some weed.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR (this is where the hero meets a mentor who teaches, initiates, and trains him) Saul instructs Dale in the finer points of smoking pot and sells him some incredibly rare and powerful dope called “Pineapple Express.”
CALL TO ADVENTURE (this is the catalyst that gets the story rolling) Dale leaves Saul’s, goes to process serve a guy, and witnesses this guy murder an Asian dude. Freaking out, Dale drops his doobie, and races back to Saul’s house.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD (this is where the hero commits to the adventure) He and Saul figure out that the guy who committed the murder is TED JONES (a huge drug dealer and Saul’s big boss.) Dale tells Saul he accidentally dropped his joint out the window and because the weed is so rare Ted will know exactly where he got it.
They race out of the apartment to hide in the forest.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES (this is where the hero makes friends and enemies) Saul calls RED (Danny McBride), his supplier, and tells him not to rat them out to Ted. Seth and Dale spend a paranoid night in the woods and go to Red’s the next day. When they arrive, they discover that Red is in cahoots with Ted’s henchmen, and there’s a huge fight. Saul hits Red over the head with a bong and knocks him out. They tie Red up and Red explains that Ted is going to kill them. The two henchmen arrive and Saul and Dale run. The henchmen shoot Red and leave him for dead.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE (this is where the hero starts to move toward a dark and dangerous place) Dale is worried about the safety of his high school girlfriend Angela and goes to her family to warn them. Her father freaks out and pulls a gun, Saul gets stabbed with a fork, and the henchman arrive. As they escape, Dale tells Angela’s family they must go into hiding. Ted now thinks Dale is an assassin sent by the Asian gang to kill him. Having narrowly escaped death, Dale and Saul smoke some more weed and bond in a tree. They swear they are best friends. Neither of them has ever had a best friend before.
ORDEAL (this is where, in a series of events, it all falls apart for the hero and he appears to “die.”) Dale calls Angela to see if she’s ok and she accuses him of being a loser because he smokes too much pot and has a nowhere job. Dale tells Saul he’s a loser and is NOT his friend. They split apart. Here we have an “alone” montage where each of them is crying because they’ve lost their best friend. The henchmen catch Saul and bring him to Ted’s lair. Saul is going to die. Dale feels responsible.
SEIZING THE SWORD (this is where the hero decides to fight the bad guy one more time) Dale goes to Red’s house and discovers him bleeding from all the gunshot wounds. Dale inspires Red to get up and help him save Saul. They suit up to go to Ted’s lair.
THE ROAD BACK (this is where the hero races to face the bad guy) Dale and Red race to Ted’s lair. When they arrive, Red chickens out on Dale and runs away.
Dale must face Ted alone.
RESURRECTION (this is where the hero faces the bad guy and appears to “die” one more time, before he/she defeats him) Dale enters the lair, but is immediately captured. He’s thrown into a cell with Saul. Dale apologizes to his friend and they decide to take down Ted. They escape from the cell and while Saul fights with Ted’s primary henchwoman (a female cop) Seth faces off against Ted in a warehouse filled with huge dope plants. Dale defeats him. The Asian gang leader shows up with a bomb and the whole place blows sky high. Dale saves Saul, and Red, who has come back to help them, escapes the flames as well.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR (this is where the hero returns to the ordinary world with knowledge that has the power to heal.) Dale and Saul and Red sit in a coffee shop. They are battered to hell, but acknowledge the power of friendship. They commit to being BFFs.
See how simple the Hero’s Journey is? And how this completely modern film falls under its 12 phases? In PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, the treasure that the hero seeks is friendship. Dale goes after it, gains it, loses it, and then has to reclaim it again in the Resurrection (climax.)
Take Action! If you’re struggling with your plot, could you use the ancient wisdom of the Hero’s Journey to restructure? What treasure is your Hero seeking? How can he/she get it? How can he/she lose it? How does he/she have to transform to get it back?
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