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The Art of Storytelling: The Hero's Journey

Stories are born in and around us. They shape our lives and transform us. They give meaning to the meaningless, the unknown, and the dark. We are all connected with stories that give us all our mold, place, and uniqueness.

Despite all this, when a writer sits down to write a story sometimes, he is baffled. There are uncountable stories around us about which we can write. But how do we choose? Too much choice throws us into a dilemma. We are unsure about what to write and how to write about it.

A famous template can act as a guiding principle if you are in such a dilemma. We call it the hero's journey. Popular stories like Star Wars and Hunger Games have followed this template. Although the hero's journey is not all-encompassing, most stories have some elements of it in one way or another.

Let us look at the hero's journey and find out what we can learn about stories and storytelling.

In his famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the Hero's Journey as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In short, the hero's journey can be divided into three stages.

  • Departure
  • Initiation
  • Return

But each of these stages can be divided into several steps.

Let's look at these steps and see how we can use them to write better stories.

Departure

Ordinary World

This is where we first encounter our hero. We see him as he leads his day to day life. You have to introduce the hero in such a way that the reader starts to care about him. Try to bring out qualities that can help the reader relate to the hero. This step shouldn't be too long. Introduce the character, make the readers care about him, and then plunge him into conflict.

Example
Luke lives on a planet in the farthest part of the galaxy. He is bored with his life, but he can't go anywhere. He is mystified and curious about the galaxy and what it holds.

Call To Adventure

The adventure starts here. Something extraordinary happens. The hero will never be the same again.

You must set this stage in such a way that it resonates throughout the story. Otherwise, readers may end up confused.

Example
Luke receives a call from Princess Leia — a call that was meant for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan encourages him to go to Alderaan to help the princess.

Refusal of the Call

The hero is intimidated by the challenge. On one side is the familiar comfort, while on the other is the vast unknown full of dangers and rewards. The reactions and feelings of the hero should be natural and consistent. If he is shown stubborn at the very onset of the story and later bends easily when the adventure calls, you'll pretty much muddle the character.

Example
Luke refuses Obi-Wan's offer. He longs for the galaxy, but he is comfortable in his life. He does not want to take more responsibilities.

Meeting the Mentor

The mentor is an older individual who has the wisdom of age and experience. It can also be a thing like a map or an object. The mentor inspires the hero or pushes him in the right direction. Try to establish a relationship that gives the reader the impression that the hero is genuinely learning something from the mentor, and he (the mentor) is crucial.

Example
Obi-Wan becomes Luke's mentor.

Supernatural Aid

Example
Luke's family is killed. He is left with no choice but to accept the offer of Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan gives him his father's lightsaber, a weapon of power that can help him in his journey.

Initiation

Crossing the Threshold

The hero resolves to go on the adventure. Your hero must have sufficient reasons to go on the adventure. It would be best if you built the story so that your reader does care about those reasons.

Example
Luke leaves his home planet with Han Solo's help — thus crossing the threshold and entering into the world of adventure.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero is tested. He begins understanding his limits, power, and potential. Friendships are made — some dubious, some true. The hero starts to build an understanding of what he faces. Trying and failing is an essential part of the hero's journey. He should fail at times and learn from his mistakes. This will help readers relate to the hero and be inspired by him.

Example
Obi-Wan starts training Luke. At first, the training seems hard for Luke. He is unable to block the shots of a small training remote. But with the help of Obi-Wan, he blocks three shots from the remote while blinded by a helmet.

Approach to the Innermost Cave

The hero faces danger and finds his courage. He meets his enemies for the first time and sees how dangerous they are. He may falter and think of giving up. He endures nonetheless. Here, you should describe the obstacles, danger, or enemies in such a way that gives your reader a graveness of the situation the hero encounters. This is where the real enemies are introduced and leave their lasting impression.

Example
Luke and his allies plan to defeat the Galactic Empire by bringing the Death Star plans to Alderaan to be taken to the Rebellion eventually. However, the planet is destroyed. They are stuck with the Death Star and are trapped in the Galactic Empire.

The Ordeal

The darkest moment so far from the hero's journey arrives. He begins to fight for his life and must endure to the end. Things should get serious here. Something should happen that should remind the heroin how much danger he is in.

Example
Luke and his allies go into the Death Star. They discover that Princess Leia is being held captive there. They rescue her. Their pathway to escape is opened. But later, Luke's mentor Obi-Wan is killed by Darth Vader.

The Reward

The hero has killed the dragon and saved the princess. He has won a treasure. The reward depends on the story. So make it something worthwhile and tangible in the hero's universe.

Example
Luke has saved the princess and has the Death Star plans. They now possess the knowledge to destroy the Death Star — the greatest weapon of the Galactic Empire.

The Road Back

The hero learns that the fight is not over. The dragon lived. Now, he must face the consequences of what he has done. This hero is about to face the final obstacle.

Example
The Empire Forces suddenly pursue Luke and his allies. They are left with no choice but to race against time to reach the Rebellion and prepare for battle.

The Resurrection

The battle happens. This is the climax of the story. The hero faces certain death, and against all odds, he wins.

Example
The Rebellion and the Galactic Empire face each other in an epic space battle. As an X-Wing pilot, Luke enters the war and is the only one to get within the Death Star trenches. His X-Wing is about to be destroyed by Darth Vader, who is in hot pursuit, but Han returns and clears the way for Luke. Luke uses the force to destroy the Death Star.

Return

Triumphant, the hero crosses back the threshold and returns to ordinary life. But he is no longer the same. His adventure changed him. He brings insight, wisdom, and rewards to share with the whole community.

Example
Luke returns to the rebellion base to receive medals for his heroism. Peace reigns inside the galaxy, once again.

Final thoughts

Not all stories are a hero's journey, but they may share some aspects with it. The hero's journey is just one face of a complex mold that shapes stories. Georges Polti created a descriptive list that contains thirty-six situations. It is aptly called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and is comprehensive enough to include almost all scenes in a story. To know more about these 36 situations, click here.

Edited by Darshini Poola

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