Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” is readily acknowledged by George Lucas as being a critical source of inspiration for the Star Wars movies. Back in my Hollywood years all the writers in my circle of friends would nod in dutiful respect at Campbell’s work as a mythologist who had studied the myths of mankind and distilled eternal patterns in the storytelling of mankind through the eons, going all the way back to the most ancient times. Bill Moyers also did a PBS series of interviews with Campbell entitled “The Power of Myth,” and produced a coffee table book on the interviews. I watched the series, bought the book, and of course have “Hero with a Thousand Faces” along with a number of other books by Campbell.
So, when I saw that Christopher Vogler, a Disney story analyst, was giving a two-day weekend course on “The Hero’s Journey” based on distilling Joseph Campbell’s work and tailoring it for the screenwriting craft, I was immediately all in and registered for the seminar. I was not disappointed. This was easily over twenty years ago, and I had taken numerous other screenwriting seminars, and classes at UCLA extension, but this was information that went straight into my brain shelf and stayed there.
His system of framing the story telling process began when Christopher wrote a seminal internal memo at Disney, and you can go to his webpage to get the deeper details of his work. Here I will recount at the highest level the framework of storytelling he extracted from Campbell’s work (which is also found on Vogler’s website), and which remains a helpful and reliable framework review tool when considering the elements of a writer’s story structure and how these elements synch with the eternal and global schema of the hero’s mythical journey. In this blog they are also referenced within the three act structure traditionally used in screenplay writing. Christopher provides more insightful and scholarly explanations on his website, and
- THE ORDINARY WORLD – Here the main character’s known world is established in the status quo along with the hero’s limited awareness of things to come.
- THE CALL TO ADVENTURE – This is also referred to as the inciting action and the spark or catalyst that gets the story started. A challenge or problem which must be addressed is established here.
- REFUSAL OF THE CALL – Realizing this situation is bigger than the main character (hero) ever anticipated, he at first says this is not his problem, it’s not for him. There’s a reluctance to go forward and a debate of the merits or importance of the journey is staged. Returning to the old ordinary world looks appealing now.
- MEETING WITH THE MENTOR – Sometimes combined with the refusal of the call, this entails the encounter with an individual who has more knowledge of what is beyond, and what’s needed to be successful there. This is a guide of sorts who may or may not accompany the hero on the journey.
- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD – The point of no return which includes a committing to the goal, whether prepared or not. This might include a sense of awakening. It may also involve the hero’s first confrontation with the powers that have created the problem or challenge.
[This story point is the conclusion of ACT ONE.]
- TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES – Here the hero faces trials that may be both physically and emotionally challenging. Allies to the hero’s cause appear, as do enemies, which are part of the testing cycle for the hero. At least one of these enemies will likely appear in the climax of the story. These elements bring the story to its mid-point where the story shifts dramatically based on new information, and enlightenment, that raises the stakes for the hero’s journey and requires renewed commitment to facing the challenges ahead.
- APPROACHING THE INNERMOST CAVE – As the hero approaches the ultimate goal, preparation, learning and training are often part of this stage. This stage too can entail succumbing to temptations, or a fall from grace, where complications rise and the stakes get higher as unexpected obstacles are discovered.
- THE ORDEAL – This is the dark night of the soul where the hero hits rock bottom, where the hero faces his inner demons, fears, weaknesses, etc. A symbolic death of the ego of sorts may be part of this stage, which ultimately brings about a rebirth. The hero is newly endowed to face the challenge or problem with a quantum leap of empowerment. This may include an epiphany or discovery of a hidden secret that releases the hero from a constricting bond, or intensifies the motivation and determination.
[This point represents the conclusion of ACT TWO.]
- SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD – Empowered with new knowledge or strength, the hero commits to the attack the challenge, the final push with a new dynamic. This often entails a new or revised plan to achieve the goal based on new strengths acquired, or new knowledge discovered. This is presents a charging toward and into the climax of the story.
- THE ROAD BACK – The twists and turns before the hero prevails, the enemy to the quest may show new strengths that have not been anticipated, which must be met with conviction and strength, and possibly bringing the hero to the very brink of survival.
- THE RESURRECTION – At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of survival and is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
- RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR – This is the denouement where a new life for the hero is confirmed, and a new status quo has been established. The hero returns to the ordinary world and brings the prize that be shared by all for the greater good.
[The conclusion of ACT THREE and the story.]