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September 30, 2021

The Hero's Journey

It has been said that all plot lines are essentially the same seven stories told in different ways. Central to all of these seven stories is the concept of the archetypal hero embarking on a quest, also known as the monomyth. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas for your script, then thinking about archetypes and the hero’s journey steps by studying classic literary structures can be a great place to start.

What is the hero’s journey?

In 1871 anthropologist Edward Tyler analyzed the protagonists from fiction throughout history and concluded: all heroes and their adventures were essentially the same. His work has been built upon by literary philosophers such as Vladimir Propp and psychologists like Freud and Carl Young as well as Joseph Campbell.

In great myths from Homer’s The Iliad to Dickens’ Great Expectations, the hero's journey in every story begins in the ordinary world of their hometown. Often flawed and young, they are compelled by an external force - called to adventure - to leave their home and go out into the world.

During this process, known as the quest, they must overcome an obstacle, whether that’s slaying a dragon, leading an army into battle, or as in the Star Wars trilogy defeating Darth Vader. During their path to greatness, the hero grows psychologically and, when they return home, they have changed.

Often the hero will leave home as an adolescent and, the journey represents their ‘rite-of-passage into adulthood. In Star War Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, we see Luke seek out the Jedi master Yoda, who helps him find it with himself to utilize the force in a reference to the narrative archetype of the elder teacher or father figure imparting wisdom.

Begin planning your script by thinking about the journey you want your hero to go on. What inner conflicts do you want your hero to have at the start of your script and how will they be resolved by the end? What is the threshold at which they breakdown? What are the steps along the way and, who are the people that will get them there? Once you've done this you will have a basic story structure to work with.

The three act structure

You can translate your hero’s journey steps into a three-act structure for your screenplay. In Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenplay Syd Field, calls the first act the setup, the second act the confrontation, and the third act the resolution. As you write you may witness the evolution of your story to deviate or subvert some aspects of the traditional structure. This is fine so long as you know what you're doing.

The first act is the events and circumstances leading up to your hero leaving home and embarking on their quest. It can be a practical problem, a seemingly supernatural force or an existential question. But it should take up approximately a quarter of your screen time.

The second act is your hero confronting the enemy, away from home. It should take up approximately two quarters or half of your screen time. They should face many hardships and often feel compelled to go it alone.

We can see this even in films such as Lion, about an Indian boy adopted by middle-class Australian parents looking for what happened to his birth family.

He begins a relationship with Lucy, an American and fellow student at university, where they are both studying hotel management. He soon becomes so consumed by the search and his inner guilt he feels he has to leave her and go it alone. It’s only when he overcomes his fear of revealing his search to his adoptive mother that he finally succeeds in his quest.

 In Lion, Saroo Brinkley stares out into the distance as he realizes he must confront his journey to find his lost mother, alone, and without his lover, Lucy.
A still from Lion. All rights reserved.

The final part of your hero’s journey is the resolution. The confrontation reaches a climax, the hero is changed and can return home.

For example, in Skyfall home are MI6 and London. We have an establishing shot of Bond looking out over a London skyline, bathed in light, before a conversation which reveals that Miss Moneypenny will now take a desk job and that MI6 has appointed a new M.

When the new Masks, "Are you ready to get back to work?" and Bond says "With pleasure," we know the cycle is going to start all over again in the next movie when Bond leaves home for another challenge.

James Bond stands in front of a gray wall.
The James Bond films all follow the three-act structure.

Make sure when planning the resolution of your film that you leave the door open for the cycle to begin again in the sequel. If you can try to establish a rough plan of the sequel so that you leave clues as to where we might be going next.

If a three-act structure doesn’t work well for you then you could consider chopping up your story into a five-act structure instead. Consider which one is the best for your plot.

The hero’s journey in bildungsroman

The bildungsroman genre of coming of age tale is modeled around the idea of the hero’s journey.

Often a young child leaves home to be inducted into a different or mythical world where they grow older, often without parents, throughout several episodes or series.

In the film Goodnight Mister Tom, the advent of the Second World War and the decision to evacuate children from London away from their parents to different homes in the countryside is used to facilitate Willie" Beech’s hero’s journey where he has to learn to live with the lonely and embittered Tom Oakley.

The hero's journey illustrated: Harry Potter

A boarding school is a good excuse to send children away from their natural habitat. The most famous example in recent years is the Harry Potter series of films. At age 11, Harry Potter is taken away from his aunt and uncle by the giant Hagrid and to a magical wizarding school to learn about a secret world he currently knows nothing about.

He is told he has a talent and that he is special but he has to learn how to use the talent and overcome adversity. During his time at school in the first film the central obstacle, Harry must overcome throughout the whole series is established: the dark lord who murdered his parents when he was a baby.

"Not all wizards are good," Hagrid tells Harry, ominously over dinner at The Leaky Cauldron, establishing who Voldermort is in flashbacks.

Even before has been sorted or initiated into Hogwarts, Harry is already aware of the main obstacle he is going to have to overcome.

In the first book (and film), The Philosopher's Stone, there are a series of mini-challenges throughout the school year and each of these helps him grow stronger in time for the bigger climax at the end of the Philosopher's Stone where he must confront Voldermort, who is occupying Professor Quirrel’s body.

The first of these is on Halloween when Harry and Ron must save Hermionie from a troll. This is the classic "damsel in distress" trope when the hero must save a potential love interest from mortal danger to prove their bravery.

In this instance, the trope is slightly adjusted because Harry, Ron, and Hermionie are not yet ready to have romantic relationships or in a love triangle due to their age. But when Harry and Ron save Hermione, it repairs their friendship and cements them as the trio that will propel the narrative forward.

In the final climactic sequence of the film, Harry - the hero - must face Voldermort alone. Ron has been badly hurt after the Wizard’s chess game and Hermione needs to take him back to the hospital wing. The concept of being alone reminds us of our vulnerability as humans.

In the resolution of Philosopher's Stone, Harry symbolically returns home to the Dursleys, though he remarks, poignantly, "I’m not going home, not really." Hogwarts has given him a surrogate family and helped him realize that the Dursleys aren't a true family.

If you are sending a young character into a new world, whether that’s a school or an alternative universe, consider what characters will take on the roles of their parents, brothers, and sisters and how they will help them grow.

And essentially, all the books in the Harry Potter series follows the hero's journey structure.

Send your hero out into the world

Like any real person who goes traveling or leaves home for the first time, ensures your hero is well equipped for their journey. Do they have surrogate parents, perhaps teachers or mentors?

Do they have friends who can act like brothers and sisters? And if they are adolescents do they have love interests? And how do they prove this? Do they have big enough obstacles to overcome?

Finally, when your hero returns home, what will they have learned? What has changed in their life?

Use the hero's journey technique in your story today. Get started writing for free using Arc Studio Pro.


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The Hero's Journey
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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