Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Hero's Journey: Putting it Together

This may be a day of great suffering. I missed two weeks of ballet and went back last night. Ouch. Unless we have a sudden freak ice storm, I'll finally have choir again tonight after two weeks off. The kids are singing this Sunday, and I know I've forgotten the song we're doing. I hope they're better than I am.

I've been working through the various stages of the hero's journey, based on the way Christopher Vogler interpreted Joseph Campbell's writings on mythology for modern storytellers in his book The Writer's Journey. Now I'm going to talk about using this structure in a story, and this part is all me and my own interpretation of how this works.

A lot of this structure has to do with pacing -- the building of tension, peaks of action and moments of respite. If you've got that Ordeal in the middle of a book after the build-up of tension in the Approach to the Inmost Cave, you aren't going to have a sagging middle in between the kick-off and the big finish. I think that's the biggest plotting lesson I've learned from studying this structure.

The stages don't have to come in the exact order of this structure. Once you understand the function of the stages, you can move them around to suit the needs of your story. For instance, the Refusal of the Call stage is mostly about showing that this quest is serious and difficult because the hero has to think about it before committing. Usually, this comes before the hero makes the commitment of crossing the threshold into the story world. But if you've got a naive and gung-ho hero, he may not stop to think before plunging right in, and the Refusal may come later after he's experienced something of the special world and realized that this is more difficult than he expected. Then he might want to back out, but it's too late. The Meeting with the Mentor is about getting information and usually comes at the point where the hero is making the decision about taking on the quest, but it can also come after the Ordeal when the hero has been humbled and now knows he needs help.

More than one character in a story may be on a journey, but not all characters have to be, and the fact that a character changes doesn't mean he's on a journey. Sometimes, a character may be changed as a result of another character's heroic journey. One way to tell whether a character has had a heroic journey is if there's been a death/resurrection moment, where all seems lost, and then he comes back a new man. If more than one character is on a journey, they may be on different stages. That can even be a source of conflict. A character who's already committed and crossed the threshold is going to be frustrated with another character who's still hung up on the Refusal of the Call stage. Secondary characters may skip some of the stages or may have had stages take place offstage. The character who shows up to issue the call to adventure to the main hero may have had his own call to adventure before the story opened, and he meets the main hero when he's already crossed the threshold and is finding allies. You'll also see multiple heroes in stories that have parallel story lines, where there are things going on in multiple places and they either start separately and then converge or start together and diverge. Sometimes the stages line up once the stories converge, or the multiple heroes may become like one person, structurally, where they all go through the same stages together. In the final battle, they may all have the same death/resurrection moment -- like if they're all together on the same ship that looks like it will be destroyed.

This is one area where using movie examples perhaps gives a skewed perspective because usually in a movie, there's one Hero on a journey, while novels can be more complex and have multiple heroes. For instance, in most romantic movies, one of the characters is the hero, structurally speaking, and the other is the romantic interest. In most romance novels, though, both the hero and heroine are on heroic journeys and have that kind of character arc. They both have to be "reborn" to be together. One recent movie in which both hero and heroine have that kind of arc and hit all the stages of the journey was the animated film Tangled. Most of the time in movies, though, both of the characters may do some growing and changing, but it's only one character who is truly transformed into a new person after going on the emotional journey. In a romantic comedy, the "hero" in structural terms is probably the person either having to make a painful confession or making the mad dash across town.

A really long, complex story may hit the stages more than once or may go back and repeat sections of the journey. I charted the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, and that story keeps getting to the Reward part of the story before rebooting back to the Call to Adventure, until finally it gets all the way to the end. We start with the "you have to get the ring out of the Shire" call to adventure and related stuff, then Frodo crosses the threshold to leave the Shire, goes to an inn and meets allies and enemies, goes through the Ordeal when attacked by the Nazgul, then gets his moment of respite and Reward in Rivendell. And then there's a new Call to Adventure when they learn that the ring has to be destroyed. That all leads up to a new Ordeal in the Mines of Moria, then they get a Reward moment at Galadriel's place. And then she sends them on their way with a mini Call to Adventure. And so forth. Once the Fellowship is divided, the various factions then are on their own journeys.

I think next time I may try charting a well-known movie from start to finish to show how this works in reality. And then I'll need to come up with a new topic. I'm open to suggestions or questions.

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