My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition (2007) by Christopher Vogler is a guide for writers based on the work of Joseph Campbell and the years of research and contribution to storytelling Vogler spent in Hollywood.
Have you ever wondered if there was some formula out there that writers (either in publishing or filmmaking) are using to make best-selling and blockbuster hits? Well, sadly–or if you are a writer like me– wonderfully there is such a formula. And what follows is what Vogler explains is the basic structure for storytelling.
Now, Vogler provides many wonderful examples, but I would like to add my own to express how more recent stories (i.e., films) are using this method of structuring a story. On one more note before we begin, the following structure is also based on the Archplot (a linear timeline in a story).
1. The Ordinary World
The main character, either in a book or a movie, usually begins in the ordinary world that he spends most of his time in. Harry Potter’s ordinary world is London (for Harry I will use the story The Philosopher’s Stone).
In the 2013 film The Wolverine with Hugh Jackman, Wolverine begins in the Canadian wilderness which is Logan’s ordinary and comfortable world. In the summer’s failure, After Earth (just to show that sometimes this formula can bring less than success), the protagonist Kitai Raige’s (played by Jaden Smith) story begins on his home planet a millennium after humanity abandoned Earth.
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
Two and three usually go hand in hand. The character, however, may either be completely dedicated to the adventure, as in Harry Potter or James Bond, or the character may be forced to go regardless of what one desires, as in Kitai, or the character may refuse, as Logan does in The Wolverine. Either way, there is a clear call to adventure. Harry Potter is approached by Hagrid and asked if Harry wants to go to Hogwarts. After seeing Harry’s treatment by his foster parents, Harry is glad to accept the call. Logan is approached by Yukio, and he immediately refuses. But on further consideration (to spare the sake of time in a film) Logan changes his mind and is quickly rushed to the airport.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
Sometimes, unlike Logan, characters need a push to get started. This is where a mentor comes in. Throughout After Earth, Kitai’s mentor is his father Cypher Raige (played by Will Smith). Harry Potter has many many mentors. Harry’s first true mentor, according to the story, is Hagrid. Harry asks about the school and wizardry. Hagrid explains. Then Harry decides. As a ronin (a masterless samurai), Logan is often his own mentor, a wild man all alone in the world.
5. Crossing the Threshold
Harry goes with Hagrid to Hogwarts, the school for wizards. Kitai and his father, Cypher, crash land on Earth. Login goes to Japan.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Harry makes his friends, Hermione and Ron, on the train to school, and also makes many friends and enemies while at school. Kitai is tested several times as he journeys to find the tail of the ship that has landed far from his injured father. Login is also attacked and tested many times over. He also befriends Yukio and Mariko, who he has a fling with.
This time is important for the main character. Here the character meets new characters and they will be determined to either end up being an ally or an enemy. Sometimes the ally turns out to be an enemy, or an enemy is made when it should be an ally. Harry’s allies and enemies usually remain so throughout the story. Logan thinks he has made an ally in Yashida, who Logan saved during World War II and is now dying, but Yashida turns out to be the Silver Samurai and the enemy by the story’s end.
7. Approach (to the Inmost Cave)
There are many variations of this, but to make it as simple as possible: the character begins to go deeper into the special world and the makings of these new characters he has met. This is where the story really gets its legs. Usually this is the first of two impossible tests the main character must overcome to continue on. Harry Potter begins on the mystery, whatever the new mystery is he finds at the wizard’s school. Kitai actually goes into an underground cave (taking the formula quite literally) after he passes the Impossible test of jumping from the cliff of a waterfall and gliding down only to be captured by a giant bird and fighting off tigers. Logan becomes mortal, his powers of immortality and regeneration have been stolen (temporarily that is).
8. Central Ordeal (Midpoint of Story, Death, and Rebirth)
Out of the three stories I chose at random, two have the main characters taken to the brink of death. Logan discovers the mechanical bug attached to his heart and he opens his own chest and rips it out. The audience holds their breaths. Logan is dead. Literally. Kitai is on the brink of death twice (now please remember that this formula can be slightly rearranged or altered to fit the needs of the plot). First, Kitai finds a poisonous leech on his hand and must inject the cure into his heart. Second, Kitai is trapped out in the cold and almost freezes to death, if not for the ally he makes in the bird. The giant bird pulls Kitai into a hole and covers the boy with its body. The bird dies, the boy lives. Harry does not die, but his life is at stake when a giant troll on Halloween night rampages into the girls’ bathroom. Harry and Ron defeat the troll and escape death.
9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)
After cheating death, the character needs a reward, an uplifting moment to the story. On Christmas, Harry gets all kinds of goodies, including an invisibility cloak. Logan battles Shingen (the original Silver Samurai in the comics) and takes a sword directly to the chest and then heads with his lover Mariko to her hometown by the sea. Kitai also takes in hand a futuristic sword and heads off to battle the monster alien that is tracking the boy through the boy’s fear. Despite what happens, the main character enjoys a little rest before the final battle (Impossible Test No. 2).
10. The Road Back
Here the main character has been in the special world (much like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz) and decides that she wants to go home, or to go back to a state of normalcy. Logan knows who the enemy is and decides to go face Yashida once and for all. Harry has uncovered the final clue and, along with his allies Hermione and Ron, they begin their journey into the underworld beneath Hogwarts. Kitai heads to the top of a volcano in order to send a signal to a starship. This moment is much like No. 7’s Approach. However, this is the very final approach. If the character does not succeed, the audience or reader know that all is lost.
11. Resurrection (Climax)
Harry comes face-to-face with Prof. Quirrell who has been using his body as a host to keep Voldermort, the villain, alive. Harry and Voldemort do battle. Kitai does battle with the monster alien and the boy must conquer his own fear in order to become invisible to the monster’s senses and slay the monster. Logan throws down with a super giant samurai that is fitted with adamantium armor and sword. Here the protagonists are faced with their greatest challenge and their lives are on the line.
12. Return with the Elixir (Denouement)
Now the protagonist is the victor and he can return to his ordinary world. The elixir can be something physical or it can often be some kind of knowledge or understanding the protagonist has gained from his journey to the special world. Dorothy in Oz realizes ”there is no place like home.”
Logan has learned to accept his curse, his immortality and inner pain and to bear the burden for the greater good. Harry finds that there are worse people in the world than the Dursleys and that he does not have to end up like Voldemort. Kitai, too, has learned a valuable lesson and hugs his father in a heartfelt embrace, which is their first sign of emotional love since the beginning of the story.
Then there is the end. Everyone returns home. Harry goes back to London. Logan heads back to America or Canada. Kitai is back on board a starship and heading for his home world.
Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey uses some great examples of his own. He analyzes Star Wars, The Lion King, and Titanic — all famous stories that still garner huge amounts of success and respect.
There is much more to find in Vogler’s book. So if you are a writer or a storyteller or a filmmaker or just simply interested in the inner workings of storytelling today, I strongly recommend you pick up the nearest copy today. Happy reading.
- Using “the Hero’s Journey” to tame your story (juliettenolan.wordpress.com)
- On Being Open to Open-Ended Endings (guidingstarcinema-blog.com)
- The Hero’s Journey at the October Meeting (inprintwriters.com)
- If You Want to Live the Dream, Answer the Call! (bethehero.co)
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers