Free Film School #66: The Hero’s Journey


I’m going to have to tread lightly.

This week’s lesson in the Free Film School, right here at CraveOnline U, I’m going to be discussing one of the most oft-repeated screenwriting tips taught to film students. Anyone who has been to film school will recognize this, as will some of the more fanatical film nuts. This is a screenwriting tip that every single screenwriting professor will saw away at, and every film professor will declare to be indispensable. This week I will be giving a brief lecture on the notion of "The Hero’s Journey," and how it relates to popular screenwriting.

I have to tread lightly on this topic because I don’t want you to become addicted to the idea. The notion of The Hero’s Journey is, in brief, a basic 17-step story structure that seems to have occurred in all of the major myths and more enduring stories throughout human history, as first posited in the late 1940s by a famed mythology professor named Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s structure was a fun shorthand for people looking at mythology, at first, but the notion of The Hero’s Journey was quickly adhered to by screenwriters and screenwriting professors. Thus, ever since its inception, it became widely held that a successful screenplay will need to adhere to this structure to be successful or good, or, at the very least, tap into our collective need for a certain kind of tale.

I don’t want to sell the notion of The Hero’s Journey to you, however, at 100% full blast. There is a lot of credence to the theory, of course, but I would argue that a screenplay can be great without such a structure (there are many, many awesome films that deal strictly in emotional challenges and abstract concepts; Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and Luis Buñuel all come immediately to mind), and that you needn’t treat the notion of the Hero’s Journey as infallible and necessary. It is, however, a good tool for the novice just starting out, and may serve as an important guideline to the basic way a story can – and usually does – flow. This structure is basically used for many sci-fi and fantasy films, wherein we typically, as audiences, need something familiar to latch onto. Although it can be applied to most any genre.

When you look at enough mainstream Hollywood feature films, you may notice a pattern emerging. Most mainstream melodramatic feature films, regardless of their genre, are typically about 90-120 minutes long, and follow a very basic three-act structure. You’ll find that the film’s hero or heroine is typically at a certain emotional point at a very specific time, and that they will triumph by the end. Two films are usually cited as prime examples of The Hero’s Journey: Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. I’m going to use them as well, and I apologize for hammering away at some well-known examples, but they really do work the best. I assume you’ve seen both these movies. I may also talk about 1984’s The Last Starfighter as well just for fun.

The 17-step process is as follows:

Step 1: “The Call to Adventure” 

This is the beginning of the movie, wherein we’re introduced to the story’s protagonist, or main character, as they are in their everyday life. They are typically at a low clip in their life, and likely long for something more. Think of Dorothy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while living in drab Kansas. Her life is boring, and she wants more. Often, too, the hero will be enlisted against their will to fight in some adventure. Think of Neo, perhaps, at the beginning of 1999’s The Matrix. He is largely abducted into a weird world of adventure without having full knowledge of what he’s doing. But there will be a call. A desire for more and a possibility to achieve it.

Step 2: “Refusal of the Call" 

Dorothy, even though she longs for more, is not actively seeking to go on an adventure. Luke Skywalker is told by an old sage that there is a larger, more sinister world out there. And Luke, at first, doesn’t want to go. There will then be a scene or two of Luke mulling it over in his mind, making sure that he wants to go. There is a definite call to action, and the hero will have a doubt as to whether or not he will actually go through with it. The hero must eventually choose to adventure. Lance Guest, finding that he is the The Last Starfighter, chooses to fight the evil space lord.

Step 3: “Supernatural Aid”

Dorothy arrives in Oz, and is immediately greeted by Glinda, the Witch of the North. Glinda, while not fighting alongside Dorothy, still watches over her in a godlike position. The hero, we learn, is divinely protected, or at least given a mentor or bauble of protection. Luke is given a lightsaber. Harry Potter is given a wand. Dorothy is also given a pair of ruby slippers. There is an aura of magic surrounding our hero.

Step 4: “The Crossing of the First Threshold”

The hero actively starts on their journey, and will definitely not return. Dorothy will start down the path to Oz. In the first of the Lord of the Rings movies, there’s a moment when one of the characters announces that he had officially never been that far from his home before. It’s essentially the first step on the proper road to adventure.

Step 5: “The Belly of the Whale”

Essentially an extension of the last step, this shows that the hero is not only away from home, but now willing to live in this world. Dorothy meets a Scarecrow, and seems to be getting more comfortable with Oz. Luke Skywalker hitches a ride with Han Solo, leaving his home forever. What’s more, Luke’s home was destroyed by bad guys, forcing him away. The hero is now ready to become something new. To change. And change, you’ll find is the crux and the fulcrum of all drama. Any hero worth his salt will have to go through some sort of emotional change, no matter how minor.

Step 6: “The Road of Trials”

Our heroine is tested on the journey. Challenges are put in their way. In a screenplay, this is typically the start of the second act, and will be where all the action takes place. Something is thrown in John McClane’s way, and he has to figure a way out of it. Dorothy runs afoul of odd spots in Oz, and faces them. In Dorothy’s case, she makes friends in the process. In something like The Last Starfighter, the hero will spend this time training for a great battle. Learning and growing and becoming more fit for the more dramatic trials to inevitably come.

Step 7: “The Meeting with the Goddess”

As the name implies, this would be a love interest for the hero, although it can alternately be envisioned in modern screenplays as an emotional goal for the hero. Luke Skywalker wants to win the love of Leia. Neo is attracted to the angular Trinity. Paul Atreides meets the exotic Chani. There is someone for the hero to show off for. Someone for him to win (and, yes, this is often told from a male perspective). The love object doesn’t necessarily need to capitulate, and the hero doesn’t necessarily need to love the lady outright, but there has to be, according to this structure, some romantic tension.

Step 8: “Woman as Temptress”

Speaking of being told from a male perspective, there is a long storytelling tradition that posits that romance (read: women) can distract from The Journey, and the hero is tempted away from their quest by the promise of a life with a new loved one. Although this can also be a temptation by the villain, coaxing the hero to just give up. Think of just about any James Bond movie, wherein the villain attempts to blackmail or bribe Bond into giving up his investigation. This is to be seen as a big trial, and, while not a conflict, it is a pull on the hero back to a comfortable life. The hero must refuse this temptation. Ben Richards refuses to give into the underground machinations of The Running Man TV show.

Step 9: “Atonement”

This is the big emotional climax of our tale, wherein the hero finally decides that they have changed for the better, and are ready to go on a major conflict. Luke gathers up his nerve, and decides to fly in the Death Star run. Through the trials and action scenes, Luke is now ready to not merely behave like a hero, but has actually chosen to become a hero.

Step 10: “Apotheosis”

Usually represented by the death of a friend. Or perhaps the loss of something dear to the hero. They are ready to be a hero, but now a loved one has died, and they must be a hero. For some reason, the movie Krull comes to mind. I may be the first film professor to cite Krull in a constructive way. In that weird-ass fantasy film, there is a mystical Cyclops who sacrifices his life (keeping a massive door open, which then crushes him) so that the hero can enter an enchanted mountain in order to battle the bad guy. There is now means and motivation to act.

Step 11: “The Ultimate Boon”

Essentially the climax. Dorothy kills the witch and gets the broomstick. Luke blows up the Death Star. The hero achieves their goal. Classically, the hero has been rewarded with some sort of magical bauble or elixir that gives them eternal life. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade it was The Holy Grail itself. In The Matrix, it was newfound superpowers. All is well! Hooray! Oh, but there’s more to go. Most screenplays (as opposed to older books and tales) tend to climax closer to the end rather than near the middle. As such, the following steps are often played, in most screenplays, as final conflicts at best, and often even epilogues.

Step 12: “The Refusal to Return”

The hero has defeated his foe, and now wants to stay in his adventure world. Often, the hero will not be tempted, knowing they must return home, but the temptation to stay is palpable. Dorothy has to go back to Kansas, but she loves her new friends. Would you want to go back to Kansas, or would you want to stay on Oz? Conversely, in an action context, a hero may use this point to offer themselves as a sacrifice so that other may flee. Like when Spock offers his body up to the engine of The Enterprise in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Step 13: “The Magic Flight”

In The Wizard of Oz, it’s the Ruby Slippers’ spell. It’s the miracle that rescues the hero. In an action context, it’s merely the act of fleeing, thanks to some magical or technological aid.

Step 14: “Rescue from Without”

This ties in so strongly with the step above, I’m not sure why Campbell felt the need to separate them into two steps. This is the friend who ultimately will come to the aid of our hero. The sidekick who appears to spirit them off. Like when Data rescues Capt. Picard at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis. He appears unexpectedly, and sacrifices himself to save the captain. I can’t think of an actual title to substantiate this next one, but I’m sure I’ve seen several films wherein a buddy will appear in a crisis situation with a car and fliply ask “Wanna lift?”

Step 15: “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”

The hero, now having defeated the monster, must return home, of course, usually with the bauble or elixir or spell they sought. In more modern stories, the sought bauble can also be a strengthening of character, and proof that the hero has indeed become a hero. Dorothy realizes that adventure was never further than her own backyard. The hero realizes what’s really important, and returns home, changed.

Step 16: “Master of Two Worlds”

Neo is now the master. He has learned new lessons, and can freely move between the real world and the world of The Matrix. The hero is back at home, but is now a larger soul, an experienced one, ready to move into the weird world at a moment’s notice. Alice, in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, has fought a battle, and returns to her stodgy home only to become a mistress of her own destiny. Her journey has made her a bigger and better person. Now that’s she’s home, she is actually of two worlds. This doesn’t have to be an action trope, though. In a romantic comedy, for instance, this can show that the heroine is now okay with dating her new man, but can also be independent.

Step 17: “Freedom to Live”

Usually summed up as “And they lived happily ever after,” this step is pretty much an epilogue to most stories, showing that the hero is not only a master of themselves, and a master of the world, but can live as happily as they wish. Their journey is now at an end.

This 17-part structure, as Joseph Campbell has it, applies to most myths. It can be easily criticized for oversimplifying vastly complex myths and cultures, and many don’t find much credence in The Hero’s Journey as a general rule for all stories, but it’s certainly something that can be used to interpret every story, and, indeed, every movie. What’s more, the general Hollywood screenwriting subculture has, some would argue, embraced this all too readily, especially since 1987, when a fellow named Bill Moyers extrapolated interviews with Campbell into a book called The Power of Myth, which most every film student has to read. According to Campbell and to Moyers, Star Wars is pretty much the best cinematic template for the Journey. Indeed, George Lucas has often talked about the Journey, and how it influenced the making of that film.

But this is all just one structure of many, and, at that is just structure in a medium that does not require it. If the Hero’s Journey is too long and complicated for you, you’ll be able to gleam it from any of the movies I mentioned. If it’s real screenplay structure you want, though, I encourage you to watch Die Hard. Watch Die Hard a lot, actually. In terms of perfect structure, of character, of the way things develop, and especially the way small details end up paying off later in the film, Die Hard is pretty much unimpeachable. Watch Die Hard. Then watch it again. Know it. Get to know the way it moves. Then write a screenplay exactly like it. It can only help.

All screenplays have, as I said, a three-act structure, and the emotional action in each tends to – at least in Hollywood melodramas – ebb and flow in a usual sort of way. Audiences have been raised on these structures for literally generations, so we have come to expect a certain kind of emotional catharsis from every movie we see, regardless of genre, tone, pacing, or even theme. This is essentially a look at the skeleton of a screenplay that has to be built before tonal choices are made, lessons are selected, and characters are built. Yes, I personally often prefer more bizarrely structured movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (looking back on my Top Ten list, I find that most of them are uniquely structured, and distinctly defy the Hero’s Journey), and I can’t stress enough that the Hero structure is not necessarily needed when writing a great screenplay, but I don’t want to impugn the structure when it comes to hero-type stories of adventures, fantasy, and action. If you want to write an adventure screenplay, I do encourage you to, at the very least, become familiar with the 17 steps above. Once you have an idea of how a story moves, how a hero grows, how characters often change, and what you are looking for in such an adventures story, you may be able to construct a more solid one yourself.

And, seriously, watch Die Hard.

Homework for the Week:

Watch Die Hard again, dangit. And Star Wars again. And The Wizard of Oz again. View them with the 17 steps in mind. Memorize the steps, and take them to the next movie you see. How does that movie follow The Hero’s Journey. Do you think most any film can be fit into the template? How important is this structure to a movie? Can you name any films that use it improperly? Was the last film you saw a Hero film? How was it? How wasn’t it? Write a brief outline for your very own adventure story. Use the 17 steps. Tell me that story in brief below.