The Hero's Journey by Mark Chisnell

I’ve been a fan of the thriller in all its forms since my Dad took me to see Diamonds are Forever at the local Odeon cinema. I subsequently inhaled the collected works of Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre and many others as I was growing up. And more often than not, I would see the movies as well as reading the book.

I suspect that this is the reason that I tend to lean on films just as heavily as books when it comes to inspiration for my writing – flick through the reviews on my Amazon pages and you’ll find ‘filmic’ and ‘visual’ more often than ‘literary’. I’m fine with that, and I wanted to make the link even more explicit in this blog by talking about a fantastic tool for screenwriting that I use when plotting my books.

If you haven’t come across it before, then the Hero's Journey is probably the single most useful aid a writer can have when it comes to plot. Whenever I’m stuck, unsure about what might happen, or where the story should go next, I flick through the stages of the Hero's Journey and then go for a walk or do some washing up (my wife is a big fan of writer’s block). I can pretty much guarantee that the plotting problem will have been solved by the time I’m done with the exercise or the chore.

The Hero's Journey stems from the work of the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell whose essential notion was that many of the world’s great stories and myths share important patterns and structures. He pared these down into what he called a ‘monomyth’ and in 1949 published the idea in a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The elevator pitch for the Hero's Journey is that an ordinary person ventures from ordinary life into a more dangerous world, where many threats and obstacles are overcome before a decisive victory is won. The ordinary person returns home a hero, changed in ways that benefit the society she originally left.

The book was already an influential work when a gentleman by the name of George Lucas used it to inject plot and structure into a sci-fi movie called Star Wars – and from then on the Hero's Journey has never looked back as an inspiration for Hollywood screenwriters.

Its place in the pantheon was probably sealed by Christopher Vogler who, while working for Disney, wrote a seven page memo called ‘A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces’. It distilled Campbell’s work into a twelve-stage structure. The memo was such hot property that Vogler subsequently turned it into a book – The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers and more recently a website.

If you want to see how deeply the Hero's Journey is embedded in our modern movie culture, then check out this fantastic video in which Vogler explains the ‘monomyth’ with the help of some of the many films that have been inspired by it.

And next time you watch a film - or read a thriller, mystery or action adventure story (especially one of mine) - see how many elements of the Hero's Journey that you can spot. An easy one to start on is the Christopher Nolan reboot, Batman Begins... watch out for that Call to Adventure!

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Dennis Hamley said…
Fascinating post, Mark. It's one of the great archetypes in narrative: Homer and Virgil, the medieval quest, the basis of epic fantasy, with anything by Tolkein, fom Bilbo to Frodo, at the top of the list. It seems to be breathed in by new writers probably unaware of its existence. I've had several mss. from new writers to assess, including a lot of fantasy. The share the construction but some do it superficially, not understanding its significance and in the end say nothing. Some, like you, make it fresh and new, saying something important about humanity. But there are so many books using it cynically, as a formula, not an inspiration. Dan Brown, please note. The ghost story is another good example. Sometimes just written to freeze your blood but, as another narrative archetype, deeply rooted in us as a metaphor of significance, something we need, a convention to let the past redeem itself in the present. Another reason why narrative is so important and sustaining and essential to the human mind.
Mark Chisnell said…
I agree, Dennis, it's about using myth for inspiration, not as a formula!
glitter noir said…
I enjoyed the post, Mark--and Dennis's comment. I know how important this book is, but I'm still in recovery: from a nightmarish experience on another site years back (for writers, mostly unpublished, seeking agents). I went through several 'wildings', attacks by packs of online skinheads, over my proposed query and plot summary. The main attacks consisted of quotes from Campbell and McKee (author of Story). Now, I was open to suggestion and some of the points did have merit, but essentially I was dealing with wannabes clinging to Gospels for dear life...without a clue of notable examples that broke their precious rules. The most notable would be Girl With the Dragon Tattoo--which opens with about a hundred pages of, yes, BACK STORY. Someday I'll return to Campbell, though I've had quite enough of McKee, when I can read his book again as a terrific study...not as Gospel Truth. Cheers.
Mark Chisnell said…
It's like every other piece of advice in creative writing - good in moderation. I use it as a lifeline when I'm stuck and I don't know where the story goes next... but there are as many examples of good books that don't fit the Heroes Journey, as books that do...
julia jones said…
This makes me feel old - MY dad took me to Dr No and From Russia with Love, when they first came out ...

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