The mapping of your heroic plot
To plot or not to plot?
Guest Blog by Author and Writer Coach Siofra O’Donovan
If you’re struggling with plot and you feel a little put off by Stephen King’s premise that plot is all artifice and that the character should lead your narrative onwards, look no further. The Hero’s Journey is a blueprint that could just work for you.
It’s a powerful, dynamic, archetypal journey that can be applied to personal experience and to the process of constructing a narrative that works as a screenplay, novel or short story. The Hero’s Journey is about both a universal and a personal story.
Joseph Campbell was a world-renowned expert in comparative mythology and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years, known for his expression ‘follow your bliss.’ Campbell determined a narrative pattern in all myths and stories, called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ or the Monomyth. George Lucas, the producer of Star Wars, used the Hero’s Journey to write and develop the narrative in Star Wars.
“Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan. Popular tales represent the heroic action as physical, the higher religions show the deed to be moral, nevertheless, there will be found astonishingly little variation in the morphology of the adventure, the character roles involved, the victories gained.
If one or another of the basic elements of the archetypal pattern is omitted from a given fairy tale, legend, ritual or myth, it is bound to be somehow or other implied- and the omission itself can speak volumes of the history and pathology of the example.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Plucked out of the Ordinary World
The Hero starts out in the ordinary world. Think of Luke Skywalker, bored to death as a farm boy before he tackles the universe, at the beginning of Star Wars. Think of Frodo at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, in the shire. There is a situation. Their ordinary world is upset. They’ve got the call from the Universe. It’s task time.
In the film Witness, you see both the Amish boy and the policeman in their ordinary worlds before they are thrust into alien worlds- the farm boy into the city, the city cop into the unfamiliar countryside.
The Hero’s Journey is Universal
Think of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Think of Prometheus ascending to the heavens, stole fire from the Gods, and descended. Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, circumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, and returned with the fleece.
Aeneus went down into the underworld, crossed the dreadful river of the dead, threw a sop to the three-headed watchdog Cerberus, and conversed, at last, with the shade of his dead father. All things were unfolded to him: the destiny of souls, the destiny of Rome, which he was about to be found. He returned to the ivory gate to his work in the world.
“Select two or three heroes and then ask these mythical beings to incarnate through you, and watch the change.” – Deepak Chopra in ‘Finding Joe’, a documentary about Joseph Campbell.
Inner and Outer Transformation
You are the hero of this journey. By tuning into yourself and the character you are developing as a hero, you will awaken your inner potential as a writer and creator of worlds and activate powers that you never even knew you had. The character reaches a stage of the journey called The Master of the Two Worlds, in which she has received the ultimate boon. She crosses the return threshold, and finds her way back to the ordinary world, a transformation has taken place within and without.
We all know what it’s like to return from an amazing adventure, and with photos in tow. We enthusiastically try to convince our friends that this is the place to go. And please, oh please, listen to me recount every detail of what happened. No! They say. I don’t have the time. And why do they not have the time? Apart from being envious, they may also be threatened by you, an emissary of another spatiotemporal reality that… actually has nothing to do with theirs. Or so they think. And isn’t it excruciating when the returnee is a particularly enthusiastic photographer and inflicts you with a slideshow?
But the thing is, it was just the same for Jesus, and for Buddha, and for Mohammed. And the same for Rip Van Winkel, and poor old Gulliver, who returned, sadly, empty-handed and with nothing but their tales to tell. At the end of their extraordinary cavortings. Gulliver was deemed mad by the Royal Geographic Society, after recounting his tales of Lilliput, Laputa and the Land of Houyhnhnms (a race of intelligent horses described in the last part of Jonathon Swift’s satirical Gullivers Travels) But this is how it is for every traveller I believe.
The Mastery of the Two Worlds
But for the Spiritual journey-er, it is an even more explosive reception, the Mastery of the Two Worlds… What do you do with your message, your gift, your Boon of Wisdom, when you return? Are you stoned, slated or worse again, crucified? We each go through Hero’s Journeys every day. For there are micro and macro versions of this never-ending spiral. It’s like Yeat’s Gyre, or the Serpent shedding its scales.
The serpent, demonised by the Western World as an evil, poisonous and devious creature of sin, condemned from the Garden of Eden for Eternity, is a creature revered in the East. The power, our power, resides at the base of our spine, and this in the Vedic tradition is likened to a snake coiled at the base, and over time and with much yogic practice, it climbs up through the body, clearing out the debris of conditioning, delusion and ignorance along the way, until it reaches the crown, where the practitioner becomes enlightened.
“Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this temporal world. Formerly you had a Dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden – no time. No birth, no death – no life. The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god. Actually, in the Garden of Eden, Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening is just a visitor. The garden is the serpent’s place.” It is an old, old story.” – Joseph Cambell.
The Hero’s Journey undertaken is an act of uncoiling that latent inner serpent, shedding the old skins, and growing a new one, infused with wisdom in insight. It is a transformation of the human spirit.
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well, the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
More than a Formulaic Blueprint
Is the Hero’s Journey an Overused Tool?
Refer Back to the Steps
You can use these steps if your hero/heroine get lost in the mire of the plot:
- The hero leaves the ordinary world. Sometimes, they are ripped out of this by force.
- The hero experiences death and rebirth. Literal death and resurrection, or a close brush with death. Or it could be a figurative death.
- The hero is initiated into their new life. This is a period where they’re able to get their bearings and learn the rules of their new existence.
- The hero returns to their own world. Permanently changed by everything they’ve experienced. A classic return ending comes at the end of Stephen King’s alternative history novel 11/22/63. The return doesn’t always happen, especially in tragic endings or in more literary examples of speculative fiction.
‘The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that governs the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.’ – Christopher Vogler.
Siofra O’Donovan’s Creative Writing Workshops at the Novara Centre are inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell, whose Hero’s Journey is a universal blueprint for all myths and stories across the world. The Hero’s Journey is taught as a method for enhancing Creative Writing. It can be used as a tool for self-discovery or a greater creative project like a novel or screenplay.
Learn more about Siofra at www.siofraodonovan.com
To see the Hero’s Journey in the context of a travelogue memoir, see Siofra O’Donovan’s Lost in Shambala.