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Archetypes and Storybeats Part I: The Hero’s Journey

Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of language.  Some stories have been told so many times that their structure and main characters have been hardwired into the human consciousness. 

A smart writer can use this to advantage.  Knowing the most beloved characters and their story patterns, can be a huge time saver when you’re sitting down to brainstorm your latest novel.  Today’s blog, and the blogs that will follow on the next three Thursdays, will explore the nexus between character and story, by looking at some of the story patterns that have been with us since the dawn of time.

Before I start, two definitions are in order.

Story beat is a term that comes from script-writing.  A story beat is scene or collection of scenes that moves the narrative from point A to point B.  All the action occurs during story beats, and scriptwriters start plotting their stories with something they call a beat sheet, which is nothing more than an outline of the scenes in the movie and the action that occurs in each scene. 

Character Archetypes come from the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who postulated that certain human behaviors are hardwired into our “collective unconscious,” because we’ve encountered them in life or in fiction over and over again.  The King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Sidekick are all familiar character types that have built in behavioral traits that readers immediately recognize because all human beings recognize these characters.

Some characters are so universal that they come ready-made with a series of story beats.  The character archetype called the Hero (capital H to connote that we’re talking about the character archetype and not the male lead in a romance story) is perhaps the best known of these.  His set of story beats was first outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell who studied the myths of many different cultures and discovered that the story beats in all of them were the same. 

VoglerChris Vogler, a scriptwriter for the Disney Studios, took Joseph Campbell’s work and turned it into a writing manual for Disney scriptwriters.  The manual was so popular that he eventually turned it into a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.  Vogler’s book should probably be in every fiction writer’s library of craft books, especially those writing action adventure stories, suspense stories, or science fiction stories. 

Let’s look at the Hero’s Journey.

First of all, it’s important to understand that the standard story beats in the Hero’s Journey only work for a main character who is a Hero.  The Hero of a Hero’s Journey story can also have the behavioral traits of a King or a Warrior or a Lover or any other standard archetype, but once you put a character into the standard beats for a Hero, he automatically becomes that archetype. 

A Hero is a main character who leaves his/her comfort zone in order to face a series of tests in which s/he proves his/her mettle and quite possibly saves the world.  You will find Heroes in all the myths of classic literature and in a lot of today’s comic book movies.  Ulysses is a Hero.  Luke Skywalker is a Hero.  Dorothy Gale of the Wizard of Oz is a Hero.  The clown fish in Finding Nemo is a Hero.  While the word Hero is masculine, it is possible to write a Hero’s Journey for a female protagonist. 

Here are the story beats for a Hero’s Journy for in short form, using the original Star Wars: Episode 4 as an example:

Story Beat

Example

THE ORDINARY WORLD  
The Hero is introduced against the backdrop of his environment. 

Luke Skywalker is living his life with his aunt and uncle on a backwater planet.  His uncle buys two androids to help with chores around the farm.

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE 
Something happens that changes the Hero’s situation. 

While cleaning and checking the androids, R2D2 delivers part of a message from Princess Leia that is meant for Obiwan Kenobe.

REFUSING THE CALL
The hero is afraid of this change in circumstance and tries to ignore it. 

Luke suspects the droid is damaged.  He doesn’t take the message seriously.

MEETING THE MENTOR
Someone older or more experienced comes along and encourages the Hero to answer the call.  The mentor will provide advice or training. 

R2D2 escapes from the Skywalker farm, and Luke has to chase after him.  This brings him into contact with the old Jedi Knight Obiwan Kenobe where Luke learns about the Force, and the fact that his father was a Jedi Knight.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD 
About one-quarter of the way through the story something happens that forces the hero to commit to leaving his ordinary world and entering a new world with new rules and values.

After his meeting with Obiwan, Luke returns to the farm only to discover than his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Emperor’s evil forces.  He must answer the call now.

TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES
The Hero meets friends, battles enemies, and is tested. 

Luke, Obiwan and the droids go into town looking for transit.  They have adventures in the bar, where they team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca.  It isn’t long before they are dodging Han Solo’s enemies as they take off in the Millennium Falcon headed for the planet Alderon.

APPROACH TO THE CAVE
The Hero and his new found allies prepare for a big battle that will take them into the enemy’s or antagonist’s lair.

Obiwan teaches Luke about the Force during their voyage to Alderon.  When they finally the arrive, they discover that the Evil Empire has destroyed all traces of the planet by using it’s latest weapon of mass destruction — The Death Star.  The Millennium Falcon is unable to escape and is drawn into the Death Star. 

THE ORDEAL
Near the middle of the story, the Hero, enters the enemy’s lair and faces death.  Out of this ordeal, the Hero will learn something important about himself.  He may also come away with an important artifact or prize.

Luke and his friends hide from the Imperial storm troopers.  Obiwan goes on a mission to disable the Death Star’s tractor beam. Meanwhile Luke and his friends go deep inside the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. Obiwan has a final battle with Darth Vader and is killed.  The rest of the allies escape. 

THE REWARD
The hero and his friends celebrate their victory.  But the celebration is short lived. 

Luke and his friends manage to escape the Death Star, perhaps too easily.  They go to the rebel base but it turns out that Darth Vader has put a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon.

THE ROAD BACK 
About three-fourths of the way through the story, the forces aligned against the Hero make their presence known.  The Hero must prepare for a final battle with his antagonist or his enemy.   

The Death Star is gunning for the rebel base.  A countdown to annihilation has begun.  The only hope is if the small band of X-wing fighters can torpedo one tiny spot on the Death Star that it it’s only vulnerability.   

DEATH AND RESURRECTION 
At the climax, the Hero is severely tested to the point where it looks as if he will fail and maybe even die.  To get out of this, he may need to make a sacrifice.  Or he may need to use knowledge that he’s learned during his adventures, particularly during the Ordeal. 

The rebel forces mount an attack on the Death Star but their efforts are failing.  Many of them die. 

After Luke fails on his first bombing run, he decides not to rely on his fighter’s instruments. Instead he lets the Force guide him.  Once he follows the Force, he is successful in taking out the Death Star.

RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR  
The Hero returns home or continues his adventure, but he is forever changed because he has proved his mettle and learned something as a result of his adventures. 

In the final scene we see the rebel forces rejoicing and Luke getting medals for his efforts, but we know that Luke is different now that he’s learned the power of the Force.

The table above is a simple example of a beat sheet.  If you want to use the standard story beats of The Hero’s Journey, create a spreadsheet or table like the one above, with the story steps on the left, then number your scenes on the right, making sure that the action in each beat, matches the standard story pattern.

Beware!  Some people – Joseph Campbell himself – will try to tell you that every story fits this pattern.  And that’s just not true.  Not every story is a Hero’s Journey.  In fact, if you write romance or are telling a Cinderella story, the Hero’s Journey is not particularly helpful.  

Cinderella is not a Hero.  She’s not a character from out a myth.  She’s a character from out of a fairytale.  And if you think about it, you already know that a myth and a fairytale are two different things, even though they are both as old as storytelling.

Fairytale structure is next week’s topic, so stay tuned.  In the meantime I’m happy to take any questions.

18 responses to “Archetypes and Storybeats Part I: The Hero’s Journey”

  1. Just what I needed to get writing a new story this morning! Thanks!!!

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  2. Rita Henuber says:

    Love this. When I begin to build characters I use a similar method.Who are these people, what do they want, why? What’s stopping them from getting what they want? If I begin to wander (story wise) going back to the chart helps get me back on point.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hi Rita

      I do the same thing with story goals and conflict. But I find that I can go even deeper with a character if I think about his/her archetypal behaviors and what that means for both his/her character arc and the story that drives the character arc. The more I write, the more clearly I see that every story has to drive the character arc. That’s especially true in Romance, but I think it’s true of all really good fiction.

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  3. This is fascinating, Hope. You always have such brilliant craft posts. This isn’t my method of attack, but I’d love to try it someday. Right now I’m in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” frame of mind with my WIP, but I love having a tool like this in my back pocket. Thank you!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Vivi,

      I am a total fan-girl of your books. Don’t change your process. Besides, the Hero’s Journey pretty much sucks for romance authors. I don’t use this set of story beats either. But, as you say, it’s good to know this exists if I ever decided to go back to writing fantasy and science fiction

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  4. Fabulous info, Hope! I have had Vogler’s book for a while now, but couldn’t get into it, and didn’t have the time to push myself. I’ll have to pick it up again. This will be a handy guide as I start plotting a new story next week.

    Thanks!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Depending on what you’re writing, Vogler’s book may not be of much help to you, except as ONE example of a character archetype and his particular story structure. If you aren’t writing about heroes, the Hero’s Journey won’t work as a structure for your story. You’ll spend your time gnashing your teeth. So that’s probably the reason you were never able to get into it.

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  5. Thanks for the great info, Hope. I’m super excited about next week’s post. I’ve heard so much about the hero’s journey, but never anything about fairytale structure.

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  6. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I’ve used this model before as a revision technique. I go ahead and write the story as a first draft, and then see where the parts map. If I have anything missing, I ponder whether I need to fill the gap.

    I also like to use the “math” of it. Do I have something big or memorable at the 25%, 50%, 75% marks? If not, where are they–and have I shortchanged character growth or plot along the way?

    Thanks for this post, Hope! So helpful for thinking through the rhythm of a story.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Beth,

      The idea of looking at a story to make sure you’ve got turning points at 25% 50% and 75% is basically writing in a three act structure, which is the subject of Part IV of this series. I have to admit that I’ve mostly been writing using the universal three act structure. But when I discovered the story beats for fairytales (Part II of this series, I have to say I may have changed my thinking.)

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  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    Yay! So excited to see this series starting, Hope!!

    The Hero’s Journey is very familiar to me because I teach it to my literature students…they do projects analyzing familiar movies looking for the stages of Campbell’s monomyth journey.

    I love the idea that growth requires risk, pain, help from others, and renewal. In the end, it’s all about leaving the safe, ordinary, familiar world and being transformed.

    But you’re right–this story structure isn’t necessarily a great fit for romance. I’m really looking forward to the other structures you’re going to discuss!!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I don’t think I ever excited any of my English teachers in high school. I was only a fair to middling English student, even though I loved to write and read, I didn’t like what I was REQUIRED to write and read in English. Your class sounds way more fun…

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  8. […] last week’s blog  I discussed the Hero’s journey and the nexus between certain character archetypes that are so well-recognized that they come […]

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  9. elise hayes says:

    Argh, I don’t know how I missed this post last week! I’ve just come from the “Virgin’s Story” blog to catch up on this one.

    I’m in the midst of plotting my next book–an urban fantasy–and I plan to have both sets of storybeats (Hero and Virgin’s journey) next to me to see if one works better than the other to help me structure the plot!

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