If you know one, you know them all!

In storytelling, the hero's journey is mostly used as a plot. Almost every story is based on it. Every fairy tales, every fable, every episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” and every Hollywood blockbuster – whether it’s a schmaltzy love story or a Marvel movie. An action movie or a comedy. A drama or a Western. The basic element is always the hero's journey. Why is that so?

Because it is memorable. It's exciting, and it's the way the people have been telling each other stories by the fire for thousands of years. There is always the unassuming guy with the wooden spear who is almost killed during mammoth hunting and ends up cutting the mammoth's Achilles tendon with his hand ax and bringing home food for himself and the entire clan. As a reward, he has to marry the chief’s daughter.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell published his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which was the result of his research into myths. He examined orally transmitted stories of many eras, cultures, languages, and religions. From his research, he derived the fundamental elements of a story and packaged them into a uniform structure.

The hero's journey consists of three acts. Normally, the first and third acts take about a quarter of the story, and the second act takes up about half of it. Aristotle described this division into three acts in “Poetics” as early as 2,500 years ago, and it has prevailed even in Hollywood since Syd Fields’ times. In the 1980s, Syd Fields taught the art of screen writing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles, and recorded his experiences in his book “Screenplay.” In almost every movie Fields’ touch is clearly recognizable.

Christopher Vogler, head of the material development department at 20th Century Fox, described a universal structure of stories in “The Writers Journey” in 1998. Today, this structure is probably the most well-known template for the hero's journey. Vogler actively refers to the research done by Campbell.

Act I, the exposition

The exposition provides clarity on the initial situation and leads the audience into the story. At this point, the reader also makes the decision to read or not to read the story. It is important to clarify as quickly as possible what the story is about. Readers want to know who the main character is and what the goal is.

Act II, the confrontation

At the beginning of the second act, the hero knows the goal to be achieved in the story. He takes off on his adventure, meets allies on his way, and passes test after test. Each test is bigger and more dangerous than the previous one. The hero advances toward his goal with determination. He cannot help it; no one else is going to do it. He must act. If not him, who else? And, of course, he passes every test and, in the end, obtains the treasure, the great love, a deep recognition, or some other reward.

“The hero turns into a better person – from a curmudgeon to a nice neighbor, from a loner to a team player, from a staunch single to a love-crazed couple.”

Uwe Funk

Act III, the resolution

In the third act, the hero embarks on his journey home. And it becomes clear that he has changed through the adventure. “The hero turns into a better person – from a curmudgeon to a nice neighbor, from a loner to a team player, from a staunch single to a love-crazed couple. Here, a bridge is built to the first act, and all questions from the audience are answered: The hero has reached his goal and has defeated the enemy. Opponents and false friends were punished.

All articles of this blog series

Uwe Funk