The Hero’s Journey

Note: this post contains spoilers to the movie “Gravity.”

As an effort to show my students that I walk the talk of writing, I always bring in the current book I’m reading to stress that writers read. All the time. The other week I brought in a copy of The Writer’s Journey – Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. I started talking about the Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell and all I saw from my students were blank stares.

star warsBesides making me feel really old (seriously, you’ve never heard of Joseph Campbell?) I realized that I had a great teaching opportunity here. I could show my class that just like in Technical Writing, some creative writing also follows organizational rules that make it easier for the writer.

“Yeah sure,” is the response I got from my students whose eyes had already started to glaze.

The Hero’s journey must always start in an ordinary world, I began.

Where does the Wizard of Oz start? On a farm.

Where does Star Wars start? On a farm.

The hero must be approached by someone who asks him to go on a journey – to which he replies no. He’s safer where he is, he has no interest in leaving, and he has no interest in being uncomfortable.

But then something happens that makes it impossible for him to say no.

Auntie Em gets sick. Luke’s relatives are slaughtered. BAM. The story begins right here.

At this point I realized that some of my students were starting to pay attention to what I was saying.

I went through the various additional aspects of the Hero’s journey.

In the Wizard of Oz – the wizard is the mentor (with the arguments that her traveling trio also mentored to some extent.) In Star Wars, you have Obi-Wan Kenobi – literally the wise old man. (And yes, I’m going to use the word “Literal” many times in this post because, well it literally means what I want it to mean.)

There is a talisman of some sort – in the Wizard of Oz, you have ruby slippers (also the basket with the dog but as the dog actually plays a role, we decided against that.) Indiana Jones has that fantastic hat.

There is an “evil force” that opposes the hero (witch in the Wizard of Oz, Evil Empire (Lucas makes it very easy for you to identify this one) in Star Wars.

There is challenge one, challenge two, and then challenge three.

Finally there is trial by fire from which the hero emerges and is then rewarded.

Do you remember the final scene in Star Wars? They literally get rewarded with medals for their actions. (Lucas may be brilliant but no one is ever going to accuse him of being subtle.)

At this point I had the entire class’s attention. “Wow,” I was hearing. “I never knew this!”

I then turned to the horrific (personal opinion) recent film “Gravity.”

It starts off in space (ordinary for them) a warning comes (asteroid debris is on the way) which is ignored.

The asteroids hit (call to action which can’t be refused.)

The astronaut, buoyed by her talisman (a photo of her daughter) decides to fight.

The astronaut tries to get back into her capsule (challenge one.)

Tries to get to the next space station (challenge two.)

The astronaut tries to get to the final space craft (challenge three.)

We have a mentor (ah, that silly George.)

And we have evil in the form of death by lack of oxygen (to ram this down our throats, she runs out of oxygen several times throughout the movie.)

There is a final (literal) trial by fire when she re-enters the atmosphere and is almost burned up.

She survives and after landing in a rather amniotic environment she escapes from her pod (which the exit hatch is conveniently located underwater) to be reborn into a more confident woman who can now LIVE with the death of her daughter.

Fade to black.

When I was done explaining this, I turned to my class. Once you see this pattern, it can’t be unseen, I told them.

“So what you are going to say, the next time you watch an action movie that begins in an ordinary world?” I asked my astounded students.

“We’re going to say that we already know what’s going to happen, because our teacher ruined it for us.”

***

Note: this is a quick overview and there is so much more to the hero’s journey. If you want to learn more do yourself a favor and pick up Vogler’s book.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

18 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey

  1. Great post! I love Joseph Campbell’s work and actually picked up the Hero with a Thousand Faces when I read he was one of Lucas’s inspirations (since Star Wars is one of the reasons why I picked up writing and that I later embarked in film and media studies). Campbell has so many other wonderful books about mythologies and mythical journeys!

    • I’m currently teaching at Nashua Community College. I did give my students an assignment, they had to watch a movie (I told them action because those are most often heroes) and come back with a deconstruction on the hero’s story on top of the movie. We talked about Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Conan the Barbarian, Star Gate and even The Lion King.

      • When I’ve taught high school English, I used Phoenix Jackson in Eudora Welty’s short story ‘”A Worn Path” to illustrate the hero’s journey. I teach a college basic reporting class now. Your post reminded me that the structure would probably work well for many newspaper personality profiles. Thanks for the ideas!

      • That’s a fabulous assignment! I would have loved to have been in that class! That would have been a great talk, I love that someone picked the Lion King as it would not typically be immediately thought of when one says, “action” movies 🙂

  2. Classic reaction from your students! It made me chuckle to myself remembering my own teaching days. I love the way you were able to make the Hero’s Journey model so accessible and relevant to your audience (students and readers). You are right; I will never be able be able to unsee it.

  3. Pingback: Star Wars Video, New Music and A Mixed Bag of Links | Natacha Guyot

  4. This sounds like a class I would love to take, unfortunately I am a few continents away 🙂 I really liked the way you spelled it out to them and had to laugh at their reaction haha. You should be really pleased though, it is not often that a teacher has their students undivided attention 🙂

  5. I had never heard of Joseph Campbell nor the Hero’s Journey, but it transpires that my WIP long fiction fits the mould exactly. I guess there’s really something to it.

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