The Hero's Journey
The Hero’s Journey was Joseph Campbell's all-embracing metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation that heroes in every time and place seem to share, a path that leads them through great movements of separation, descent, ordeal, and return.
The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure sets the story rolling by disrupting the comfort of the Hero’s Ordinary World, presenting a challenge or quest that must be undertaken. The Call throws the Ordinary World off balance, and establishes the stakes involved if the challenge is rejected. Often delivered by the Herald archetype, the Call to Adventure can take a multitude of forms, including: a message or announcement (The African Queen), a sudden storm (Home Alone), the arrival of the villain (High Noon), a death (Jaws, Some Like it Hot), an abduction (Star Wars), a man’s dying words (Citizen Kane). The Hero may need a Succession of Calls before finally realizing that a challenge must be met, or that his only means of escape is the Special World. Many times the Hero needs to choose between two Conflicting Calls.
Refusal of the Call
A Hero Refuses the Journey because of fears and insecurities that have surfaced from the Call to Adventure. The Hero is not willing to make changes, preferring the safe haven of the Ordinary World.
The Refusal of the Call becomes an essential Stage that communicates the risks involved in the Journey that lies ahead. Without risks and danger or the likelihood of failure, the audience will not be compelled to be a part of the Hero’s Journey.
Although an eager or Willing Hero may skip the Refusal Stage, the Hero’s Allies or Threshold Guardians may still express the fears and risks involved (Dances With Wolves).
In Horror and Thriller, the frightening and forbidding nature of the Special World can lead the Hero to be repeatedly “called” to the Adventure that he continues to refuse. Each Call and Refusal must escalate the stakes, until the Hero has no choice but to accept the Call.
Meeting the Mentor
The Hero Meets a Mentor to gain confidence, insight, advice, training, or magical gifts to overcome the initial fears and face the threshold of the adventure.
A Hero may not wish to rush into a Special World blindly and, therefore, seeks the experience and wisdom of someone who has been there before. This Mentor has survived to provide the essential lessons and training needed to better face the Journey’s Tests and Ordeals. The Mentor may be a physical person, or an object such as a map, a logbook, or hieroglyphics. In Westerns and Detective stories, the Hero may hold an Inner Mentor, a strong code of honor or justice that guides him through the Journey.
Crossing the Threshold
Crossing the Threshold signifies that the Hero has finally committed to the Journey. He is prepared to cross the gateway that separates the Ordinary World from the Special World. The Crossing may require more than accepting one’s fears, a map, or a swift kick in the rear from a Mentor. The Hero must confront an event that forces him to commit to entering the Special World, from which there is no turning back.
The Event will re-establish the Central Dramatic Question that propels the story forward. The Event will directly affect the Hero, raising the stakes and forcing some action.
Outside forces may push the Hero ahead, such as an abduction of someone close to the Hero (The Searchers). A Chase may push the Hero to the brink, presenting no choice but to commit (Some Like Hot). The Hero’s place in his Ordinary World may be usurped by a penguin (The Wrong Trousers), or the Hero may cross the threshold with guns blazing and whip cracking (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Internal forces may also push the Hero to accept his Special World. Conrad finally decides to see a therapist (Ordinary People). Belle sacrifices herself in exchange for her father’s freedom (Beauty and the Beast). Alvy and Annie agree to go out on their first date (Annie Hall).
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Having crossed the Threshold, the Hero faces Tests, encounters Allies, confronts Enemies, and learns the rules of the Special World. This Stage is important for Hero and Audience alike. Whether entering the imaginary world of a future society or the emotional realm of romantic love, the Test Stage is our first look at the Special World and how its conditions and inhabitants contrast with the Hero’s Ordinary World.
The Hero needs to find out who can be trusted. Allies are earned, a Sidekick may join up, or an entire Hero Team forged. Enemies and Villains are encountered. A Rival to the Hero’s goal may reveal himself.
The Hero must prepare himself for the greater Ordeals yet to come and needs this Stage to Test his skills and powers, or perhaps seek further training from the Mentor. This Initiation into the Special World also Tests the Hero’s commitment to the Journey, and questions whether he can succeed.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The Hero must make the preparations needed to Approach the Inmost Cave that leads to the Journey’s heart, or central Ordeal. Maps may be reviewed, attacks planned, a reconnaissance launched, and possibly the Enemy’s forces whittled down, before the Hero can face his greatest fear or the supreme danger lurking in the Special World. The confident Hero may bypass these preparations and make a bold Approach to the Inmost Cave.
The Hero has survived his descent into the Special World. He has earned his place and may need to take a break for a cigarette, a joke, or a romance, before facing the Ordeal. A Hero’s Team may have hit setbacks during the Tests, and the Approach is necessary to reorganize the depleted ranks, remember the dead and wounded, and rekindle morale with a Hero’s or Mentor’s rally cry.
The Approach may signal a Ticking Clock or a heightening of the stakes. In Romantic Comedy, the Approach may force the lovers to question commitment; one partner may express the need for marriage.
The Hero engages in the Ordeal, the central life-or-death crisis, during which he faces his greatest fear, confronts this most difficult challenge, and experiences “death”. His Journey teeters on the brink of failure. Indy and Marion are sealed in the Well of the Souls; Annie and Alvy have broken up. And the audience watches in suspense wondering whether the Hero will survive. The Ordeal is the central, essential, and magical Stage of any Journey. Only through “death” can the Hero be reborn, experiencing a resurrection that grants greater powers or insight to see the Journey to the end.
The Hero may directly taste death, or witness the death of an Ally or Mentor or, even worse, directly cause that death. The Ordeal may pit Hero against Shadow or Villain, and the Hero’s failure heightens the stakes and questions the Journey’s success (Die Hard). The Hero may have the power to defeat a Villain in the Ordeal, only to have to face greater forces in the Journey’s second half.
In Romantic Comedies, death can mean the break-up of the relationship. In Romance, a Crisis of the heart can be a love scene—the physical act of love is a type of “death” or surrender. The Crisis of the Heart can also be a moment when a Shapeshifting lover suddenly reveals a dark side that attempts to destroy the Hero (Casablanca).
The Hero has survived death, overcome his greatest fear, slain the dragon, or weathered the Crisis of the Heart, and now earns the Reward that he sought. The Hero’s Reward comes in many forms: a magical sword, an elixir, greater knowledge or insight, reconciliation with a lover. Whatever the treasure, the Hero has earned the right to celebrate. Celebration not only allows the Hero to replenish his or her energy, but also gives the audience a moment to catch their breath before the Journey resumes to its climax and resolution.
The Hero may have earned the Reward outright, or the Hero may have seen no option but to steal it. The Hero may rationalize the Elixir theft, having paid for it with the Tests and Ordeals thus far. But the consequences of the theft must be confronted as the Shadow forces race to reclaim the Elixir that must not see the light of the Ordinary World.
The Road Back
The Hero must finally recommit to completing the Journey and accept the Road Back to the Ordinary World. A Hero’s success in the Special World may make it difficult to return. Like Crossing the Threshold, The Road Back, needs an event that will push the Hero through the Threshold, back into the Ordinary World.
The Event should re-establish the Central Dramatic Question, pushing the Hero to action and heightening the stakes. Like any strong turning point, the action initiating the Road Back could change the direction of the story. The Hero may need a force to Chase her out of the Special World (Thelma and Louise). A Ticking Clock threatening destruction or death in the Ordinary World may be set in motion (Home Alone). The Villain may have recovered the Elixir and must be stopped (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
The Event may be an internal decision that must be made by the Hero. In Comedies, a Hero may be trying to juggle conflicting Journeys, and one must finally be sacrificed (Some Like It Hot). In Romance and Action Adventure, the Road Back may be a moment when the Hero must choose between the Journey of a Higher Cause versus the personal Journey of the Heart (Beauty and the Beast).
The Hero faces the Resurrection, his most dangerous meeting with death. This final life-and-death Ordeal shows that the Hero has maintained and can apply all that he has brought back to the Ordinary World.
This Ordeal and Resurrection can represent a “cleansing” or purification that must occur now that the Hero has emerged from the land of the dead. The Hero is reborn or transformed with the attributes of his Ordinary self in addition to the lessons and insights from the characters that he has met along the road.
The Resurrection may be a physical Ordeal, or final showdown between Hero and Shadow; however, the Ticking Clock of the Road Back has been set. This battle is for much more than the Hero’s life. Other lives, or an entire world may be at stake and the Hero must now prove that he has achieved Heroic Status and willingly accept his sacrifice for the benefit of the Ordinary World.
Other Allies may come to the last-minute rescue to lend assistance, but in the end the Hero must rise to the sacrifice at hand. He must deliver the blow that destroys the Death Star (Star Wars), or offer his hand and accept the “magic” Elixir of love (Sleepless in Seattle).
Return with the Elixir
The Return with the Elixir is the final Reward earned on the Hero’s Journey. The Hero has been resurrected, purified and has earned the right to be accepted back into the Ordinary World and share the Elixir of the Journey. The true Hero returns with an Elixir to share with others or heal a wounded land. The Elixir can be a great treasure or magic potion. It could be love, wisdom, or simply the experience of surviving the Special World. Even the tragic end of a Hero’s Journey can yield the best Elixir of all, granting the audience greater awareness of us and our world (Citizen Kane). The Hero may show the benefit of the Elixir, using it to heal a physical or emotional wound, or accomplish tasks that had been feared in the Ordinary World. The Return signals a time when we distribute rewards and punishments, or celebrate the Journey’s end with revelry or marriage.
The Elixir may bring closure to the Journey and restore balance to the Ordinary World. Possibly it poses questions and ambiguities that continue the Journey beyond the final “fade out”.
In most tales, the Return with the Elixir completes the cycle of this particular Journey. Story lines have been resolved, balance has been restored to the ordinary World, and the Hero may now embark on a new life, forever influenced by the Journey traveled.