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  • Anthony Hett

How to write a short film - The hero's journey

Hello and welcome to my blog, where I offer simple and practical advice on how to write and make an interesting, engaging and hopefully successful short film.


In today‘s blog post I will again be sticking with structure (for the last time I promise) and this time I will be discussing The hero’s journey.


Like the three-act structure and the Dan Harmon story circle, the hero’s journey is a model used in narrative fiction that divides a story up into sections or steps. In the case of the hero’s journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, the story is broken down into three stages, within which there are 17 steps (often reduced to 12 steps).


Campbell describes the three stages and 17 steps are as follows:


DEPARTURE

1. The call to adventure.

2. Refusal of the call.

3. Supernatural aid.

4. Crossing the threshold.

5. Belly of the whale


INITIATION

6. The road of trials.

7. The meeting with the goddess.

8. Woman as temptress.

9. Atonement with the father.

10. Apotheosis.

11. The ultimate boon.


RETURN

12. Refusal of the return.

13. The magic flight.

14. Rescue from without.

15. The crossing of the return threshold.

16. Master of two worlds.

17. Freedom to live.


I’m not going to go into the stages and steps in any more detail than this, I would therefore highly recommend that you do some more reading on the hero’s journey and suggest this blog post as a good source of information. Instead, I am going to concentrate on why the structure works and how you might use it in your screenplays.


While researching different myths from around the world, Campbell noticed that the vast majority of myths followed the same basic story patterns, which he broke down into the 17 steps above. While today, many famous and successful books and films also follow the hero’s journey structure, including The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix, Die Hard and many, many more.


One of the reasons for it's wide use, is that it taps into our desire as people to become a better version of ourselves. It shows us (the reader or viewer) that we can overcome any obstacle and be anything we want to be, as long as we want it enough and try hard enough to get it. Now, although I’m not completely convinced by this as a life message, it works well as a story structure because it is something that the majority of us want to believe about ourselves – we want to see ourselves as the hero of our own story.


The hero's journey is also a truly universal style of storytelling, being found in stories all around the world that have been told in this way for thousands of years. The details and characters might change but the issues that people face and the stories that we tell are often very similar the world over.


The hero’s story is definitely sometimes seen as this one size fits all story structure but try not to look at it as a paint by numbers formula. Instead I would recommend viewing it as a less ridged, more flexible set of guidelines. The audience has seen the hero’s journey play out a hundred times and so if you are going to use it, try and do so in a new and interesting way.


Think of it as a guide and not a blueprint that has to be followed step by step. Having a unique plot and interesting set of characters within a familiar structure like the hero’s journey is still something that is likely to be popular with an audience but try to think of the structure in a different way. After all, it is possible to follow the hero’s journey without actually using all of the 17 step, while it is also possible to move some of the steps around.


Therefore, try to understand and use the three structures I have discussed in recent posts, the three act structure, the Dan Harmon story circle and the hero’s journey but try to think of them in an interesting way, otherwise you’re likely to end up writing a predictable and uninspiring story - and nobody wants to do that.


& just one last point before I bring this post to a close: it is VERY important to remember that heroes can take any form, they come in all shapes and sizes, amazingly they don’t actually have to be male and of course they don’t even have to be human.


So those are my thoughts on the hero’s journey. I hope that you found them helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments below and also be sure to check out my YouTube videos. Thank you for reading and I will be back next week with a post looking at Knowing your characters.