What do Star Wars, The Hobbit and The Wizard of Oz have in common? Two words – ‘hero journey’.
Structure is everything for a story – it will make or break it. And when it comes to classic structure – especially for a fantasy story – it’s hard to go past the hero journey. It’s a classic – classic characters, a compelling plot structure and a well defined character arc that has long stood the test of time. It pops up more often than we might think in films and literature – and the best version I’ve seen was Star Wars, as in the original 1977 film. Also Wizard of Oz, which is the same story at this level. So is The Hobbit. Really. They are very different tales of themselves – which shows us how it’s possible to be original and still meet expected structure.
The hero journey, with its need to have the hero enter the ‘other world’, is effectively a form of modern mythology.Tolkien knew about it; and the structure was quantified in the mid-twentieth century by Joseph Campbell, who George Lucas consulted for the original Star Wars as he developed it in the early 1970s. The hero journey is a three-act structure with about a dozen discrete steps. They go – generally – like this, though the precise order within the acts sometimes differs.
We are introduced to the hero (Dorothy/Luke/Bilbo) in the normal world (Kansas/Tatooine/The Shire)
The hero is introduced to a mentor (Glinda/Obi Wan Kenobi/Gandalf)
Something happens to dislodge the hero from the normal world. They cannot resist it (the tornado/stormtroopers destroy Luke’s family/Bilbo’s party)
The hero leaves the normal world for the adventure (a twister drops Dorothy’s house on the wicked witch in Oz/Luke leaves Tattooine/Bilbo leaves Hobbiton)
In the new world, the hero meets friends, who have their own needs (Tin Man/C3Po/the dwarves)
The hero is tested by various adventures and events during their journey (adventures in Oz/Death Star/Misty Mountains, Mirkwood)
They meet challenges and approach their goal; but meet an unexpected hurdle (they have to face the Wicked Witch/escape from the Death Star/stuck outside Erebor)
The hero rallies their friends and/or allies (Dorothy meets the Winkies/Luke meets the rebel alliance/Bilbo discovers how to open the secret door with help from the raven)
The hero is able to achieve their goal because they have grown, as a character (battle with the Wicked Witch/attack on the Death Star and its destruction/Bilbo discovers Smaug’s weakness)
They receive their reward; and return to the normal world, changed for the better (Dorothy learns she has always had the power to return home/Luke realises he has control of The Force/Battle of Five Armies – Bilbo returns with treasure)
There are many variations on the specifics of the hero journey – and, as these stories show us, it’s perfectly possible to be original and still use that structure. But all ‘hero journey’ tales encompass these main features – including the way the character develops. At the beginning, the hero is unable to achieve their goal; by the end of it, thanks to their adventures, they can. This is a classic character arc, very important to novel writing. The three-act structure is important, too – it is dramatic, it’s compelling. And writers looking for ways to structure their novel cannot go too far wrong if they use it.
More nano-tips next week – but before then, posts on Hemingway and authenticity; and a stroll down the Sydney Writers’ Walk.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012