Essential writing skills: what Lucas and Tolkien show us about the hero journey

Sorting out a viable character arc and hence plot for your story is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of writing to get right. But it’s also the most important.

Like all writing, it’s a learned skill – practise makes perfect, and you can’t play games with the structure until you’ve mastered it. For beginning writers perhaps the best way to approach that is to fall back on the fail-safe story – the three-act hero journey. This is absolutely classic structure and character arc, used and re-used by writers old and new, experienced and novice.  It’s the literary equivalent of the four-chord rock song. But that doesn’t mean every writer who uses it ends up with the same story – far from it. In fact, the onus is on you, as the writer, to make an original tale around that structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in ‘Prince Caspian’.

To show what I mean we need go no further than two classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and George Lucas’ Star Wars. On the face of it, they’re radically different tales – different settings, different genres. But they’re both based on the hero arc. Check this out:

  1. We meet Bilbo/Luke in their normal world. They are set in their ways, but something niggles them – something is missing in their lives.
  2. They meet an older mentor figure (Gandalf/Obi-Wan), and a dramatic event pushes Bilbo/Luke, forcibly, out of that normal world (Bilbo’s ‘unexpected party’, Luke’s discover of his murdered uncle and aunt).
  3. Bilbo/Luke at first flounder; but the mentor offers guidance, and they begin to learn how to handle themselves. There is a first test away from the mentor (Bilbo vs the trolls, Luke sent to look for Leia in the Death Star while Obi Wan is dealing with the tractor beam) .
  4. Bilbo/Luke gain confidence from their experiences.
  5. There is a pivotal point at which they are stripped of their mentor (Gandalf departs to deal with the Necromancer, Darth Vader kills Obi Wan) after which the hero has to find their own strength (Bilbo versus the spiders, Luke leading the attack on the Death Star). Tolkien had a lot more space to explore this side of the arc than Lucas – Bilbo’s hero growth in The Hobbit was multi-dimensional and the Lonely Mountain sequences focussed on his ethical journey after he’d found his personal heroism.
  6. Bilbo/Luke achieve a great victory on the back of their new-found strengths (Bilbo uses the Arkenstone to try and reconcile the crisis over the unguarded dwarven treasure, Luke uses the Force to hit a small target and blow up the Death Star.)
  7. The story ends; the character arc is complete.

So there you have it; the hero arc – an arc which must be entwined with specific plot points to work. If done right – and both Lucas and Tolkien nailed it – the drama flows from the character development, and the narrative of the plot matches the essential pivot points of the character arc. That one-two punch keeps readers on the edge of their seat.

And if you need another example, go check out The Wizard of Oz. Same story.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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9 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: what Lucas and Tolkien show us about the hero journey

  1. I have a whole ‘bunch’ of posts and mail to catch up with after three weeks away. Glad I started with this one!
    Simple, clear comparisons, and observations.
    Thank you

    1. Glad to be of assistance! It’s actually amazing how close the two stories are at this ‘hero journey’ level, and that’s no coincidence – both Tolkien and Lucas (with help from Joseph Campbell) harked back to well established classic archetypes. The ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie follows the same pattern.

  2. Some writers are afraid of formulas, but I go for what’s reliable😛 The Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey is one that I weave into almost all of my stories. It’s one of the hallmarks of human storytelling, and even though it’s a formula, it’s one that’s worked for thousands of years.

    Harry Potter also follows the Hero’s Journey, even down to living with his aunt/uncle, etc. So when the three most famous sci-fi/fantasy stories of all time follow the same plotline, you know it’s something people really latch onto!

    1. It certainly is. The theme also features in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Another classic and further proof that this concept is central to ‘mythic’ scale storytelling.

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