The Hero’s Journey

#1

I was just listening to Imaginary Worlds (great podcast about sci-fi/fantasy, def worth a listen if you like those topics) and they had an episode about The Hero’s Journey and its history as a storytelling pattern across comics, movies, and books. One of the themes in the podcast was how it seems to have reached a saturation point in Hollywood, where tons of major movies have followed it to the point where it’s become too predictable to be as interesting anymore—it’s formulaic rather than being the infallible storytelling device that so many screenwriting books have made it out to be.

Was wondering if anyone here has opinions about the hero’s journey, where it’s been used particularly well or badly, any favorite uses of it, or favorite subversions of it?

To me, it still seems like quite the trope in a lot of fantasy/sci fi especially, but most subversions of it are really fun. One of my favorite authors Diana Wynn’s Jones plays with it constantly, most of her characters don’t even realize they’re “the chosen one” until the last few pages of the book. For ex Howls Moving Castle is about a young girl who gets turned into a crotchety old lady, and spends most of the book just being really grumpy in fairly mundane ways, until the end when she almost inadvertently defeats the evil magic villain and restores her youth.

I also think part of the reason Liu cixins 3 body problem trilogy feels so fresh and interesting to us is that it basically totally ignores the hero’s journey story structure, and its protagonists tend to fail (in very epic ways.) Almost like rather than being chosen to save the world they are chosen to be especially steamrolled by it.

At the same time, it also can undeniably underlie a really satisfying story. Lord of the Rings being a classic example. And Joseph Campbell called it the Monomyth for a reason…tons of old epics follow it.

What do y’all think?

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A Sci-Fi thread
#2

Ooh thank you for the podcast recommendation. Can we separate story from structure? If the story is interesting then the structure falls into the background for me. Tolkien gives away the ending to the Hobbit right in the subtitle of the book: “There and Back Again”. You know everything’s going to be okay before you even read the book, but the essence of the story is fresh and riveting. I’ve seen the hero’s journey done well in videogames too, like Zelda. On the flip side, it’s impossible to get pulled in when the core components of a story fall flat (characters, plot, etc.).

That said, I can totally see how hearing the same type of story can be frustrating. It’s hard for me to sit through a superhero movie these days.

Also makes you wonder – since the same storytelling frameworks have been around for ages (see Vonnegut’s take), they must speak to some fundamental truths about how our brains are wired to consume information and be entertained.

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#3

This convo reminds me of this Twitter thread about the Captain Marvel movie, which discusses how the movie subverts the hero’s journey just a little bit. It’s more evidence that superhero movies love formulas, and tweaking them slightly is still going to bring in a mass audience. Personally, I say that it’s not an inherently exciting structure, but I can definitely still enjoy a story that’s built around it.

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#4

Totally! This discussion is making me realize that for me there’s a weird tension that comes from the commercialization of the hero’s journey. When I learned about it I thought of it as something sacred and true to the human condition, but im learning that just because it’s ancient doesn’t mean it can’t feel kinda boring when repeated. (Or in the worst cases, a soulless money grab.)

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#5

Hmmm I guess in general it seems like all stories have to have some kind of narrative arc to be meaningful / enjoyable, and the hero’s journey is one of the more popular specific examples of this. I think Star Wars is probably the story I’ve seen most often referenced as canonical modern example.

Looks like the basic idea of dramatic structure / dramatic arc goes back to Aristotle, and there’s a common five-act structure of: “exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement”. Does this kind of thing feel essential? Can something even be a “story” without at least a basic arc along these lines?

Yeah for sure! This reminded me of something I learned in film studies classes in college, the distinction between fabula and syuzhet (terms from Russian formalism that I had to Google just now)

Basically: fabula is the story as it actually happens chronologically (raw material of the story’s events), and syuzhet is the narrative construction (how the story is organized / presented; the structure of the plot).

So indeed we can look at a story arc or pattern like “hero’s journey” — and ways of subverting it — either in terms of the actual story, or how it may be presented.

Probably the most common way of subverting the expected structure would be to take a story that still has an identifiable narrative arc (beginning / middle / end) but play around with expectations of how it unfolds e.g. with flashbacks, reverse chronology, multiple narrators, etc.

I think it can be fun to play with both story and structure, but agree that story is more important. A strong story can work either in a super straightforward presentation or a subverted / experimental one…but a weird structure lacking strong story at its core usually just comes off as an empty gimmick.

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#6

@Adam Saving that thread for after I watch the movie in case of spoilers. (Also realizing how silly it is to be concerned with spoilers in a thread about predictable narratives).

@jinjin It can be totally soulless, like in movies where the Rock teams up with a giant gorilla to save the world. I’m part of the problem for kinda wanting to see that.

@Brendan That was fabul-ous. Would be cool to see if any atypical structures stick and become apart of the common toolset.

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#7

@Brendan yeah! The podcast actually mentions Star Wars specifically—it says that Star Wars success was largely attributed to its following of Joseph Campbell’s blueprint so closely. Then a bunch of screenwriting books followed, like Save the Cat and Story, that all laid out the hero’s journey as the “right” way to write a screenplay. A generation of Hollywood people read those and here we are in an era of epics all inspired by Star Wars.

It then said that a bunch of stuff is ending—game of thrones, avengers, Harry Potter a while ago, and some people are guessing that once they end we can start fresh with some new blueprints. I’m super curious what those might turn out to be.

(The hero’s journey is also more specific than the idea of narrative structure in general. For example the podcast was saying it’s a very individualistic view of the world, where everything supports the chosen one and the chosen one also gets most of the credit for saving the world. Not the only way to see the world, of course!)

I realize this is mostly about movies and not books…but I think the ideas can apply to plenty of books too, especially the “geeky” genre of fantasy. Or maybe it doesn’t? What does everyone else think? Is literature largely past the whole hero’s journey as cliche thing?

The whole podcast is worth a listen! Even beyond this episode.

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