Everyday creative pursuits like cooking and writing are at once stupidly simple and maddeningly difficult. We dabble in the kitchen and churn out emails but only rarely, if we’re honest, do we do them well enough to make an impact.
In the same way, we all tell stories. Down the pub; on the golf course; around the kitchen table. Again, storytelling is simple enough to do – devilishly difficult to do well. Ask any public speaker how easy it is to gain and maintain a room’s attention.
If you want to capture imaginations, win hearts and change minds, the Hero’s Journey is a good place to start. We’ll come to how this storytelling formula can be adapted to a business context. First though, let’s find out how it works.
In our first post, we looked at where to begin: how to set up the world and its inhabitants and give the story an engine that would build and sustain momentum.
As we rejoin him, our hero has left his old life behind and set off on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Let’s see what happens next.
Tests, Allies & Enemies
The hero stands gawping, taking in the new world. She’s out of her depth and way outside her comfort zone. Everyone she meets is a stranger, every experience a first. There are new rules to learn, a new world order to understand. It’s exciting…terrifying…dizzying.
Seeking help and knowledge, she builds relationships. Some of the new world’s inhabitants will become friends, others enemies.
She’s tested by a series of challenges and obstacles which will prepare her for the ordeals that lie ahead. Traps will be laid and nasty surprises abound.
This section is the meat-and-drink of the story. If it’s a comedy, the laughs need to arrive thick and fast. If it’s a thriller, the fear and tension must build and build. At every step the stakes are raised and the odds of success lengthen.
Approach to the Innermost Cave
The hero – having forged alliances and learned cool new moves – has overcome obstacles and gained insight. More importantly, he now knows where the object of his quest is hidden.
Let’s take a moment to let the gravity of the situation sink in. It’s an opportunity for the hero to come up with a cunning plan or sharpen their swords. Others will just want to have a last laugh with mates before ‘going over the top’. Smoke em if you got em, boys.
They may face another ‘Threshold’: a major challenge to see through or dilemma to resolve. They’re often offered an ‘out’ – a way back to the safety of the Ordinary World. The audience needs to see the hero’s willingness to proceed despite the odds stacked against him.
This is also a good moment to squeeze in a love scene 😉
The Supreme Ordeal
Buckle up, shit’s about to get real. This is the moment we’ve paid for when the hero will face their greatest fear. Like Jonah, they’ve entered the belly of the beast.
On one level, this is the showdown with the big baddie. They’ve danced around each other for a while, but now hero and villain must do battle. Alternatively, the antagonist might be internal, meaning the hero must confront herself, or an element of her personality that is holding her back.
We will often get a big set-piece to do this section justice. If our genre is action, there will be explosions, bullets zinging past ears, punches thrown and taken. In a comedy the cringe-value will be ratcheted up as the hero makes a god awful spectacle of herself.
But our job as storyteller doesn’t end here. We now need to kill the hero.
‘Whu-what?’ I hear you say. ‘The hero can’t die.’ And you’re right (except in No Country for Old Men). What I mean is that the hero must appear to die. They must at least experience failure or the end of a relationship. Often an element of their old personality will bite the dust.
As we know, good stories operate on different levels. It’s absolutely essential that the hero ‘dies’ so he can be born again. We must witness a new world opening up in front of him.
Having vanquished the villain in battle or got rid of the emotional albatross around their neck, our protagonist has now earned the title of ‘hero’ and can grab the object of their quest.
This is another moment to let the story breathe. Our hero can savour the moment while someone stitches his wounds. He might join his friends around the campfire to relive the battle’s highlights and mourn fallen comrades.
The hero’s hard won reward might well be a physical object – treasure…a nuclear bomb…a client contract. But it might equally come in the form of new information or insight.
A staple of romcoms, for example, is the moment when our hero sees through her boyfriend’s lies for the first time. Or when his fear of commitment drives away the love of his life.
The hard won ‘victory’ can then feel, in fact, more like a defeat.
This moment of realisation is often significant enough to give the story another burst of momentum and propel us into the final Act.
The Road Back
After the lull of the celebration we need to inject some pace back into proceedings.
If the reward is a physical object it needs to be returned to the Ordinary World. But what’s this? The villain isn’t dead after all! Hot on the hero’s heels and hell bent on revenge, he’ll stop at nothing to kill the hero and win back the prize. Run!
If the reward is newfound self-awareness (‘I love her…and she’s flying to Shanghai at six’) then we need to get to the airport, quick.
If the reward is new information or insight (‘they’re not terrorists, they’re thieves!’) then the hero needs to get to the bank and foil the robbery.
Ever wonder why there are so many car chases at the 100 minute mark of a movie? This is why. We’re running full-pelt toward the climax and want to leave the audience breathless.
If we thought the Supreme Ordeal was tough, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Bond, having defeated Goldfinger, must now defuse a nuclear bomb. Detective Mills is taunted by serial killer John Doe about one last secret in a box. The addict falls off the wagon, risking not just his own life but those around him.
They say a story is only as good as its villain. If our baddie is up to snuff they will gather all their strength for one last desperate shot.
To finally defeat the forces of darkness, our hero must demonstrate they have absorbed the lessons of their journey. They must unveil a new identity – one that fuses the best elements of their former selves with a new set of characteristics that they’ve picked up along the way.
To do so they must face their demons one last time. Time seems to stand still as we savour the stakes involved.
Finally, having vanquished their enemy for good, our hero must return to the place we found them: the Ordinary World. By recognising a familiar image or line of dialogue we are reminded of how far she has come. How she’s changed. How different her world now appears.
The Hero’s Journey is complete.
Join us in our next post to see how this journey applies to business storytelling.
Have you got a better quote for the different stages of the journey? If so tweet them at us! @TouchpaperUK #HerosJourney