A new character-driven Hero’s Journey

by on April 4, 2011

in Hero's Journey, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

The Kings Speech Bertie Colin Firth Empire Games Humiliation Wembley Big Microphone

In my last post, I revealed my debt to Chris Vogler and where I diverge from him on Character Arc. Here I outline a new character-driven Hero’s Emotional Journey that might help dispel notions that this amazing paradigm doesn’t apply to female protagonists, intimate dramas or romantic comedies.

The Hero’s Journey outlined in Chris Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey is the single most important thing I’ve learned as a screenwriter. It totally transformed my understanding of story and I think every screenwriter should read it. However, there is some resistance to the Hero’s Journey and I can understand why misconceptions have arisen.

Myths about the Hero’s Journey

There are a couple of complaints I commonly hear about the Hero’s Journey. One is that is only applies to male protagonists. The other is that it might work if you’re developing a Star Wars sequel but not if you’re writing an intimate drama. I’ve never laboured under either of these misconceptions – hell, I write romantic comedies – but it’s not hard to see why people might form these opinions.

Offputting warrior metaphors

The Hero’s Journey is just as applicable to female protagonists like Juno as it is to “warriors” like Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones.

Vogler stands on the shoulders of mythological guru, Joseph Campbell, so it’s not surprising that he uses terms like “Call to adventure”, “Supreme Ordeal” and “Approach to the Inmost Cave” to define the 12 steps of his Hero’s Journey. However, it’s easy to see why these warrior metaphors might lead people to believe the paradigm would only be appropriate for testosterone-addled protagonists on a quest to find the Holy Grail (or a misplaced groom).

Plot-driven rather than character-driven

One of the reasons I’ve always loved the Hero’s Journey is that the transformation of the protagonist is bound into the paradigm. If you understand the Hero’s Journey, and apply its principles, it’s impossible not to have your hero altered by their odyssey. And the emotional power of a film depends almost entirely on the size (and the credibility) of that transformation. However, if you were put off by the terminology, it’s easy to understand why you might walk away thinking that the Hero’s Journey valued plot over character.

Where I disagree with Vogler on character arc

This is Chris Vogler’s view of the character arc in the Hero’s Journey. He advocates the protagonist changes from the beginning. I think it’s preferable to delay addressing the flaw until Step 8 The Ordeal.

In that last post, I detailed why I disagree with Vogler on character arc. In summary, Chris says that the character should be evolving from the beginning of the story, whereas in most of the films I love this doesn’t happen. The hero doesn’t address their fundamental character flaw until they’re forced to at Step 8 The Ordeal – around the midpoint of Act 2. I prefer to delay this transformation because flawed characters tend to be more interesting (and funnier), and postponing the change leads to much greater conflict and emotion in that confrontation scene.

A new character-driven Hero’s Emotional Journey

Over the last couple of years, whenever I teach my 2-day Screenwriting Course, I have been augmenting the 12 steps of the Hero’s external journey with what I consider to be the 12 steps of the Hero’s Emotional Journey. I’ve done this because the longer I’ve been a screenwriter the more I’ve realised it’s not about the plot. The plot’s just there to make the character uncomfortable. What it’s really about for the character – and the audience – is not the External Plot but the internal Emotional Journey.

Hopefully the Hero’s Emotional Journey might help dispel common misconceptions about the Vogler paradigm and allow a much broader range of writers to benefit from the amazing insights of Joseph Campbell.

In fact, to emphasise the point that the Hero’s Journey is equally applicable to dramas and romantic comedies, I generally only show one clip from an action-adventure film – and that’s the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Marion kisses Indiana.

So here they are …

The 12 Steps of the Hero’s Emotional Journey

  1. Incomplete (Ordinary World)
  2. Unsettled (Call to Adventure)
  3. Resistant (Refusal of the Call)
  4. Encouraged (Meeting with the Mentor)
  5. Committed (Crossing the first threshold)
  6. Disoriented (Tests, Allies & Enemies)
  7. Inauthentic (The Approach)
  8. Confronted (The Ordeal)
  9. Reborn (The Reward)
  10. Desperate (Road Back)
  11. Decisive (Resurrection)
  12. Complete (Return with the Elixir)

Let’s explore this new character-driven Hero’s Journey in more detail …

Step 1: Incomplete (Ordinary World)

The incompleteness of the Hero will generally have two dimensions: something they’re aware of, and something of which they’re entirely oblivious.

Bridget Jones's Diary Renee Zellweger Smoking

Bridget Jones thinks she’s “incomplete” because she doesn’t have a bloke but her real problem is her superficiality.

The incompleteness of which the hero might be aware will generally be a “Want”. They’re not happy with their lives and they’re convinced that getting this thing will fix it.

Miles in Sideways wants to get his semi-autobiographical novel published. Thelma wants to spend a weekend away from her dorky husband with gal pal, Louise. And, as Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sculls wine, watches Frasier and sings “All by myself”, you get the strong sense that what she thinks is missing from her life is a fella.

However, while it might be important for the Hero’s external journey to establish this incompleteness of which they’re aware, it is at least as important to make your audience aware of an inadequacy of which they will almost certainly be unaware: their flaw.

If we don’t establish the character failing of the hero – or we don’t start them off at a sufficiently low point – the transformation isn’t going to deliver any emotional power in the 3rd act.

The climax of Dead Poets Society has a 17-year old schoolboy (Ethan Hawke) standing on a desk and saying “Oh, captain, my captain”. How can that possibly move us in the way it does? Because the writer, Tom Schulman, makes Todd’s flaw abundantly clear in the Ordinary World sequence.

In Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says “I stick my neck out for no-one”, in Moonstruck, Loretta (Cher) is going to marry a man she doesn’t love, and in Tootsie, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is not only impossible to work with, he is insincere with women. All of these great films build their narrative foundation by establishing in the first very first sequence of the film, that the hero is “incomplete”.

Step 2: Unsettled (Call to Adventure)

Winter's Bone Ree Jennifer Lawrence

In Winter’s Bone, Ree’s “adventure” is to find her loser, crank-dealing father or lose her home.

I’m comfortable with the term “Call to adventure” and I use it rather than “inciting incident” but that word “adventure” might discourage writers of dramas from thinking that the Hero’s Journey has something to offer them. This “adventure” doesn’t have to involve guns, high-speed chases or some mystical medieval text. It can just be a problem or an opportunity.

Like in Winter’s Bone, for example. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) needs to track down her crack-merchant father for the rent money, or she, her younger siblings and incapacitated mother will lose their house.

The emotional effect of this Call on the protagonist will depend on whether they want this adventure or not. Indiana in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ned (William Hurt) in Body Heat and Olive (Abigail Breslin) in Little Miss Sunshine are all thrilled to get the call so they’ll be excited.

But, more often, the Hero doesn’t want the call.

Bertie (Colin Firth) in The King’s Speech is resistant to the unusual techniques, not to mention the impertinent manner, of Logue (Geoffrey Rush); in Toy Story, Woodie hardly welcomes Buzz Lightyear with open arms; and Juno (Ellen Page) isn’t thinking about the miracle of creation when her third pregnancy test confirms the positive reading of the previous two. If the hero doesn’t want the call, they’re going to be disturbed at least, and quite possibly entirely mortified.

Whether the hero wants the call or not, it’s fair to say that in either case they’re going to be “unsettled”. Suddenly their world just isn’t the same any longer.

Step 3: Resistant (Refusal of the Call)

Social Network Eduardo Saverin Andrew Garfield

It needn’t be the hero who is “resistant”. In The Social Network, it’s Zuckerberg’s buddy Eduardo who questions the wisdom of comparing Harvard women to farm animals.

In the Refusal of the Call sequence, the Hero – or those around them – are going to be resistant to the invitation to adventure.

If the hero doesn’t want the call, they might rationalise their refusal by saying that they can’t afford to go, that this person is totally wrong for them, or that the goal is impossible, crazy or both. But, basically, they’re just afraid and the audience empathises with that because fear is something that we all understand.

Luke Skywalker is too busy doing chores to save the Rebel Alliance, Bridget Jones is too blinded by Daniel Cleaver’s obvious charms to appreciate the subtler satisfactions of Mark Darcy, and Richard would rather stay at home and preach about his 9-step Refuse-to-Lose program than take his daughter to Redondo Beach for the finals of Little Miss Sunshine.

If the hero does want the call, others will express the fear for them. Eduardo in The Social Network questions Mark Zuckerberg on the wisdom of comparing Harvard women to farm animals, Loretta’s father in Moonstruck tells her that she’s marrying an idiot, and Zack’s alcoholic whore-chasing father in An Officer and a Gentleman tells his son that he’ll never be either.

But, regardless of whether the hero wants the call or not, the emotion that needs to be conveyed to the audience at this stage of the Journey is “Resistance”.

Step 4: Encouraged (Meeting with the Mentor)

The Meeting with the Mentor is one of the most misunderstood phases of the Hero’s Journey. In some films, the hero does at this point meet with an older, wiser figure. Obi Wan in Star Wars and Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society are classic mentor archetypes whose sage advice helps encourage their novitiates to overcome their fears and go on the journey.

Moonstruck Cher Vincent Gardenia Loretta Cosmo Kitchen Champagne

In Moonstruck, the “ambivalence” is expressed by father Cosmo, who says Loretta shouldn’t marry the “idiot” Johnny Cammareri, and mother Rose who thinks she’s wise to marry a man she likes rather than loves.

However, the “Mentor” isn’t necessarily avuncular and the advice is not always wise.

In Moonstruck, Loretta’s mother, Rose, is thrilled to discover that her daughter only likes rather than loves her fiancé Johnny “because when you love them they drive you crazy – because they can”.

In The King’s Speech, Bertie is forced to reconsider working with the Antipodean speech therapist because his father, King George V, impresses on him the importance of broadcasting for the modern monarch and yet is entirely unsympathetic to his son’s profound speech difficulties.

In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey’s agent is similarly unsupportive when he tells his client that “no-one will hire you”. But this only plays into Michael’s ego – his flaw – and goads him to audition for the female role his girlfriend, Sandy, missed out on.

Don’t feel obliged in the Meeting with the Mentor stage to have a grizzled all-knowing eminence. That way, cliché lies. A more useful way to think about this stage of the Emotional Journey is that the hero, having resisted the call, is “Encouraged” – one way or another – into reconsidering the challenge that’s been thrown down.

Step 5: Committed (Crossing the First Threshold)

In the previous sequence, the hero weighed up their options. Now, in this last phase of Act 1, they finally commit to the Journey.

In Star Wars, Luke takes up the challenge thrown down by Obi Wan after discovering his Aunt and Uncle have been murdered.

Little Miss Sunshine Frank Steve Carell Dwayne Paul Dano Dinner

In the ensemble Little Miss Sunshine, Dwayne only commits to join the trip to Redondo Beach after he gets clearance to apply for flight school.

In Little Miss Sunshine, Dwayne agrees to join the trip to Redondo Beach after his mother tells him she will let him apply to flight school.

In The King’s Speech, Bertie listens to the phonograph recording he had previously viewed with derision and is amazed to hear himself speak for the first time without a stammer – making him think that perhaps this Logue character might know what he’s on about after all.

Sometimes the hero wants to commit to the journey but they need to convince a Threshold Guardian to let them go on the “adventure”. Michael Dorsey desperately needs this job on a daytime soap – even if it means dressing up as Dorothy Michaels – but first he’s got to convince the misogynistic director, Ron.

North by Northwest Cary Grant Roger Thornhill forced to drink

Some protagonists, like Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in North by Northwest, don’t have a whole lot of choice about going on the adventure.

And sometimes, the hero doesn’t really get to decide whether they go on the journey. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has no choice but to go on the run and try to clear his name after he’s wrongly believed to have killed a delegate at the United Nations.

Similarly, in Groundhog Day, a visit to an out-of-his-depth psychiatrist in Punxsutawney convinces Phil Connors that his problem is not in his head and he must make the best of a bad situation.

Whether the hero is thrilled about it or not, after step 5 of the Hero’s Journey, the hero is “committed” to tackling the goal, problem or opportunity with which they’ve been presented.

Step 6: Disoriented (Tests, Allies & Enemies)

The King's Speech Bertie Logue Colin Firth Geoffrey Rush Harlety St rooms

Logue disorients the Duke of York by forcing him to come to his rooms and by impertinently calling him “Bertie”.

This step of the Hero’s Journey is quite a mouthful, but it’s one of the simpler stages to understand. Remember how scary that first day at school was for you when you were 5 or 6? In this first sequence of Act 2, your hero is similarly disoriented.

In their Ordinary World, the hero might have been “incomplete”, and they might not have been entirely happy, but at least everything was familiar. Now, as soon as they begin to pursue their goal or fix their problem, their world is turned upside down.

The hero can be forced to deal with changes in terrain, as Bertie is in The King’s Speech when he’s forced to leave the familiarity and safety of his palace and come to Logue’s unusual professional rooms.

The protagonist will often have to go through a change of appearance, as Zack does when he gets his locks shorn in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Different rules might exist in this Special World, as they do in Groundhog Day, or Yes man, where suddenly he has to say yes to any proposal, including a geriatric neighbour’s excessively generous method of thanking him for helping her around the house.

Tootsie Dustin Hoffman Sydney Pollack Dorothy Michaels George Field Russian Tea Rooms

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) “tests” his Dorothy Michaels disguise on agent, George Field (Sydney Pollack).

Their powers might be different, as they are in Bruce Almighty.

As a screenwriter, you’re always looking for conflict, so you’ll often want to challenge your disoriented Hero with some sort of “test”.

In Tootsie, this happens when Michael goes to the Russian Tea Rooms and tests out his Dorothy disguise on his agent. This not only gives us a good laugh at George’s expense, it satisfies an important credibility question: if his agent can’t see that it’s Michael when he’s less than a metre away, Dorothy is ready to fool the American viewing public.

In Meet the Parents, Greg (Ben Stiller) is subjected to a lie detector test by his father-in-law from hell (Robert DeNiro).

In Little Miss Sunshine, the test happens when the clutch gives out on their Kombi and threatens to end their trip when it’s only just begun. But, this still dysfunctional family combine to jump-start the car, solving the immediate problem, and beginning their healing process.

You need to be careful with this test that you leave yourself room to escalate the tests at the Ordeal and Resurrection (or Climax). So in Groundhog Day, when Phil Connors drives along the railway tracks, he pulls off at the last minute. Later, he’s going to push the Punxsutawney envelope a little more

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest Billy Bebbit Nurse Ratched

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, R.P. McMurphy takes a shine to stammering Billy Bebbit and an instant dislike to Nurse Ratched (the hair can’t have helped).

But, possibly the best way to disorient the hero is by having them try to work out who they can trust and who they should be wary of in this new world – again just like you did at school.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) quickly bonds with Martini (Danny Devito) and works out that Nurse Ratched is public enemy number one. The Chief is initially impenetrable but he falls into the archetypal category of a Shapeshifter: he doesn’t appear to be an ally, but ultimately he’s going to be the go-to guy.

Shapeshifters are particularly useful in thrillers and film noir because they disorient the audience, forcing them to engage with exactly the same question the hero is grappling: is this character friend or foe?

Again, don’t get hung up on the terminology. If you just think about your hero as being “disoriented”, you’ll be alive to the wonderful comedic and dramatic possibilities of this first sequence of Act 2.

Step 7: Inauthentic (The Approach)

This is a tricky sequence to nail in terms of the emotional journey of the Hero.

You could consider them to be “amiable”, given that this is often where friendships are forged. For example, in The King’s Speech this is where Bertie opens up to Logue after his father’s death about the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his nanny and his brother.

You could consider them to be “amorous”, given that this is where many love interests are introduced. For example, in Witness, this is where John Book (Harrison Ford) and Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) dance in the barn in a scene dripping with sexual subtext.

Groundhog Day Phil Connors Nancy Bill Murray Diner

Phil Connors in “inauthentic” mode with Nancy.

So, why have I characterised it as “inauthentic”? Because in the next sequence, The Ordeal, you’re going to confront your hero with their flaw, so in this sequence I think it’s a good idea to remind the audience of exactly what the hero’s character failing is.

One of the best examples of this is Groundhog Day, where Phil beds – and proposes to – local Punxsutawney girl and Lincoln High grad, Nancy. At this stage, he’s not interested in using his special powers to help anyone. Why? Because his flaw is that he’s selfish. So in this sequence we see him being entirely “inauthentic”.

When I say “inauthentic”, I don’t just mean that he’s saying things that he doesn’t feel. I mean that there is a gap between how the character presents to the world – their “identity” – and who they really are – their “essence”.

In The King’s Speech, even though Bertie is being open with Logue in this sequence where their friendship is forged, there is still a yawning gap between how Bertie presents to the world and who he really is.

His identity is that he’s the bumbling, stammering younger brother of the dashing heir to the throne, David, but in truth Bertie has qualities that will serve the nation better than that flibbertigibbit. But he won’t get to offer those abilities, or be comfortable with himself, unless he has the courage to find his voice.

Yes, the Approach sequence can involve rehearsal and reconnaissance and romance, but if you want to write an emotionally engaging film, I’d encourage you to consider how to reveal that the character is being “inauthentic”. If you do, you’ll be perfectly placed to exploit the drama of this next sequence.

Step 8: Confronted (The Ordeal)

Vogler calls this stage “The Supreme Ordeal” but I’ve known students to form the impression that this means it’s the moment of greatest drama in the story. That’s not what Chris intended so I just refer to it as “The Ordeal”.

Brokeback Mountain Ennis Heath Ledger Jack Jake Gyllenhall

Ennis (Heath Ledger) is “confronted” in Brokeback Mountain when Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) refuses to accept his continued duplicity.

However, when I teach the Hero’s Journey, it’s the clips from this stage of the journey that produce the greatest emotion in the class. And in an earlier post on the midpoint, I’ve written at length on why this is such an important stage in the character arc. In summary, it’s where the hero is “confronted” with their flaw.

Up until now, the hero won’t have addressed their flaw because they haven’t had to. Not only have they done nothing about it but they’ve possibly been exploiting it. But here they reach an impasse because here someone – often an antagonist or mentor/antagonist – holds a mirror up to the hero and says, “Here you go, pal, take a good long, hard look at yourself. Not pretty, is it?!?”.

This is where, in the great films, the inauthentic identity the hero has been presenting to the world will crack and crumble away, revealing for the first time their true essence.

In Tootsie, it’s where Julie (Jessica Lange) throws a glass of water in Michael’s face – because he’s using the same inauthentic patter on her that he was in the opening scenes.

In Groundhog Day, Phil is using the same inauthentic approach on Rita that worked on Nancy, but every time he’s on the verge of the Promised Land, she gives him a good slap.

In Brokeback Mountain, Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) finally calls Ennis (Heath Ledger) on his inauthenticity, telling him he’s no longer willing “to get by on a few high-altitude fucks a year”.

In The King’s Speech, this is where Logue tells Bertie that the nation needs him in its hour of need – not the distracted, Nazi-apologist David – and Bertie calls him treasonous. But that’s just a rationalisation, because, as in all the great stories, the hero has just been “confronted”.

Read more about the Ordeal or Midpoint

Step 9: Reborn (The Reward)

Having been confronted with their flaw at The Ordeal, the old, flawed Hero will have died, and a new, “reborn” Hero will emerge in this sequence.

Dead Poets Society Todd Mr Keating Ethan Hawke Robin Williams

After the “sweaty-tooth madman” scene, Todd’s shy, retiring identity crumbles away and he is “reborn” as the hero who will literally take a stand at the moving climax of Dead Poets Society.

If they’ve been cowardly, they’ll now display courage. If they’ve been selfish, they’ll now demonstrate compassion. But, more importantly, their transformation will be revealed through the fresh perceptions of those around them.

In Dead Poets Society, after Todd has revealed the lyrical poet inside his diffident shell, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) looks at him in awe and Keating says to Todd, “Don’t you forget this”. He doesn’t.

In An Officer and a Gentleman, after Zack has finally shed his insouciant wise-guy identity in the “I’ve got nothin’ else” scene, he makes Perryman feel like a heel because he’s shined his belt buckles and boots. “Son of a bitch”.

In Groundhog Day, this is where Phil finally stops trying to seduce Rita and instead talks lovingly about her – “you like boats, but not the ocean” – in a way that suggests he genuinely cares for her, rather than viewing her as just another conquest. Rita can see the change and responds to it.

Good cinematic storytelling is about squeezing and releasing your audience, and, after the drama of The Ordeal, this sequence definitely is about lifting the foot off the pedal a little.

In The King’s Speech, this is where we have the delightful – if apocryphal – scene where Bertie and “Liz” visit Logue and his wife at home. It’s comedic and warm and gives the audience a breather before the tension that lies up ahead.

If you’ve just put your hero through a confronting Ordeal, in this sequence try to lighten the mood and through the reactions of those around the Hero, reveal that this character has been “reborn”.

Step 10. Desperate (Road Back)

In the last sequence, the Hero was feeling pretty good about themselves because they’d just climbed their personal Everest, but in this sequence they have a daunting realisation: now they’ve got to get down.

This is where some complication occurs that makes the attainment of the Hero’s original goal seem much more difficult or downright impossible.

But it’s not just about plot. It’s not just about being in a dire situation. If you want to tell a great story, at this point it can help to present the hero with a dilemma – to put them between a rock and a hard place.

The Apartment Jack Lemmon Fred McMurray C.C. Baxter Mr Shelldrake

In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is forced to choose between advancing his career and honouring his love for Miss Kubelik.

In an earlier post, I explore this crisis in great detail, but in summary it’s about forcing the Hero to choose between what they want and what they need.

Very often, the choice is between a material goal and love.

In Tootsie, Michael reaches the point where he has to choose between what he wants – paid work as an actor – and what he needs – Julie. He can’t have both.

In Moonstruck, Loretta’s fiancée, Johnny, returns from Sicily here, which means that she’s soon going to have to choose between marrying a man whom she merely likes, or taking a risk on love again with his more passionate brother, Ronny.

In Billy Wilder’s sublime The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has to choose between continuing to allow his boss (Fred McMurray) to use his apartment for his trysts – or becoming a “mensch” and taking a stand in honour of his love for Miss Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine).

In Strictly Ballroom the choice that Scott is presented with here is not about love but about integrity. If he dances the Federation’s steps, he’ll win the prize he’s always coveted but feel nothing. If he dances his own steps, he’ll not win but he’ll gain a greater prize – the fulfilment that comes with genuine self-expression and integrity.

Not every film offers up this sort of dilemma. But, if you don’t force your character to make a choice, you have to ask yourself how your hero is going to prove to us that they have been transformed. If all they do is get what they always sought, without sacrifice, without compromise, you’re heading towards a hollow conclusion. I would suggest The Fugitive, after a brilliant opening, falls into this trap.

So often is the hero faced with a choice at this point that for a time I referred to this step as “conflicted”. But, to make the paradigm more universal, because the combination of the dilemma and other obstacles generally make this the Hero’s darkest hour, I now think that the place you want to take your character is “desperate”.

Read more about how to create a dilemma at the Crisis or Act 2 Turning Point

Step 11: Decisive (Resurrection)

This is it showtime. This is where the dramatic question that was raised in Act 1 is finally answered. More importantly, it’s where we discover whether the Hero will take this opportunity to prove to us that they have indeed been transformed by their journey.

When Harry Met Sally Billy Crystal Meg Ryan Ending Harry Burns Sally Allbright

In When Harry Met Sally, the pessimistic protagonist decides that maybe fancying a woman and being friends with her aren’t mutually exclusive after all.

It’s not about winning and it’s not about saving the Hero’s arse. They can’t be rescued by external forces because that would deny them their ultimate character test. (Date Night makes this mistake.)

That’s why I call this climactic sequence “decisive”. It demands that the hero be the active agent – that they make the choice that determines whether they are going to draw on the better part of their humanity or fall back into the weaknesses of the past.

In Schindler’s List, Oscar, having amassed the wealth he sought at the beginning, now chooses to use it to save the lives of his Jewish workers.

In North by Northwest, mummy’s boy, Roger Thornhill, chooses to ignore his chance to escape and instead go to try and save Eve Kendall up on Mt Rushmore.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry chooses to shed his pessimism about male-female relationships and run to Sally on New Year’s Eve because “when you’ve decided you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible”.

But just because the Hero is decisive, it doesn’t mean the ending has to be “happy”. It just has to be satisfying, which it can be if the Hero loses the external battle but wins the more important personal war with their demons.

Thelma and Louise Thunderbird driving off cliff

At the end of Thelma and Louise, the protagonists perish but the audience goes with it because spiritually the two leads have evolved.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis chooses to go to Jack’s parents to collect his ashes (and his shirt) in an act that admits for the first time that the love of his life was a fellow cowboy.

In Dead Man Walking, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) chooses to confess to his crime so despite the fact that he’s executed, we feel an incredible sense of catharsis.

In Thelma and Louise, they choose to drive off that cliff because, though their flesh may perish, their souls are free to soar (and this is coming from a devout atheist).

Give your protagonist a choice at the Act 2 Turning Point, and if they’re “decisive” at the climax and prove to us that they’ve been changed by the journey, there’s every chance you’ll pull off a moving finale.

Step 12: Complete (Return with the Elixir)

Brokeback Mountain Ennis Heath Leader Shirt

Ennis is aching at the end of Brokeback Mountain but it’s a soaring finale because his character is wiser (and it’s got a cracking soundtrack).

When you watch the 100m Final at the Olympics, you don’t go home after the race is run. You stay for the medal ceremony. That’s what this sequence is all about. We’ve just witnessed some heroics at the climax; now we want to stick around to soak up those overwhelming emotions.

When we first met the hero back in their Ordinary World, they were “Incomplete”. Rick Blaine in Casablanca was hiding from the world, Loretta in Moonstruck was about to marry a fool, and the only list on Oscar Schindler’s mind was the one featuring Gewurztraminers and late-picked Rieslings.

BBut the story has forced the protagonists to confront their flaws and, at the climax, prove that they’ve addressed them. Their ultimate material circumstances don’t really matter. And it doesn’t matter if they’re still not perfect human beings. The audience will be delivered the catharsis they seek as long as the Hero, by their “Decisive” action, proves to us that they’re “Complete”.

In Brokeback Mountain, even though Ennis has only a flannel shirt to remind him of Jack, we know the character has gained the wisdom that we can’t choose in what form love comes to us.

Little Miss Sunshine Family watches Olive dance

In Little Miss Sunshine, they all fail to get what they want, but they get what they need: the family is “complete”.

In The King’s Speech, when Bertie thanks Logue, “My friend”, and his therapist for the first time calls him, “Your majesty” you get the sense that our Hero, after all his travails, is finally fulfilling his destiny.

In Little Miss Sunshine, 7-year-old Olive has scandalised the contest, Richard hasn’t got his book deal, colour-blind Dwayne can’t fly jets, Frank is possibly only the second most important Proust scholar in the United States, and the smack-addict Grandpa is curled up dead in the trunk of the Kombi – but at least now the family is whole.

Summary of the Hero’s Emotional Journey

Hero's Emotional Journey Allen Palmer Cracking YarnsThat’s the Cracking Yarns take on the Hero’s Emotional Journey. I’m not suggesting you jettison Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. That’s still the bible as far as I’m concerned. But hopefully this will give you a more character-oriented way of thinking about story, and maybe it will encourage more people to explore what Campbell identified and Vogler brought to the attention of film-makers all over the world.

Join the Cracking Yarns mailing list
When is my next 2-day screenwriting course?

Related screenwriting articles:

Where I disagree with the Hero’s Journey
What happens at the midpoint
The one subplot you really need
10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago
The King’s Speech – Hero’s Journey analysis
Juno – Hero’s Journey and Hero’s Emotional Journey analysis

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean Mannion April 7, 2011 at 2:57 am

Great breakdown. I think this might be the exact thing I needed to help me get over some of the flaws in my screenplays.

Jeremy Dylan April 12, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Just used this to help me tackle a rewrite. Most helpful.

cassandra April 13, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I came across your awesome post the other day while researching character arc’s. I fell in love with Christopher’s approach to mythology and the hero’s journey re character plotting when I heard him speak at the Romance Writers of NZ conference in 2010. But I have to admit I was struggling to apply the concepts to my romantic novel and heroine in particular.

I have reposted on my blog with links back to you – is this ok?

Thanks for the huge amount of effort you have put into posting and sharing your insights with others.

Allen Palmer April 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Of course, Cassandra. That’s what it’s there for. All the best with it. I’m currently working on my own Romantic Comedy course for the AFTRS Grad Cert Screenwriting. Will post after I’ve delivered the course.

Matt Ware April 14, 2011 at 5:56 am

This entry is quite epic, I think it will forever improve the stories I develop as a screen writer. I posted a link to this entry to the message board of my screen writing class (at Academy of Art in SF) and the professor then asked me to include it in my story structure breakdown for the film we watched that week, Silence of the Lambs.

SPINE – Clarice and Buffalo Bill

Opening:

Clarice is running through the woods, on a military-like training obstacle course.

Setup:

- Clarice is training to be an FBI agent.

- Clarice learn Crawford wants to meet with her (possibly the true inciting incident)

- In Crawford’s office, Clarice sees pictures of dead bodies, one of which is titled “Bill skins fifth”

Inciting Incident:

Crawford has been interviewing serial killers to make a psychological profile but one won’t won’t talk to him, Hannibal Lector. Crawford wants Clarice to try talking to Lector.

Act 1 development:

- Crawford denies Lector has a connection to a serial killer on the loose, Buffalo Bill, and warns Clarice to not let Lector get in her head.

- Chilton, Lector’s guard, tells Clarice that Lector views him as his nemesis and that he thinks Lector is a monster and a rare catch.

- Especially compared to the other psychotic prisoners, Lector is civilized and intelligent when he talks to Clarice. After Clarice and Lector both interrogate the other, Lector gives her a mysterious message (I couldn’t really hear what he said) before she leaves.

- From what Lector said, Clarice is able to find a storage unit and inside she finds a head. She talks to Lector about the head, and Lector reveals he was a former patient of his though Lector did not kill him.

Central Question:

Will Clarice find Buffalo Bill? (this is her WANT)

Plot Point 1:

Lector reveals he would like a better cell (away from Chilton and with a window) and he’s willing to help Clarice find Buffalo Bill if he can get it.

Act 2a:

- Buffalo Bill kidnaps a woman, Catherine Martin, and cuts off her dress before taking her away in his van.

- Clarice is brought in to help find Buffalo Bill – she’s told he keeps victims alive for 3 days before killing them and Crawford reveals he sent her to see Lector to find out information about Buffalo Bill but couldn’t tell her or else Lector would have known and used it against her.

- Clarice finds a moth cocoon of Asian origin in a victim’s mouth

- Buffalo Bill is keeping his prisoner in a well

- Clarice goes back to Lector to offer Lector a fake deal to have his cell moved if he discusses information about Buffalo Bill. Lector will only discuss it if she reveals her worst childhood memories. Clarice discusses her father’s death, leaving her an orphan to live with her aunt where she tried to run away. Lector reveals Buffalo Bill is a transsexual who must have been rejected from a hospital while trying to get a sex change operation.

- Chilton taped Clarice’s conversation with Lector. He tells Lector the deal is fake before offering Lector a real deal and Lector in exchange reveals Buffalo Bill’s first name is Louis. Lector secretly takes Chilton’s pen.

- Lector is brought to Catherine’s mother, a senator, in Memphis and gives her more information about Buffalo Bill while also teasing her about her daughter’s situation.

Midpoint:

Clarice visits Lector in his Memphis cell for more information about Buffalo Bill. Lector demands to know more about Clarice’s past – Clarice reveals when she ran away, she found lambs being slaughtered and has been haunted by their screams ever sense. Lector wonders if Clarice hopes the haunting will end if she finds Buffalo Bill. Chilton arrives and tries to force Clarice out of the room, but not before Lector can give her Buffalo Bill’s case file.

Act 2b:

- Lector uses Chilton’s pen to escape from his cell while guards are feeding him. He kills both guards and takes the skin from one guard’s face to cover his own, causing paramedics to bring him out of the building and into an ambulance on a stretcher. He kills everyone in the ambulance before escaping.

- Clarice learns Lector escaped but doesn’t believe he is after her. She studies the case file and finds information that brings her to Ohio.

Plot Point 2:

While visiting Buffalo Bill’s childhood bedroom, Clarice realizes he is making a dress out of woman’s skin. Clarice calls Crawford to tell him. Crawford believes he is on his way to arrest Buffalo Bill and asks Clarice to continue interviewing people in Buffalo Bill’s hometown.

Act 3 development:

- Clarice finds the address of someone who sowed with Buffalo Bill.

- The FBI surround the house they believe to contain Buffalo Bill and ring the doorbell.

- Buffalo Bill is distraught when Catherine threatens to kill his dog, but when he hears his doorbell he must answer his door.

Climax:

Clarice is revealed to be at Buffalo Bill’s door. When she sees moths in his home, she pulls a gun on him but he escapes into his basement. There, Clarice finds Catherine and tries to hunt down Bill when the lights go out. Just as Bill is about to shoot Clarice, she hears his gun loading and shoots him first.

Resolution:

- Clarice becomes an FBI agent and is congratulated by Crawford.

- Lector calls Clarice to ask her if the screaming has stopped and let her know he won’t be hunting her, but he will be having “an old friend for dinner” as he watches Chilton in the distance.

Theme / Premise:

Loss is overcome by confronting fear. (Clarice must confront her inner conflict / need, the loss of her father, before she can save a victim – her outer conflict / want)

Stages of the Journey

Ordinary World:

Clarice is an FBI agent in training.

Call To Adventure:

Crawford has been interviewing serial killers to make a psychological profile but one won’t won’t talk to him, Hannibal Lector. Crawford wants Clarice to try talking to Lector. While interrogating Lector, Lector tries to dissect Clarice’s past.

Refusal of the Call:

After Clarice and Lector both interrogate the other, Lector tells her to leave.

Meeting with the Mentor:

As Clarice is leaving, Lector’s neighbor spits on Clarice, angering Lector. Lector gives her a mysterious message (I couldn’t really hear what he said) before she leaves.

Crossing of the First Threshold:

From what Lector said, Clarice is able to find a storage unit and inside she finds a head. She talks to Lector about the head, and Lector reveals he was a former patient of his though Lector did not kill him. Lector reveals he would like a better cell (away from Chilton and with a window) and he’s willing to help Clarice find Buffalo Bill if he can get it.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies:

- Enemy: Clarice learns Buffalo Bill has kidnapped a new victim and his pattern is to kill the victim after 3 days.

- Ally: Crawford asks Clarice for help finding Buffalo Bill.

- Test: Crawford doesn’t allow Clarice to be in the room when he talks to the local police and Clarice must stay put while some local police gawk at her.

- Test: Clarice is reminded of her father’s funeral.

- Test: Clarice examines the dead body and finds a cocoon in the throat, she later learns it has Asian origins.

- Ally: Crawford apologizes for having to talk to the police without her.

- Test: Clarice must reveal her worst childhood memory to Lector in exchange for information about Buffalo Bill – Clarice tells him about her father’s death.

- Ally: Lector reveals Buffalo Bill is a transsexual who must have been rejected from a hospital while trying to get a sex change operation.

- Test: Clarice offers Lector a fake deal for a new cell, not knowing that Chilton is listening and will reveal the truth to Lector.

- Enemy: Chilton boasts to the media about his accomplishment getting information about Buffalo Bill from Lector after using Clarice’s technique.

Approach the Inmost Cave:

Clarice visits Lector in his Memphis cell for more information about Buffalo Bill.

The Ordeal:

Lector demands to know more about Clarice’s past – Clarice reveals when she ran away, she found lambs being slaughtered and has been haunted by their screams ever sense. Lector wonders if Clarice hopes the haunting will end if she finds Buffalo Bill (exposing her flaw).

Reward:

Chilton arrives and tries to force Clarice out of the room, but not before Lector can give her Buffalo Bill’s case file.

The Road Back:

Clarice studies the case file and finds information that brings her to Ohio. While visiting Buffalo Bill’s childhood bedroom, Clarice realizes he is making a dress out of woman’s skin. Clarice calls Crawford to tell him. Crawford believes he is on his way to arrest Buffalo Bill and asks Clarice to continue interviewing people in Buffalo Bill’s hometown. Clarice finds the address of someone who sowed with Buffalo Bill.

Resurrection:

Clarice unknowingly knocks at Buffalo Bill’s door. When she sees moths in his home, she pulls a gun on him, but he escapes into his basement. There, Clarice finds Catherine and tries to hunt down Bill when the lights go out. Just as Bill is about to shoot Clarice, she hears his gun loading and shoots him first.

Return with the Elixir:

Clarice becomes an FBI agent and is congratulated by Crawford. Lector calls Clarice to ask her if the screaming has stopped and let her know he won’t be hunting her, but he will be having “an old friend for dinner” as he watches Chilton in the distance.

Hero’s Inner Journey

Incomplete:

Externally, Clarice is training to be an FBI Agent. Internally, we later learn that she is still struggling from the loss of her father.

Unsettled:

Externally, Clarice is asked to talk to Lector. Internally, Clarice is uncomfortable having to walk by the psychotic prisoners and is visibly frightened while interrogating Lector as Lector tries to dissect her past.

Resistant:

After meeting with Lector and being spit on by another prisoner, Clarice cries while remembering her childhood.

Ambivalent:

Clarice studies Lector’s past and finds a storage locker relating to what he said to her. She talks to Lector about the head, and Lector reveals he was a former patient of his though Lector did not kill him. Lector reveals he would like a better cell (away from Chilton and with a window) and he’s willing to help Clarice find Buffalo Bill if he can get it.

Committed:

Clarice learns Buffalo Bill has taken another victim and agrees to help with the case.

Disoriented:

Clarice must reveal her past to Lector if she wants to gain more information about Buffalo Bill.

Inauthentic:

Lector forces Clarice to reveal that she is haunted by the loss of her father (through her story about being haunted by the screaming lambs).

Confronted:

Lector tells Clarice she must find Buffalo Bill and save the victim to be able to move on (he asks her if she thinks the screaming will end if she finds the victim).

Reborn:

Clarice learns that Lector has escaped but it doesn’t bother her as she doesn’t fear him anymore. She is now fully determined to find Buffalo Bill.

Desperate:

After learning Buffalo Bill is using the woman’s skin to make a dress, Clarice quickly calls Crawford to tell him. When Crawford tells her he is on his way to finding Buffalo Bill, Clarice interviews the neighbors still hoping to find any bit of information she can to find Buffalo Bill.

Decisive:

Clarice discovers Buffalo Bill at home and must act to capture him. Despite seeing the horrible conditions of the victim and having to travel through Buffalo Bill’s basement in the dark, she eventually shoots him before he is able to shoot her.

Complete:

Externally, Clarice is now an FBI Agent. Internally, Lector calls Clarice and asks her if the screaming has stopped – is Clarice over the loss of her father? I think so.

Steve Enloe June 24, 2011 at 3:14 am

The emotional journey is an extremely useful paradigm. It keeps the focus on the meaning of events and creating a plot that develops from the hero/ine’s need/inner desire/flaw etc, with turning points arising from difficult moral choices that accumulate to challenge attitudes and beliefs.
Question: Does anyone find it helpful to develop an alternate journey track or shadow to the protagonist’s journey? Either as the protagonist’s road not taken-with a throughline of consequences of the option that was refused coming back to haunt the hero/ine, playing key roles as complications or reversals- or as the relationship with a character on a journey of their own who had served as a mentor encouraging another choice? Seems it could be an interesting way to weave relationships and subplots.

Caden September 21, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Thanks! This is a very timely read and just the tool I need. Only this afternoon I was trying to puzzle out my hero’s emotional journey.

morasue October 18, 2011 at 8:06 am

This has been a most helpful article in trying to plot my novel this month for the frenzied NaNoWriMo November. You’re a life saver! Thank you!

Ivan from México February 7, 2012 at 6:08 am

This is a great post and has been extremely useful for my writing and estructuring ideas for feature lengh screenplays.

I do have a big question though. Do this still apply for short films? O am writing a 20 min short and am having a hard time with structuure, number of acts…

What would your advice be for writing short films?

Allen Palmer February 7, 2012 at 7:12 am

Hi, Ivan, I am not an expert on short films and I don’t encourage my students to write short films because I want them to get onto tackling the greater challenge faced by all screenwriters: how to engage an audience for more than 90 mins. Having said that, if you are writing a short film I would doubt you could hit all the beats of the Hero’s Journey in ten minutes. It is possible to have a character transform in a short film but it isn’t as common as it is in successful features. In terms of Acts, don’t get hung up on that term. Your story should have a beginning that engages the audience; a middle that deepens the conflict and takes us to the point of greatest dramatic tension: and an end that resolves the conflict in an emotionally satisfying way (though not necessarily with a “happy” ending). There are your three acts.

Dan Baker March 17, 2012 at 7:49 am

This has got to be the most practical breakdown of the hero’s journey I’ve ever read. Thank you for taking the time to post this, it’s been very helpful to me and the people I’ve shared it with.

I’m in the middle of writing a 6 episode web-series that also functions as a feature when the parts are combined. Trying to figure out how to apply this outline to the whole while still letting the individual episodes stand on their own is a tricky, but fun challenge.

Allen Palmer March 17, 2012 at 8:51 am

Glad to be if help, Dan. Be great if you could catch my course some time.

Dan Baker March 19, 2012 at 8:24 am

That would be a worth-while reason to visit Australia! Ever do any courses in the States? Have you considered videoing your sessions and selling them on your website?

steve young March 22, 2012 at 11:57 am

too bad there is no ‘tweet’ button :( i would never “retweet” from your message. excellent post!!!!

Joe England December 7, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Great, great stuff! Many thanks for posting this. I’m currently studying screenwriting at UCLA in their professional program and your website is every bit as good if not better in my humble opinion for what it’s worth!

All the best,

Joe

Wordpress Themes Customization May 3, 2013 at 8:48 am

This piece of writing presents clear idea in favor of the new people
of blogging, that in fact how to do blogging.

HM Supit July 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I too have linked to this on my blog! Although I’m a novelist not a screenwriter I thought it was extremely helpful. Allen, I had been looking for something like this for years! Please, if you want to elaborate more on this topic in future posts, go ahead (I’ve already crawled up, down and sideways through related posts on your website :) )

Leave a Comment

*

{ 18 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: