At a recent conference for fantasy writers, I attended a couple of panels on the subject of the quest. They reminded me that a quest is also a “hero’s journey” – a story structure used in myths and legends around the world, and explained by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The structure is used extensively in science fiction and fantasy – Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are prime examples – but it shows up in lots of other types of stories, too. Any time a protagonist goes out to find something and comes back wiser for it (or not), you’re seeing a hero’s journey.
Campbell’s original outline included 17 steps. Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood development executive who has written a story guide for screenwriters, boils it down to a dozen. You can read more about his list, and how it came about, at this link. But here’s a summary of the steps, so you don’t have to click away.
- The Ordinary World: The opening scene gives the reader a sense of where the story starts out. Think Luke Skywalker on the farm with his aunt and uncle; or Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, sitting at his desk with a bottle before Mary Astor walks into his office.
- The Call to Adventure: Somebody presents the hero with a reason for breaking out of his or her rut – an intriguing face across a crowded room, or the little droid with a message from Princess Leia.
- The Refusal of the Call: The hero balks. Many factors can hold him or her back, with fear of the unknown being paramount. But then something kicks our hero in the butt and makes it impossible for them to refuse the call.
- Meeting with the Mentor: Often, that kick in the butt comes from an older, and presumably wiser, figure. King Arthur’s Merlin may be the most recognizable example, but they’re everywhere – from Gandalf in Lord of the Rings to magazine editor Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.
- Crossing the Threshold: Our hero is on his or her way – the internship has begun, the balloon has left Kansas, the hobbits have taken to the road.
- Allies, Enemies, and Tests: You might call this the team-building phase. The hero lines up some friends and acquires an enemy or two, and these relationships face initial tests that strengthen them.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: You’re probably familiar with the Greek myth of Demeter, who must descend to the underworld to retrieve her daughter Persephone from Hades. That’s the kind of journey we’re talking about. And it’s as much a psychological journey as a physical one, as our hero must surmount fear, meet unexpected challenges, and think on their feet.
- The Ordeal: The hero is put to the supreme test and hits bottom. All their fears and doubts are holding sway, and it looks like the hero might even die – yet they reach deep within themselves to find the strength to prevail. Vogler sums it up: “You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.”
- The Reward: Having survived the Ordeal, the hero wins the prize – the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone, the girl (or the boy). But the reward doesn’t have to be a physical thing. Vogler uses the example of Luke Skywalker unmasking Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi: Not only has Luke defeated the dark side, but he’s reconciled with his father at the same time.
- The Road Back: Now that the hero has done what they came to do, they have to get out of the place of danger. This is where you see a lot of chase scenes, as the hero and his faithful companions flee from the people who want the prize back.
- Resurrection: Often, there’s a final battle or challenge in which the hero undergoes the death-and-rebirth cycle again. At the end of this stage, it’s clear the hero is a different person from when they began the journey; the experience has changed them in some way.
- The Return: And so our hero comes back home with the prize – the sword, or the magical elixir, or some hard-fought self-knowledge. Or not. Sometimes the hero of a comedy will return from their journey and do the same boneheaded thing that got them into trouble in the first place.
Vogler advises not to stick too closely to this structure. Feel free to move stages around and put your own stamp on it. Variation, after all, is what keeps storytelling fresh and new.