For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Hero's Journey - Stages of the Adventure

‘We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.’
Joseph Campbell

It seems appropriate to be writing about the Hero’s Journey right now, as I’m immersed in my own journey; moving to a new country, a new job and ultimately, no doubt, a new way of living. Journeys are always confronting and no matter how well planned, any adventure will be filled with both joy and terror, moments when everything slips into harmony and we know all is as it should be, and other moments when we feel we simply can’t go on, or we’re certain we’ve made a terrible mistake setting off at all. But there’s no turning back, so all we can do is deal with each new challenge as it arises, riding the wave of change and hoping we’re not dumped too often.

In my last post I wrote more generally about the Hero’s Journey. This post I want to explore the stages of the journey more deeply. According to mythologist, Joseph Campbell, the three stages of story, Separation, Initiation and Return, can be found in most heroic myths, many contemporary stories, and in the journeys of mystics, shamans and sages throughout time and space. Within each major stage Campbell identified a number of common elements: Separation includes: the Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Supernatural Aid; the Crossing of the First Threshold; and the Belly of the Whale. Initiation includes: The Road of Trials; the Meeting with the Goddess; Woman as Temptress; Atonement with the Father; Apotheosis; and the Ultimate Boon. Return includes: Refusal of Return; the Magic Flight; Rescue from Without; the Crossing of the Return Threshold; Master of Two Worlds; and Freedom to Live.

In The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler describes a simpler three-part, twelve-stage structure in stories, which incorporates and occasionally develops the stages Campbell identified. Act One or Preparation includes: The Ordinary World, The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor and Crossing The Threshold.  Act Two or Journey, includes: Test, Allies and Enemies, Approaching the Inmost Cave, Ordeal and Reward. Act Three or Return, includes: The Road Back, Resurrection and Return with the Elixir.
Although Vogler concentrates on film, his theories can be applied just as easily to a wide range of novels as there is a great deal of commonality in the structure of films and novels. Indeed many films are direct adaptations of novels. According to Vogler, all or most of these twelve stages are evident in a broad range of stories and genres, which he then goes on to analyse, applying his theories to films as diverse as Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, The Full Monty and even Quentin Tarantino's post structuralist film, Pulp Fiction.

Critics have accused Vogler of concentrating on Hollywood films and creating a formulaic method for writing narrative and developing characters. Vogler does warn of the dangers inherent in following the twelve stages as a formula, stating that for the writer, 'the conscious awareness of its patterns may be a mixed blessing, for it's easy to generate thoughtless cliché and stereotypes from this matrix'. He then goes on to answer his critics by demonstrating the vastly diverse array of factors that can be applied to each stage, creating endless possibilities for stories. Like Vogler, I believe that all good writing is informed by, but steps beyond technique or craft. If we write from our heart, if we allow our stories to lead us into the depths of ourselves, if we emotionally engage with our writing, then what emerges are living, vital stories, not clichéd market driven formulas.

As a writer, I found Vogler's theories fascinating because when I applied them to my own work, I could see that unconsciously I had created stories that fitted closely with his model. And when I applied his structure to my own writing life, I could identify the stages and the parallels between the story, the writing of the story and the themes in my own life, expressing themselves through Flight.
During the writing of Flight, I was already familiar with Vogler's twelve part structure but did not use it as a framework for my story as I didn't want my novel to feel formulaic or to be weakened by forcing it into an external shape. Vogler suggested that there are a number of variations on the order of the stages. 'The stages,' he wrote, 'can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power'. I decided to write without a plan and it is only in retrospect that I can see where Vogler's structure does and does not fit in Flight.

Flight begins with a depressed Fern, self-imprisoned in her attic. She has been there for some months and this has become her Ordinary World, the world that is generally portrayed at the beginning of a story, and one in which there is often some form of stagnation that needs to be addressed. There are a number of Calls to Adventure, which are refused. Change is not something most people choose willingly, so more often than not the hero is not inclined to accept the call. When this occurs then inevitably the call will become stronger, and life as the hero knows it will collapse, forcing him or her to accept change. Twice, Fern's flat mate, Claire, asks Fern to come out of her room as they are moving out of their rental house. Shamesh appearing on the pavement below her room is also a Call to Adventure, but not one that Fern understands. Even when Fern escapes through the window and into Cassie's house, she is still a reluctant hero, choosing to react rather than act.

There are crucial moments in every story, moments of decision that change everything: Billie Elliot puts on a pair of ballet shoes and steps into his first dance class; in the Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon decides to make a run for it with a strange woman; and James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, enters a rehabilitation clinic. Crossing the Threshold is that moment in a story when there is no turning back: a plane takes off; the hero shuts the door behind her and is thrust into a new world; a crime is committed. . . In Flight, Fern Crosses the First Threshold when she leaves her attic room and steps out onto the street, knowing there is no turning back. According to Steven Jones, 'the threshold crossing is a crossing from the conscious, rational realm to a fictional representation of the unconscious, non-rational domain of the individual's psyche'. Indeed, once Fern steps out of her Ordinary World, she is confronted with Tests, Allies and Enemies and finds that the rules and regulations in this ‘new’ world are different. Reality is not what it seems and the adventures she experiences are to test her readiness for the task ahead of her. Along the way every hero must learn new rules, collect allies and inevitably make some enemies, either in the form of other characters or in the form of self doubt, destructive behaviour etc. These adventures test the hero’s readiness for the task ahead.

In the Approach to the Inmost Cave the hero makes final preparations for the central ordeal of the adventure, says Vogler, who then goes on to use the analogy of the mountaineer who has reached base camp and is preparing to climb the highest peak. The subsequent Ordeal occurs in this metaphoric inmost cave in which the hero faces their greatest fear/s. This can be physical, psychological or emotional, and can be represented by anything from fighting a monster, to standing up to a parent. But in some way the hero must die and be reborn. In Vogler's terms, this is the crisis, not the climax of the story, which comes towards the end. Success at this crisis point enables the hero to develop and change. In Flight, the Ordeal comes early in the novel, when Fern is put into a psychiatric ward. It is here that she finds her power and undergoes a symbolic initiation; a death and a resurrection. She emerges from the cave, not having vanquished her enemy but having gathered her strength, and is now fully equipped to complete the journey. This is Fern’s Reward. The Inmost Cave is the equivalent of Campbell's, Belly of the Whale, in that it is symbolic of the hero's immersion in the unconscious.

Soon after Fern escapes from the psychiatric ward she makes the decision to turn around and face her enemy, a decision that she acts upon by seeking him out. But it is only later, when the enemy that is attacking her, steps through her dreams and into life, nearly killing her, that Fern understands what is at stake and senses she has reached a turning point. Perhaps this is a second Inmost Cave, a moment of realisation, when Fern is more afraid than she has ever been but has to act anyway.

There are many Trials and Tribulations in the hero’s journey, occurring both before and after the Inmost Cave. These trials occur in the dream world where Fern must fight battles she doesn't understand. And they occur in the physical world where the rules are generally clear, such as her meeting with her birth mother and the confrontation with the Bloodhound. However, her meeting with her father does not have clear rules because in the centre of the labyrinth the rules are different. Here the physical world and the dream world meet and Fern finds herself fighting with her father on both planes at once.

The Road Back is a turning point, another threshold to cross and it generally occurs after the Inmost Cave. The hero must either decide to return or be forced to return to the Ordinary World. And he or she must take with them what has been earned, gained, stolen, or granted in the Special World. In Flight, The Road Back is the trek through the wilderness with Adam, seeking the centre of the labyrinth and in it, her father. The Resurrection is the climax of the plot, and it is also the climax of the hero’s development as a character, making it apparent in some way that the hero really has changed. It may come as a test or a sacrifice of some sort and generally there is more at stake than personal happiness. In Flight, the Resurrection comes during the final showdown that Fern has with her father, the results of which I won’t reveal, for those who haven’t yet read Flight.

And finally, the Return with the Elixir, occurs when the hero returns, bringing with him or her a new love, medicine, wisdom, fame, wealth. . .  though, as Vogler states, the 'best Elixirs are those that bring hero and audience greater awareness'. A few days ago we arrived in lovely Aberystwyth; shaken and shocked but not too bruised. However, our journey is by no means over; in fact I feel as if I’m still immersed in the inmost cave, that stage in a story where we are forced to confront our deepest fears. But slowly and surely, the journey is becoming smoother and I’m sure we will ultimately emerge stronger and wiser, having reaped the rewards of embarking on this adventure. For as Campbell explains so beautifully, 'the effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world'.  

 Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this interesting and educative information. I think many writers will find your contribution very helpful, I have equally learnt something from it.
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