The Hero’s Journey, Oversimplified

The Hero’s Journey is one of the most basic plot types in literature. In 2013, author John Green discussed the hero’s journey in his commencement address at Butler University. In my view, he presented an incomplete view.

Simplified Version of Campbell's Hero Journey
Simplified Version of Campbell’s Hero Journey

In 1949, Joseph Campbell introduced his analysis of the hero’s journey in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s analysis was a complex one, with no less than seventeen stages of the journey.

At the Butler commencement, Mr. Green said that most people consider the hero’s journey to be from a state of weakness to a state of strength. He contended the opposite was true, that heroes begin with strength and end with weakness.

“The real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness…Many of you, most of you, are about to make that journey. You will go from being the best-informed, most engaged students at one of the finest universities around to being the person who brings coffee to people, or a Steak n Shake waiter…That is the true hero’s errand–strength to weakness. And because you went to college, you will be more alive to the experience, better able to contextualize it and maybe even find the joy and wonder hidden amid the dehumanizing drudgery.”

I get what Mr. Green was trying to do in the context of a college commencement. He was preparing the graduates for an upcoming period of weakness. Further, he was telling them they would be better people for having thus suffered. Granted, that’s a valuable teaching point.

Let’s take a moment to define what we mean by “strength” and “weakness.” The most obvious connotation is physical. But we can also speak of strength and weakness in the following areas: mental, spiritual, emotional, overall character, and others.

In most hero’s journey tales, the hero will pass from strength to weakness in at least one of those planes. He or she will reach a place of utter weakness and vulnerability of some kind (or multiple kinds) at some point in the story. Either the antagonist or the environment will bring the hero down.

One Possible Hero's Journey Path
One Possible Hero’s Journey Path

But the story never ends there, does it? It’s not a very heroic tale if the bad guy wins. The hero must pick himself up from the bloody boxing ring mat, or she must summon all her courage from somewhere in misery’s abyss, to rise above the situation. The hero must achieve, through personal toil, a kind of strength at the end.

That final strength can include nuance, of course. The defeat of the antagonist can come with a new understanding of the world’s complexities—the bad guy might have had some valid point among his faults, a point deserving exploration. Or perhaps the hero, having sailed his ship through the perfect storm, might come to a realization that he would never do such a thing again.

Such nuance doesn’t constitute a return to weakness, however. On balance, the hero must end in a position of strength.

With respect to the author of The Fault in Our Stars, Mr. Green should not have stopped at weakness in his address. What a gloomy view of life he gave those graduates! He should have bent the curve upward at the end, should have said heroes move from initial strength to weakness, and on to final strength. He should have told them what happens after the “dehumanizing drudgery.”

Sorry, Mr. Green, but hero’s journey tales have to end with strength. That’s the opinion of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Note: You’ve gone and done it now. You’ve waited until the very last day of the Smashwords ½ price sale. Tomorrow my books return to full price. Today is your day to be a hero. Pick yourself up from the depths ofswlogo procrastination and, with your last ounce of strength, surf here, click on a book or two, and use the code they give you at checkout to get the discount.

8 Rules for Writing The End

Writing the ending of your story can be as difficult as coming up with its opening lines. After all, the ending is the part that will (or should) linger in your readers’ minds. It’s important to craft an ending that satisfies, intrigues, and leaves readers hungry for your next book.

The EndWhat should you do to create a memorable and striking ending? Here are 8 rules to follow, distilled from great posts you should also read by Dee White, James V. Smith, Jr., Brian Klems, Crista Rucker, Joanna Penn, and the folks at Creative Writing Now and WikiHow:

 

  1. Resolve the story’s main conflict(s). Even if the external conflict isn’t fully resolved, the protagonist’s internal conflict should demonstrate growth in that character.
  2. Ensure the final events result from the protagonist’s actions and decisions. For better or worse, the hero must bring about the ending, not stand by and watch it happen. Do not allow a Deus Ex Machina.
  3. Strive for an ending that’s inevitable, yet unexpected. I’ve always found Beethoven’s music to be like that. “Yeah,” you’re asking, “but how do I do that?” Take the expected ending and give it a twist; that’s how to give readers something they don’t expect. The way to make that ending inevitable is to go back and drop foreshadowing hints into the story. If these hints are subtle, then your ending can be both inevitable and unexpected.
  4. Allow only a brief resolution after the story’s climax. The end should be a rapid relaxation of tension as I depicted here.
  5. The end should refer to story’s theme, but not be preachy like a morality play.
  6. If you’re unsure how to end your tale, write several draft endings and either choose the best one, or combine elements from two or more of the best. You may end up with as many drafts of the ending as you wrote for the beginning hook.
  7. You needn’t fully wrap up all the story’s loose ends (except those pertaining to the protagonist and the main internal conflict), but they should be addressed or hinted at.
  8. The end should reflect back to beginning, but in a spiral manner, not a circular one. By that I mean that things can never be as they were in the beginning of the story; too much has changed. By referring back to the beginning, that will emphasize this change to the reader.

Adherence to these rules should help you end your stories in a manner satisfying to your readers. At last, riding off into the sunset on his amazing rocket-powered pen, goes—

Poseidon’s Scribe