Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He's worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He's recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter: @GoldenAgeofGeek.
Confession time. Back in the early 2000’s I wasn’t that big a fan of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. Everyone was talking about it, but I thought the concept was being overused, or worse, used poorly. It seemed to me that too many writers, especially new ones were slapping the Hero’s Journey on everything whether it fit the story or not. I ran into a lot of people who talked at length about the template but didn’t have a full grasp of it themselves.
Two parts of the Hero’s Journey in particular seemed to be abused by bad writers; Refusing the Call and Death/Rebirth. Writers crammed these beats into their script regardless of what the story actually needed. The main character had to refuse to fight the bad guy. The character also had to “die” right at the third act break. I remember one very bad example of Refusing the Call. Ironically it was in a book about writing. The author set up the scene; bandits ride into a Western town and shoot up the place. The townsfolk go to the sheriff and ask him to pursue the bad guys. And he refuses! That may comply with the Campbell model, but it makes no sense on its own terms. He’s the sheriff. It’s his job to go after bandits. It was this slavish devotion to the Hero’s Journey that turned me off the idea.
But then I was inspired to take a second look thanks to an unexpected source.
I’ve sung the praises of Extra Credits before. They are a great, fun channel to follow for all things videogame related. While I was researching their videos for my article on videogame design and how it relates to screenwriting I came across this video and this one about none other than the Hero’s Journey. Intrigued, I listened. And I came away with a new appreciation for the idea.
What struck me was how they covered Refusing the Call. After witnessing so many bad examples in screenplays I was genuinely intrigued how the videogame medium would handle it. And the example they cited impressed me. It was so subtle that even the Extra Credits crew at first didn’t see it. But it was there, simple and elegant. It didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It felt natural. And it didn’t waste time or involve a ton of dialogue. There was no dialogue at all. The character tries to deviate from the path and finds he cannot.
And that’s the key to Hero’s Journey, don’t try to do too much. The moment should come as a natural part of your script’s world. It should fit the characters and their background. It shouldn’t stand out. A sheriff isn’t going to say, “Nope, I’m not going to chase after bandits even though that’s my job.” He may say, “Let’s wait until we can form a big enough posse.” And then in the very next scene find out that will take too long. Or the writer could just follow the example in the game Journey; have the protagonist explore a different path only to find it blocked.
That brought me to another conclusion; the Hero’s Journey template isn’t the same as the Three Act Structure. Despite a lot of criticism I still firmly support the Three Act Structure. No matter how you slice it stories will continue to have three parts, beginning, middle and end. But Three Act Structure is by its nature focused on the big events in a story. There will always be areas of the script that are more valuable and stronger than others. If you put a scene in the very beginning it carries more weight than if you put it on page 15. That’s just how we as an audience process information. But what the Extra Credits example showed was that moments of the Hero’s Journey can be extremely small, so small that maybe you don’t notice the first time around. And that’s okay because it’s a part of the character. Character moments can be very loud and broad. But they can also be very quiet and small.
I still believe the Hero’s Journey isn’t for every story. There are times when it isn’t necessary. Sometimes the story follows the arc of an idea or a concept. But any screenplay that focuses on personal growth needs a character driven arc. A story where the audience spends the majority of time intimately close to the protagonist (Gravity, The Revenant) a character driven arc is necessary. And often the Hero’s Journey is a good tool for fleshing out that arc.
But the writer has to remember first that it’s a tool and nothing more. It’s not more important than the story itself. If it’s helping your story, use it. Secondly the writer has to remember that it’s about the character. Maybe Character’s Journey would be a better title. This paradigm is about how a character grows into the role of a hero. Maybe some of those moments should be big and epic but maybe some of them should be small and brief. Giving yourself that kind flexibility and choice is key to making Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey an asset to your writing as opposed to a burden.
- More articles by Michael Lee
- Script Notes: A Final Reflection on Major Character Types
- Indie Film Academy: Reverse Engineering Your Screenplay
Thursday, May 26, 2016 1:00PM PT (4:00PM ET)
At a Glance:
- Master the art of telling a compelling short story by basing it on an unforgettable character whose journey matters.
- In this tutorial, you’ll learn why developing characters for your short film is an essential first step in writing.
- Discover professional tactics to develop short film characters in a way that will emotionally engage your audience.