The Hero’s Journey as a Guide to Editing Fiction

Presented by Dave Butler

  • Fiction has structure.
    • Example: 12-bar blues. Every verse follows the same structure. First two lines are the same.
    • Structure helps you figure out where to go.
    • Example: Conference of the Birds—Birds are having a conference. Feather falls from heaven. (That’s how stories start: a single “feather from heaven.”)
    • It’s important to understand the structure of what you’re writing so that you know what readers expect.
    • Structure gives you “something to hang your hat on.”
    • How about for editors? Editor is the advocate for the reader, so the editor helps the reader by helping the author strengthen the structure
      • Understanding structure helps us make more powerful suggestions to the author.
    • Hollywood three-act structure
      • 99% of Hollywood movies follow the same structure. That’s been true for a long time.
      • Act 1: Meet protagonist, see her daily world, what she wants most, what she desires, what she wants to accomplish, and why she can’t do it. Act 1 ends in a moment of crisis.
        • Sometime around minute 25–30 you’ll have a car wreck, or a letter with dramatic news—something that shakes things up.
        • Star Wars, episode 4: Luke wants to get off Tatooine and go to flight school. A disaster sets things in motion—Stormtroopers kill Luke’s aunt and uncle.
      • Act 2: The long act (45 minutes–1 hour). There’s a moment about halfway in where things get really uncomfortable—the tension rises. Act 2 ends at a low moment—apparent defeat, loss, breakup, fear, etc. Luke’s mentor has died and the Death Star is coming.
      • Act 3: Some relatively unnoticed or minor thread/subplot of the story provides insight that the hero uses to win. Luke blows up Death Star with photon torpedoes without using targeting computer. Relatively unnoticed subplot—the Force—gives the hero the insight he needs.
      • We intuitively feel this three-act structure—if there is more than three acts, it starts to feel too long. Not because of time, but because it feels like things should be resolved by that point.
    • Hero’s Journey—Joseph Campbell
      • Concept published in 1949: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Popularized in the 1980s. He recommends it!
      • Campbell was an “intellectual disciple” of Carl Jung. Jung thought our unconscious mind organizes itself into repeated common archetypes that are universal in humanity, in art, dreams, storytelling. Jung was a student of Freud, whose thing was psychotherapy. He believed that dreams, art, etc. were clues to the unconscious mind.
      • Monomyth—“only myth,” being the hero’s journey.
      • Jung ‘s work is dense—it’s translated from German academic prose. Campbell wrote (in English) for a popular audience.
      • As editors, we can say we’re reading the story as advocates. We clarify the language and structure. We can make suggestions—to add initial refusal to the call to adventure, to add a meeting with the goddess, etc.
      • Initiation ritual: same pattern that informs Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, also shaped how aboriginal youth were taken into the desert and circumcised—transformation from child to adult; hero’s journey.
      • The story ends where it begins (Hollywood films do this)—a defining image of the film right at the beginning, then a reiteration of that same image at the end, but with a change.
      • Hero’s journey is diagrammed as a circle—top half, bottom half. (Campbell did this.) The hero starts in the top half and ends in the bottom half. Hobbit: Think about subtitle There and Back Again. LotR: Essential that Frodo comes back to the Shire. Some people criticize the last couple chapters of the story, saying that it should end after Sauron is defeated or after the celebration in Gondor, but no—Frodo needs to come back to the Shire. More on this later.
      • Call to adventure—summons the hero down into the lower half of the circle. Underworld, wider world outside the Shire.
        • Examples: Owl delivers Hogwarts letter for Harry Potter. Gandalf shows up at Bilbo’s door. R2D2 projects image of Princess Leia.
      • Reluctant hero—Luke refuses at first to go with Obi-Wan Kenobi even though he wants to leave Tatooine. Harry Potter doesn’t refuse, but Dursleys refuse for him.
      • Repeated invitation—more letters to Hogwarts.
      • (Book recommendation: Save the Cat for screenwriting Hollywood structure.)
      • Get through initial trial—Tom Bombadil. Mos Eisley.
      • Mentor (usually exists, but not always)—Obi-Wan Kenobi, Albus Dumbledore, Qui-Gon Jinn. The moment we see them, we know they’re going to die or otherwise disappear/get out of the way somehow. Especially in young adult/middle grade stories—you don’t want adults to save the day.
      • New world—physical location may change (LotR, Harry Potter), but not always. Maybe same world gets more dangerous or changes in some way.
      • Series of trials—Odysseus dealing with the Cyclops and lotus eaters, is imprisoned, becomes enamored with Calypso. These trials should get progressively harder and harder, but the hero is learning things.
      • Climax—the “meeting with the goddess”/“sacred marriage” (not necessarily literal)—the greatest conflict. The hero succeeds at doing the hardest thing. Yields two results (or, one result with nuance): the hero should be transformed from this encounter, and the hero should come away wounded, otherwise they’re not a true hero.
        • LotR: Frodo is called to destroy the Ring. Trials: Ringwraiths, breaking up of the Fellowship, crossing the marshes with Gollum, etc. Marriage with the goddess is Frodo on Mount Doom. Gollum actually destroys the Ring, not Frodo. Frodo starts to look like Gollum. March 25 (today, actually!)—the day that Catholics believe the crucifixion happened. March 25 is the day that Gollum falls with the Ring into Mount Doom. Gollum is the Christ figure—he’s acquainted with sorrow and grief, no beauty in him that we should desire him, etc. Frodo starts to look more and more like Gollum the more he spends time with him.
      • By the end, Frodo has been transformed—wiser, wearier, literally wounded (missing finger), obtained insight from the “goddess,” price paid (death of mentor).
      • It’s good that LotR doesn’t end in Gondor—it’s essential that Frodo goes home afterward. (You see Tolkien’s love of the countryside and mixed feelings about the Industrial Revolution—Saruman in Isengard). Hobbits leave as country squires, come back as adventures. Frodo and Sam must drive Saruman’s influence (sickness) out of the Shire.
    • Questions?
      • Q: About the “sickness at home” idea: How resolved does it have to be?
      • A: Enough that it feels like the hero has gone on a meaningful journey. Can be bittersweet.
      • In series, the solution in book 1 is often the problem in book 2—the nature of the repair causes a new problem that needs to be addressed. (This doesn’t work with LotR because it was originally written as one book.)
      • Book on Shamanism—Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade, scholar of mid-twentieth century comparative religion. (The Sacred and the Profane should be read by schoolchildren!)
    • You can email him at john.butler@hotmail.com if you want to chat further about this.