The Hero’s Journey, Part 1: The Classic Version

A stack of children's books. Photo by Nick Fewings.

Storytelling is a fundamental part of humanity. In Storycraft, Jack Hart writes, “Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action leads to another.” In particular, humans use narratives to structure our stories:

As Barbara Hardy, the English literary critic, put it, “We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.”

Quoted in Storycraft by Jack Hart

When it comes to writing about science, though, there’s a pervasive feeling that storytelling does not belong. Scientists should present only the facts. But the truth is that every audience — including a purely scientific audience — understands and retains facts better when they are presented as part of a story, rather than a list. And so it behooves us, as scientific storytellers, to understand some of the basic precepts of storytelling.

One of my personal favorite tools when it comes to scientific storytelling is the Hero’s Journey, a classic narrative structure that appears from ancient myths to modern storytelling. The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter all follow this narrative pattern. Why is the Hero’s Journey so common? Because it’s effective, and not just in fiction. It’s a powerful tool for telling stories about science, too. I’ll show you how over the next few weeks in this series of posts.

But before we delve into the Hero’s Journey for Scicomm, let’s take a look at the classic Hero’s Journey as used in fiction.

The Structure of the Hero’s Journey

If you search the Internet for the steps in a Hero’s Journey, you’ll find many answers. Most authors visualize the narrative structure as a circle, but the number of “steps” they identify varies up to a dozen or so. These include concepts like a “Call to Adventure” and “Death of the Mentor,” many of which will be familiar to you from fiction. For scicomm purposes, I like to think of the Hero’s Journey as a simple, four-step structure:

Illustration of the Hero's Journey, in four phases.
A simple Hero’s Journey, in four phases.

Stories begin at the top of the circle (12 o’clock) and move clockwise through each segment until they complete the cycle by returning to the beginning. To see what this looks like in an actual story, let’s look at the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

The Ordinary World

Dorothy Gale sings about her dissatisfaction with life and her desire to go somewhere over the rainbow instead.
Dorothy Gale sings about her dissatisfaction with life and her desire to go somewhere over the rainbow instead.

The Wizard of Oz begins in Kansas on a farm where Dorothy Gale, our heroine, chafes at her everyday life and dreams of adventure. When a rude neighbor threatens to have her dog, Toto, put down, Dorothy runs away from home. She meets a traveling fortuneteller, who convinces her that she’s needed at home, and so Dorothy returns to the farm. Unfortunately, she arrives at just the same time as a tornado, which sucks up her farmhouse and drops her in the magical, colorful land of Oz.

In “The Ordinary World” phase of a story, we’re introduced to our hero and the world they live in. In some stories, the hero’s problems at home make them eager to set out on a journey, as Dorothy is. In other versions, the hero is more content at home and has to be jolted out the door, as is the case for Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit or Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In both versions, the glimpse of the hero’s life before their adventure is critical to the overall arc of the story. Readers have to see what life was like before the hero is transformed.

A Transformative Journey

Dorothy and her companions following the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.
Dorothy and her companions following the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

Upon landing in Oz, Dorothy is immediately thrust into conflict. Her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and Glinda the Good Witch places the deceased witch’s famed Ruby Slippers on Dorothy’s feet, earning her the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West. To get home, Dorothy must set out for the Emerald City, where the Wizard of Oz — ostensibly the most powerful force in the land — will be able to return her to Kansas.

As she follows the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy collects companions, each of whom join her to have the Wizard solve their problems, too. But Oz the Great and Powerful orders them to first kill the Wicked Witch of the West, prolonging their journey, and forcing each of the companions to face their weaknesses. With the Witch defeated, the quartet return to Oz, seeking their rewards.

“The Transformative Journey” phase is typically filled with hardships and quests for our hero. Along the way, the hero changes, in ways that may be obvious or subtle. This phase often covers most of a story’s rising action, and it may optionally include the crisis and/or climax of the story. In Dorothy’s case, her transformative journey continues past the crisis (when Oz orders her to kill the Witch) and the climax (when she does so). All of these events lead to the third phase.


Dorothy using the Ruby Slippers to go home.
Dorothy using the Ruby Slippers to go home.

After all her attempts to get home have failed, Glinda gives Dorothy good news: she has always had the power to get home, thanks to the Ruby Slippers. What Dorothy needed first was to truly appreciate what she had at home, as summarized in her observation, “There’s no place like home.”

The “Revelation” is a point in the story where the hero’s transformation is highlighted and tested. For Dorothy, this means understanding and embracing the life and family back in Kansas. In Star Wars: Episode IV, it’s the moment where Luke Skywalker realizes he must turn off his targeting computer and allow the Force to guide him as he destroys the Death Star. This moment always comes with a test for the hero — a moment where we see whether the changes wrought by their journey have truly taken hold. The test often (but not always) comes in conjunction with the story’s dramatic climax.

The Return

Dorothy wakes up surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones.
Dorothy wakes up surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones.

After clicking her heels, Dorothy wakes up back in Kansas, in her own bed, surrounded by the friends and family she loves. She understands her adventure in Oz as a dream, one that taught her to value those who love her. Her enthusiasm for Aunt Em and the others is a stark change from the sullen girl we saw at the start because now Dorothy understands that, “There’s no place like home.” Cue the credits!

“The Return” is often an undervalued phase in the Hero’s Journey structure because it takes place after the greatest dramatic tension has been resolved. It’s the denouement or falling action of a story. Readers (and viewers) are ready for the story to wrap up. But tempting as it may be to skip, “The Return” is critical because it shows the contrast between the Hero as They Were and the Hero as They Are now. That contrast underscores the hero’s transformation. In Return of the King, “The Scouring of the Shire” may feel unnecessary, but it’s what demonstrates how thoroughly the Hobbits have changed as a result of their individual journeys. Dorothy returns to Kansas. Harry Potter goes back to the Dursleys for the summer. Sam, Pippin, and Merry return to the Shire. But all of them return to their world changed in ways that are clear to the audience.

Looking Forward

Laying out the plot of a story like The Wizard of Oz may seem like a strange move for a science communication blog, but familiarizing yourself with the Hero’s Journey in fiction will pay dividends when we look at how it appears in nonfiction. That’s where I’ll pick up next week.

In the meantime, can you sketch out how the Hero’s Journey appears in some of your favorite media? Share in the comments below!

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(Image credits: Books – N. Fewings, Hero’s Journey – N. Sharp, Wizard of Oz – Warner Brothers)

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