Last week, we took an initial look at the Hero’s Journey story structure and what it looks like in a typical work of fiction. Today we’ll consider what it looks like for non-fiction. I’ll keep things fairly generic this week, but next time we’ll break down some specific examples so that you can see practical examples of how this works.
Here, again, is our four-part Hero’s Journey structure. In fiction, this journey is typically literal: there is a main character who goes on an adventure that changes them and their world. Harry Potter goes off to Hogwarts. Luke Skywalker follows Obi-Wan Kenobi to learn the ways of the Force. Dorothy gets pulled into Oz and must complete the Wizard’s quest before she can return to Kansas.
In non-fiction — especially in science — the Hero’s Journey is often more figurative than literal. Following a character on a journey is certainly possible — I’ll show an example in the next post — but often the Hero’s Journey in non-fiction follows an idea instead of a character. What does that look like?
The Ordinary World
As in fiction, a non-fiction Hero’s Journey starts in the Ordinary World. The storyteller sets the stage with a glimpse of the world as we know it, but they also introduce a problem. They highlight a paradox or a question — something that our current (or prior) understanding of how things work doesn’t explain or account for.
This phase is similar to the Motivation and Literature Review sections that often appear in scientific writing. They share the purpose of giving a big picture view of the situation and setting up a question that needs answering. That said, the Hero’s Journey format is much more story-focused. The goal is to hook the audience in with a mystery that needs solving and to only give as much background information as is needed to understand that mystery. I like to set myself up in this phase with the phrase, “Here’s a strange idea…” then follow up with a question or observation that summarizes the problem for readers. That may look like:
- We don’t understand why some bubbles rise in straight lines and others make spiral paths.
- No one knows how raindrops actually get large enough to fall.
- If COVID infections are spread by large drops, why can people at other tables in a restaurant get sick while someone next to the infected person doesn’t?
- A perfect vacuum can only lift water 10 meters high, but many trees are far taller than that. So how do trees get water from their roots to their leaves?
Ideally, each of these little mysteries piques a reader’s interest enough to hook them into the story.
A Transformative Journey
In fiction, a hero’s adventure and their transformative journey often takes up the bulk of a story’s length. Oddly enough, in formal scientific writing, we almost always minimize this part of a story. Journal articles don’t recount every failed experiment — only the ones that succeed in proving the results. So this phase of the hero’s journey structure may feel quite foreign to scientists.
In non-fiction science, this phase is where storytellers recount a scientist or team’s efforts to answer the mystery that’s been set up. This journey (whether literal or figurative) includes missteps, failures, hints at the truth, and even the emotional struggles of the people involved. It gives readers a glimpse into the experiences of the scientists trying to answer these questions while building dramatic tension. Will they find the answer in time? Will another group scoop their result? Will the funding disappear before their apparatus gets built?
In fiction, a crisis always tests the hero, forcing them to prove the transformation they’ve undergone as a result of their journey. With the often-figurative journeys in a non-fiction Hero’s Journey, the Revelation phase is often an epiphany rather than a crisis point. It’s a chance to introduce the idea or realization that solves the mystery that we began with.
For scientists, the Revelation is often equivalent to their main result. But in a Hero’s Journey format, that result gets framed in a more personal way: “Here’s the moment where I realized the truth!” The truth itself is a takeaway for readers; it’s the concept that will re-frame our understanding of the world.
In fiction, The Return marks the falling action in a piece, the denouement that brings the hero’s journey to an end. This dramatic arc holds in non-fiction versions of the Hero’s Journey. The Return is where the story wraps up by showing readers the implications of the takeaway. In that sense, it’s a bit like the Discussion, Conclusion, or Future Work section of a journal article. The Return takes readers back to the larger world with this new, critical piece of knowledge revealed in the Revelation. That takeaway becomes a new lens through which readers can view the world.
It’s worth noting that there’s room to include uncertainty here, as well. Scientific results are rarely cut-and-dried, and no result is untouchable for all time. It’s fine to express that uncertainty, especially in this part of a story. After all, none of us knows what the future holds.
Don’t worry if all of this still feels a bit generic and vague. Part of the beauty of a Hero’s Journey structure is its wide applicability across many types of stories. But that advantage also makes describing the technique comprehensively quite difficult. In the coming weeks, I’ll walk through a few specific examples, with both stories that focus on characters and ones that follow concepts instead.
In the meantime, can you think of places where you’ve seen this story structure used in non-fiction? If so, share them in the comments below!
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(Image credit: Books – U. Akdemir, Hero’s Journey – N. Sharp)