Good storytelling is a lot like good software development. In the programming world, the best coders don’t try to build everything from scratch with every new project. Instead, they build using components and modules that they (or other programmers) have built in the past and improve on these assets based on the current requirements. Storytelling is a lot like that, with many stories taking on more-or-less the same form as others and performing a delicate balancing act between being comfortably familiar and excitingly original.
One of the most popular "story forms" is called the Monomyth or the Hero’s Journey, which is a structure that seemed to have sprung from ancient mythology and is still used in many of our modern myths today. The best known (and most obvious) example of Monomyth is of course, the Star Wars trilogy, but movies like The Lion King, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Karate Kid all follow this same basic pattern.
As I was reading Christopher Paolini’s Eragon this week, I wondered if Paolini was aware of the monomythic concept while he was writing, as it’s another textbook example of a really effective hero’s journey. This is the kind of topic that can make for a great post-movie conversation, and I don’t think that a movie that uses the Monomyth pattern should be criticized as being "unoriginal," any more than software that uses AJAX or Rails should be. It’s only a pattern after all, and the way it is executed still accounts for the biggest piece of the proverbial pie. Recent stories like Harry Potter and Eragon have employed this framework to great effect, but to say that they are "ripoffs" because they share the same foundations would be doing a great disservice to their respective writers.
(NOTE: I’ve tried to avoid creating spoilers to Eragon throughout this article, as I’m sure not all of the people reading this essay will have already read the book. I do mention a couple of story details from the first act of the book though, as it’s generic enough that you will not be bothered too much even if you did know them.)
The Monomyth pattern is a 12-step process, divided into 3 acts:
This is where it all begins. Our hero is shown leading his normal life, as a normal person. In Star Wars: Episode IV and in Eragon, our hero is a farmboy who lives with his uncle and cousin. In The Matrix, Tom Anderson is a pasty-faced programmer who spends his time engaging in various semi-illegal activities. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, Harry is a socially-challenged boy living under the stairs of a boring home along Privet Drive.
Call to Adventure
Our hero is presented with a problem or a challenge. In Star Wars, this is when Luke discovers the holographic message stored in R2’s databanks. In Eragon, the call to adventure is when our hero discovers a heavy, otherworldly stone during a hunting mission. In the Matrix, Mr. Anderson’s call is literally a phone call from a mysterious Morpheus.
Refusal of the Call
This portion of the story is usually brief, because it is usually in there to reinforce our hero’s attachment to his "ordinary world." Luke Skywalker meets Obi-wan, who teases him with ambiguous allusions to his jedi inheritance, but Luke refuses to join the old man. When Luke returns to his farm, he finds his adopted family dead. In Eragon, we get roughly the exact same treatment. (Often I wondered if Paolini was basing his work off of Monomyth, or on Star Wars directly.)
Meeting with the Mentor
The mentor-student relationship is one of the easiest elements to identify in monomythic stories. In The Matrix, this part of the story begins when Neo starts training with Morpheus. In Eragon, the storyteller Brom provides our young farmboy with mentorly instruction as they chase after the people who murdered Eragon’s uncle. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne joins the League of Shadows and is trained by Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul.
Crossing the First Threshold
This portion of the story is a subtle transition into the second act, and relates our hero’s whole-hearted acceptance of the fact that he can no longer return to the Ordinary World that he has grown accustomed to.
- Ordinary World
Tests, Allies, Enemies
No Star Wars fan can forget the Cantina scene where Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han Solo and Chewie for the first time, get into a very brief shootout, and encounter Jabba the Hutt. Considering that our hero is tested, meets some new allies and makes some new enemies all in the space of one scene, this is some pretty economical storytelling. The appearance of tests, allies and enemies is characteristic of the second act, as it serves to set things up for the final encounter. In Eragon, one important ally is introduced very late in the story, with most of the second act dealing primarily with Eragon’s training.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
This is usually another physical change in location, as our hero’s adventuring finally brings him to a place where he will be truly put to the test.
Star Wars: the Millennium Falcon is tractor-beamed by the Death Star.
The Matrix: Neo and the other members of the Nebuchadnezzar enter the Matrix and are ambushed by Agents. Morpheus is captured and several of Neo’s allies are killed.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship approach the Mines of Moria (a literal cave, no less).
Star Wars: Luke and his friends are almost stuck in the trash compactor. Luke is pulled under the water by a tentacled creature.
The Matrix: Neo and Trinity return to the Matrix to free Morpheus, and are met with significant resistance.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship do battle in the Mines, eventually losing Gandalf in the fight against the Balrog.
Batman Begins: Batman encounters Scarecrow for the first time and is seriously poisoned.
After going through the challenges in the previous section, the hero achieves his goals and proves his worth.
Star Wars: Although Obi-Wan has been killed, Luke and the others escape with the all-important Death Star blueprints and the princess.
The Matrix: Neo proves his abilities by rescuing Morpheus and Trinity in a huge fight sequence.
Batman Begins: As a direct result of being poisoned, Batman now has an antidote and is prepared for the final battle.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
The Road Back
"The Road Back" is a bit misleading in its title, as it is not so much about travelling as it is about setting up the final conflict. It’s usually a sequence wherein the hero leaves the "special" world that he has experienced his ordeal/reward in. Sometimes the Road Back involves a twist of fate, like a betrayal or a bit of luck that turns out to be totally reversed. In the Matrix, our hero’s "road back" is interrupted by Agent Smith.
The Resurrection step is the most exhilirating part of the hero’s journey, because it introduces one final conflict that will change our protagonist forever.
In the Matrix, this is the point where Neo is left alone in the Matrix after his escape route is cut off by Agent Smith. Instead of running, he decides to stand and fight. The "resurrection" here is taken rather literally: Neo is actually shot dead by Agent Smith, only to rise up again, stronger than ever.
In Star Wars, Luke makes the decision to use the Force instead of the instrumentation on his X-Wing, fully embracing his Jedi heritage. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, Harry must overcome a complex series of puzzles and challenges before he finally reaches the Sorceror’s Stone.
Return with the Elixir
Finally, our hero has achieved his goals, bested his enemies and grown in some way. The term "elixir" here is in reference to the fact that in the ancient myths, the whole point of the hero’s quest was to obtain some artifact or magical device that he could bring back to his people. Sometimes the item is an actual physical object, such as the Grail in Excalibur. Other times, it’s an intangible thing, like Luke’s skill with the Force, or Neo’s control over the Matrix, or Harry Potter’s growing knowledge of magic.
- The Road Back
For more information on Monomyth and the modern myths of our times, check out Joseph Campbell’s , Chris Vogler’s , and Monomyth.org.