The monomyth

Perseus

I wrote about the seven-point story structure a few weeks ago. I already hinted at other ways to look at a structure. Joseph Campbell introduced the Monomyth in 1949 in his book the Hero of a Thousand Faces. Campbell was not actually describing a way to structure stories, but doing a comparative analyses of various myths and finding an archetypical underlying structure.¬† Knowing what this structure is can help you recognize strengths and weaknesses in your own stories, and is interesting to know, even for non-writers. Below, I’ll describe what the monomyth is and how you can use it.

The monomyth

The monomyth consists of seventeen steps, which describe the hero’s journey to his hero-hood. Personally, as a scientific theory I find the idea somewhat lacking: a scientific theory should be falsifiable, meaning it clearly defines a way to prove it right or wrong. Unfortunately, the hero’s journey can be applied to almost any story if you interpret it a way that fits the steps. So there’s no way to find a story and say ‘ha, this disproves the theory’.

Also, it’s kind of sexist in assuming the hero is male, but you could say that says more about the myths of the world than about the theory.

Anyway, as a writing tool, it is good to at least know about.

The steps:

Act 1 Departure

1. The Call to Adventure

2. Refusal of the Call

3. Supernatural Aid

4. Crossing the Threshold

5. Belly of the Whale

Act 2 Initiation

6: The Road of Trials

7: The Meeting with the Goddess

8: Temptation

9: Atonement

10: Apotheosis

11: The Ultimate Boon

Act 3 Return

12: Refusal of the Return

13: The Magic Flight

14: Rescue from Without

15: The Crossing of the Return Threshold

16: Master of Two Worlds

17: Freedom to Live

I’ll describe each of the seventeen steps in turn. As an example, let’s look at Star Wars: A New Hope. One reason to do this, is that George Lucas has stated using it to structure Star Wars.

The Call to Adventure

The hero is in some mundane place, doing his normal thing when he’s called out to have an adventure. In A New Hope, a droid drops into Luke’s lap with a message from a princess that ‘Obi Wan Kenobi is her only hope’.

Refusal of the Call

The hero has better things to do: continue with his mundane life. He’s reluctant to go on an adventure, but in the end, he does commit to it. No, no, Obi Wan, I’m staying with my aunt and uncle. Okay, you can have the droid and I’ll help you on your way to Alderaan, but I can’t go with you. Luke’s reluctance is of course completely overcome when his aunt and uncle are murdered.

Supernatural Aid

A supernatural aid or mentor aids the hero in his quest to cross into a magical other world. This mentor will often give the hero talismans for aid later in the adventure. Obi Wan uses his magical ways to help Luke and start him on the Jedi path. He gives Luke his father’s old light saber.

Crossing the Threshold

The hero leaves the mundane world, and sets out on his adventure. Often the passage is guarded. In Star Wars, Luke leaves Tatooine to help Obi Wan and Leia, and Tatooine is guarded by a set of Star Destroyers.

Belly of the Whale

The hero is completely removed from his mundane world and his old self. He is now ready to change. In Star Wars, Luke (and his friends) are forced into the belly of the Death Star.

The Road of Trials

The hero faces a series of trials in his quest, often in threes. In the case of Star Wars, three times three: First, Luke and his friends evade detection when the Millenium Falcon is searched, then they take over the hangar control room, thirdly, they sneak into the prison section. After finding Leia, They first have to escape the prison deck, then the trash compactor, and finally some bridges spanning a bottomless chasm. When they finally escape the Death Star, they first have to fight off Darth Vader and his storm troopers, then escape the tractor beam, then finally beat off a patrol of tie fighters.

The Meeting with the Goddess

The hero meets an unconditional love, as if for a mother. In the case of Star Wars: A New Hope, that would of course be meeting Leia, who lies innocently in her cell.

Temptation

The idea here is that the hero is tempted to give up his quest or is lured away from it. If you look at Star Wars, Luke is told to stay put while Obi Wan rigs the tractor beam on the Death Star so they can escape. Instead, he finds out Leia is on the ship and goes after her.

Atonement

The hero must reconcile his relation with his father, or a father figure in his life. In A New Hope, when the main characters all converge back on the Millenium Falcon during their attempt to escape the Death Star, there is the shared look between Luke and Obi Wan, just before Obi Wan is struck down by Darth Vader.

Apotheosis

A transformation from a normal state to a god-like state. The whole purpose of coming to the world of adventure is to find a boon to help the mundane world. To get that  boon, the hero must become something more than what he was. When Obi Wan dies in A New Hope, this transforms Luke from a boy from a back-end desert world to something more. He literally goes on the offensive after it happens.

The Ultimate Boon

The hero has passed the ordeals and has a powerful boon to aid him. It was the reason for going on the quest. In A New Hope, this is Luke gaining the supernatural aid of the dead Obi Wan, and the seed of the Force which has been planted in him. Alternatively, you could say it was getting the plans of the Death Star inside R2D2 to the rebels.

Refusal of the Return

The hero, now having achieved enlightenment, doesn’t want to go back to his mundane life. Luke is not about to become a farmer on a desert world again. No, he wants to be a rebel pilot.

The Magic Flight

Getting an ultimate boon from another world can lead to angry caretakers chasing you. To escape the magic world, the hero needs to fly. For Luke and friends, having fled the Death Star and going to Yavin has led the Death Star to the rebel base. There is now only one way to escape destruction: fly to the death star and blow it up.

Rescue from Without

Sometimes the hero needs help returning to the normal world. In Star Wars, Obi Wan has to tell Luke to ‘Use the Force’, one of the pivotal moments in the film. Alternatively, you could say it was Han Solo coming back to help Luke at the last moment.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The hero has his boon, but now he has to use it. He has to return to the mundane world he set out from and manage to apply his boon to his initial problems. In A New Hope, Luke has to let go of his trust in machines and what others tell him, and rely on the strength of the Force inside him to do what must be done.

Master of Two Worlds

The hero is now the master of both the mundane and the supernatural world. He has used his boon and adventure to become a great hero and change both the normal world and the magical one hetraveled to. In A New Hope, Luke blows up the Death Star, making him a hero of the rebels and striking a harsh blow against the Empire.

Freedom to Live

The Hero has won and is now freed from the shackles he had at the beginning of the adventure. He has gained the freedom to live as he wants. In A New Hope, we see a ceremony on Yavin where the heroes are honoured and can choose to do anything they want next.

How to use this

So, what do you do with this monomyth? My first impression was ‘okay, this is nice, and you can apply it to stories, but then what?’

When you look at A New Hope, you see you how this structure was applied to a story for maximum effect. The same as you can do with the seven-point structure, or the three-act structure. If you do the same thing for the prequel trilogy of Star Wars, you will start seeing where these movies went wrong. How to apply it yourself, is up to you. It should not be used as a recipe, but as a way to look at the bare bones of your story and figure out how to best fit those together.

As an exercise, go ahead and grab a book from your closet, or see a movie in the theatre, and see if you can find the monomyth in there. With some practice you’ll be able to see not just that some stories are good, and some are not, but also what mechanics makes them good or bad, and why that is.

Happy writing.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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