The Hero’s Journey as Screenplay

Last week we were talking about the “hero’s journey” in myth. This week let’s talk about movies.


Matt Damon as Jason Bourne. The "amnesiac story" is a classic "hero's journey"

The neophyte writer, when he arrives in Tinseltown, very soon gets wised up to the lingo—“inciting incident,” “Act Two curtain,” “All Is Lost moment” and so forth. It’s not so much that there’s a “formula.” But there’s definitely a “vocabulary.”

The reason there’s a vocabulary is that certain structural concepts work in stories, and others don’t. How do moviemakers know this (forgetting for a moment William Goldman’s famous axiom, “Nobody knows anything”)? They know by the box office. The Monday morning ticket figures. Audiences line up for some movies and run away from others.

William Goldman said another very smart thing. He said “Screenplays are structure.” What he meant was that the building blocks of the story and how they are arranged are the most important elements in the success of a screen drama or comedy. What comes first, what comes second, what’s left in, what’s left out. If the architecture works emotionally, the movie will work, even if the casting is less than inspired and the dialogue fails to rise to Academy Award level.

What’s interesting to me is that these building blocks often parallel, beat by beat, Joseph Campbell’s throughline of the “hero’s journey.”

Herewith those beats in myth: the hero starts out unconscious, the hero receives a “call,” the hero ventures forth, meets outlandish characters, receives aid from unexpected sources (often divine or semi-divine), suffers, is lost, despairs, and finally returns home—often in a guise unrecognizable to others.

That’s a movie. That’s a screenplay.

In the prototypical screen story, the protagonist starts out in “normal” life. Think about Taken, The Hangover, Bridesmaids. But something is out-of-kilter or potentially out-of-kilter. Suddenly: a shock! The inciting incident propels the hero out of normal life and into movie life.

We have launched ourselves upon the “hero’s journey.”

From here to the end of the movie (as Robert McKee has astutely observed), the protagonist wants only to restore order. He wants to get his daughter back, find Doug, return to sanity. In screenwriter’s argot, this is Act One.

Act Two is the trial of the actual journey. Stephen Cannell (one of the masters of storytelling) said something very wise. “Act Two is about the villain.” He meant that the hero is now encountering resistance to everything he tries. If he’s Matt Damon in a Bourne movie, the poor guy can’t even stop to hit the men’s room without the toilet exploding. Thank goodness he’s got Franka Potente—i.e. “aid from unexpected sources.”

Act Two in a movie is the guts of the “hero’s journey.” In this section, the protagonist encounters not just random resistance or evil, but Bad Stuff that’s specific to him. The theme of the hero’s ordeal arises from unacknowledged elements of his own internal disequilibrium. The hero is becoming conscious of his own shit. Bourne is trying to unravel his forgotten past; Stu in The Hangover is wrestling with issues of standing up to his bully girlfriend.

But at the same time as the hero’s struggle is specific to him or her alone, it is also universal. It’s your story and mine. It’s myth.

In myth and in movies, Act Two ends with the All Is Lost moment. At this point, the hero is facing maximum resistance. He is as far from his goal as he can possibly be. Paradoxically, he is also on the threshold of the breakthrough he has been seeking. What he must do is change, and the change is of consciousness as much as of action.

In Act Three, the hero returns home. The hero brings a gift. The hero restores equilibrium to his life. He is no longer the person he was, but the person he has become.

In other words, movies have been using the “hero’s journey” since long before Joseph Campbell introduced the concept into the popular vernacular.

Why? Because it works. The dazed and confused human being (i.e., you and I standing in line to buy our tickets) responds to the on-screen projection of the story that’s already engraved upon our hearts—and has been for tens of millions of years. That story never gets old. We want to hear it again and again. We never get tired of it.

Life is hard. Life is bewildering. Worst of all, life—as most of us experience it—is devoid of significance. That’s why we need stories. Movies, which are structured deliberately to follow the timeless beats of the hero’s journey (with a creative deviation here and there), make life seem like it has significance. The story may end sadly, even tragically. But, as the filmmakers have shaped it and mounted it, it has meaning. It is not random. It is not without significance.

My own view is that such stories are not nonsense. They may be formula, they may be pulp; they may be venal and they may be escapist. But they’re not just Hollywood flimflam. The hero’s journey, in myth or in movies, reflects a primal template of the human heart. It describes how life really works.

The protagonist in a movie or the hero in a book (or you and I living from day to day) must, over and over, come to see what he has refused to see. He must acknowledge what he has fled from acknowledging. He must face what he has refused to face. Whether the final wrap-up is “Trust the Force, Luke” or “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” that transformation invariably comes at the end of a journey that looks and feels a lot like myth.

Next week we’ll start exploring how all this fits for you and me as artists and entrepreneurs.


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  1. David Y.B. Kaufmann on May 23, 2012 at 3:47 am

    Booker in his “7 Basic Plots,” mentioned here before, explores the story architecture plot by plot, going through and organizing many works of world literature. He disparages the modern detective novel (Holmes, Christie’s work) because he thinks the serial format runs counter to the hero’s growth or journey pattern? Your thoughts? Also, are movies basic architecture and novels the same structure made complex (perhaps a trade-off for the non-visual aspects)?

    • Sarah Beach on June 14, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      David, regarding your question about serial storytelling and the Hero’s Journey, the fact is that serial storytelling (which frequently requires little or not change in the principal characters) is very ancient.

      After Homer’s Odyssey, there were many tales of Odysseus told, only rumors of which have come back to us. Everyone loved the character and his fantastical adventures and so they wanted to tell some themselves. Same is true of Hercules — the Hero Who Slept Everywhere! (The TV show wasn’t far off in the nature of his adventures and wandering – except for the time-hopping.)

      In the Middle Ages, everyone became so enamoured of the Arthurian legends that there was two whole centuries of what was basically fan-fiction written about Camelot and its denizens.

      Serial storytelling satisfies a different need in us than the Hero’s Journey stories do. With the Hero’s Journey, we are testing our psyches against adverse circumstances –looking for ways to change and improve ourselves. In serial storytelling, we are not looking to change the character, but rather to test character qualities against ever changing circumstances.

      Thus, with Sherlock Holmes, for instance, the stories hold us not because we expect Sherlock to change, but rather to find out of this time he will still be smarter than the Bad Guy.

  2. skip on May 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

    has Anything really changed since the ancient Greeks?!?

  3. T. AKA Ricky Raw on May 23, 2012 at 11:12 am

    This is a great post. I’m going to have to reread it a few times to digest it. I put the Joseph Campbell and Bill MOyers special in my Nextflix Queue after your last post on this subject. I’m interested in rereading this series after watching it to see if I can gain even more insight from it.

    Thanks for this.

  4. Joel D Canfield on May 23, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to get charged tuition for the schooling. Better than any class I ever took.

  5. John H on May 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Netflix also has:

    Joseph Campbell: Sukhavati
    Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey
    Joseph Campbell: Mythos

    All good stuff.

  6. Laura on May 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    “Life is hard. Life is bewildering. Worst of all, life—as most of us experience it—is devoid of significance. That’s why we need stories. Movies, which are structured deliberately to follow the timeless beats of the hero’s journey (with a creative deviation here and there), make life seem like it has significance.”

    This bit is so brilliant, I had to re-post it. It gave me the “ah-ha” moment that our lives might feel insignificant because we’re living IN the story…not seeing the entire picture. We don’t see the beginning/ending and all the sub-plots outside our own personal viewfinder. Only in stories, movies and obits can we see from a higher vantage point.

    Brilliant post, Steven. Thank you for making today significant.

  7. Basilis on May 23, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Thank you for this post!

    P.S.It seems that really nothing has changed since the anthropocentric civilization of Ancient Greeks (Otherwise humans of today would have been mutated to something else!).

  8. Stephen Denny on May 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Steven: am greatly enjoying your exploration of the Hero Myth – reminds me of when I first discovered The Discourses, finding a favorite writer discussing another favorite writer (you playing the Machiavelli to Campbell’s Livy – it hangs together, don’t you think?)


  9. Sonja on May 23, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    As usual, great insight into the hero’s journey. You’ve given more to think about. I always love your voice, Steven! : )

  10. Mary Lynn on May 23, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Tuning in every Wednesday, and thoroughly enjoying your work–thank you!!

  11. Regina on May 24, 2012 at 6:25 am

    It hit me this morning that
    Are you my Mother? by PD Eastman sits in the category…

  12. André Heeger on May 29, 2012 at 3:06 am

    Thanks Steven, for putting this out.

    A producer I handed my treatment advised me the same thing. He really liked the story and was so nice as to point out its weakness: the three act structure.
    At first I thought, oh no, not again… But when I finished playing with the idea, making it mine, transforming my heroes, pulling one to the front and sculpting the story into a more definite three act frame I saw that it worked.
    I’ve received great and very encouraging feedback so far. Now all I need (smile) is to find a manager who sells it…

  13. Women News on January 12, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    We absolutely love your blog and find most of your post’s to be exactly I’m looking for.
    Does one offer guest writers to write content for yourself?
    I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write concerning here. Again, awesome site!

  14. BRENDON LUMGAIR on September 21, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you for defining where the All is Lost Moment fits into the 3 Act structure (at the end of Act 2). Now I see how it fits in Vogler’s “Delayed Crisis” structure in “The Writer’s Journey”.

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