The Hero’s Journey
As I was looking for tips on writing good query letters yesterday, and being totally hypocritical in regards to my “don’t search the internet for writing help” statements (made in my “Writing a Novel Synopsis” post), I stumbled upon some interesting things. Now, let me first say that I’ve come to realize and accept that if you ever search the internet for samples/examples of anything used in the novel process (queries, synopses, outline formatting, etc.) – it will always undoubtedly be for a Romance Novel. At this stage in my young life, I hate romance novels. Personally, it’s just something I can’t bear to read. I cringe and feel embarrassed for the characters doing such stupid stuff.
However, let me be fair: the romance novels I’ve read were not selected by me. They were chosen for my Genre Fiction class in college. They were some of the most poorly written books I’ve ever read. The characters were ridiculously stupid and — well, I digress.
My scattered brain needs to focus on this one.
So, looking up query stuffs. I stumbled upon a website (don’t remember where or what) where authors submitted their query letters to a group (support group maybe?) to have them critiqued before sending them to agents/publishers. I took a gander and found one that seemed relatively short compared to what I’d seen before but it was concise, clean, with correct spelling and grammar. It gave the necessary information, etc.
These idiots (claiming to be experts on the matter of querying, I suppose) tore the man’s query apart. Claiming that his story made no sense, he needed more information (I understood the gist of it) and that his character was pathetic and weak, and so on and so forth.
There was one comment, however, that really pissed me off. Everyone was asking, “Why is this story different from the bajillions of others just like it?” Which, alright, I’ll give that to them; you need to know why your story is unique. But… this random guy pops in and basically says the query is a Star Wars rip-off. Which simply wasn’t true. For starters, it was a fantasy novel.
So pay attention, all you wanna-be writers, I’m gonna break this down for you. Star Wars has something underlying what you see and understand about Jedi and Luke Skywalker and Tie Fighters – that is this: The Hero’s Journey. SURPRISE! Joseph Campbell has been saying it for YEARS (well, did say it for years – before he died, that is.) Every good story follows a variation of the Hero’s Journey. It’s a formula that stories just naturally follow. This is his summary of the Hero’s Journey in one paragraph:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
So before I continue, let me back track a second. For that guy who compared our query-man’s story to Star Wars: You’re still a dick, but in a way, you’re also complimenting the writer. I’ve heard this comparison so many times that if I had a dollar for each time, I’d be rolling in greens. Star Wars is not original. Your story is not original. My story isn’t original. At least not in terms of plotting. There are no original ideas in terms of plotting. It’s all been done. EVERYTHING has been done. You may ask, “Then why do writers continue to write? Why are all books not exactly the same?” Because it’s not what steps our stories take, it’s how it’s written.
For example, you’ll have noticed my little Jedi/Frodo image up top. Nicely done by Sanna Luotonen, by the way. But I’m sure you’ll admit they’re two very different stories. Am I right? I think I’m right. One’s high fantasy, the other is space opera–space-ghetti western—er science fiction (it’s one of those, anyway.) But underneath both stories – they follow the same formula. As did most Greek and Roman stories. The Odyssey even followed this formula.
Here’s the Hero’s Journey formula in greater detail. And just before we get to what’s following, let me say this: It’s very well documented that George Lucas deliberately used the Hero’s Journey formula to pull his story together. And now…
The Star Wars – Lord of the Rings similarities. Keep in mind, the story-plot elements are the same, all one big formula, but how we write it is what makes each story unique. So on with the Hero’s Journey comparison:
The Hero's Journey
The Lord of the Rings
|Princess Leia's Message to Obi-wan and ultimately, to Luke: "You're my only hope."||Gandalf gives the One Ring to Frodo and tells him it must be destroyed.|
|Luke can't leave home. He has responsibilities to his Aunt and Uncle to help with the harvest.||Frodo doesn't want to leave the Shire. He tells Gandalf to take the ring himself or hide it.|
|Obi-Wan is a Jedi with Supernatural Abilities - he saves Luke from the Tusken Raiders||Gandalf is a great wizard with Supernatural Abilities.|
|Luke leaves his home planet with Obi-Wan||Frodo and Sam hesitate on the edges of the Shire.
Sam: "If take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been."
|Luke returns to the farm and discovers his family has been killed.||The Hobbits enter the Tavern/Inn and are surrounded by "giants" and then the Dark Riders come intending to kill them.|
|To begin his transformation into a Jedi, Luke must first learn to sense the Force. Then he must escape the Prison with Leia. Then he must move on after Obi-Wan is destroyed.||Frodo is stabbed by the Dark Riders. He tries to give the ring to Galadriel. He loses Gandalf and must move on without him. He must leave the fellowship while being constantly pursued by the Nazgul.|
|They meet Princess Leia (who apparently was a "sister" of a mystic order in earlier drafts of the script)||Frodo and the other hobbits arrive at Caras Galadhon, and meet Galadriel. She gives gifts that will help the fellowship achieve their goals.|
|"Darth Vader: Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends."||Frodo sees an opportunity to abandon his quest and offers the One Ring to Aragorn, who refuses.|
|Luke learns and accepts that Darth Vader is his father.||This one is likely centered around Aragorn accepting his noble blood and taking control of the ethereal army. Or possibly Frodo's earlier conversation with Bilbo at Rivendell.|
|Perhaps a large change like this occurs in Luke when he learns that he has a twin sister and then discovers that sister is Leia. He is no longer alone. Another more obvious change is Luke completing his Jedi training and becoming a full-blown Jedi.||Everyone choose Gandalf's transformation into the White. Or they talk about Frodo's change - but I think Frodo's change was negative. So I choose Sam, who I feel had the most drastic change. He's no longer the scared, meek, little Sam - he's now strong, confident, and he's the one who protects Frodo from Gollum and ensures Frodo makes it to Mordor.|
|Luke flies the X-Wing down into the crevices of the Deathstar and bulls-eye his devastating shot, destroying it. Goal accomplished.||They have finally reached Mount Doom.|
|Luke can't leave without avenging Obi-Wan but when Luke has finally defeated Darth Vader he can't kill him.||Frodo yanks back his hand and refuses to drop the ring into the lava.|
|Darth Vader pursues Luke in a Tie Fighter, trying to stop Luke from destroying the Deathstar.||Frodo puts on the ring and tries to escape with it, but Gollum bites his finger off and fall into the lava with it.|
|In the Millennium Falcon, Han shoots the tie fighters chasing Luke and causes Darth to spin out of control.||Sam and Frodo are carried away by the Giant Eagles of the Misty Mountains.|
|"You're all clear, kid, now let's blow this thing and go home!"||Frodo and the Hobbits return home with a new outlook on life and with a new band of friends.|
|Luke has embraced his new life as a Jedi and is now comfortable with his changes.||Frodo is now able to be at ease both in the Shire and with the Dwarves, Humans, and the Elves.|
|The Rebels defeat and overthrow the Empire, giving them the freedom to live life peacefully.||Though he's finally made it home, Frodo is now free to go off on new adventures, exploring the world.|
So anytime you think your storyline is unique, try piecing it into this or any variation of this formula and you’ll quickly learn how mistaken you were. And the next time someone compares your story to Star Wars, just say “Thanks, I guess I wrote a great Hero’s Journey.” And remind them exactly how successful Star Wars was.
NOTE: My good friend Jerrico, who is slightly Star Wars-immersed in life, helped me to figure out the Star Wars bits that matched our formula since I haven’t seen Star Wars since I was — well, for several years. Thanks, Jerrico! I won’t even mention how you quoted the script word-for-word several times.