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Story Circles: The Hero's Journey

A story can take many shapes from a picture to a poem. They can be told in countless ways depending on the art form. In screenwriting, certain ideas and conceptions rose among others to form a general understanding of a story. The principal idea of screenwriting design evolved around structure with early screenwriting guru Syd Field who popularized the Three-Act structure in his book Screenplay (1979) (Price, 2013, p. 201). Field’s (1979) early conception of screenplay structure was linear. In fact, his structure only covered the most basic foundations of a screenplay (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 5). The bare minimum requirements to structure design came from Field’s (1979) work. Before Field, however, researchers like Vladimir Propp (1928) and Joseph Campbell (1949) studied story design beyond the realm of screenwriting. What they discovered were common beats or moments between most stories regardless of their genre (Propp, 1928; Campbell, 1949). Campbell (1949/2004) even claimed: “It will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find” (p. 3). Campbell (1949/2004) believed that there is only one story that has been told through time. He conceived a story like a circle rather than linear, as Field (1979) did. Campbell’s (1949/2004) monomyth or hero’s journey, was adapted by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (2007) and Dan Harmon, screenwriter and producer, in a series of educational articles on story structure (2003). While Vogler flattened the structure to a straight line (2007, p. 14), Harmon kept the circular design (2003).

Figure 1: "Joseph Campbell" (Segal, 1998).

Campbell’s circle was not the product of chance. He analyzed stories before creating the shape of a circle for the monomyth he observed (1949/2004, p. 3). Vogler (2007) explains that the Hero’s Journey stemmed from the observation of life:

The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world. (p. ix).

From this perspective, the Hero’s Journey was not created as a screenwriting template like Field’s (1979) method was (Snyder, 2005, p. 69). The Hero’s Journey is an observation of a design that already exists in the world. Campbell’s (1949/2004) work is inspired by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1959). Jung (1959) theorized the idea of the collective unconscious (Routledge, 2022). Essentially, the collective unconscious is the idea that a universal unconscious exists within every human’s mind (Routledge, 2022). Consequently, humans will all instinctively recognize a story based on patterns detected by their collective unconscious (Harmon, 2003). This pattern is a circle. Harmon (2003) explains the circular pattern by observing the circle of life, which continually repeats itself through life and death. Robert McKee (1997), a screenwriting author, further supports the idea that story and life are intrinsically linked: “Story is a metaphor for life” (p. 55). The hero’s journey, like Field’s (1979) structure, is built upon three main acts. They are departure, initiation, and return (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 34). The structure is shown in the figure below (figure 2). The circle is to be read counter-clockwise, with “Call to Adventure” as the start and “Elixir” as the end.

Figure 2: "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 227)

In total, the hero’s journey, as theorized by Campbell in 1949, comprises 17 beats. Not every beat appears in every story. “Refusal of the Call”, “Supernatural Aid” and “Refusal to Return” are examples of beats that are commonly absent from stories (Harmon, 2003). The circle is built around two main worlds. The first is the conscious and the second is the unconscious (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 8). In the story circle, the top represents a conscious and familiar zone, while the bottom is the unconscious, which is an unfamiliar and unknown area (Campbell, 1949/2004, p .8). A protagonist first leaves a familiar space (departure) (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 47). Next, they experience an adventure (initiation) (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 89). Finally, they come back to a familiar environment (return) (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 201). Campbell (1949/2004) explains that this pattern reflects the rites of passage in primitive societies (p. 8). People recognize the circle as a story (Harmon, 2003).

Harmon (2003) adapts Campbell’s (1949/2004) ideas as a modern screenwriting understanding of the story. Harmon (2003) notes that the circle is essential because the ideas of initiation and return are key to recognizing a story. During the initiation, a character faces the unknown world of act two. They adapt and, having changed, return to a familiar world (Campbell, 1949/2004, p. 201). Like nearly all modern structure templates and theories, the hero has a desire or need that pushes them into the adventure (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 39; McKee, 1997, p. 136; Snyder, 2005, p. 48; Trottier, 2014, p. 13). Harmon’s (2003) version of the hero’s journey is broken down into eight beats instead of 17. He notes that beats can sometimes be skipped, especially in shorter forms of screenwriting (Harmon, 2003). The new beats are as follows: “You, need, go, search, find, take, return, change” (Harmon, 2003). These beats are quite straightforward. “You” simply presents a protagonist in their familiar environment (Harmon, 2003). “Need” is their desire for something (Harmon, 2003). “Go” is the protagonist’s departure from their comfortable Act 1 world in search of their object of desire (Harmon, 2003). In “Search” the character is fully immersed in act two and is searching for their object of desire (Harmon, 2003). In Vogler’s (2007) adaptation of Campbell’s (1949/2004) structure, this step is called “Tests, Allies, Enemies” (p. 14). “Find” is when the protagonist finds the object of their desire (Harmon, 2003). “Take” is when they take it. “Return” marks the character’s exit from act two and entrance into act three (Harmon, 2003). “Change” is the protagonist’s new familiar zone after they have changed from their journey (Harmon, 2003). The division into two distinct worlds, the familiar and unfamiliar, in addition to the need for a return, are the reasons why structures may be built in a circle instead of the traditional linear fashion (Campbell, 1949/2004, pp. 201-202).

Figure 3: Dan Harmon's story circle. From "What is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle? And How to Use It" (Industrial Scripts, 2022).

Finally, story designs share many commonalities, which explains why Campbell’s work in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949/2004) was adapted in both linear (Vogler, 2007) and circular (Harmon, 2003) patterns. Whether humans share a collective unconscious that allows them to recognize a story based on its pattern or not remains unknown. However, the Hero’s Journey is undoubtedly a valid method of story structure as both Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler and creator of the hit shows Community (2009-2015) and Rick and Morty (2013-present), Dan Harmon swear by it. Story structures may not need to be circles, but modern screenwriting wisdom requires some degree of character change throughout a film (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 10).

Bibliographical References

Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1949).

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta. (Original work published 1979).

Harmon, D. (2003). Story Structure 101. Channel 101.

Jung, C. (1969). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (M. Fordham & H. Read, eds.) (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1959).

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.

Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Palgrave Macmillan.

Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (2nd ed.). University of Texas Press. (Original work published in 1928).

Routledge. (2022). What is Jungian Psychology.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

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Yoran Praet

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