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Visual Storytelling: Introduction: The Hero's Journey

The Hero´s Journey

Carl Jung famously theorizes that myths are none other than the dreams of the collective mind. He went to demonstrate this idea by noting how all dreams and myths in history are populated by the same heavily standardized figures, which he called archetypes. He believed these characters and the roles they play, in every collective story and individual dream, were common to the entire human species because they were bequeathed through the collective unconscious. Based on his reasoning, these types, each with their epitomized attributes, are a prosopopoeia of all the parts of ourselves who live in the penumbra of our psyche.

Greek hydria depicting Achilles dragging the body of Hector. 510-520 B.C.

A few decades later, Joseph Campbell, an expert in comparative mythology and religion, tries to further develop Jung’s theory. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he analyses a plethora of ancient myths and stories from every corner of the earth through the lens of the archetypes’ argument and finally demonstrates the constant existence of several identifiable figures in all epic and legendary narratives. There are numerous archetypes, but Campbell ascertained that there are a few notable stronghold figures, such as 'the Hero', 'the Mentor', 'the Shadow', 'the Shapeshifter', 'the Ally' and 'the Trickster'. He however took his analysis a step further as he found that there is a specific template guiding the design of stories which almost resembles a planned script. The protagonists, he noticed, all follow a similarly-paced heroic path; every hero faces akin challenges in the same order and with undeniably similar timing. He defined the cornerstones of the Hero’s adventure, effectively discovering the lines of a pattern which he named 'The Hero’s Journey'.

Campbell’s theories, on the common universal structure of every tale, myth, story and narration, became a crucial axiom in the artistic field. The delineation of this narrative framework, which Campbell considered to be “[…] a blueprint to leading an audience through a profound, transformative experience” (1949, p.14), gained the essential role of becoming a pillar for cinematographic and visual screenwriting.

The screenplay-oriented guide to the Hero’s Journey is definitely laid down by Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey. He sums up both Jung and Campbell’s theories and he proves that movies and television products, just as plays, fairy tales and epic sagas, have unconsciously maintained the portrayal of these archetypes and the narrative structure of the Hero’s Journey (Vogler, 2007, p. XXVII).

Scheme of the circular, three-act structure of the Hero's Journey as set by Christopher Vogler.

Vogler arranges the phases of this path in the classical Aristotelian three-act structure in order to make the scheme more comprehensible from a screenwriting angle.

Act One normally opens the curtains on the 'Ordinary World'; the reality in which the Hero has been living their entire life. This phase is set to illustrate, in the sharpest and quickest way possible, all we need to know about our hero's inner and outer life: their background, what their values are, what their life has consisted of thus far, the people they love and the sacrifices they are willing to make. The Ordinary World is a safe, monotonous, space, short of any possible challenge and a familiar ground which represents a comfort zone.

At times, the first act is actually preceded by a prologue. This is an external piece of the narration that may inform the audience about possible past or parallel events that are or will be an integral part of the tale. In the series Game of Thrones, the scene shown in the first few minutes of the pilot episode is of a group of men from the Night’s Watch who find themselves face to face with the threat of the White Walkers. At this point in time, neither the public nor the characters are aware of the fact that the White Walkers will be the greatest and ultimate forthcoming enemy of the entire story. The scene following is, in fact, an immediate presentation of the Ordinary World as the viewer is introduced to the Stark family in their normal everyday life at Winterfell, and the connection to the prologue remains vague and to be defined as the show goes on.

(Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,1977)

The first act comes to a turning point with 'The Call to Adventure'. This is the moment the Hero receives the call that will get the story rolling. This proposal may come in any form, whether it be through a messenger, a sudden discovery, a personal revelation or a stirring within the Hero’s inner moral code. The one fixed purpose of this phase is for the Hero to be presented with a request to leave their world and venture into the unknown, which will actively shatter their perception of reality.

The Hero at this point is either forced into the adventure or has to ponder whether to leave his simple but somehow comfortable life for a perilous and foreign environment. Sometimes, when he firstly rejects this call, there is an intermediate step called 'Refusal of the Call'. It is and emblematic moment for the audience to understand that the adventurous feat is not a trivial enterprise, but a high-stakes wager that could lead the Hero to lose his life or fortune (Vogler, 2017, pp.107-108). The Hero’s fear and reluctance helps the viewer to sympathize with their flawed, recognizable human traits.

Before making the final decision, the Hero meets with the Mentor, one of the main archetypes of every story. The Mentor, whether their deep knowledge be because of their own past experience or because of a special talent, tries to assist the Hero in their quest to find the right path, and often reminds them that the answers they seek are already clear. The Hero is necessarily faced with the realization that they must go into action, which leads them to the final step of Act One, called 'Crossing the First Threshold'. At this point in the story, the Hero commits wholeheartedly to the pursuit. Very often, this moment is defined by the literal crossing of a physical barrier towards the Special World, like doors, gates, or arches. (Vogler, 2007, pp.129-130).

(Hunger Games, 2012)

The transition between Act One and Act Two, which in old movies is often signalled by a brief fade-out and is equivalent to the curtain coming down during a play, is strikingly noticeable. There is a drastic shift in energy and, most importantly, in pacing, as the Hero finally enters the Special World.

The purpose of this period of adjustment to the Special World is testing the first phase of Act Two. The Hero is put through a series of trials and ordeals that are intended to prepare them for the greatest challenges ahead. These tests, meant to train the Hero and subtly inform them on how to deal with the unfamiliar situation, are often difficult, but they do not have the life-threatening connotation that characterizes the final ordeal. Normally the Hero takes this time to understand and identify who their allies or potential enemies will be.

In the movie Hunger Games, when Katniss Everdeen enters the Special World, in this case Capitol City, she undergoes a series of tests before entering the Arena, where she will unavoidably have to battle death. She has to meet the other participants, give interviews, prove her skills in front of the committee charged to give her a vote. These tasks are disguised as preparations and evaluations for her entering the Games, but from a narrative point of view, they are meant to sharpen her understanding of her strengths and weaknesses, of what the intricate structure of this reality actually is, of who she can or cannot trust, and how to use to her own advantage the inner workings of the environment.

From this moment on, during the so-called Approach, the Hero prepares for the apogee of Act Two: The Ordeal. This is ultimate challenge that they have been bracing to face all along. The Ordeal is the final showdown between the Hero and their enemy, the Shadow; it is aimed to lead the Hero to confront, not only outside forces, but their own inner demons. It is the battle the tale is based on, and the common factor in all its adaptations is that the Hero has to encounter Death, whether it be literal, metaphorical or both. They need to come to terms with the ultimate demise of their old self, so that they can be reborn as an improved and wiser version.

After surviving the battle, the Hero and the Allies enter the last stage of Act Two, the Reward, which usually consists of a celebration. The evil has been slain, the Hero has conquered death and triumphed and both the protagonists and the audience need a loosening of the tensions amassed during the trials. The Reward, however, can also be comprised of the moment the Hero retrieves a price, a valuable item that, most of the time, is held in the hands of the now-defeated Shadow. This boon can be physical as a treasure or a person who needed to be rescued, but it can also be metaphorical, as a prized lesson the Hero is required to assimilate.

The first phase of Act Three, 'The Road Back', is a fundamental threshold, as it marks the return to the Ordinary World, the setting the Hero used to consider familiar and safe. The experiences the Hero lived during the journey, however, have fundamentally changed them to their core, as their understanding of reality has now exponentially grown in width. This different and more nuanced version of the Hero shows its true colours during The Resurrection, as they deal with the final steps of rebirth and purification, re-aligning their new enriched self with the person they were when the story begun.

(Shutter Island, 2010)

The final step, 'The Return with The Elixir', or denouement, is the moment where all the knots of the story are untied or come undone, as everything gets solved in order to restore a sense of balance. It can mainly be presented in two ways; in the closed or circular ending, the Hero seems content with returning back in the Ordinary World, sharing their new-found knowledge with everyone else, and matter-of-factly closing the circle of the narration as they return to the beginning of the First Act. The open-ended form, instead, leaves the audience with some ambiguities and unresolved tensions, or, more drastically, with a final crucial question. In this ending, the storytelling goes on after the story is over, as it requires the audience to actively wonder about what the real conclusion might have been.

An extreme example of an open ending, which leaves the audience not only to question what could have happened next but also to re-evaluate the entire point of view of the story, is the conclusion of the movie Shutter Island, by Martin Scorsese. In the final minutes, after numerous tribulations, the main character, who the audience believes at this point to be clinically insane, poses a staggering question that in just a few seconds can possibly subvert the interpretation of the entire story. The audience has no choice but to ponder what the real truth is, entirely on their own.

(Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, 2017)

The Hero’s journey evidently defines, at least to an elemental level, the basis of most of the narrative structure of human-made stories. The psychological component of this path and these archetypes are fundamental to understanding how humanity has collectively come to define such specific rules and stages of this journey. It can be said that the Hero’s journey is none other than the projection of human perception of life as a series of steps that lead to a continuous cycle of rebirth. The Hero’s courage and fortitude, along with their more flawed human traits, is an emblem of people’s will to conquer their own fears and, ultimately, death. It is also crucial to underline that each archetype is not necessarily a single character playing the same role in the entire story, as they represent nothing more than the various faces of humans’ personality. A Hero can as easily become a Shadow, an Ally can give advice and temporarily take the mantle of a Mentor, and a Shadow can be the Hero of their own story. The shifting adapting nature of these Archetypes renders them comparable to stage masks that actors wear during a performance. They are definite and primal roles, but as they merely represent all sides of human nature. They can, in every form of narration, be interchangeable.

Bibliographical sources

Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Kindle Version). Retrieved from

Schanzer, E. ; Vitolo, A. (1977) Gli Archetipi dell'Inconscio Collettivo. (C. G. Jung, Trans.). Turin: Editore Boringhieri S.p.a.

Vogler, C. (2007) The Writer's journey: mythical structure for writers (Third Edition). Los Angeles: Michael Wiese Productions.

Visual Sources

Antiope Group (The), Hydria with the chariot of Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector, 510 - 520 B.C.

Christopher Vogler. Schematic illustration. Retrieved from The Writer's journey: mythical structure for writers (Third Edition).

Johnson, R.(2017). Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi [Photo]

Lucas, G. (1977). Star Wars: Episode IV - a New Hope [Photo] Retrieved from

Ross, G. (2012). Hunger Games. [Photo]

Scorsese, M. (2010). Shutter Island. [Photo] Retrieved from


Author Photo

Elena Maiolini

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