The Art of Storytelling (The Hero’s Journey)
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How do you make a good story for your adventure? Your campaign? Do you have great original ideas, but players get bored before they ever reach them?
Whether you are a novelist or just a guy wanting to make his own adventures for his group, you need to understand what makes a good story.
Gotcha covered. Today’s GM Tip is on storytelling (or more accurately: story-crafting). You can read Part V here.
The art of storytelling has gone on longer than recorded history. Before there was writing language, stories were told over and over again.
Telling a good story is less amount showmanship and originality, and more about following different formulas.
Wait, what? Formulas >>> originality? That can’t be true.
Well, it is. Get over it.
I know that it seems a bit contrary, but stay with me. No matter how original your idea, no matter what “new spin” you think you can put on it, the story is still going to be basically the same as one or more other stories.
There is nothing completely new that you can do.
So what’s the point?
Don’t fight it. Use this to your advantage.
There are many different types of stories and formulas that you can follow. They all have their pros and cons. Each is geared toward certain niches and genres, but they all have one thing in common: they are designed to be entertaining (for those interested in the type of story).
Now, even the most fool-proof formula can bomb.
But by using a storytelling formula, you have at least a great framework on which to craft your story.
Now, time for a literary arts lesson.
The Hero’s Journey
Sometimes this is referred to as, “Monomyth”.
This pattern was defined by Joseph Campbell. There is also a few adaptations to this pattern defined by others; such as, David Adams Leeming, Phil Cousineau, and Christopher Vogler. I prefer Campbell and Vogler’s definitions, but all are pretty much the same. The monomyth describes quite a vast majority of stories ranging from ancient myths to stories in the bible and various holy texts to modern day stories. Though one could argue that it is overused, the fact that The Hero’s Journey has stood the test of time is unquestionable.
So what is this “Hero’s Journey”?
Well, first off, we are going to follow Vogler’s definition of the pattern because it sits in the middle of the other guidelines. (It is also the newest of the four).
You begin with two main sections: the Known and the Unknown. The “Known” takes place at both the beginning and the end of the story, usually. However, the “Unknown” comprises not only the middle of the story, but the vast majority of the story itself (say, in the neighborhood of 75% of the story itself).
You can think of it like this:
The “Known” is the ordinary world, what the hero (heroes/heroine[s]) already knowns, etc.
The “Unknown” is pretty much everything the main character does not know.
The transition between the two is almost like crossing into an entirely different dimension. It should be pretty drastic (in most cases). But more on that later.
Beyond these two main sections, we have 12 events spread around the cycle of the story (17 if following Campbell, 8 for Leeming and Cousineau). Note, I said “cycle”. Let’s update our picture.
Seems a bit crowded at the beginning. Why is that?
Well, once you hit the “Tests” also called Trials, it is a lot of “rinse and repeat” followed by events that require much more time. Think about those cartoons with a snowball going downhill. You have a lot of small stuff at first (small events), but then it gets bigger and bigger (events take longer and sometimes multiple scenes).
How about we look into each of the twelve parts and then we will have a better idea.
- The Ordinary World: Truthfully, a great beginning is well, The Beginning. Getting an idea of what the character(s) are like before they start on some grand adventure (even adventurers has ordinary lives). This is a great time for your characters/players to get acquainted with one another and be sympathetically introduced into their “roles” and personalities. This step is important, because it will help set-up a personal investment for each character to want to move the story forward.
- The Call to Adventure: This is the (first) inciting event. Something big has to happen here. If your heroes do not feel that they are challenged or that they need to change in order to rise up to meet the challenge, then the “Call” is not loud enough.
- Refusal of the Call: Your characters should have doubts. The challenges they face should seem scary and difficult. The refusal can be a complete refusal or just a hesitation. If the call is outright refused, you need to carefully put some confidence back into the characters. The challenge shouldn’t seem entirely impossible, but perhaps improbable can be just fine.
- Meeting the Mentor: This mentor can be an actual person or just some source of knowledge. The mentor is tasked with arming the characters with some key, some special amount of knowledge that makes the Call/Challenge seem possible. This is where the characters obtain that which will relieve their hesitation or change their minds about refusing the call. The mentor can travel with them, but be careful! A Mentor should never, ever, EVER overshadow the characters in importance to the story. The characters should be the ones completing the trials, tests, and eventually the BBEG (big bad evil guy) at the climax of the story.
- Crossing the Threshold: The “crossing” will take part in concluding the first Act in a Three Act story. The hero characters take it upon themselves to leave the comforts of their ordinary lives/world and enter the unknown. Upon crossing the threshold, there should be a very real, and noticeable difference. The characters should face unfamiliar rules and conditions.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The “test” is just another way of saying “trials” as you will see termed in other formulas and patterns. The characters are going to be tested here, that is for certain. They will need to determine whom they can trust from those they will need to face. A lot of learning takes place (including some failures). A story where the protagonist always wins gets boring. The challenges faced should force the party to have to rethink their battle plans or even regroup. This is not an excuse to kill characters just because… Both this section and the next will comprise of a vast majority of the challenges leading up to/beyond the middle of the story.
- Approach to the Innermost Cave: This is where the later trials will take place. Threats should be getting steadily more difficult; however, the characters should feel as if their experience and knowledge gained thus far has made them stronger. The characters will be winning more challenges, but should still feel tested.
- The Ordeal (aka. Death and Rebirth): This is quite a tricky stage. Occurring around the middle of the story, your characters are going to need a set-back, of sorts. Okay, maybe set-back is a bad term. What needs to happen in this section is really quite major and important. The characters need to come face-to-face with certain death or at the very least, have to confront their greatest fears (Note: Again, you will NOT be killing anyone off just to make it seem more threatening. That is totally a cop out for bad writing and lack of creative thoughts). The character are going to walk away from The Ordeal. The goal is to have them awaken or realize their true potential. They need to feel as if they have been given a new life. You can think of The Ordeal as the climax of the story (but another option is to make it SEEM like the climax, which will be closer to the end).
- The Reward (Seizing the Sword): The reward comes quite immediately after The Ordeal. This is what your heroes have worked toward accomplishing. Though there can be immediate celebration and a direct sendoff back to town (which is normally the case I see in games), there is still plenty of AMAZING stories you can get out of this. By presenting the danger of losing what was obtained, or like forgetting to destroy a Lich’s phylactery and having the threat emerge, then you can get something much more valuable. Instead of skipping to the end and tossing aside the adventure like it was just another empty soda can, you can navigate the falling action and bring a real conclusion to your story (AND perhaps leave breadcrumbs for the next segment of your campaign). The conclusion of The Ordeal and The Reward should bring your story around three-quarters of the way to the ending.
- The Road Back: A lot of falling action is thought to take place here, but if you are placing the true climax closer to the end, then you will have a much different plan. The Road Back is not always an easy one. The characters will be trying to return to The Ordinary World with their reward, but more obstacles remain. There should be new dangers and perhaps chase scenes as forces try to stop the characters. The characters should feel great urgency to reach the end and complete their dangerous mission.
- The Resurrection: The TRUE Climax. Your characters should now face the most difficult challenge yet (and of this story). Perhaps this is the greater evil over the guardian of the treasure. This segment should feel very much like The Ordeal; however, the stakes need to be raised and the dial cranked up to eleven! Huh, that’s kind of convenient. Or is it? The characters actions must once and for all bring about the resolve needed to end the mission. Make sure this is the most exciting and nerve-wracking encounter out of the entire story. Sometimes lives may be lost here, but once again, do NOT force it. Purposefully killing off a character just to make it seem like this encounter is deadlier than it seems is still, and will always be, a cheap cop-out. Actions and visuals are what will sell this encounter. Action, Action, Action!
- Return with the Elixir: The characters in your story should feel completely transformed. The true threat (at least for this adventure) has been vanquished. The heroes may choose to return home or continue on with their journeys. The treasure needs to have transformed them in some way, either directly (new found powers, abilities, etc.), or indirectly (new knowledge, new goals, new state of mind, change of heart, etc.).
I hope this has helped you have a better understanding on just one of many types of formulas one can follow while making a story for their adventure. Having a structure can be so much more important than you will ever know because pacing, plot, and a general three-act structure just fall into place naturally.
Go off and write a story! Or perhaps see if you can find novels and adventures that follow this formula. Do you have a story you made that follows The Hero’s Journey? Have a formula you like to use? Please share or ask me anything. If you need help writing a story using The Hero’s Journey, please send me an email @ email@example.com