Monday, December 28, 2009

Story Structure Part X: The Road Back

tornado-car_1480982i This is the tenth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from“The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.


The Road Back

Act III. This is where the magic happens. This is the part of the story you wanted to write  since you held the first glimmer of the concept in your head. Everything is heading downhill with a breeze at your back at this point…until you hit the rapids heading for the waterfall. The stakes are huge. Everything your Hero has ever known is at risk. A great winner-take-all conflict is looming. I can throw in more clichés but you get the idea.

Your Hero is now exiting the Special World he has been in since the beginning of Act II. He’s heading back to the Ordinary World, but this isn’t the same world he left—he isn’t the same person anymore. The problem is…you can never go home. We all know that. And worse than that—your Hero hasn’t resolved anything in Act II. The Villain is pissed off, and follows the Hero back to the Ordinary World, putting that world in jeopardy. The Road Back is hard, and if your Hero fails, he’ll never go home again. He may have even met some would-be Heroes stuck in the Limbo, unable to overcome their fears and forever lost in the Special World. Maybe he can help those lost souls home too.

uOttawa vs Queen's.  Gee Gee's win 13-12 Our benchwarming Quarterback now has a bug up his butt. In Act II he discovered that his nice, safe, comfortable world no longer exists. To return back home, he must keep moving forward. In some ways he’s become the Villain. He abandoned his team on the field, he abandoned his family at the hospital, and of course he tells his girlfriend he never wants to see her again. His Road Back is hard. He’ll never be the Benchwarming Quarterback again. He’ll never have that special relationship with his girlfriend again. He may never be able to speak with his father again. But…what now? Who is he? All he knows is that he has to win this game. It’s become more than a game—it’s a life and death struggle, with his father’s life held in the balance.

He returns towards the end of the 3rd Quarter, and his team is still losing. As he enters the field, he sees his team’s starting QB struggle, limping around the field, the other team crushing him to the ground again and again. It’s fourth and long, and they have to punt. Our Hero dons his helmet and runs on the field. In the confusion, a man runs off, keeping their side at 11. When the ball is hiked, he steps in front of the punter, takes the ball, and runs like a flamethrower is aimed at his back. The opposing team is confused as he runs the ball down the field, leaping would-be tacklers, spinning and driving, bowling over one last man and making a first down by inches. Coach is screaming, the starting QB is ranting, but our Hero refuses to leave the field. It’s his game now. Still down by three scores, it will take everything he has to lead his team to victory. He will win this game, or he will die trying. Time is running out.

The Road Back Goals

  • Return to the Ordinary World. Stick to your Hero’s original Goals. Why did he enter the Special World in the first place? What did he learn there? How has his life changed?
  • Your Hero has few Allies left. Everyone else wants to go home, too. He must rally them for one last battle.
  • Raise the Stakes. Your Ordinary World is no longer a safe place. Your Hero is now the Villain’s #1 Most Wanted.
  • The pace should be excruciatingly fast at this point.
  • Starting casting doubt on whether the Hero will actually succeed. The final outcome should always be in question, and in fact doubtful.
  • This is why movies like The Wizard of Oz and Circle of Iron are such great examples of The Hero’s Journey. The HJ isn’t about finding out what’s “out there,” it’s about finding out what’s inside of you, about finding out who you are and what matters to you the most.

Non Goals

  • Do you really thing this is a good place for backstory? Any new information at this point is more of the nature of a “reveal” than world-building. “Oh, BTW, the girl you like is actually your half-sister”.  D’ohh!
  • Pretty much anything goes at this point, as long as it raises the conflict. Special and Ordinary Worlds intermingle. Clashes erupt.
  • No big world-changing revelations—yet. Trying hard doesn’t cut it. Using your skills doesn’t cut it. A transformation is coming,  Strip your Hero down to his most raw, naked self, because his trial by fire is about to begin.
  • The point is not for your Hero to win. It’s to learn something precious. What is the lesson? Also, remember what makes a true Hero. It’s not success. It’s sacrifice. What is he willing to sacrifice? And more importantly, what is he not willing to sacrifice? What is the absolutely most important thing in his life?

For me, this is always the most exciting and interesting part of the story to write. I can’t wait to write the next page, to find out myself how my Hero will act in the end. I learn more about my Hero in the last ten pages of the book than in the previous 300. You’ll find out what that “most important thing” is, more than a thousand pages of backstory will tell you.


  1. You're right--it is all about the sacrifice! It's the split-second when the hero is forced to make a "real" decision. It could be that he decides/acts the way he always thought he would, but it's so much more fun when he realizes that imaginary situations are MUCH different when you actually have to face them.

  2. This is great stuff. Can't wait for more.

  3. Thanks!
    Only two more entries in the series (sniff).
    But I may analyze a couple popular movies in future posts. Movies are fairly easy to analyze because most major studios use well-established story structures. Definitely up for suggestions.

  4. I was familiar with the Hero's Journey but I guess had never analyzed it in detail. This has been an interesting series... lots to think about.

  5. I'd like to know why my posts don't show up. Are you editing me?!?!?


    Another great post in a fabulous series. I will read it from start to finish before I begin editing my NaNo09 Novel.


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