Whether you know it or not, you are intimately familiar with Joseph Campbell’s theory of story called the hero’s journey.
I want to share with you how this apporach to story can be applied to telling real stories; whether you’re creating a documentary film, a wedding video, or a multi-part podcast series.
The basics of Campbell’s theory
Campbell wrote about it in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Since then, it has been used as a core explanation for great stories told since the dawn of communication. Christopher Vogler refined the concept in his 1998 book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, claiming it to be a key aspect of every successful film.
In short, the hero’s journey follows the path a hero takes in the course of a story: from humble beginnings, to receiving a call to action, taking the journey with all its trials and tribulations, then returning home a renewed person. Campbell originally described 17 stages a hero goes through. Vogler narrowed it down to 12.
Departure (Act 1)
- The ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting with the mentor
- Crossing the threshold into the “special world” Initiation (Act 2)
- Tests, allies, and enemies
- Approach of the innermost cave
- The ordeal
- The reward Return (Act 3)
- The road back
- The resurrection
- Return with the “elixir”
George Lucas famously used the Hero’s Journey model to formulate the original Star Wars film, Episode IV (along with a hefty dose of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.)
Translating to real-life stories
So how can The Hero’s Journey concept help you as a content creator? By giving you a framework by which you can recognize the equivalent roles in the stories you’re telling, then construct the story you’re creating in a similar fashion.
Granted, the stories you’re telling aren’t going to be identical to the stages outlined by Campbell or Vogler. But if you can identify those major roles, moments, and milestones, then combine them creatively to feel like a traditional hero’s journey, you will be able to craft something very special.
Case Study: My road to Kolkata
Just over six years ago when running my video production company, the primary focus of my work was worthy causes and non-profits. And one of the biggest clients was Peachtree Church in Atlanta, Ga. (formerly Peachtree Presbyterian).
Peachtree had a heart for one particular mission in India that rescued teen girls from Kokata’s horrible sex trade. They support Mahima, an aftercare home for girls rescued from sex trafficking.
Every year they would send a handful of church volunteers to Mahima to meet the girls, hear their stories, see their transformed lives, and get a first-hand look at the need. One of the things I really appreciated about Peachtree’s work with Mahima was that they weren’t there with an agenda to convert the poor Indian people. Although Mahima a Christian-based organization, the work they did was based first and foremost in rescuing those girls.
The first time I was introduced to Peachtree’s work with Mahima was back in 2013 when I produced a short film that highlighted a then high school student, Haley, that attended the trip and how that trip affected her. In that video, I interviewed them after the fact, using footage supplied by another company.
Two years later I was sent by Peachtree first hand. That year was the first time her parents went, and it was there I found my hero’s journey story.
My hero was Brittney Vincent, an Atlanta wife and mother who lives an extremely blessed life. She knows and appreciates those blessings, so taking this trip was going to be one of the greatest challenges she’s faced.
What made it more so was that she looked forward to sharing this experience with her daughter, Haley. Unfortunately, due to school responsibilities, Haley would not be able to attend that year.
That was a devastating disappointment for Brittney and set the stage for this real-life hero’s journey. The stages and elements of Brittney’s journey seem to track almost perfectly to Vogler’s stages.
- The ordinary world – Brittney and her family life at home
- The call to adventure – being asked to attend the mission trip that year
- Refusal of the call – she almost didn’t go knowing that her daughter couldn’t go with her
- Meeting with the mentor(s) – the executive director of Mahima, Smita Singh; and Ashok, the senior pastor of the Kolkata church that helps sponsor Mahima
- Tests, allies and enemies – the emotional toil, the fellow mission trip attendees, and the sex traffickers, respectively
- Approach of the inner-most cave – our walk through one of the red-light districts (I can honestly say, with no hyperbole, this was like a literal hell on earth, complete with dark alleyways, gnarly trees, and a temple to the god of death and destruction.)
- The reward – seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, and watching the dancing of the girls who have been rescued from that aforementioned hell on earth (or places like it).
- The resurrection, transformation, and return with “the elixir” – the profound change in Brittney’s life because of this trip, and her commitment to bringing this knowledge back to her family and friends so they can help make a difference (much the same way her daughter has done before)
Finding the Story
There were about five of us that attended this trip as representatives for Peachtree. In addition, there were three women from another partner church (Discovery Church), as well as the case workers and directors from Mahima, Mahima’s sponsor, JKPS, and the International Justice Mission (IJM).
I had to make a conscious decision whether to do a more straightforward documentary approach where I interview everyone and give relatively equal play to all involved, versus focusing on Brittney’s story. Neither way is right or wrong. But there was something about the mother-daughter connection and the hero’s journey of Brittney that inspired me. In the end, I think it made for a stronger film.
I did not go into this trip with the intention of telling a “hero’s journey.” Like most documentary-style videos I produce, I went in open to whatever story would unfold. But as the pieces fell in place, and as I recognized the roles, moments, and milestones, my course became clear.
My challenge to you fellow content creators is this: whether you’re telling the love story of a couple getting married, or you’re helping a company promote its brand, look for those roles, moments, and milestones in your client’s story. Then follow your heart and make something special.