Beyond the Conventional: Two Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey

If you’ve seen Star Wars or just about any Disney animated film, you’re familiar with the Hero’s Journey: An unlikely hero is thrust into an adventure by an Inciting Incident and must confront Challenges, usually three of them, to find the Holy Grail. In the process, the hero undergoes an initiation and comes of age, bringing wisdom and power back to his or her home. Along the way, the hero meets mentors and friends who provide crucial guidance.

The ‘Hero’s Journey’ sprang from the writings of Joseph Campbell, a mythologist who examined thousands of myths and stories from all over the world. He believed that the Heroic structure was a ‘monomyth,’ a deeply ingrained and expressed across cultures and languages.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Campbell’s structure. What has happened, however, is that it’s become ubiquitous and overused. A slavish adherence to the Hero’s Journey has resulted in the proliferation of entrepreneurial, social impact, nonprofit stories that, essentially, all sound the same:

For organizations:

Bob wasn’t doing well.

Bob found our organization and went through our amazing programs.

There were some bumps along the way. . .and now Bob is doing great!

Give us money.

For individual entrepreneurs and leaders:

I wasn’t doing well. I’d hit rock bottom.

I found this amazing thing.

Now I’m doing much better and want to help you.

Follow me / Hire me / buy my thing.

As recently as 7 or 8 years ago, these linear stories worked well. Now, it’s less likely.

To really stand out and keep an audience’s attention, it’s often no longer enough to tell a well structured hero’s journey story with integrity and authenticity. This creates the opportunity to look beyond the Hero’s Journey and explore other structures.

Below are two such structures.

Structure One: The Touchstone

In this structure, you introduce a single image/moment of decision or tension and present it with a minimum of context. In essence, you’re dumping the audience into the middle of a situation without much of a sense of where they are or why.

With that image or moment established as a touchstone, you backtrack to fill the image and place it in context. What brought the main character to this moment? What is at stake?

You bring the audience back to the touchstone moment and complete the story, resolving the decision or moment of tension.

When experimenting with and using this structure, here are a couple of thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. This structure is achronological. You start in the ‘present,’ move into the ‘past,’ and then return to the present before carrying the story forward. This creates a sense of disorientation in the audience and inspires curiosity. That said, it’s important to make sure the timeline is crystal clear so they don’t get lost!
  2. The touchstone image or moment should be a moment of maximum stakes or tension. In a traditional ‘Hero’s Journey’ narrative, it would the climax, the point at which the main character undergoes a significant shift.

Here’s how it looks in diagram form:

For examples of this structure, check out episodes of Battlestar Galactica or this story I told at a performance back in 2011.

Structure 2: The Wagon Wheel

This structure works well when you want to examine a person, relationship, or theme from several different perspectives.

Let’s say you want to show how many different stakeholders come together to support the transformation of a client. A hero’s journey narrative would center on the client’s point of view. The Wagon Wheel places the client at the center of several different narratives. Here’s how it looks in diagram form:

Like the Touchstone Structure, this one is achronological. The contributing narratives may have occurred at different times and involve different characters. In fact, while their stories are significant to the central theme or character, the people who drive the contributing narrative may not even be personally connected with the central story.

I’ve found this structure to be particularly useful when attempting to communicate complex systems in human terms. For example: a central narrative may be the moment that a person experiencing homelessness signs a lease. On it’s surface, the moment may look simple. But creating the circumstances that made that moment possible required the dedication of multiple people and systems, each of which is its own contributing story. By focusing on the human center of each story, the complex ecosystem becomes much more accessible. And we don’t have to use words like ecosystem.

These are just two of many different structures. Where do you see them in the world around you? What other structures do you notice in films, TV shows, or advertising? Let me know what you notice. And feel free to reach out with other structures and questions!