Ultimately, heroes confront death. They rise against the most powerful villains and the worst sources of evil imaginable.
And on their journeys, they often suffer the consequences of tangling with these bad guys.
But not all heroic journeys require villains on the scale of Sauron and Voldemort and Emperor Palpatine. Some villains are local bullies, arrogant coworkers, and voices of doubt in our heads. And even these villains require heroic efforts to overcome.
It’s time to tackle a difficult yet important step in your heroic story: the Resurrection.
If you get this step right, you’ll have a story on your hands that readers won’t be able to get enough of.
Let’s dive in!
Step 11: Resurrection
For starters, let’s give ourselves a working defintion of this crucial step:
The Resurrection is the moment when your hero has a final and ultimate encounter with death. In almost every case, the hero is able to survive the encounter through their strength, courage, wit, nobility, heroism, or teamwork.
How We Got Here
The Hero’s Journey is a well-known and oft-used mythological storytelling structure. Devised first by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the Hero’s Journey has been organized into Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step structure that many stories and films follow today. While you’ve undoubtedly read and watched stories that use this story model, you may not be familiar with how each step functions.
To reach the crucial Resurrection step, your hero must travel a long road:
- Your hero will always begin in some sort of Ordinary World, a slice of normal life where no one expects much of anyone.
- Then they experience a Call to Adventure that they are definitely not ready for, at least yet.
- The hero will refuse that call somehow . . .
- . . . and find themselves assisted by the wisdom and skill of a Mentor.
- After receiving ample training, the hero will cross the Threshold into adventure, the boundary between the familiar and the foreign, and voyage into a new world in order to begin their heroic journey.
- The story then enters the sixth phase, the world of Trials, Allies, and Enemies. where the hero will make friends, confront enemies, overcome tests and traps, defeat monsters, and prepare for the big challenge to come. The cast of characters expands and the central conflict deepens.
- Before the big climax, there is a moment of Approach, where the hero makes final preparations and often experiences a humble fall, where their pride takes over or their friends abandon them (for a while).
- The hero confronts the biggest conflict, known as the Ordeal, and makes a decision that wins them the prize.
- After succeeding at this task, they are usually Rewarded, but not in a long-lasting or ultimate way.
- This leads to a “fake-out” ending, in which the hero thinks they are done, or is chased by the Shadow or Devil Figure back home. The Road Back is what this step is commonly called.
After all that, it’s time to deploy the most important and heroic step in the entire journey. It’s time to do what heroes do: to confront death in a deep and meaningful way, and to emerge victorious in a way that restores other characters and community as a whole.
It’s time for Resurrection.
Types of Death . . . and Resurrection
When you think of “Resurrection,” you probably think of physical death. And this makes sense. Perhaps the most famous resurrection of all time, that of Jesus Christ, took place after a physical death.
However, not all heroic stories involve physical stakes of life and death. They deal, rather, with the death of dreams, hope, and self-esteem. They are battles fought in the places of everyday life.
With this in mind, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your hero needs to actually die. Rather, their dreams may die. Their hope may die. Their relationships may die.
In a nutshell, there are four levels or “planes” or resurrection you can use in your story’s climax, and they all involve a death and then a resurrection. These resurrection planes are:
- Mental / Emotional
For each death, there must be a resurrection of some kind. Sometimes a resurrection will occur across planes.
For example, a physical death might yield a spiritual rebirth, as in Braveheart.
- William Wallace physically dies –> His spirit is reborn in the Scottish rebels
Usually, though, the resurrection will remain in the same plane. Here’s how Star Wars handles resurrection:
- A New Hope, Spiritual: Obi-wan Kenobi is “killed” but disappears upon death –> Obi-wan speaks to Luke as a Force ghost
- A New Hope, Physical: The Rebels are about to be destroyed by the Death Star (death) –> Luke heroically destroys the Death Star
This carries on through the sequels, and ultimately Darth Vader is the benefactor of a spiritual and social resurrection:
- Return of the Jedi, Spiritual and Societal: Vader turns to the Dark Side and commits mass murder (death) –> Vader betrays the Emporer to save his son and help the Rebellion (societal resurrection) –> Vader is reincarnated as a Force Ghost, joining his mentors Obi-wan and Yoda in the afterlife (spiritual resurrection)
Before he passed away, Joseph Campbell proclaimed that George Lucas was his greatest student. By following an ancient, mythical story structure to assemble his space odyssey, Lucas was able to tap into the power of these classic stories and superpower his own story.
Make Your Hero Earn Their Resurrection
Resurrection can’t simply happen. It must be earned.
This will prove to be one of the greatest challenges you’ll face as a writer. You need to make sure that your hero, through their cleverness, skill, knowledge, ingenuity, compassion, sacrifice, or honor, is able to earn an escape from Death’s jaws. They cannot get lucky. They cannot be randomly saved because the villain suddenly changes his mind.
The hero must earn their resurrection with sacrifice. Otherwise your ending will feel like a cheat.
Before the final book in the Harry Potter saga was released, everyone had a theory on whether or not Harry would die. Many thought that the boy wizard had to die, given all his lucky encounters with evil throughout the wizarding world. Others felt that Harry and his friends had suffered enough and it was time to let them live happy, ordinary lives.
So when J.K. Rowling published Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the answer was revealed: Harry does die… sort of. Just like many other heroes, Harry faces death in an ultimate way. He marches into the Dark Forest, stands face to face with Voldemort, and gets blasted into oblivion with an Avada Kedavra curse. He dies.
Yet he doesn’t die. He enters a strange special world where he learns, thanks to the ghost or memory of Dumbledore, that he survived the killing curse thanks to the piece of Voldemort’s own soul living in Harry’s head. Harry survives not because he is an exceptional wizard, but because he is willing to sacrifice himself for his friends.
Harry earns his resurrection because of his sacrifice. He isn’t completely responsible for the mechanism behind it (Voldemort is), but this is thematically consistent.
How often do evil plans and twisted schemes backfire and blow up in the perpetrators’ faces? Such is the case with Voldemort who consistently failed to factor love and sacrifice into his plans.
I know this example might be overwhelming. After all, it is the culmination of a seven-book application of story structure. But the essence is the same whether you’re writing an epic series or a short story: Make your hero earn their resurrection with sacrifice, and plan ahead to put the mechanisms of the resurrection in place so your story isn’t fraught with plot holes.
Good stories resurrect their heroes, but great stories resurrect so much more.
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the best stories use the hero’s resurrection as a vehicle to restore other characters, and even society at large.
That’s why you can plan for and execute multiple resurrections in your story, and on multiples planes (physical, emotional/mental, spiritual, societal). While this may sound complicated, you can start planning it with a simple question:
On whom does my hero have the greatest impact?
Your hero isn’t doing hero stuff in a vacuum. They exist in a society with laws and justice and virtues. They have made friends and enemies on the journey.
When this hero faces death, nearly succumbs, but then makes a sacrifice in order to overcome evil, other characters are almost certain to be impacted by this.
So who is it? Who stands to experience their own mental or spiritual resurrection thanks to the hero’s deeds? How will society at large be positively affected by the hero’s selflessness?
As we already discussed, Luke Skywalker’s sacrifices resurrect Darth Vader at the end of the original trilogy. But even before that, his selflessness was inspiring other characters to be more honorable.
Think of A New Hope and how Han Solo decides not to fight the Empire with the Rebels. Luke challenges him to think of others more than himself. At first Solo refuses; yet he changes his mind off-screen and then reappears in the nick of time, surprising Vader and clearing the way for Luke to destroy the Death Star.
Han, a notorious selfish and brash person, put his own wellbeing aside for the greater good. That counts as a resurrection.
Here are a few prompts to get you thinking about multiple resurrections and how to incorporate them into your story:
- How can the hero’s Friends make sacrifices to defeat evil?
- How can the hero make sacrifices to save the Friends?
- How can the hero’s sacrifices make an impact on an Enemy?
- What “Greater Good” is the hero’s quest really about?
When you plan for, and pull off, a story with multiple Resurrections, you’re setting yourself up for incredible success. Readers want to see society restored. In order for society to be restored, individual characters have to be restored.
When your story reflects this reality, it wields tremendous power.
Resurrect Like Pixar
No one tells stories quite like Pixar. And while they have the occasional storytelling whiff out there (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), they usually stick the landing when it comes to the Resurrection. Here are some examples to help you see how the hero must earn their resurrection.
In Andy’s bedroom, Woody runs the show. He’s clearly the favorite and serves as a strong leader. However, when Buzz Lightyear appears and threatens Woody’s place as Andy’s beloved toy, Woody lashes out. He attempts to sideline Buzz and accidentally knocks him out of the window. What follows is a delightful adventure as Woody and Buzz try to get back to Andy’s bedroom before the family moves.
Yet the story isn’t so much about getting back to Andy’s room as it is about redeeming it. By violating the other toys’ trust, Woody has fallen from grace. He is no longer welcome in his home as the others believe him to be a murderer. To win back their approval and his place with Andy, Woody must overcome his pride and befriend the new “space toy” that took his place.
With this in mind, Toy Story features two deaths.
The first is emotional, as Woody and Buzz both succumb to despair in Sid’s house of horrors. The second is physical when RC runs out of battery power and the two toys are stranded on the road. Woody earns resurrections both times by putting his safety at risk: First by putting himself between Buzz and Sid, and secondly by lighting the rocket which will soon explode.
Both scenes are thrilling and high stakes, leading to a joyful reunification. Yet Pixar’s resurrections would improve as their stories and animation grew more complex.
Mike and Sully’s adventure is all about returning a “toxic” child, “Boo,” to her home. And when they are finally successful, Boo’s door is shredded in order to prevent such a situation from occurring again.
And while Mike has always been opposed to Boo’s presence, his heart has changed during the journey. He has seen what Boo means to his friend, Sully, and decides to make a huge sacrifice. Little by little, he reassembles the door from all the woodchips. And then Sully and Boo are reunited, their relationship resurrected (emotional).
Yet so much more happens here. Earlier, Boo is rescued (and thereby physically resurrected) by Sully. And by discovering that human laughter is much more powerful than human screams (for monster energy), Sully and Mike transform their society from a place of horrendous terror to one of joyful levity.
Society has been resurrected, all because of our heroes’ adventure.
Remy the rat longs to be a gourmet chef, and thanks to his noble (human) steed Linguini, is able to cook several game-changing dishes at Gusteau’s Restaurant. In the process he overcomes Chef Skinner, a conniving businessman intent on using the Gusteau name to sell frozen burritos. Yet after a falling-out with Linguini, food critic Anton Ego, known as the “Grim Eater,” has descended on Gusteau’s with the intention of destroying its reputation once and for all.
When Remy reveals himself to the cooks and Linguini explains how the rat has been controlling him, all the chefs abandon them. Linguini even cowers in his office, leaving Remy alone on the floor, his hope of becoming a chef effectively dead.
But through his devotion to cooking, Remy has earned his father’s respect, and sure enough, his father shows up with the rest of the rat clan to cook a meal for Ego.
Trusting his instincts about food, Remy cooks ratatouille for Ego, a dish that transports Ego to his childhood when a warm meal meant love from his mother. The devilish critic is stunned and can do nothing but shower respect on the rat who shocked him with great food.
The pale, death-dealing critic becomes an enthusiastic investor in Remy’s own restaurant, resurrected from his pit of bitterness and skepticism. Remy’s dream is, of course, resurrected now that he runs his own café. And society as a whole gets to enjoy Remy’s inspiring creations, rather than the frozen foods that Chef Skinner was mass-producing under Gusteau’s name.
After an embarrassing moment at her new school in San Francisco, Riley loses her ability to feel both joy and sadness. This is partially because her emotional cores, Joy and Sadness, have been swept into Riley’s long-term memory and cannot get back to headquarters to help Riley feel things properly again. On this journey, Joy believes wholeheartedly that Riley needs to be happy, and continuously tries to shut Sadness out and keep her away from the controls.
Yet it is finally in the deep, dark pit of the Memory Dump that Joy realizes the truth: Sadness is crucial. Sadness is the only way that Riley can process the dramatic changes in her life, and the only way to save Riley is to get Sadness back to HQ. Unfortunately, though, Joy is trapped in the pit with Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from a long time ago. How will they escape?
Well, if you’ve seen the movie, your tear ducts know the answer. They can use Bing Bong’s wagon-rocket, but it only has enough “song power” to save one of them: Joy. And as Joy reaches the top and looks back down into the pit, she beholds Bing Bong laughing and crying out with happiness that Riley will be saved . . . as he slowly fades into nothingness, and is forgotten. This sacrifice chokes me up every time I think about it.
Thankfully, Joy is able to take Sadness back to headquarters, and lets Sadness take the controls just as Riley is about to run away from home. Riley comes to her senses and hurries back to her parents.
She sighs . . . a mix of joy that she’s home and sadness that life is so hard . . . but the audience knows that all is going to be better. Riley’s emotional well-being is resurrected, and so is her family. Inside Riley’s head, Joy, too, is resurrected from her deadly narcissism into a new appreciation for her fellow Emotions.
Stick the Resurrection Landing
This is not an easy step of the Hero’s Journey to write. It will take you multiple approaches and drafts. Please . . . for the sake of your own well-being . . . go into the process knowing this.
What you are attempting to capture is the power of centuries of human truth. While physical resurrection is rare, emotional, mental, spiritual, and societal resurrection is familiar and dreamed of.
It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt of in his famous speech. It’s what Malala Yousafzai dreams of for girls in Pakistan and around the world. It’s what you, perhaps, dream of, when you look at your country, your city or town, your family, and yourself.
We long for resurrection because it fills us with hope. And portraying scenes of resurrection instills our stories with unbelievable, long-lasting power that has the potential to stick with our readers for a lifetime.
That’s something you don’t want to miss!
What Resurrections can you think of from your favorite stories? Let us know in the comments.
Writing a successful Resurrection requires a lot of planning. However, for our practice, let’s free-write without worry about all the buildup. Today, journal a scene where a protagonist faces an enemy in a moment that risks or requires a sacrifice. Remember that a sacrifice doesn’t have to be a physical death—but it can be!
Don’t worry about getting all the details right. Just take fifteen minutes to explore the beats of this crucial hero’s journey scene. When you’re done, ask yourself:
- Did the hero make sacrifices to defeat evil?
- Did the hero make sacrifices to save their Friends?
- Did the hero’s sacrifices make an impact on an Enemy?
- What “Greater Good” came from the hero’s sacrifices?
Post your Practice in the box below. Then find someone else’s Practice and leave constructive comments on it!
Enter your practice here:
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.