What do you get when you string a bunch of scenes together? A story! But is it true that your readers also expect certain scenes in each book? Are situational archetypes a real thing?
Since stories are composed of individual scenes, it makes sense to study them and figure out which scenes your story will need. And if you're going to write a Hero's Journey (in any genre), there are some scenes, or situational archetypes, that your reader will instinctively expect your story to include.
Let's explore the essential scenes to write in your next Hero's Journey story!
8 Situational Archetypes Your Reader Expects
It's good to remember that your reader doesn't begin your story with many conscious expectations. Rather, readers possess a library of knowledge about great stories deep in their subconscious. It's these subconscious feelings that caused Joseph Campbell to start studying great stories, forming his monomyth of storytelling commonly known as the Hero's Journey.
And within that collection of reader expectations are a few story moments, colloquially known as scenes, that are essential.
The Hero's Journey scenes your reader expects are known as situational archetypes. These are critical moments of growth and sacrifice in your hero's story that must exist for the reader to leave your story feeling deeply satisfied.
When you know what your readers will expect, you can “hack” the process by planning and designing your entire story around these key moments and transitions. That way you know you're writing something that is based on sound storytelling structure!
With that in mind, let's get started.
1. The Choice to Go
After the Call to Adventure, every hero suffers a crisis of decision. Danger is near or is fast approaching. Someone has to step up and take action.
This is the “Choice to Go” situational archetype, and many of these scenes live in our memory. You probably remember when Katniss Everdeen shouts, “I volunteer as tribute!”
If you're a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you certainly remember when the Council of Elrond dissolves into chaos, only for Frodo to boldly declare, “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!”
That's when we know it's time for the journey to begin.
But this moment can't be simple. The “Choice to Go” is never an easy one. Prior to making this choice, there is often a rite of passage or quest in which the hero must prove his worth. Sometimes the choice to go is inspired by suffering, often taking the form of “the unhealable wound.”
Frodo acquires one of these on his way to meet Elrond. Huddled in the dark, the hobbits try to fend off the advance of the nine Ringwraiths, severely outmatched in this battle between good and evil. One of them stabs Frodo with a demonic blade, nearly killing him. This encounter with a creature of nightmare serves as inspiration for Frodo to stand up and do what is necessary to put an end to evil.
Choosing to Go on the adventure means sacrificing one's dreams. It means moving toward danger and death, and away from comfort and ease.
Show that struggle. Narrate it into the hero's thoughts or physicality. Does your hero's lip tremble as he forms his words? Does your heroine's mind race with terrified thoughts as she decides to do what is ultimately right?
2. The Initiation
Despite choosing to go on the adventure, the hero cannot yet be prepared for the final challenges that lie ahead. They must be trained.
We're not talking about a training montage, or the kind of training that occurs before the Call to Adventure, like training in kung fu.
We're talking about Initiation. Trial by Fire. The First Test.
Once your hero crosses the threshold into the world of danger, they must be initiated into that world. That means facing a new, staggering danger. It could mean being thrust into a task or challenge in order to join a band of companions.
This happens to Bruce Wayne in the film Batman Begins. Seeking the power to fight injustice, he comes to the League of Shadows for training; yet once he is finished, he is forced to execute a criminal to prove his loyalty. Foreshadowing the non-lethal pledge he will keep as the Caped Crusader, Wayne refuses and flees from the fortress instead.
The Initiation is essential to your reader because they know that the hero has to grow before facing the story's ultimate evil. Your reader also knows that trying new things comes with unpredictable challenges that you must overcome.
3. The Fall
Every hero makes mistakes. It's what makes them so relateable to the rest of us.
That's why almost every hero's journey has a scene in which the hero cuts corners. This corner-cutting almost immediately leads to the suffering of another, and often of the hero him or herself.
One of my favorite moments in the Harry Potter series occurs in the sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince. After enjoying the perks of the potions book that used to belong to the aforementioned prince, Harry finds a spell in its pages: sectumsempra. Harry has no clue what it does, but isn't afraid to use it when he gets in a battle with Draco. The spell slashes Draco open and blood is suddenly everywhere. Harry immediately realizes he's done something terrible, all because he willingly cut corners both with the book and the spell.
This loss of innocence is common to the human experience, which is why it's so important in our hero's journey stories. We all make mistakes. But when heroes make them, the consequences should be much more severe.
4. The Task
In addition to an Initiating challenge, the hero must complete a Task. This isn't their Initiation, and it isn't the final showdown with the Shadow, either.
So what is it?
The Task is usually a difficult action the hero must complete in order to help some innocent members of society. A classic example of this occurs in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker is tasked with rescuing a damsel in distress, Princess Leia. Captured by Darth Vader, Leia is practically impossible to rescue, raising the stakes for our hero.
In other situations, the hero must successfully achieve some superhuman deed, such as Odysseus's escape from the Cyclops in The Odyssey. Despite the great odds against him, Odysseus's cleverness is too much for the bumbling, one-eyed monstrosity.
Like scenes of Initiation, scenes of heroes completing challenging tasks are essential for your story. Not only do they portray your hero's skill or strength, but they portray change. We learn the most when the stakes are highest, and heroes are no different.
So give your Hero a task, perhaps in your story's second act, and give them something important to learn through the challenge.
5. Death and Rebirth
Many hero's journeys are secretly about the cycle of life. All things die but are somehow reborn, often through the natural recycling of minerals and the energy that sustains life. This duality creates a deeply moving archetypal relationship that you'd be wise to emulate in your story.
One story that captures this quite beautiful is The Lion King. It does so quite obviously with its opening musical number, but more meaningfully in how it redeems its fallen hero. Diminished into a much lower state of being than a king, Simba lives in the jungle with two loyal retainers, Timon and Pumba.
Yet he is called to action both by Nala, an old friend, and the wise baboon Rafiki. Gazing into a reflecting pool, Simba sees his own face before him . . . until it morphs into the visage of his deceased father. “Remember who you are!” Mufasa commands him. Moments later, Simba departs his life as an outcast and rushes home so he can take his rightful place as king of Pride Rock.
When you explore the polarity of death and rebirth, you are tapping into an energy source as old as life itself. While we all fear death, we rejoice at the idea of birth. Creating such a situation in your story will have incredible power!
6. Nature vs. the Mechanistic World
Have you ever noticed that the hero is often outmatched? And have you ever noticed that this is often true regarding nature and machines?
I'm reminded of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy's father has been taken prisoner in a German tank. Our hero, for his part, rides on a horse.
Yet there is something about this unfair competition that stimulates the imagination. Audiences love when the underdog wins, and we all instinctively know that nature will always get bullied by technology.
This is often true with intelligence: We love characters with innate wisdom and loathe characters with educated stupidity. Some people just don't have common sense.
We love loyal animals, a symbolic archetype called the “friendly beast,” because sometimes animals are more faithful than scheming humans.
This relationship also takes form in a variety of character types, including the “earth mother,” a feminine force that can be human, but doesn't have to be. However it appears, it represents the life-giving beauty that is unique to human females, and inextricably ties it to the cycle of nature.
There's something pure about nature, humility, and the animal kingdom, and infusing that purity into your story is a great idea.
7. All Hope Is Lost
If you're familiar with the Twelve Steps of the Hero's Journey, then you know the importance of the Resurrection step. In order for a Hero to truly achieve greatness, they must face death in a deep and meaningful way, suffer a temporary death (physical, emotional, or spiritual), and then rise again, thanks to their ingenuity, strength, purity, cleverness, kindness, or faith.
But in order to make the Resurrection work, there must be death, often at the hands of your story's devil figure. And the key is that this death must feel permanent to the reader.
That's why your Hero's Journey needs an “All Hope is Lost” scene.
Nobody does this better than Pixar. Not only do they make it seem like the hero's life or dreams are dead, Pixar twists the knife by letting the death linger for a moment too long.
In Toy Story, Woody, Buzz, and RC grind to a halt in the middle of the road as the truck — and their owner, Andy — speeds away. They are all alone. Woody watches in despair. He moans, “Oh no, no, no, noooo.” Buzz just lowers his head. In spite of these characters' eternal optimism, this moment of failure is just too much.
And for a moment — a deep, painful moment — all hope is lost.
You feel it. It's a real sensation of loss. And it's essential for your big climax to actually land.
Take this lesson from Pixar: Let your reader feel the loss. Don't undo deaths and don't wipe away losses . . . at least not too quickly. Make sure the reader agrees with your hero that all hope is lost.
Only then will the Resurrection matter.
8. The Hero Returns With Blessings
Reaching the end of your story must be a great feeling. Before concluding, though, you'll want to make sure all those good feelings properly transfer to your reader.
This is another area where many contemporary stories don't quite fulfill their audience's expectations. Especially in film, the story will include a scene where the hero obtains closure by saying goodbye, making amends, or receiving what he or she ultimately wanted.
But, for whatever reason, the film doesn't show the hero sharing the blessings of his or her adventure with the rest of the world. And that's what heroic journeys are ultimately about.
That's why your story needs the situational archetype where the Hero Returns With Blessings.
A film that absolutely nails this is Disney's Moana.
But first, let's rewind.
Heroes go on heroic journeys for one reason: Brokenness.
Heroes are required in order to make things right. And while the external journey focuses on an external villain, the Shadow, there is always a deeper journey occuring in the heart of the hero. That journey is one of selflessness, where the hero learns the value of putting society's needs before anything else.
In Moana, an island nation lives in fear of the water. This fear causes them to foolishly “stay the course,” even when their soil is cursed thanks to the selfishness of the demi-god Maui.
Moana, as you probably know, is selfless from the start. But it isn't about her journey toward selflessness; it's Maui's.
Having redeemed Maui and restored the heart of Te Fiti, Moana returns to her home island triumphant. Resurrection power follows her and the soil of her island is no longer cursed.
But she also brings the blessing of hope and courage. She went beyond the dreaded reef, faced a lava monster, and has come home victorious. Now the rest of her people can venture forth with the same hope and courage.
What a pile of blessings!
Moana concludes with incredible gravitas because it shows us what our hearts have been longing for: A brave, adventurous young woman leading her people over the sea to explore. It only adds a few minutes to the runtime, and provides the perfect conclusion to an already-great story.
So as you conclude your Hero's Journey, remember: It's not just the hero's story. It's society's story. If your hero comes home and blesses his or her people with gifts like life and hope, your reader will feel similarly blessed.
Plan Around Essential Scenes
These situational archetypes represent key moments in a Hero's Journey. By planning and drafting around these scenes, you can give yourself a simple roadmap to follow. These scenes contain a blend of excitement and danger, as they force the Hero to confront major challenges. They also contain some of the most potent emotional moments of the story.
But more than physical or emotional highs and lows, these scenes represent true-to-life moments that fulfill deep psychological longings in practically every reader. These are moments written into our DNA that we instinctively long for.
Remember: You're writing a story for a reader, and readers come to our stories with a lot of subconscious wants and needs they don't realize they have.
Now you know. And it's your secret weapon to writing a story that they love.
Can you think of other examples of these situational archetypes from stories you love? Tell us about them in the comments.
Choose one of the “essential” scenes above. Freewrite it for fifteen minutes without editing or worrying about where the scene is going. Just take the characters or personalities from your imagination, plug them into the scene, and go!
When you're done, post your Practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here. Then leave a piece of constructive feedback on another author's post!
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.