What do you get when you string a bunch of scenes together?
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 five essential scenes to write in your next Hero’s Journey story!
5 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.
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 Lord of the Rings fan, 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!”
But this moment can’t be as simple as the hero stepping forward like smiling Captain America to say, “I’ll do it!” Because the “Choice to Go” is never an easy one, even for a courageous guy like Steve Rogers.
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?
Make sure you get this moment right, because it will get your story started off on the right foot!
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.
Yet 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.
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.
It can’t be any different for your hero. Once your hero leaves home and starts the adventure, give them a test that leaves a few scars (physical, emotional, or both!). Then your hero will be properly initiated.
3. 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.
Perhaps a monster is terrorizing the town and must be defeated. Sometimes a servant of that Shadow takes control of a city or castle, enslaving its people, and must be ousted. Or the Hero will be sent on a “fetch quest,” a task to acquire a rare or precious object guarded by a menacing beast.
Remember Episode 2 of The Mandalorian, when the Child saves Mando from the mudhorn? That was a Task — a fetch quest, to be specific — that served to forge a bond between Mando and the Child.
You probably don’t even remember what he was facing the mudhorn for, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. What ultimately matters is the lesson the Hero learns while completing the Task.
That’s what the Task is all about: Growth. We learn the most when the stakes are highest. And heroes are no different.
So give your Hero a task, perhaps near the end of your story’s second act, and give them something important to learn through the challenge.
4. 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. And the death must feel permanent.
A number of contemporary films have blown this step, wounding their story’s potency in the process. Because if the audience doesn’t think the loss is for real, then the resurrection won’t be for real, either.
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.
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.
Here’s another one that I’ve written about before: Inside Out.
Joy and Bing Bong fall into the Memory Dump, a black pit where memories go to die. Everything that goes there, the audience learns over and over, stays there. Once something goes into the dump, it’s never coming back.
And the film just tortures you down there! Joy clings to memories of Riley — precious, sweet memories of a younger, more innocent Riley — and they crackle and fizzle into nothing in her arms. She sobs. You sob. We all sob.
As you probably know, Inside Out doesn’t stop there. It resurrects Joy . . . but at the price of sacrificing Bing Bong, the imaginary friend. That movie goes there.
And you feel it. You feel every ounce of those losses, the tangible (Bing Bong) and intangible (a memory of a simpler, more innocent time as a child) yanking at your heartstrings.
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.
5. 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.
Imagine if the original 1977 Star Wars simply ended with Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and Han hugging and cheering. You’d probably think, “Yay, good for them.” But by ending with the award ceremony, filmmaker George Lucas reminds the audience that this isn’t just about the protagonists. It’s about everyone.
And that’s why the film’s first audiences exploded into cheers when the credits began to roll.
Plan Around Essential Scenes
These five situational archetypes represent key moments in a Hero’s Journey. As a list, they represent:
- The Inciting Incident (“Choosing to Go”)
- The start of the adventure (“The Initiation”)
- The middle emotional high (“The Task”)
- The emotional low (“All Hope is Lost”)
- The final emotional high (“Hero Returns with Blessings”)
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.
Are there more “essential” scenes than these five? Probably. (And I’d love to hear what you think they are in the comments below!)
But to give you a place to start, stick with these five situational archetypes. Then use the essential Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey to start building the dramatis personae of this epic adventure you’re crafting!
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.
But 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.
Think of the Hero’s Journey story you’ve been planning throughout this series. (Want to start planning a Hero’s Journey? Find the full series here.)
Now, choose one of these “essential” scenes. How will you incorporate this scene into your Hero’s Journey?
For fifteen minutes, free write the scene 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 comments below. Then leave a piece of constructive feedback on another author’s post!