Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #77:

The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Three: Singular Plot in Practice

With thanks to George Lucas and The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

by Shannon Appelcline

June 20, 2002 - Last week I offered a structure for plot based on the Hero's Journey described by Joseph Cambell. If you haven't yet read Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #76, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Two: Singular Plot in Theory, I suggest doing so, as this week's article is very much a continuation.

The Hero's Journey structure is intended to be a sort of recipe — a skeleton that you can hang a plot upon. This week I'd like to expand upon that structure by offering a few examples, then suggesting how the mythological plot structure needs to be adapted for the online game forum.

Before I go further, though, I'd like to make one note: you should only use a plot structure if it's appropriate for the story you're trying to tell. The Hero's Journey plot structure that I'm describing here is in essence a quest plot structure. It's great to use occasionally, when you want a story to have a particularly mythic feel, but you probably won't be able to use it every time out.

Star Wars: An Example of Structure

Over a decade ago Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell engaged in some long interviews which were later turned into a PBS miniseries called Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Moyers used, as his hook for the series, the fact that George Lucas had explicitly followed the Hero's Journey plot structure when creating his beloved science-fiction film, Star Wars.

(It's a good story, and it may or may not be true. Galactic Gasbag, published by, suggests it's a bunch of hooey, but the author seems to revile Lucas and Campbell in equal proportions, so it's hard to take his theories seriously.)

Through all this, Star Wars has become, to some of us in intellectual circles, the poster boy for the Hero's Journey. Nonetheless, I'm going to use it again as an example here, because it's well known, and it's a topic I've discussed before.

For more information on all the plot points of a Hero's Journey, again see last week's article. This is the short hand. Thanks to Elisa Spark's Star Wars page which was my primary source for connecting up the Journey to the movie, though my notes below don't entirely agree with Elisa's analysis on her web site.

Part One: Departure

The Hero of Star Wars is, of course, Luke Skywalker. It's his journey that we'll be chronicling. The Herald Appears in the form of R2D2 who later offers a Call to Adventure — a holographic distress call from Princess Leia. The Guide Appears at this same time in the form of Obi-won Kenobi, saving Luke's life. Almost immediately, the guide supplies Talismans, giving Luke his father's light-sabre.

However, Luke at first Resists the Call because he's just a simple country boy — until he finds his family killed and home destroyed. Luke realizes he's going to have to journey into the Other World; though he doesn't know it yet, that Other World will be the Death Star.

The Guardian at the Threshhold is a hive of scum and villainry: Mos Eisley. Luke is able to traverse it and, through the aid of new friends, begin to Cross the Threshhold, jumping into space in the millennium falcon. The crossing of the threshold is completed just a short time later when the Millennium Falcon is drawn into the Belly of the Beast — the Death Star.

Part Two: Initiation

It is in the Death Star that Luke faces his Trials. Evil soldiers (stormtroopers), fierce dragons (the trash compactor beast) and other travails are all here. But eventually Luke perseveres.

Within the Death Star, Luke clearly Finds Maturity and gains rewards to bring back to his community. You could actually apply several of Campbell's "maturity formulas" to the middle part of Star Wars. Perhaps Lucas intended all of them, perhaps none.

The Meeting with the Goddess can clearly be seen in his discovery of his sister, the Princess Leia, who was not known to be a sister at the time, and thus was a possible love interest.

The Atonement with the Father could potentially be seen as part and parcel of Ben Kenobi's death at the hands of Darth Vader. I have little doubt this event brought Luke maturity.

However it's really in bringing Leia and the Death Star plans out of the Death Star that Luke discovers The Ultimate Boon. These things will help his community if he can just get them out of the Other World.

Part Three: Return

Luke must Resist Temptation in order to escape the Death Star. It is clear that he would like to avenge Ben's death, but instead he takes the hero's route, leaving to begin a Magic Flight. Eventually Luke and friends escape from the Death Star, and the Return Threshhold is Crossed.

Luke's initiation is not represented by just the plans that he brings to the alliance, but also the new maturity he has discovered, giving him power over the Force. Thus he both Offers the Elixir and proves himself the Master of Two Worlds when he uses the force and the weakness revealed by R2's plans to guide him in the destruction of the Death Star.

The Victorious Homecoming is marked by a reward ceremony that ends the movie.

Castle Marrach: An Example of Structure

Star Wars is a great example of how an existing creative work may be analyzed using the Hero's Journey structure. I hope it's offered some interesting insights, including the fact that the structure can be varied a bit (as in the fact that Luke is initiated in multiple ways), that it can be out of order (as in the fact that the technical call to adventure actually follows Luke meeting both the herald and the guide by quite a bit), and that things can be abstract (as in the Death Star as Other World).

As one more example I'd like to offer a freeform creation of a plot using the Her's Journey structure, with Castle Marrach as a background. This plot has no connection with actual plots intended for the game (except by chance), and is merely me making a pass through ideas in order to form a simple sample story. Heck, the Other World I described probably isn't what's really in that location in the Marrach world. It's also a really rough plot sketch, just meant to once again exemplify the structure.

To begin any Hero's Journey plot structure, you really need to know either what the quest object is or what the Other World will be (or both). When brainstorming this article I came up with several potential Other Worlds for Marrach. Outside the Castle is the most obvious one. The Outer Bailey could be a rather interesting Other World to an Inner Bailey denizen. We've heard of faerie realms, which are a very traditional Other World. However, for my sample plot, I've decided to go with secret caves and caverns far beneath the Castle.

I stumbled upon a quest object in this initial brainstorming too: the lost dreams of a man dead for millennium, which can somehow be discovered in these dreamy realms below.

At that point I quickly stepped through a simple outline which could bring someone through an entire Hero's Journey, one point at a time:

  1. Departure
    • Call to Adventure. A hero begins to have terrible dreams which depict caverns far beneath Marrach; these are sometimes mixed with nightmares of a death that the hero knows was not his own.
    • Call Resisted. Pfah! Bad dreams! The hero tries to ignore them.
    • Helper/Guide Appears. Eventually the hero consults the Rememberers. Sessions with them at first seem to do no good, but the next night the hero wakens from his dreams to find those dreams taking solid form as the ghost of the man who's death the hero remembers. The ghost beckons the hero downward, says that there are great treasures to be found, and that it is the only way the dreams will stop.
    • Talismans Supplied. The Rememberers supply the hero with herbs which will allow him to reawaken the ghost figure again, to gain further advice.
    • Guardian at the Threshhold Met. The Watch has the keys to the upper realms of Marrach Under and they must be won over or otherwise defeated.
    • Threshhold Crossed. After slipping below the dungeons, the hero finds secret passages which carry him lower.
    • In the Belly of the Beast. Eventually he begins to recognizes the caverns as being like those from his dreams.
  2. Initiation
    • Trials Faced. There's all kinds of terrible stuff down here, all thematically related to lost dreams, dreams, or the terrors that the hero's guide faced.
    • Supreme Ordeal Faced. Eventually the hero discovers where the guide's dreams reside, but the chamber is guarded by a terrible beast of nightmares which must be defeated.
    • Reward/Maturity Won
      • The Atonement with the Father. The hero accepts his guide's dreams into himself.
      • The Ultimate Boon. The hero also wins the boon of knowledge, for he discovers that his guide was killed by an evil conspiracy who still has roots in the Castle.
  3. Return
    • Return Begun
      • Emissary. The hero leaves the caves below as an emissary, now controlling the dreams which once controlled him.
    • Return Threshhold Crossed. He passes back up into the dungeons, then Marrach proper.
    • Victorious Homecoming
      • Elixir Offered. He reveals his knowledge of a black force within the Castle.
      • Master of Two Worlds Achieved. Through his knowledge of the lands below and above, he may now pass between them unhindered.

Heroic Journeys in Online Games

If fleshed out, I'm confident the above journey could be turned into a good story. However, I think that it might be a little harder to turn it into an good online story. The core fact is that online stories have to do a lot of different things as I discussed in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #24, Movies, A Structure for Plot, Part Three.

They need to entertain lots of people. This story clearly doesn't, but it could be expanded. Perhaps a number of people are all being plagued by these dreams, forcing them to come together, forming a new society, and thus facing these challenges together.

They need to allow for different player decisions. This is going to be really hard in any Hero's Journey, because such journeys are, by definition, linear. The way to resolve that is to actually create an Other World which is rich and full and which players will be able to take multiple routes through. If you've managed to include lots of people, per the above suggestion, different people will probably take different routes, thus wasting nothing.

They should be part of a larger story. This, I think I've done, by including Rememberers and Watchmen and by offering the possibility of future stories afterward, based on what happens with that "elixir". It could probably be expanded by integrating this guide/man-whose-dreams-are-lost better into the overall story of the Castle.

I'd also like to add one rule which wasn't in my earlier article about online plots:

As much as possible, you should ensure time spent on a plot isn't wasted. In this particular plot, much time would be spend designing the lower realms. That time wouldn't be wasted if you used this plot as an "opening" of the realms below, allowing people to pass through them once the initial plot was done. And, that was something I intended when I designed the piece. (Conversely, if I'd decided upon Arcadia or the Mountainside as my Other World, my work might well have been wasted, since those realms seem less appropriate for ongoing use.)

Finishing Thoughts

Together with my outlines last week, I hope these examples and thoughts provide what's needed to make concrete use of the Hero's Journey when plotting for online games.

I'd like to once again mention Kimberly Appelcline's article, The Elements of Good Storytelling #4, Plot Strategies, which is a nice companion to this piece and offers a much shorter discussion of the Hero's Journey.

I should also note that this is the second time I've broken down the plot structure of Star Wars. The first was in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #22, Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part One, where I described it as a movie-plot structure. Analyzing Star Wars twice was very purposeful, and something I planned when I wrote that first piece over a year ago.

Which plot structure is right for Star Wars? Both? Neither? The real fact is that plot structures aren't meant to be dogma. George Lucas might have been considering one plot structure when he wrote Star Wars or both or neither. In any case he definitely didn't outline it in exactly the way I analyzed it. Use plot structures as tools, only as far as they help you to tell interesting stories, and no further.

In the next article I want to talk about mythical archetypes as the characters in mythic stories. I'm hoping to have that here next week, but I have to do some of that annoying research again, so we'll see.

Recent Discussions on Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities:

jump new