by Oliver Paglia
The acclaimed expert on mythology Joseph Campbell once wrote, “The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life.”
More than just mere escapism, fantasy adventure stories paint vivid examples of courage, daring and often sacrifice that give us a glimpse into our own potential depths and darkest fears. How is it that such stories, sometimes branded as pulp escapism, can engage and enthral us in such a way? Well, storytellers great and good have been following the same themes for centuries, and below are five steps that will give you an insight into the methods that have kept audiences coming back for more, generation after generation!
1. The Dichotomy of Two Worlds.
Whether the adventure starts in the sleepy comfort of the Shire, or the harsh, sun blasted wastes of Tatooine, or even the dysfunctional, drab English household of Harry Potter, what is known, familiar and perhaps even safe is a usual opening for an adventure story. It could be a satisfactory life, perhaps, unless you’re a hero!
In contrast, behind the veil of a hidden portal, sternly guarded gateway, vast, uncharted ocean or dark, foreboding forest lies a land of danger, wonder and intrigue, where the rules of domestic life no longer apply. To establish these two realms is a good start. It could be Hobbiton vs. Mordor in the LOTR, either side of the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia, or the many strange islands Odysseus became stranded on returning to his home of Ithaca. Whatever and wherever it is, same-old same-old WILL NOT SUFFICE! The domestic warmth of hearth and home must be journeyed beyond.
2. The Reluctant Hero.
Did Bilbo first want to leave the comfort of his hobbit hole? Was Luke Skywalker not guilty about leaving his uncle’s farm? The answer is no! This is the usual response to a call to adventure. But as all who have read the book and seen the films know, fate takes over and whether they choose it or not, the adventure starts.
3. Leaping Into the Unknown.
Once the adventurers have crossed over into the other world, they are well aware there may be no coming back, and many lesser men and wise sages go out of their way to mock and warn the hero of such an undertaking. Sometimes they suffer a defeat and fall across the divide damaged. If they are clever or strong, they may outwit or defeat some monstrous guardian. But however they do it, they must take a leap of faith and begin the quest in earnest.
4. Realising a Purpose.
Even if the adventurer doesn’t fully understand where he is going and why, a purpose beyond himself and his own interests must be realized, though it may not be what was first intended.
For example; sometimes the hero may encounter the supernatural feminine and have inner secrets revealed, then enter into the embrace of a sacred marriage. Or, he may confront a tyrannical paternal figure to defeat him or rescue him from the error of his ways. But usually, a coveted object is stolen/ liberated to be put to the proper use it was intended for.
5. A Dangerous Passage Home.
But, the worst of it is often not over! Even after the hero has rescued the princess, slain the dragon and made off with the buried treasure etc.… there is one final hurdle.
Just as our brave traveller had to ‘leap into the unknown’ (see step 3 above), now he must return, often encountering the same trial to get back home. The troll-ogre he fooled is angrily waiting for him, or the Nazis chase after Indiana Jones for the stolen Arc of the Covenant. But sometimes, it is the inhabitants of his original homeland that harass the hero, not recognising him on his return or shunning him for leaving in the first place. This can be where the adventure can turn to tragedy, if the protagonist of the tale hasn’t learnt enough on his journey to prepare him for this last stage.
But, for the most part, after all is said and done, order is restored, peace returns, and the reluctant adventurer, underestimated by most, brings a new, reviving element to his tame or troubled neighbours, perhaps, one day, to go on another adventure all over again.
Whenever I sit down to write a novel or screenplay, I find it best to envisage a narrative as a cycle. Many a book, article and blog post has been written about three-act structure; beginning, middle, end etc. This is all very good and well depending on what genre and style you are going for, but personally, I have often found it lacking in depth and meaning, and is taught sometimes in an arid, perfunctory way, sucking the life out of aspiring writers before they even attempt a major work.
Above I have tried to summarize some key parts in a style of storytelling without becoming bogged down in technicalities. Whatever you write, every line must start with at least a kernel of inspiration. I hope the steps I have outlined will help those wishing to begin that novel or hone their craft.
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About the Author: Oliver Paglia is a writer/filmmaker and was born and bred in Hampshire, south England, where he grew up on a small farm in the picturesque Test Valley countryside. He now lives in Reykjavik, Iceland with his veterinary nurse partner, Snæfriður Stefanssdottír. For many years Oliver has worked as a videographer in England and has a substantial portfolio of commercial and artistic film work spanning a broad variety of subjects.
Oliver’s artistic preoccupation is with the mythic; it is his view that it is one of the highest forms of artistic expression. It can be vague, yet illuminating, without a contemporary context yet insightful as to the human condition, absurd yet wise and dark yet moral. The legends of old are the stories that resonate with us on all levels. The Merewyrm’s Tooth: Animal Kingdoms Book One is the debut novel by Oliver Paglia. You can join Oliver on his journey by following him on Facebook or his author page.