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Monday, February 3, 2020

The Hero's Journey Explained: The End

For the last couple of weeks, I've been talking about the Hero's Journey (the beginning and the middle), and today I'm back to talk about the ending of the story structure.

Reward: Seizing the Sword

During The Ordeal, the protagonist faced a trial that pushed them to the brink; they died, perhaps literally or, more often, figuratively (the old them died). Almost always this comes from having to confront some inner demon, a weak characteristic and/or a greatest fear (which plays into the theme). Now that they have faced such a crisis, they will be rewarded for it as they are reborn into something greater.

If they did die, literally, they will somehow come back to life--maybe through CPR, a prayer, or a magical item. If it was figurative, they'll be revived through a sudden realization, new information, a heightened level of determination, or perhaps something else.

The Reward may be something concrete--maybe the protagonist literally seizes a magical sword that will make her a more powerful fighter. But it can also be more abstract, like the personal revelation that brought him "back to life." Typically the Reward is what the protagonist truly came to the Special World for (whether or not she was fully aware of it at the time). In Star Wars, Luke rescues Princess Leia and gets the plans of the Death Star. In The Hobbit, the heroes regain the mountain and get treasure. In The Lion King, Simba finally realizes on a personal level who he is--the son of a king and true heir to the throne--as he gets to speak with his father one last time.

In a lot of stories, the Reward may be multiple things, something concrete and something abstract.

There is usually a moment of euphoria and celebration. Sometimes a bunch of people celebrate, like all the heroes going out to a tavern for food and entertainment. Or it might be more personal, like Simba racing to get back to Pride Rock as the music score crescendos happily.

After Mulan discovers the Huns are still alive, she rushes to tell the others, to tell the emperor even. No one listens to her because she is a woman (and a dishonorable one). But this leads to an idea, and a rebirth: a Mulan who now recruits men to dress and act as women to save all of China, including the emperor. A situation where being feminine can save everyone when being masculine can't. As the men act and fight disguised as women, we get that beat of euphoria, laughs, and celebration.

In Spider-verse

After The Ordeal, Miles has deep personal insight as the thematic statements coalesce. Miles doesn't need to fear that he won't meet others' expectations; it's his choice what to do and become; and that choice is put into action by a leap of faith.

Empowered with these epiphanies, he's ready to be Spider-man. After receiving these abstract rewards, he "seizes the sword" by grabbing concrete ones: venom-striking his way out of his hold, turning invisible, getting his own spider suit.

He has been reborn as something greater: Spider-man.

The Road Back

But the story isn't finished yet, because this new hero with her new abilities needs to prove herself by being put to the test. She came to the Special World and got what she needed, now she must use it against greater antagonistic forces, before she can truly return home to the Ordinary World.

After the celebration, it's time to get refocused. The hero may fully rededicate himself to the Adventure, and The Road Back may function as yet another threshold to cross--to something deeper, bigger, more dangerous, or different. Just as the hero has been reborn, the other antagonistic forces may have gained more power as well, sometimes even as a consequence of The Ordeal and the Reward. This may be a moment of retaliation. An antagonistic force that seemed to have been defeated may raise its ugly head again. The hero may have to draw upon and gather more strength.

The Road Back is a turning point that propels us toward the final climax of the story.

It is also another term that I think some people get confused about (and I personally think that is because of its name). This is not the denouement. This is the path leading to the climax. The reason it is "The Road Back" isn't because the story is over, but because the hero has learned whatever and grown however they needed to in order to do what is necessary to finish the story, and now they need to get back on track, on that road, to do that. 

With that said though, a quick search online will show that with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, some people say that the Hogwarts Express is "The Road Back" or that The Road Back takes place when Harry is unconscious after facing off Voldemort, but that doesn't make sense, since Vogler, who wrote the updated Hero's Journey states himself in his book that this takes place before the real climax. So I would argue, that he would argue, that The Road Back is the trio having to go through the trapdoor (and I would argue The Ordeal was when Harry faced Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest--which is a key part people seem to like to forget about when mapping it out online).

However, with that said, there are probably other variations of the Hero's Journey out there, which is why I mentioned at the beginning of this series that I was using Vogler's model, which is one of two of the most popular resources on the Hero's Journey.

But as always, the important thing is that you understand the shapes and structures--that's more important than arguing over terminology.

In The Hobbit, The Road Back is when there is conflict between the dwarves and the Lake Men and Thorin, which will lead to the Battle of the Five Armies (the climax).

In Spider-verse

Now that Miles has become Spider-man, he's ready to get back on track. He heads to the collider to face the antagonistic forces--which are stronger and more deadly than before, and his appearance is welcomed as his friends all take on the villains and try to stop the collider.

The Resurrection

Now this is the climax. Remember how the hero was reborn? Well, this is the moment to prove it.

Often at a critical point in the Resurrection, there will be an echo of The Ordeal--that crisis that betrayed our hero's weakness earlier. Here, they will be tested again (spoiler: and probably succeed this time). Can a woman honorably defeat the Huns and save China? Can the rightful Lion King take his place in the Circle of Life? Can Harry defeat Voldemort, when he had to be rescued by a centaur last time they met?

If there was a literal death and revival from The Ordeal, you may see it appear again here, but it won't be an exact copy. At my time of writing this, Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker just came out. You know what I watched for? The death and rebirth moment during The Ordeal (which takes place at the remnants of the Death Star). You know what I watched for during the climax? The echo of it. It's there. (Also worth noting is that both were foreshadowed at the climax of act I.)

In some stories, the Resurrection may be the hero simply facing physical death one more time--one more, most dangerous time. 

The climax is the final test of the Special World; often it's when the hero has to take what she has learned while there, to succeed. This means Mulan must succeed using the skills she learned as a soldier, while looking like a woman. In Legally Blonde, Elle must win the case by using what she learned in law school as Elle.

In The Hunger Games, the final test of the Special World is when Katniss is told she must kill or be killed by Peeta. She uses what she knows about the Special World to defeat the true antagonistic forces, at their own game.

As Vogler puts it, the Resurrection "should reflect the best parts of the old selves and the lessons learned along the way."

Yes, lots of other things can happen during the climax, but this final test is the crowning moment that proves Resurrection. In order for the hero to make it back to the Ordinary World, they must show they are someone new.

During the climax, the protagonist should almost always be the most active hero. Sure, there are a few exceptions to this, but they are rare. And when I say "active," I mean the hero is the one that defeats the main antagonistic force. In a lot of stories, you will have a "showdown," where the hero and villain go at it one on one. If the hero does not defeat the antagonistic force, they usually will have learned something very valuable from the experience, or if more tragic, they die (literally or figuratively) because they haven't learned something valuable.

In some stories, the major climactic moment may be the hero making a significant choice that illustrates how he or she has changed.

And there may be multiple climactic tests--often one for the inner journey and one for the outer, but sometimes these things overlap in the same moment.

And usually during the climax, the hero has to make or at least be willing to make, a big sacrifice (such as being willing to give up his or her life).

In Spider-verse

One by one the heroes take on the villains--who are stronger and more dangerous than ever before--and begin to return to their proper dimensions, until eventually, there is a showdown between Miles and Kingpin. This is the ultimate test--both of the inner journey and the outer journey. Kingpin knocks Miles down. Will he persevere? Will he get back up? Yes! Because he has learned not to quit. Using his new Spider-man skills, he defeats Kingpin and saves all of Brooklyn. He is fully resurrected.

Return with the Elixir

This is the denouement. In a traditional Hero's Journey, the hero now leaves the Special World to return to the Ordinary World, having gained something valuable to bring back, the "Elixir." Unsurprisingly, this can be literal, figurative, or both. A literal elixir might be a healing potion that will help loved ones back home. But a figurative elixir is the wisdom the hero has gained. He gained knowledge from The Ordeal, but when he exercised that knowledge in the real world, he gained wisdom. He is now ready to return home a changed person.

Vogler adds, "Writers will sometimes put their heroes through an experience at the Return that was difficult or impossible for them at the beginning, so the audience can see how they have changed."

In some stories, the hero may choose to stay in the Special World, but in either case, she has usually grown and changed and gained some kind of Elixir, as she returns to a sense of safety (relatively speaking).

The denouement validates changes that took place. Sometimes this is done through rewards and punishments. The hero is honored while the villain experiences poetic justice. And like in all falling actions, any significant loose ends will be tied up.

Harry, who started the story unloved and powerless, returns to the Dursleys having learned that he is loved so powerfully, it can even defeat the evilest wizard of the Special World.

Bilbo returns to the Shire with wisdom and treasure.

Katniss goes back to District 12, having gained insight on who the true enemy is, having saved Prim, and having gained allies--and not to mention the rewards she brings to her whole district for having won. (And Seneca is punished by death.)

Mulan returns home bearing gifts from the emperor, as the most honorable woman--and person--in all of China.

In Spider-verse

After defeating Kingpin, all of the changes are validated and loose ends are tied up. We see Kingpin caught in a web and handed over to police. Miles makes up (somewhat) with his dad. But most importantly, we see Miles implementing the Elixir--by not quitting. He applies himself in school and turns in his essay--two things he wanted to quit when in the Ordinary World. He says, "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to"--because he's persevering.

The Hero's Journey is one of the most popular story structure guides, but I hope through this process, you have also seen one of my points: That really, most of the guides are saying nearly the same thing, just from a different perspective, with different terms and emphases. They simply have their own methods of slicing and dicing.

But knowing multiple approaches can be helpful in planning and troubleshooting your own work. The Hero's Journey emphasizes the protagonist's adventure and growth, more so than some other guides. It also brings more mindfulness to certain features the others may not. For example, it might be that something feels off in your story because you don't have a Meeting the Mentor moment, and as you look at your own story through this structure, you might realize that. You might realize that you need to develop your protagonist's arc more, too.

However, as I said in the beginning, I also feel like this structure has weaknesses. As I've touched on, the terms themselves sound very specific, but what they are describing is rather broad, which can be confusing. Also, the terminology seems to emphasize the climax of the middle, rather than the climax of the end--but maybe that makes sense if this structure is more protagonist-focused, if what the story is "really about" is the protagonist "dying" and being "reborn." But the ambiguity can create confusion (The Road Back is pre-climax, for one, not post-climax).

While the Hero's Journey mentions antagonistic forces, it doesn't put hardly any focus on what they are doing, unlike the 7 Point Story Structure, which includes two pinch points, which are specifically antagonistic-focused.

I would say that the main thing is to find the story structure that best suits your understanding, and then refine it and test it through the other story structures. Remember, what matters is your understanding of it, rather than the exact definitions and terminology.


Just a quick note to say that I am looking to fill up some editing slots for spring. If you are interested in my editing services, check out Fawkes Editing.


  1. आपका यह लेख अत्यंत महत्वपूर्ण और सटीकता से मददगार है, जो कि मैं अभी तक,यहां तक अनभिज्ञ रहा। मुझे रुचि है और बहुत कुछ सीखने का आकांक्षी हूं, मेरी मदद करें। बहुत बहुत धन्यवाद।

    1. I'm so glad it has been helpful to you, and thanks for taking the time to comment. Best wishes with your writing.


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