What do Avatar, The Godfather, The Devil Wears Prada, Finding Nemo, Casablanca, Chinatown, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, When Harry Met Sally, Gladiator, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sleepless in Seattle, The Matrix, No Country for Old Men, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Kite Runner, Million Dollar Baby, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Shrek, Dances with Wolves, Titanic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Citizen Kane, Wall-E, Pirates of the Caribbean, Slumdog Millionaire, It's a Wonderful Life, Rocky and A Christmas Carol all have common?
They are all based on the story-telling and screenwriting framework known as The Hero's Journey, or the Monomyth, as delineated by Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949.
Campbell studied myths from different cultures that have lasted for thousands of years and believes that they all carry common threads that touch us on a deep level. Hundreds of successful movies, many of which won the Oscar for best picture, employ the template of The Hero's Journey.
Many successful novels have also benefited from this template, and the screenplays based upon them were made into wildly successful movies, such as No Country for Old Men, The Godfather and Q & A (Slumdog Millionaire).
Although you may think that using a template constricts creativity, the wide variety of films listed above should convince you otherwise. You would be hard-pressed to convince untrained observers that all of these movies are essentially the same story, but they are. And yet they're not. That is part of the beauty and magic of this template. You can tell so many different kinds of stories with it.
What makes them different are the characters and their situations, their overall goals, the setting, the obstacles, pacing, themes, the surprise elements, plot twists, approaches to creating suspense, the dialogue, use of humor or lack of it, the genre and more.
So what is The Hero's Journey? It is essentially a series of progressive steps, experiences and changes that the Hero undergoes in an attempt to solve the main story problem. Please be aware, lest the PC police are reading this, Hero is not a gender-specific term. It is an archetype. It represents a focal point in the form of a person, male or female, for the story. The Mentor, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, is also an archetype, and is also found in many of the best stories.
It is also important to note that the journey, though often a physical one, such as in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, can also be an internal one, such as the character arc of Michael Corleone in The Godfather or Andy in The Devil Wears Prada.
Many of the best screenplays employ both inner and outer journeys. The bottom line is, if you want to be successful at screenwriting, you may want to study and master The Hero's Journey.
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