What is the Universal Structure? The Hero Journey Explained

Psychological Film Theory - Film Theory - Genres - Hero Journey

As is the case with Blockbusters, most of the traditional stories that survived the passage of time in each culture have a very similar structure, something Joseph Campbell decided to name the Monomyth in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Some filmmakers not only refuse to follow the structure Hollywood seems to impose on everything it does, they mock the industry for it in some of their films. The Coen Brothers have always refused any typical structure and some believe they give a wink to the stupidity of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! in their film Inside Llewyn Davis. They not only deny the existence of a passionate and active main character who supposedly needs to be a hero-like figure (someone who saves the cat when it’s stuck in a tree), they show someone, like in most of their films, who’s trying to figure his way in life, failing most of the times, and, in the case of Llewyn Davis, loosing for almost the entirety of the film a cat identical to the cover of Blake’s book.

The thing that is important to take away from this, is that there’s no need to rely on the typical structure of Hollywood adventure films but most of the successful filmmakers, if not all, who have decided to break away with the tradition know that the rules exist. They know how to break them because they know them, some even by heart. Like a jazz player that has learned the basics of music, almost always from the classical genre, so that he or she can improvise and invent while still being in tune, most of the master inventive filmmakers have improvised after learning the core concepts.

The Hero Journey

Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood development executive, adapted the Monomyth to a book named The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. In it, he divides the hero’s journey of a typical adventure film into the three acts and to more specific twelve steps within that typical universal structure:

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