Crossing the Threshold: the webpage of Melinda Rose Goodin

The Hero's Journey -- a path to plotting. Examining "Lord of the Storm" by Justine Davis

By Melinda Goodin

The Hero's Journey is a traditional storytelling pattern that has appeared across many Western cultures. It follows ancient patterns of personality and relationships that can be found in the world's myths, legends and folk tales. These patterns may be familiar to anyone who has read fairy tales or mythology: questing heroes, the heralds who call them to the adventure, the wise old men and women who give them advice and magical gifts, shapeshifters who alternately assist and interfere with the quest, dark villains out to destroy the hero and those foolish sidekicks who cause trouble but also bring comic relief.

The main textbooks that deal with the Hero's Journey are Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey . Campbell's work is theoretical and technical, but fascinating reading. Vogler has synthesized Campbell's theories and placed them into an easily understood and implementable format. In this article, I refer to Vogler's more accessible text.

I swear by this theory - it's almost impossible to have a sagging middle if you follow Vogler's techniques. And the good thing about the Journey is it works for two main types of writers -- the "by the seat of the pants" writers can use it to analyze a complete first draft before rewriting, and the "plan it first" writers can set everything up and ensure all the characters and plot turns are in place. Although Vogler focuses on mystery/action/science fiction movies, the technique works just as well for popular fiction of any genre.

The "Hero" in The Writer's Journey is a generic and non-sexist term referring to the protagonist or character that has the most significant changes to make throughout the novel. In romance novels, the protagonist is usually the heroine, but in more cases recently, both the hero and the heroine act as protagonists. Each have their separate pathway to take, but the two journeys intermingle throughout the progress of the novel. Within this article, I will use the pronoun she to refer to the Journey's "hero", as "s/he" sends my word processor into an autocorrecting frenzy.

The Hero's Journey can be physical or emotional. An emotional journey, such as usually occurs in a romance, takes the protagonist from her normal state of affairs and challenges her ideas, beliefs and current existence. A proactive protagonists responds to such challenges, undergoing tests of her moral fiber and emotional strength. Frequently she will have to examine all that she has believed to be true before a major confrontation. It is here that she pulls victory from disaster. And it is here that she seeks to return to normalcy. Many writers believe this is the end of the journey. But it isn't.

The protagonist has not finished learning the lessons of the journey until she has released the old beliefs that had her stuck at the beginning of the story. If she can't do this, she really hasn't learned anything from her trials and tribulations. The final test often requires she let go of something she has cherished or hoarded for all of this time. Only when she has completed this final change can she return to a normal state of affairs, but her life will have been irrevocably changed.

The stages of the Journey are set out in the following general pattern:

We are introduced to the protagonist/s in their Ordinary World , where they receive the Call To Adventure . Often, they Refuse The Call , until circumstances or their Mentor encourage them to take the first steps. Once they Cross The First Threshold , they leave their ordinary world behind and step into a special world where they must learn the protocols and ways of passage. Within the special world they must pass Tests, earn the assistance of Allies and defeat or learn from Enemies .

When they are ready, or as time pressures them, the protagonist/s must Approach The Innermost Cave , crossing a second threshold. There they must undertake the Supreme Ordeal . Upon victory, they Seize The Reward and are pursued along The Road Back to their Ordinary world by vengeful enemies. It is on the road back that they cross the third threshold, and suffer a metaphorical Death And Resurrection as they give up those patterns of behavior, beliefs or possessions that they have held on to all this time and that stop them from truly changing. Then they can Return With The Elixir : they are a different person, one who will make a positive change to their ordinary world.

Each of these stages is examined in depth by Christopher Vogler, and he shows how to analyze movies and books to find the underlying Journey. The Journey is flexible enough to remain strong with the order of the stages changed or, in some cases, even missed altogether.

Justine Davis is one author whose novels progress clearly along the hero's journey. Analysis of her Rita award-winning futuristic Lord of the Storm shows how this old storytelling tradition lends itself well to futuristic, fantasy and paranormal romances. (Warning: this review and analysis contains spoilers.)

We are introduced to our protagonist, Captain Shaylah Graymist, in her Ordinary World . Despite being a renowned fighter pilot for the Coalition, Shaylah is unhappy with her life. Her parents believed in the ideals of bonding and love, as exemplified on the planet Trios. Even though such beliefs are anathema in the Coalition, Shaylah clings to her parents' beliefs. She loves flying her fighter Sunbird , but she can't be comfortable in the society that gives her the ability to fly.

Enter the Call To Adventure in the form of Wolf, a collared Triotian slave. The collar includes probes to Wolf's brain, forcing him to obey the instructions of anyone who holds the controller. Shaylah is fascinated by Wolf, but horrified when Califa, Wolf's owner and her Mentor , lends him to Shaylah for her pleasure. Instead she tries to become his friend. It is hard, because he has learned not to trust, but she gradually begins to make progress. In a misguided effort to give him some relief from his memories of his family's death and his slavery, she uses the controller to make him think he is making love to his dead wife rather than herself. All her efforts at friendship are destroyed when she fails to use the controller to make him forget what she has done.

The change comes when Shaylah returns from a mission to find Califa has been forced to sell Wolf. After his time with Shaylah he became unmanageable and violent. It was either kill him or send him to Ossuary, the most brutal marketplace for slaves. Shaylah knows killing him would have been kinder. Shaylah is revolted by what Califa has done, and the sick, unnatural system that allows the keeping of slaves and mistreatment of those who don't agree with the administration. No longer able to ignore the callousness of the Coalition that she has served, Shaylah determines to do what she must to repay Wolf for what she has done.

Shaylah Crosses the First Threshold when she decides she will break Wolf free from Ossuary. It means lying to her crew, stealing her beloved Sunbird and becoming a traitor in the eyes of the Coalition, but she no longer cares. She uses her tactical training and her knowledge of Coalition systems to break him free but then must cope with his suspicions and dislike.

In the next few days, Shaylah and Wolf come to know each other better in the isolation of the Sunbird . During the stage of Tests, Allies and Enemies , they fight off other ships that try to capture them and learn how to cope with the differences and misunderstandings between them. Shaylah must assess everything she has been told is true in her life and finds very little of it worth retaining. Wolf must learn to discard his preconceptions of her and assess the woman who is slowly evolving. Their intimacy is constantly damaged by Wolf's belief that she is using the controller to make him attracted to her. In a gesture of repentance and love, Shaylah organises to have Wolf's collar removed. It is also an act of treason with a sentence of death if she is caught.

Shaylah Seizes the Reward as they find one week of joy on the Sunbird. But the reward is short-lived as she realises that he still thinks she used the controller on him in the past so they would make love. His repeated refusal to see how much she loves him is breaking her heart, even though she sees that he has finally realised how badly mistaken he was. She is furious and rashly promises to take him anywhere he wishes to go, believing it is the only thing she can do when she loves him and he still seems to hate her.

The Second Threshold is crossed when Shaylah accidentally reveals there are still some free Triotians fighting a desperate battle against the Coalition. Wolf insists on returning to Trios. When Shaylah protests there is a huge armada encircling the planet, he takes command. Overwhelmed by numbness and loss of her sense of place and identity, Shaylah doesn't resist.

The two Approach The Innermost Cave , the planet Trios that Wolf loves and Shaylah has heard so much about. Their relationship has fallen into sullen silence. Shaylah lapses into a detached state of apathy as they land on Trios. Shaylah is sure Wolf considers her his prisoner. She has a pistol and the means to escape, but she doesn't even try. In her own Supreme Ordeal , she follows as he leads her to the hidden stronghold of the Triotians and is revealed as Prince Dare, the last living member of the Royal Family. How can a Prince love a woman who fought with the Coalition to destroy his planet, a woman who used the slave collar to control him and whose actions almost led to his death? Even her reparations can't make up for what she has done to him.

Shaylah's Coalition identity suffers a final Death as the Triotians sweep their new-found Prince away. Two guards remain to imprison the captive Coalition scum he has brought. Shaylah finally finds her backbone again when the guards reveal that their Prince will probably require her to service him once more before she is executed. She refuses to accept their summons for judgement, and is beaten for her resistance. Dare is furious when he sees what has happened and quickly informs his people that she rescued him and deserves all honor. Her Resurrection as an accepted member of the Triotian rebellion begins as the Triotians learn of her efforts to save Wolf, and her parents' bonding and her conception on their planet.

Her new identity, the proof of her love for Wolf and her switched loyalty to the Triotians is proved on the Road Back . Shaylah volunteers her beloved Sunbird in a desperate Trojan Horse ploy to capture the leader of the Coalition Armada and force him to withdraw the threat to Trios. She further volunteers her ship's shuttle to act as decoy and her abilities as pilot to get them in and out of the armada without drawing its firepower. The Coalition leader is fooled by their bluff and the armada withdraws, leaving Trios in tentative safety.

The Return with the Elixir occurs as the Triotians celebrate their victory, exempting Shaylah from her past and welcoming her as a valued member of her people. Her happiness is complete when the Triotian Council accepts that Wolf has undergone a sufficient period of mourning for his Triotian wife, leaving him free to declare his love for Shaylah and ask her to bond with him as his Queen.

As you can see from this example, the Hero's Journey is a flexible technique. In Lord of the Storm , Shaylah does not resist the Call. Califa, the Mentor she originally had as a young pilot, becomes an enemy who embodies all that qualities for which the Coalition is hated. Realising that her Mentor is leading her in the wrong direction, Shaylah shuns Califa's teachings and friendship, instead following her parents' teachings and beliefs.

Shaylah's shunning of her Mentor's teachings leads to a lack of a physical Road Back. Shaylah realises that there is nothing in her old world to return to, and she must make a place in a new one. If she attempts to go back, she will be tried for treason and killed. This makes her Supreme Ordeal even darker - if she returns, she will be killed, and yet the people of Trios have many reasons for wishing her banished. What can be more hopeless than having nowhere to go and no-one who loves you? Instead, Shaylah experiences a spiritual Road Back, as she regains her faith in herself and her beliefs and acts to support them by assisting the Triotians.

Fairly typical of romances, Shaylah seizes the reward earlier than in the general pattern. Within the genre, this acceleration of the stage gives the heroine and hero a moment for love within all the turmoil. The sweet and often brief moment then serves to highlight the dangers of the following stages.

An evaluation of Susan Elisabeth Phillip's Nobody's Baby But Mine is available on my website at if you wish to see how a contemporary romance can be dissected using the Hero's Journey.

Why not try it yourself? Certain authors' novels are easier to analyze for this technique. For excellent examples of how this technique can be used in romance, try Karen Harbaugh's Vampire Viscount (paranormal Regency), any of Amanda Quick's historicals but particularly Ravished , or Ruth Wind's Last Chance Ranch (contemporary). If you prefer movies, the original "Star Wars" trilogy reflects George Lucas' admiration of Joseph Campbell's studies. You could also try analyzing "Romancing the Stone", "The Last of the Mohicans" or "Terminator".

I'd be pleased to correspond with anyone regarding these issues.

Recommended reading:

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces New York: Fine Communications, 1996. ISBN 1567311202

Davis, Justine. Lord of the Storm New York: Topaz, 1994. ISBN: 0451404904
(Note: Sadly LOTS is out of print but you may be able to find copies in second-hand book stores)

Harbaugh, Karen. Vampire Viscount S ignet: October 1995. ISBN 0451183193

Pearson, Carol S. Awakening The Heroes Within San Francisco: Harper, 1991. ISBN 0062506781

Quick, Amanda. Ravished Bantam, 1992. ISBN 0553293168

Phillips, Susan E. Nobody's Baby But Mine. Avon, 1997. ISBN: 0380782340

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992. ISBN 0941188132

Wind, Ruth. Last Chance Ranch Silhouette Special Edition #977, August 1995. ISBN 0373099770

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