I just got an email from a graduate student wondering how the 12-stage outline of the Hero’s Journey I describe in “The Writer’s Journey” might be shortened for commercials or short-form Web content. The question about a streamlined version of the narrative comes up often, in regard to short films as well as Web content and games. I’m of the opinion that we have so many ways of communicating the stages of the human journey in short-hand images, and the audience is so quick at picking them up, that we really don’t need to omit anything, but I can see the value of stripping the experience down to its absolute essence. So here is my most streamlined version, aimed at preserving the essential experience of the Hero’s Journey, some suspense about the outcome and a little bit of challenge and growth for the hero.
1. The Ordinary World can be communicated efficiently in a single image. The backstory of the hero can be assumed based on what we see about his/her appearance, behavior, social status, etc.
2. The Call to Adventure, IMHO, is essential. The audience needs to know there is something at stake, something happening that the hero must react to.
3. Refusal is useful to establish fear, suspense, and to tell you something about the hero, but it’s not strictly necessary. So cut that from your abbreviated Hero’s Journey. Or, acknowledge it quickly and efficiently, with a single look of doubt on the hero’s face, quickly overcome.
4. Meeting the Mentor, again, is useful but not necessary. It can be implied by the hero’s belief system, indicated with a glance at some talisman or symbolic object that suggests the hero’s source of inspiration, or it can just be left out altogether.
5. Crossing the Threshold is fairly important, signalling that the hero is now committed to the adventure. But in a really compressed version, you could just skip this step and the next two (Tests/Allies/Enemies and Approach), and cut directly to the Ordeal. As with all the steps, there is a quick short-hand way to represent this movement — the hero simply crosses a bridge, goes up a flight of steps, enters a new room.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies allows the hero and audience time to marvel at the new world and to build personal connections. In the short form, the hero may simply glance at the wonders of the new world and move on directly to the ordeal.
7. Approach is used to deepen character and relationships, create suspense and give the heroes time to bond and prepare for the Ordeal. None of this may be necessary in the super-short form.
8. Ordeal is absolutely essential. There’s no story without it. Ideally this should be a difficult test that threatens the hero’s life or sense of self, and that makes the audience think the hero has died or failed.
9. Reward is also vital to our sense of a story. There must be some consequence for the hero’s action. THE STORY CAN END HERE. This is acknowledged in the fairy tale theory of story construction offered by Vladimir Propp. (I write about this in a chapter in my new book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.) Sometimes the hero just kills the dragon and claims the princess, and that’s that. If you take the off-ramp at this point, the Reward takes on some of the qualities of the Return with the Elixir, summing up the theme of the story and giving the audience a moral viewpoint on what happened.
10. But many stories extend the narrative and create suspense about the final outcome. That’s the job of THE ROAD BACK, where some new development or challenge arises, or where the hero has to summon willpower to finish the job despite further resistance. (In Propp’s sample of 103 Russian fairy tales, many of them continue at this point with episodes describing the hero’s journey to the court of the king and his efforts to claim his reward.) The Road Back is not strictly necessary to fulfill the contract of the Hero’s Journey, but it’s amazing how it asserts itself even in the shortest versions of the narrative. Often it’s expressed as a chase scene, with the hero fleeing from or chasing villains, and we only need one shot of the hero running to get all the benefits of this step.
11. Even in the short form, there is room for a Resurrection, a second visit to the death-and-rebirth territory of the Ordeal. For example, the hero might seem to fail at the Ordeal, quickly learn his lesson, and come back for a second match with the opponent, at which he may seem to die and be reborn all over again.
12. Return with the Elixir is the audience’s takeaway, and in a highly-compressed narrative could be a freeze-frame ending or a little visual treat that sends the audience away laughing or nodding in recognition. Or you pop in a surprise image that shocks the audience or suggests a future development.
SO…the absolute bare minimum, I would venture, is
1. an implied Ordinary World,
2. an efficient Call to Adventure,
3. a distinct Threshold Crossing,
4. a death-and-rebirth Ordeal(or Resurrection) and
5. a Reward (or Return with the Elixir).
In reality, almost always the other pieces are either implied or present in truncated form, and the audience will labor mightily to fill in any blanks you leave. For example, the audience will fill in a wild night of partying if you just show a teenager sneaking into the house at 4 in the morning.
Hope that clarifies. The ancient world believed firmly that a single image, a statue or a vase painting, could convey the whole drama of a great story, so we have permission to cut this sucker to the bone.