Story Telling (Part 3) – The Hero’s Journey (aka, Story Circle).

So this is Part 3 of my seminar / workshop on Story Telling that I did with the Logos Hope On-Board events Team. Here’s Part 1, and Part 2.

There’s an interesting alternative theory called, “The Hero’s Journey” (or “Monomyth”). There’s books written about this, some really cool ideas.  A very approachable version is by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community.  Ant Webb was the guy who introduced me to both Community, and the Hero’s Journey.  We’ve been discussing it and used it as part of Matt’s Blog.

Slide16The Hero’s Journey theory says good stories are circular. You end up back where you started. They’re a journey from home, from comfort, from the concious, down into the subconscious, uncomfortable far away place, and back eventually home again. Of course, changes happen along the way.


The full theory has all kinds of Freudian stuff to do with being forced out of the mothers arms by the call of the father, eventually defeating the father, and returning eventually as a mother or father all that… (Seriously, Freud had issues.) Also, there’s loads of details that are reasonably important, and do make the story more compelling, but also, with much added complexity.Slide19So lets go look at Dan Harmon’s Story Circle instead.

Dan Harmon's Story Circle MainHe takes the circle concept, and breaks it into 8 simple parts.

1-youWe start off at “You“. This is where “you” the audience relate to the main character(s). Preferably, the character should be in a place of comfort, or at least, be connected to some kind of easy-to-relate-to “home” situation. This could be a sailor at sea on the bridge, or a little bear playing a balancing game, or Garion at Faldor’s farm, a new student enrolling at community college, etc. It’s a starting point that the audience can relate to, and feel comfortable understanding. They don’t have to dig deep emotionally to connect with the main character. It happens automatically. This is the concious, mental understanding area.

2-need Next is the “need“. Something isn’t right, or some how the stable situation will be pushed off-balance. This is pretty close to the “problem” concept from the 3-act play model. Note, we’re still basically in the stable conciousness.


So, since there’s a need, I guess we’d better “Go” do something about it. This is where the Hero decides to actually leave their safe familiar environment, and go out into the world to solve the problem. We finally dep3-enter-unknownart the concious, and head into the scary subconscious / unconscious. The going can often be the most emotional part of the story. Or at least, the most emotionally motivated or driven part. Once the Hero is actually off fighting dragons and saving maidens, they’re too busy actually doing stuff to be all soppy and emotional.

Slide27Now that we’ve actually left, comes the big difficult part of the story, the Seeking, or Searching. We may not exactly know what it is we’re looking for yet – but we’ll find out. Many different avenues can be explored, different people met, etc.  This can be long, arduous, and challenging.  The main character should be growing and changing here.

5-findEventually, we Find what we’re looking for. This is where we can start looking at the more interesting parts of the theory.  Up until now, it’s all been pretty pedestrian, but behold: the magic!

Slide32Each point on the circle has an opposite point.  OK, to be honest, that’s more like geometry than magic, but whatever.  They’re kind of similar.

Slide33Find is directly opposite on the circle from You, for instance. All opposites have extremely strong ties to each other. So “You“, signifying conscious comfort and familiarity, can either be used here with direct parallels, or with polar opposites. But either way, it’s linked. Garion is tempted most by Torak by images of family and a safe life with Aunt Pol. Little Bear realises it’s dark and thinks about going home. Frodo and Sam reminisce about home, talking about planting the acorn from Loth Lorian in the Shire, deciding it’s all worth it to stop Sauron’s Hoards pillaging and burning everything they hold dear.

Let’s move on:

Slide29So we’ve found it – but to actually Take it, there’s a Cost. As Rumplestiltskin so repeatedly says in Once upon a time, “Magic always comes at a price!”. Here, again, is a link across to “Need“, the opposite number again.

Slide36If the need doesn’t balance the cost, then why would you pay it? Too high a cost, with too little benefit, and the audience feels like the hero is crazy, or just doing it because the script says to. Too small a price, and the audience feels cheated. It’s too easy.  So again, making links between the two helps strengthen the story.

Note: Often the Find and Take are very close together, the 8 points on the circle don’t need to each have equal screen-time.

Slide30Having paid the price and Taken it, now we need to Return home. This is where we can start to bring home the conscious message of what we’ve taken. It’s the balance point going back into the safe lands again, and can be quite emotional again.

Slide35There’s nothing really left to do, so it’s beginning to relax time, which means all the stress of the journey can begin to surface and be dealt with.

Slide31As the Hero returns home, presumably, hopefully, they’re somewhat Changed. If the hero hasn’t actually changed, then really, what was the point of the whole thing? This is where sit-coms and soap operas cheat like mad. Since they don’t actually want to seriously change the situation, but leave it ready for next week, they have to paint lots of obvious messages about what the characters have learned, even to the point of having characters sitting around saying trite crap about, “I guess now we know that…”, “So next time I won’t do that again…”, so that the audience feels like they’ve seen a change, although actually, next week, they’ll all act exactly the same as before. (Sad, isn’t it?)

Slide34The Link with Changed is Search.  It’s usually through the questing / searching / learning part of the story that the Hero has changed.  This is done extremely obviously in Lord of the Rings (the books, of course) when the 4 hobbits return to the Shire and kick out Saruman and Wormtongue.  The LOTR movies don’t have that section, so they try to show that they’re “changed” through a soppy emotional “Oh Gosh How Deep We All Are Now” load of rubbish with the 4 hobbits making calves eyes at each other.  They do show Samwise actually going to ask his sweetheart to marry him, finally, which is good.  But still.  There is actually a reason for the section they cut out.  And the  movies suffer for lack of it.

Let’s look at our example, Little Bear, again…

Slide45And so that’s the basic overview version of The Hero’s Journey.

Pretty cool, innit?

And that concludes my mini-series from the workshop.  In some ways, I wish I could have just told the Events Team “Go Read Dan Harmon’s Blog Posts, and watch Glove and Boots!”, but the ship’s firewall blocks half of it for profanity, and it would shock the heck out of the team for actually containing said profanity, and doing a workshop is actually a lot more meaningful to many people than simply reading it on a blog.  But since you, dear reader, have read my blog, here’s a link to the stuff Dan Harmon wrote about it. It’s also in several parts.  And probably quite a lot clearer than what I wrote.  My audience was a bit different, and I was simplifying in different ways because of the direction I’m trying to influence them.  Read what he wrote.  There’s good stuff there.

Glove and Boots also did a video about The Hero’s Journey, which covers the more character-centred side of the theory:

Anyway, I should stop waffling now.  I’m writing a lot of this while sitting on a cold floor in Changi Airport in Singapore with my wife and 1-year-old son sleeping next to me at 5:30am.  I think I’ll wait until I get home to proof read it once more before publishing…

Story telling (Part 2) – Of Aristotle and Acts

This is the second part of a 3 part series, transcribing / “article-ifying” a training seminar I ran with the on-board events team on the Logos Hope.  Here’s a link to the first part.

Aristotle and a suuuper simple model

Waaay back in 350 or so BC, a clever Greek dude (Aristotle) said that he reckoned a good story (or theatrical performance) had 3 parts to it:

  • Beginning
  • Middle
  • End

Yep. It’s what you’re taught in primary school creative writing. Expanding those a bit:

  • Beginning: Introduction to the main characters, and “The Problem”
  • Middle: The struggle or conflict, where the main characters confront “The Problem”
  • End: Where either the main characters or “The Problem” win, and everything resolves.

In some ways, the most important thing from this is that without a problem, there is no story. There has to be “something rotten in the state of Denmark”. Or else what keeps your audience more interested in the programme, than in what’s on their phones?

“3 act plays”

Taking this concept a bit further, is the traditional “3 act play”. Often our events aren’t done in acts, but the concepts are useful for thinking, “Where should I put the refreshment breaks?” and thinking how the story energy levels should map out best.  Whether or not you actually use this model, it’s still an interesting one to look at, and see if it helps you.

The 3 acts are pretty close to the “beginning, middle, end” concepts from before, but expanded.

Confusingly, sometime the 3-act-play can be broken down in to 4 parts:

3 acts, 4 parts

which progresses through the main character (and audiences’) perception of ‘The Problem’.

There’s “potential” for an interesting story – you set up the main character(s), and the problem.  But they’re not actually in conflict yet (at least, as far as this specific narrative goes.)  There’s resistance to the conflict – things get in the way, the problem isn’t fully understood yet, etc.  Finally the conflict itself, actually doing something, rather than just trying to understand the problem, and finally the outcome, and cleaning up.

I mentioned that the Main Character and the Problem may not be in actual conflict yet.  Just to note here, this is for the purposes of this narrative.  For instance, in David and Goliath, Israel and Phillistia are at war at the beginning of the story.  However, the Main Character, David, isn’t actually in personal conflict with Goliath, until much later.

So how do these 4 parts map onto a “3 act play”?4-parts-3-acts

Act 1.

Starting off the play, you need some kind of event which introduces the reason for the story.

The children of Israel are at war with the Philistines. Jeff Winger starts at his new Community College; Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s diplomatic space ship and takes her prisoner; The orb of Aldur is stolen; Little Bear is playing, and it’s getting late.inciding-incidentSometimes, this is called the ‘inciting incident’.

One thing to note is that this might not involve the main character. It’s setting the scene for the whole rest of the story, and may in fact be the cause for many different stories to happen. A murder has happened, but at least so far, the main character may not yet have been put on the case.

As “The Problem” now develops, at some point it’s going to bump into the main character, and eventually, somehow, they’re going to have to do something about it. They may not be keen on the idea, they may need to be persuaded, or dragged kicking and screaming into it, and often it’s more fun if that’s the case.

first-act-turnThis point, which causes the main character(s) to actively attack the problem, is sometimes called the ‘First Act Turn’.  David visits his brothers on the battlefield, and sees Goliath challenging them all, and no-one having the guts to do anything about it.  Luke Skywalker’s Uncle and Aunt are killed and he decides to go with Obi Wan; Mr Wolf and Aunt Pol tell Garion that they’re going to leave Faldor’s farm; Little Bear decides to ignore Mama bear, and play instead.

Now you’ve actually got the audience hooked to the story – they’re interested in the character, and now the character is about to go do something interesting. This is a good ending point for the first act, so you might as well try and sell some refreshments, as you know the audience will come back to find out what will happen.

Act 2

Curtain up again, time for Act 2. It’s been joked about that you should just skip Acts I and III and just go with II, as that’s where all the interesting stuff happens.

In the four stages listed above, you can see act 2 divided in half.  The first half is typically about understanding the problem, the second half about actually going to do it.

So first, we learn more about the problem. Often there’s a lot of discovery, trying to understand the problem first, and then later transition into actually doing something about it.  David starts asking his brothers about Goliath, and they despise him. The Prodigal Son is burning his inheritance, not realising the consequences.

Sometimes, around about the mid-point, there’s a good point to stop, pause, and say, “Right. Now we know what we need to do, lets do it!”


The mid-point can be the major turning point in the story.  David’s questioning about Goliath finally reaches the ears of King Saul, and he calls David before him.  The Prodigal son’s money finally starts to run out.

Now we’ve finally got to a place where the Main Character will come into actual conflict with the problem.  David tells the King that he’ll go fight Goliath.

However, often the “doing” is more complex than originally thought, and it can all go terribly wrong.

The King tries to give David his armour, but it’s far to big, and David falls on his face.  The Prodigal Son thinks he can still be self-sufficient, but his “friends” reject him, and goes on the hunt for jobs.  Eventually he finds he has no skills at all, and ends up feeding pigs.

Obi-wan dies fighting Darth Vader; Garion decides to leave his friends, his Aunt, his safety, and go to fight Torak himself; Little bear realises it’s dark and he’s all alone, and he doesn’t know the way back home.


This sudden swing – it looks like the hero will be defeated, or the current route is blocked is a really good way to bring the audience up short. Things might have been challenging before, but at least it was going somewhere. Now what’s going to happen? This is the “Second Act Turn”. Again, roll out the popcorn and drinks; art doesn’t pay for itself, you know.

Act 3

The third act needs only 2 main features:

  • Resolving the conflict (The climax)
  • Tidying up the loose ends and making the audience feel good.

3 acts with points

OK, you may not always want the audience to feel good at the end. Sometimes a tragedy is more moving, and you know what, frequently life sucks. But you want them to feel satisfied that they got their money’s worth, and that it’s probably worth coming again.

There are other subtleties you can add to this basic overview, such as adding “The Question” as a (sometimes hidden) subtopic to The Problem. The Question can be something more personal, or more meaningful than just solving The Problem, and it’s only through The Problem that the main character can understand The Question.

So, that’s the “3 act” model of telling a story (at least, a version of it).  In some ways, quite complex, but it explains pretty well how the energy-concepts from Part 1 can map onto a longer story.

As a bonus, here’s Good Night Little Bear:

Slide44Next time, I’ll go into the “Hero’s Journey” model.

Story Telling (Part 1) – Energy

Recently I had the opportunity to do a workshop / seminar with the Logos Hope Events team about Theatre & Storytelling.  I love theatre, and am very passionate about making (especially Childrens’) events into engaging stories, rather than just variety shows with a 5 minute message tacked on the end.

This is kind of a summary of what I covered, with some of the slides I made.  There’s quite a lot of content, so I’m splitting it up into 3 posts.

Warning, guides


To start off, we looked at 3 of David’s books, which I brought along.

  • Mealtime
  • Peekaboo Forest
  • Good Night, Little Bear

Mealtime is basically just a list of items you might find at mealtimes:

Spoon and Fork,
Sippy cup,

and so on. Not staggeringly inspiring. Often, however, events are organised in a similar manner. Get a list of things we want to put in (Introduction video, Korean fan dance, Refreshments, Sermon, Singing), have an MC or host link them all together (“Wow, that was amazing. Next we have…”) and suddenly you’ve got a programme.


In terms of energy levels of the audience, it looks something like this:Mealtime-energy-flowEach individual item may be all right, but they’re not really connected, and nothing really keeps the attention.  And it doesn’t get more exciting, and … well. I forgot what I was … er, better check facebook.


Peekaboo Forest is quite a bit better. Each page asks a question:

‘Who is hiding behind the spruce?’

there’s then a nice crinkly page to turn over:

Peek-a-boo! It’s the Moose!

So each page has quite a nice “energy” flow:


with good anticipation, etc. But in terms of overall story-arc, it’s very dull.


It really doesn’t go anywhere, and often programmes are like that too. Each individual item may be great, but you don’t lead the audience anywhere, and don’t have everything tied together.

Good Night, Little Bear is much more interesting. We read this to David almost every night, and even though it doesn’t have crinkly pages, he still seems to really enjoy it. The story is (essentially) little bear not wanting to go to bed, instead he goes off to play, until eventually he watches the sunset, it gets dark, and he realises he should have listened to Mama bear, and in fact he’s lost now and can’t find his way home. But then Mama bear, assisted by Little Bear’s friends, Mouse and Squirrel, come to find Little Bear. He hears them calling him, and runs to Mama Bear’s arms. He’s now feeling tired, and goes to bed. It’s really well told, with lovely pictures, and so on.

Little bear energy

A much more complex rough energy flow chart.

So that’s the “energy flow” concept.  Reasonably simple to grasp.  If we are making an event which is a variety show / sandwhich programme, or a concert, then it’s worth thinking about this stuff, and saying “How do we want to start?  Something big and fun to grab the attention, and then we can settle down a bit, work our way up to a climax, and then slowly bring it to a close…”.

Thinking about the age-group as well is very important.  How long are attention spans, what is important or exciting?  If there is going to be a verbal message / talk, then at what point will the audience be willing to sit and listen?

If we want to make the event into a story, then we’ll need to go a bit deeper.

For that, we’ll have to wait until Part 2…