On my quest to learn how to write (instead of just spouting stream-of-consciousness like it was the end-all of all artistry), I've run across some really, really good books:
- The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
- Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams
- Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain
What follows is probably TMI:
The steps (which, in a real story, can repeat, go missing, switch order, contain reversals, etc.):
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- First Threshold (end of beginning - entering the Special World)
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies (beginning of middle)
- Approach to the Innermost Cave
- Supreme Ordeal
- Reward (end of the middle)
- The Road Back (beginning of end - leaving the Special World)
- Return with the Elixir
The Hero's Journey really does seem universal, at least in stories.
The Hero has a problem that he or she can't solve (call to adventure). How to solve the problem? Change. But nobody wants to change; it's hard (refusal to call). Eventually, they get some good advice (mentor). So they begin to approach the problem in earnest (first threshold). They often cross into a new place, or their current situation changes significantly (crossing into the special world).
They are helped and hindered in their search for solutions; their actions determine whether the people they encounter help them or hurt them (tests, allies, enemies). At some point, trying to solve the actual problem has to be attempted; this takes a lot of courage (this shows up as the approach to the innermost cave). The hero tries to change, often by besting the Shadow (a reflection of the negative possibilities of change, often what the Hero most fears becoming) (the ordeal, in which death is faced). The Hero receives a reward, of knowledge, relationships, or tools (the reward), which oftimes must be forcibly taken.
The Hero then has to go to or create a new home - either literally or by coping with the changed situation (the road back). However, while the original problem has been dealt with or the original goal achieved, the true goal - the driving force behind the first goal - is still unachieved. The Hero has to make a sacrifice or commit to a real, lasting change that cuts deep, and must learn to live as a changed person (resurrection). If successful, the Hero possesses the insight and tools necessary to solve the problem (return with the elixir).
Mal has problems he can't solve - he's being relentlessly pursued by the Alliance, his jobs are drying up, and he still hasn't figured out what to do about River (ordinary world). River helps him by warning him about the Reavers (call to adventure - he could have tried to find out how she knew more than she should, what her ties were). Mal tries to return to the status quo, but Simon attacks him on the ship (upsetting the normal order of authority - just as Mal did to the Alliance), and Mal kicks him and River off (refusal of call). River receives a subliminal message from the Alliance and beats up an entire bar (call to adventure). This time, Mal takes up the call and runs with River and Simon to Shepherd Book for advice (mentor). Book tells Mal to "believe" (the solution to his problems is tied to this). Mal also contacts Mr. Universe (another mentor) to get more information on the name "Miranda," which was evoked in River by the subliminal probing at the bar. They get information, but not enough.
Mal receives a call from Inara (yet another call to adventure) - it's a TRAAAP! Mal encounters the Operative (the shadow - the incarnation of all the bad aspects of "just believing," as Book advised). River reveals that Miranda is a planet, the location of some secret the Alliance has been trying to hide. Access to the planet is blocked by the Reavers; retreat is blocked by the Operative, who is killing all Mal's contacts (including both mentors, who have a tendency to be killed off). Mal decides to go forward (first threshold) and crosses into the special world of Miranda. (Due to the length of time Mal spent refusing to either 1) believe or 2) address the River/Alliance issues, the test/allies/enemies section happens before the first threshold, for the most part - he passes the Inara test using intimate knowledge/trust; he fails the Book test, which would have required faith or at least an understanding of the consequences of his actions.) In Miranda, he receives the reward (but can't use it yet) of knowledge of the source of the Reavers and the corruption of the Alliance - and something to believe in, that he can affect the world that he has come to hate, the world that has deprived him of power. But he'll never be able to put the knowledge to good use unless he leaves the special world; Mal uses the Reavers (a special mark of heroic maturity is using/converting one's enemies) as tools and defeats the Alliance, for the time being (the ordeal).
The rest of the crew (less Wash) has to fight to keep the Reavers occupied, so Mal can transmit the information across the verse (the road back). Mal finds a way to accomplish his goal, but he's blocked by the shadow. Only through believing completely in his cause and a false death (the faked nerve punch) can Mal trick the Operative, defeating him: Mal's flaws have become an asset, when influenced by his genuine change (resurrection). Mal's victory over the Operative shows that faith is necessary, but blind faith is a brutal mistake. Mal transmits the information (return with the elixir). The rest is an epilogue.
Of course, Star Wars is the classic story based on the Hero's Journey.