The Hero’s Journey is a classic story structure that has been utilized, moulded and recreated since ancient myths. Almost every story, no matter the genre or content, follows this structure (consciously or not). For a writer, it’s an ideal template to help guild your story through a satisfying arc. The Hero’s Journey is not meant to confine or contain your creative capacity, but rather encourage and steer it. Before you start bending and breaking the rules, it’s important you know them. And what better guild can you have than Shrek himself?
Large studio production companies often look for The Hero’s Journey when they read your script. Although the Hero’s Journey was originally mapped out by Joseph Campell in A Hero with a Thousand Faces, most production companies look to Christopher Vogler’s more refined and comprehensive version in The Writer’s Journey. So, without further adieu, let’s begin.
The ordinary world sets the stage. It shows the protagonist, Shrek, and his home, the swamp. We immediately like Shrek because of his sarcastic wit and sympathize with him because of those awful humans who are out to kill him. We also note that he’s lonely and completely uninterested in making friends. We feel for him.
Call To Adventure
The Call To Adventure is the second step in the Hero’s Journey. Our hero, Shrek, is presented with a problem that calls him to action. After being followed home by a deeply disturbed talking Donkey, Shrek wakes up the next morning to find every single magical creature in his yard. They have no where else to go. They’ve been exiled by Lord Farquaad (our antagonist!). Shrek, furious at the thought of fairy tale creatures inhabiting his swamp, promises to confront Lord Farquaad so everyone can go back where they came from. For the first time ever, Shrek is celebrated as a hero.
Refusal of the Call
Step three is the Refusal of the Call. Now, you’re probably thinking that Shrek didn’t refuse the call. He showed up at Lord Farquaad’s castle and kicked some butt. And right you are, however the call he refuses is the quest Lord Farquaad gives him. Shrek doesn’t want to go on a quest to rescue some princess from a tower, he just wants his swamp back, free of fairy tale creatures. However, to force Shrek into accepting the call, Lord Farquaad promises to return his swamp to normal once the princess has been rescued. Now our reluctant hero, is on a mission.
The Mentor, if not already introduced, will appear at this point in the story. The mentor might be a wise old Oracle (like in the Matrix) or a grandmother (like in Moana). In this case, Shrek’s mentor is Donkey. At first, you might think it’s the other way around. Shrek is constantly enlightening Donkey on the ways of life “An Ogre is like an onion”. While Donkey, seemingly an idiot, just takes the world of adventure in with enthusiasm like no other. But, like it or not, Donkey is in fact the mentor. He asks Shrek questions which exposes the quest to the audience, he encourages Shrek, and most importantly he wants Shrek to succeed. As stated in The Writer’s Journey, “The function of Mentors is to prepare the Hero to face the unknown.” And that is exactly what Donkey does.
Crossing the First Threshold
In a standard two-hour movie, Crossing the First Threshold will usually happen about thirty minutes in. The first threshold is the first act turning point that leads into the much larger act two. When the Hero crosses the first threshold, he is going past the point of no return. He is taking real action that proves he’s following through with the quest. Shrek crosses his first threshold when he walks the rickety bridge over a moat of lava that leads into a decrepit dungeonous castle.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Tests, Allies, and Enemies is a natural sixth step of the Hero’s Journey. This is where the protagonist develops. We see his strengths and his weaknesses, his wants and his needs (even if he hasn’t realized his needs yet himself). Shrek sets off to find Princess Fiona in a quickly crumbing castle. Why is is crumbling? Because Donkey is feverishly trying to escape the clutches of a fire breathing dragon. However, this is where the audience is met with unsuspecting reversals. When Shrek finds Fiona, he doesn’t give her true loves first kiss, he shakes her awake and tells her to get moving. And Donkey doesn’t fight off the fire breathing dragon, he sweet talks her, luring her in with his charming words. Here we begin to understand that Shrek wants nothing more than his swamp back, no matter how that effects the creatures around him. However what he needs is connections through friendship and love. Something he has never experienced before.
Approach the Innermost Cave
In The Writer’s Journey, approaching the innermost cave is defined as “The hero comes at last to the edge of a dangerous place, sometimes deep underground, where the object of the quest is hidden… When the hero enters that fearful place he will cross the second major threshold.” Now you’re probably thinking, wait a minute! Wasn’t the dragon guarded castle the innermost cave? Nope! That was nothing more that a battle of strength and deception, a small test of physical ability that had very little to do with Shrek’s innermost problems. Shrek’s innermost cave is opening his heart to love, and discovering that Princess Fiona is the very thing his life has been missing. Now as he eavesdrops on a conversation between Fiona and Donkey, Shrek misconstrues what they are talking about when he overhears Fiona says, “Princess and ugly don’t go together, that’s why I can’t stay here with Shrek.” Shrek immediately reverts back to his old beliefs that no one could ever love an ogre. When in reality, Fiona just hasn’t learned to love herself.
Defined as “a black moment for the audience, as we are held in suspense and tension, not knowing if he will live or die… In romantic comedies the death faced by the hero may simply be the temporary death of the relationship…” In Shrek’s case, his death is exactly that, not knowing if he will ever be united with his true love. Do you define Shrek as a romantic comedy? Probably not, but you definitely should! This is Shrek’s lowest point. He has just given Princess Fiona to Lord Farquaad and now returns to his swamp where the fairy tale creatures have been rightfully shipped out. Fiona prepares for her wedding with a man she doesn’t love. Who pulls him out of this pit of despair? None other than his best friend and mentor, Donkey. Now they’re up against a ticking clock with a new quest: get to Fiona before she marries Farquaad.
“The hero now takes possession of the treasure he has come seeking, his reward.” Shrek barges in on Fiona and Farquaad’s wedding, sees Fiona’s true form and falls even more deeply in love with her. He gets the girl (which is generally the reward in romcoms) and comes out the other side having fulfilled his innermost need. Shrek has learned how to form true connections and therefore also learns that having the swamp to himself, isn’t actually what he wants. He wants to share it with his true love. This is cause for celebration.
The Road Back
The road back is debatably a step not used in Shrek’s journey. However, I look at it as the moment Fiona realizes her true love’s first kiss has left her in ogre from. She fears Shrek won’t love her if she isn’t beautiful and Shrek insists that he thinks she is beautiful. This also completes Fiona’s arc, crushing her prior idolization of conventional beauty and finally being able to rock the ogre form. “This stage marks the decision to return to the Ordinary World.” So what happens next? We return to the swamp.
The resurrection is a “kind of final exam for the hero…” What would be a better test for a non-committal bachelor than marriage? Shrek and Fiona finish their rom-com romance by returning to the swamp and getting married. All the other fairy tale folks including Donkey and Dragon are their to cheer them on. Shrek has been resurrected into a new ogre, finally open to love, friendship and the beautiful world around him.
Return with the Elixir
“The Elixir is the magic potion with the power to heal.” If we recall the beginning of Shrek you can remember that first we met the miserable Donkey. Then we met all the miserable fairy-tale creatures. Lastly we met the depressed and antagonizing dragon. And now what do we see? The last scene of Shrek shows that Shrek has returned home with the Elixir (Fiona’s love) and now everyone else is able to find happiness, healing and peace too. Donkey has Dragon. The fairy-tale creatures have places to stay. Everyone is singing and dancing and happy, all because Shrek returned home with the Elixir. Of the twelve steps, this is the last one. In Shrek it’s a very short musical scene that brings closure to all the characters in the movie.
And that is the Hero’s Journey. I highly encourage you to take ANY movie you like and watch it with the intention of pairing it with the Hero’s Journey. You’ll be surprised how many of these steps are essential in order to make a compelling and well paced plot. Also, make note of any of the steps a movie doesn’t hit. Do you think it works well without this step?