As you may know, I like to ask, “Are you the hero in the movie of your life?” To make a better sense of what that means, Peter McGraw speaks to a writer, editor, and expert on story structure about the hero’s journey and what it means for you and the change you want to make — due to the pandemic or otherwise. Note: It helps to have seen the movie The Matrix, but it isn’t a deal-breaker if you haven’t. If you stick around the end, Peter’s guest applies the hero’s journey framework to some well-known stories.
Listen to Episode #23 here:
Are You The Hero In The Story Of Your Life?
As you may know, I like to ask, “Are you the hero in the story of your life?” I talked to a writer, editor, and expert on story structure. We discussed the hero’s journey and how it applies to you and the changes you want to make due to the pandemic or otherwise. A couple of ideas that I liked is the need for the hero to make an external and internal change. Also, the importance of allies and enemies in the hero’s journey and those enemies maybe people close to the hero. We lean heavily on The Matrix as an example. You don’t have to know the movie, but it does help if you do. As an aside, it’s worth watching as a great example of a hero’s journey. I try out things that Pete thinks. Tell me if you like it or not. I’m happy to add it to future episodes. I’m also happy to drop it. If you stick around to the end for the bonus material, my guest dissects well-known stories from the hero’s journey perspective and we tease a future episode on The Virgin’s Promise. I hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.
Pete, it’s great to be here.
Kim, where are you?
I am in Eastern Washington State. I’m north of you.
You are not living the monk adjacent life that I am, are you?
No. I have a full house. Everyone has strict instructions to shut up while I’m in here doing this. I have my husband and my three kids. Not a part of the solo journey, but I am a supportive ally in the work that you are doing.
You are indeed. Despite being happily married and a happy mother, you are sympathetic.
To me, whatever it takes for you to self-actualize, that’s what the world needs. I’m all for it.
I’ve been fussing around with an idea. We’ve done it once before, I’m going to try it out again. Kim was not briefed on this. I’m doing a thing that I call Things Pete Thinks. I’m looking for your reactions to these ideas. The first one is vinyl, as in vinyl records. I have to say that I’ve never been a huge fan. I’m old enough to have had vinyl records. My first record came in the form of vinyl. My family had a record player. Music wasn’t a big part of our life but it was prominent, I’d say. It was there. My dad had this sweet ‘70s standard sound system with a turntable, even had a reel-to-reel. It was old school. It was in this beautiful teak cabinet. He had been in the military in Japan and had picked up a bunch of stuff when he was there. We had a record collection there. When cassettes came to prominence, CDs came to prominence, obviously, streaming came to prominence, I was quick to pick up the new technology there.
I’m out in the desert and in this wonderful place I’m staying in, there’s this room that has a whole rack of vinyl and a whole rack of CDs and has a sweet turntable and sound system. It bumps. I can turn it up loud. The neighbors are far away. As long as windows aren’t open, you can let it loose as much as you want. I’ve been spending my evenings in solitude but also not watching TV, not watching movies and so on. I had been leaning into this record collection. It’s fun to flip through it and see the four albums in front of me. One is Abba, Super Trouper. The next is Earth, Wind, & Fire. Thelonious Monk, Piano Solo. Bruce Springsteen, The River. It’s got some breadth there, as you might imagine.
I had this realization. I was journaling about it. People talk about the warmth of vinyl. It has a different sound quality and so on. I have to admit, I don’t pick that up. That’s not something that moves me but there is something about placing the record on the turntable, positioning the needle to the best of your ability. It makes that little sound when it hits. What happens is you play that side of the album. Do you know what I mean? There’s no skipping around, there’s no repeating. Some songs are great and some songs are so-so and on occasion, there’s one that you’re like, “That one hasn’t aged well.”
It creates a level of presence and then it finishes. If you want it to be quiet, you don’t do anything. If you want more music, you get your ass out of the chair and either play it again or flip it over or put a new record on there. I had this thing where I was like, “I get it.” There’s not a lot of new music in this rack. This is the way music was made. It was designed to be played from the first song of side A to the last song of side B, so to speak. It’s something I’ve been enjoying doing. It has made me much more present-focused than I would be trying to optimize my musical experience, which obviously Spotify and Pandora does incredibly well.
What I love about listening to you talk about vinyl, I have all these thoughts that come up. For one, the people who love vinyl, it’s nostalgic. Even when you’re talking about it, you’re remembering what your dad had. I’m probably too young to have been around. We were in tapes in the ‘80s. My dad had records and I remember listening to records with him. It has this warm feeling about it. The greatest hits of Sam Cooke, that’s the record. It was yellow. I remember we would dance in the living room to all the songs. It was the best. There’s this nostalgic thing. There’s this purity thing, people who want a pure musical experience.
What you’re saying, it sounds like a ritual. It sounds like the ritual of removing it delicately from the sheath, placing it, you place the needle, there’s the sound, and then you have to let it sit. You have to endure the experience. You don’t get to rapid-fire songs forward and backward. You’re opting-in to the experience and that feels meaningful. My friend and I talk about it when we make tea. Waiting for the teapot to heat and then you have to steep the tea. There’s this whole process that goes with it rather than the quick, “Give me one of those pods,” and slam it in and go. The fact that it takes time and you’re being intentional about it, which all of that is making you be present. Embrace the experience of doing it. Slow down.
There’s a biking club where I live, pedaling bikes. He was giving a talk at one of the local progressive community that we have here, chatting about it. He was advocating for biking. He was talking about the speed of discovery and how it makes you slow down. Especially in biking, you’re outside and you’re slow enough that you can notice things. It reminds me of these organic experiences of placing the record, placing the needle, sitting down in your comfy chair to listen to the music. Making the tea, going biking, slowing down, which is the experience that we find ourselves in during this liminal space of being in our homes. We get present with, “My house needs to get cleaned,” and what’s meaningful to do. I don’t get to jump around from task to task the way that I normally would. We all are slowing down. Vinyl seems like a great way to spend pandemics.
The person who owns the place has this great attention to detail. There’s even this little rack that says, “Now playing.” You can place the album cover in it so it sits up. When I look across the room at the turntable, I also see there is this lost art of the album cover. I have a St. Vincent looking at me. It’s the Digital Witness album. I’m not sure the exact name of it. I want to second your endorsement of Sam Cooke. For readers who have not listened to Sam Cooke, first of all, you probably have heard him because his greatest hits are filled with songs that will sound familiar.
You might not know that that’s who it is, but you should.
My version of Sam Cooke here, I don’t have him unfortunately but I have the best of Wilson Pickett, Mustang Sally and Land of 1000 Dances and so on. That’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking. I may have said this before but I’m going to say it again because it matters. There’s this thing called the negativity bias. Kim knows a lot of the way I think because she played a heavy role in my book, Shtick to Business, in terms of editing and making it as good as it is. She knows the way I think more than the average person.
In the book, I talk about loss aversion or I talk about the negativity bias. Essentially, it’s this pervasive, fundamental element of being human that the average person is more moved by negative things. They react more emotionally to them. Negative things capture our attention more and so on. This is a common element. It likely has some evolutionary roots and so on. We’re seeing a lot of this in the world. Not only do our news stations choose to report the most negative things, I like to say that CNN does not want the quarantine to ever end. This is great for them. They honestly have a vested interest in this continuing as long as possible. You can see this because what they’ll do is day-to-day cherry-pick the worst information that they can find rather than have whatever it’d be running, constant thing. The moment the death rate goes down in this one place, they pick some other place where something else is up.
I happened to be falling on the more optimistic side of things. Of course, this is absolutely terrible and there’s a lot of uncertainty around the world economy. Obviously, there are people who are struggling and you’re starting to see that. You’re starting to see people clamoring to get back to work. There are a lot of privileged, affluent people who are comfortable with their pandemic experience and almost making fun of this. There are a lot of red-state folks in general like Midwestern Bible Belt folks who are like, “I want to go back to work.” It’s not for the love of work. It’s for, “I’ve got a family to feed. I’ve got a mortgage to pay.” It’s creating desperation.
I would say I have fallen even more optimistic than I usually am about things and I’m an optimistic person. You don’t have a podcast called Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to A Remarkable Life unless you’re an optimistic person. The thing that I think is the thing that people have been overlooking, what the epidemiological models are missing and so on, which is the power of ingenuity, the power of creativity and innovation. When enough smart people, enough motivated people, and there’s enough deep pockets behind this that is enough of an entrepreneurial desire, you can have breakthroughs. It’s a worldwide calamity. There are a lot of highly motivated, some of our smartest people in the world, working on any number of problems associated with this.
Whenever you see bad news, like, “There are not enough masks. There are not enough ventilators.” The assumption is, “Sky is falling. This is going to be absolutely terrible. The hospitals are going to be overrun for X, Y, and Z reason.” That is true in this moment. We should be careful about pushing that forward days, certainly weeks because this is a problem to be solved. I want to celebrate human ingenuity, innovation, and that I have the belief that that’s going to speed along faster and also fewer deaths, illnesses, and problems than what is being reported and that captures our attention because we have this negativity bias. If you’re an optimistic person and you’re going, “Why is it that I feel this way and I don’t feel like anyone else is?” I would say, “Maybe it’s for this reason, you’re counting on ingenuity.” If you’re feeling overly pessimistic, first of all, it’s fine to feel that way. It’s normal but I hope that you’re going to be wrong. I’ve had a lot of these conversations with pessimistic friends where I go, “I hope you’re wrong.” They’re like, “I hope you’re right.”
It’s interesting to me that there’s so much that we can’t see. There’s so much that we don’t know what’s going on. All of our information is filtered through to us. We’re only getting part of the picture. That’s what the outside sources are filtering to us. Our own brain filters it based on negativity bias and then maybe even personal preferences of what’s interesting to you or not. There is no sense of the whole truth. It’s these little pieces. It is easy to get discouraged. If you’re only being fed the negative and your brain can only pick up the negative, that makes a lot of sense.
I’ve had plenty of highs and lows. Every time they tell us school was going to be canceled for longer, my brain would have to reacclimate. It was a downer for a couple of days. We’re canceled until the end of the school year. Our kids aren’t going anywhere. You’re right in human ingenuity. Maybe we have negativity bias hardwired into us for self-preservation or whatever. We also have executives thinking. We can change and make a choice to shift our thought. Acknowledge negativity bias and then say, “I’m going to let you sit here whining in negativity. You sit here for a second and I’m going to go over here and do some thinking without you and some innovation. Let me see what I come up with if I let you sit here and wallow for a minute.” Being able to split yourself into two and say, “I recognize my own grief and all of these things,” but being able to shift away from that intentionally to see what else. “What else is there? What am I missing? What else can I maybe not see?” Try to do some reversing, flip some things upside down and see what else could be true here.
There’s great personal growth and healing thing, it’s called The Work by Byron Katie. It’s all about reversing and it’s reversing your own thought patterns. You can go through it when you’re having negative thoughts. She has a little worksheet that she has you do. It’s all free on her website, The Work. You write down your belief, “I believe that the world is going to shit.” You can be as specific as you want. You write it down and then she says, “Do you know that that’s true?” “Yes, I know that it’s true.” “Are you absolutely sure that that is true?” “Maybe. I’m not absolutely sure.” “If that’s not true, what else could be true? What’s possible?” It makes you acknowledge that there are other avenues to think about and then you jot those down and then she’ll even say, “What’s the opposite of your belief statement?”
If I believe that the world is going to shit and it’s going to end and we’re all going to end in nuclear chaos, the worst-case scenario. I’ll say, “What’s the opposite?” I would write a positive thing that says, “Humanity is about to be reborn. We have a chance to make more social progress than we’ve ever made in a short amount of time.” It would force you to think about, “What’s the opposite of what I think?” Having that framework, she walks you through that within times of chaos, when we’re in this liminal chaotic space and I don’t know what to hang on to, challenging your own brain to come up with answers is amazing. It’s a powerful tool.
If I could put my behavioral scientist hat on for a moment, there are these two categories of thinking and feeling. They’re poorly named but one is called system one. System one is fast, intuitive, hot and emotional. I characterize it in my MBA class, that’s Homer Simpson. Homer Simpson is a system one thinker. As you were alluding to is there’s what’s called system two. System two is slower, colder, more calculated, more cognitive and that’s like Spock. We spend most of our lives living like Homer because it’s reacting quickly, being emotional, using our intuition and by the way, most of the time it guides us nicely. There are moments where we need Spock to take over and to correct for our Homer-like thinking and feeling and so on. What you’re describing is that Byron Katie is making you think a little bit more like Spock.
Third thing that Pete has been thinking, this leads us into why you’re here. I have been treating the pandemic, the quarantine as a call to action. I did a webinar. I’ve done some op-ed style writing and so on. I had a previous guest, Chase Johnson who is “sharpening his sword” while he is quarantined. We talked a little bit about this idea of a call to action. I’ll be frank. If you are not thinking hard about your health, relationships and career, you’re missing an opportunity that we don’t often don’t get in life. We don’t get enough of a chance to sit and reflect. It is often the case that problems cause us to pursue change more than good things do. When things are going well, you don’t want to rock the boat. When things go to shit, that’s when you start to reevaluate and reassess. Obviously, this is the definition of things going to shit. That term, call to action, has a real meaning, doesn’t it, Kim?
Yes, it does.
Let’s get into this. The call to action is part of what’s called the hero’s journey. When I did my first sabbatical, this was years ago, I read the Robert McKee book Story. I read it because that’s the kind of thing you do on sabbatical. You read books that you wouldn’t normally read. You think about things you wouldn’t normally think about. You write about things you wouldn’t normally write about. I was starting to get into the idea of doing research on the entertainment industry. The book Story is one of those classics. What would you call it?
It’s a cornerstone in what we know about story structure. A lot of roads led to that book and have been prompted by that book. It’s definitely a place to begin when it comes to story structure and understanding how we, as humanity organize, our narratives.
Before we get into what exactly is the hero’s journey, this is the structure behind the story. What are the books that led to Story by McKee?
I would say that there was a lot of work done on stories before, certainly all of Joseph Campbell’s seminal work. Also, there was literary critic, Norman Friedman, who did a lot of literary analysis back in the ‘50s. He was a professor and was looking at how you would analyze literature. He has a lot of papers that he published. Going back into Plato and Aristotle, they’re talking about the three-act structure and all of these ideas and all these different things that we would get. What’s interesting is, storytelling has been around since Homo sapiens have been around. Part of our evolutionary gifting is that we can tell stories so that people can learn lessons to prescriptive or cautionary tales to survive and thrive.
We’ve been doing this. It’s implicit knowledge that we have. As a human, it’s in our DNA. It’s part of who we are, the way that language is part of who we are. You start getting people to explicitly look at it at the start. You get the philosophers who start looking at why are things this way. They start doing this. We have the benefit of technology. We have more time to sit around and think about things and ponder. Not only do we start to become more self-aware of how we tell stories and the structure that lies beneath that, but the stories themselves start to change. We don’t have to tell stories about tigers in the bushes. We get to tell stories about self-actualization. It’s not just about survival anymore. There are all kinds of fascinating things that have been going on in the world of storytelling. Robert McKee’s book is one that any person who is interested in telling the story has definitely read and keeps it on hand for reference.
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, this is one of the ten books you should be reading. The idea of the story has become more prominent. You read about it more. There are people who talk about the story. You might get a business consultant talking about the story and so on. You’re right about this idea of story. It predates writing and it was a way to pass knowledge on. There seems to be something special about that three-act structure. People like Joseph Campbell and the folks who follow, then analyze it and then put it into a book. It reinforces it in a sense. It then becomes a format.
It’s like a model that we use to make sense of a pattern that we’re seeing, which is what Joseph Campbell did. He recognizes the underlying pattern of what people were implicitly doing. Cultures across space and time are telling these myths. They’re passing on these oral traditions and yet they’re all following this underlying structure. What it comes down to is it’s because it’s how humans process change. Stories are all about change and it’s how we process change. We don’t want to change. We’ll stay in status quo as long as possible until we absolutely can’t anymore and that is what stories are. How do you deal with unexpected events that drop in on your ordinary world that you avoid it for as long as you can until you can’t, and now what are you going to do? What are you going to do when you can’t avoid the change?
You might have a different way to talk about this but the way I have this is like the hero. The hero of a story is living in his or her ordinary world. I like to talk about The Matrix. I might be Neo in The Matrix. Neo is a computer hacker. By day, he works this boring corporate job. At night, he’s in the dark web, so to speak. That’s what he’s doing. He’s not a great employee. He’s skirting the law and so on. That’s his day-to-day thing. There is this call to action, this call to adventure. Something external happens that you can’t ignore. It’s impossible to ignore. My third point about things Pete thinks is here’s your call to action, impossible to ignore. What’s interesting is you could have a story where Neo decides out of the blue that he’s going to go on some adventure. That could happen but it’s not a compelling story. That doesn’t happen in the movies and books very much.
It does but it ends up being a slightly different flavor of story. What happens is that he might decide to go on an adventure but that’s not the inciting incident. That is his ordinary world. He’s like, “I’m going to go on an adventure.” Something else is going to happen that’s going to be like, “You might think that you’re going to do this thing,” which will tie to one of the stories I’m going to talk about later. The ordinary world is nothing other than your plan, “This is what I’m going to do.” Maybe your plan is, “I’m going to go on a road trip.” It could be, “I’m going to have an adventure.” You’re going to do it based off of the system one. Kim 1.0 is going on a road trip but something unexpected is going to happen that’s going to challenge the way I’m already perceiving that it’s going to go my intent, my goal, my essential action. The thing that I’m after, I’m going to be challenged. You can’t have that. They’re not being called to change yet.
I’m going to let you pick up this thing. Kim already foreshadowed this. The bonus material, I’ve asked Kim to dissect some well-known stories using the hero’s journey, using the story structure. Showing how different stories that seem wildly different still have this underlying model through them. I hope one of them wasn’t The Matrix because that’s the one I know. In The Matrix, the moment, that inciting incident is a FedEx agent comes and hands him the envelope. He opens up the envelope, there’s a mobile phone in there. It hits his hand and it rings and it’s Morpheus on the other line. Morpheus is this entity, this myth that he’s been searching for on the dark web, so to speak. Morpheus says, “They’re coming for you. Listen to me if you want to get out.” Neo is scrambling to avoid these bad guys. One of the elements of this is typically the hero is reluctant to embrace this call to action.
We don’t want to change.
It’s part of our grieving process. Change is death because it’s the loss of what was. Even if what’s coming is better, it’s unknown still. We talk about loss aversion. I don’t want to lose what I have. Even if the potential for something to be better is still an idea, there’s no certainty in that. We double down on where we are and what we want and what we know for safety because that’s what makes us feel safe. That’s your lizard brain being like, “Survive.”
It’s an important part of that process. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a story that you’re like, “I don’t know. I don’t buy it.” Sometimes people are too quick to change is what you were saying. If you get this call to adventure and maybe they’re like, “I’m all about it.” Sometimes that’s not necessarily believable because we’re not wired that way. We know better. We are going to double down and avoid to change. We might want the results. We want the quick, “I’ll take the money but don’t make me change.” It’s not like you don’t want the good stuff. We won’t take the good but as soon as it cost us something, then we are going to avoid it.
I’m being heavy-handed with this because I care about my readers and I want them to view this as an opportunity, but I also am realistic to know that resistance is going to be there, the rejection of the call to action. In the case of The Matrix, he’s out on a ledge 70 stories up and he’s facing this scary moment and he goes, “I can’t do this.” He ends up being taken away in handcuffs.
He decides, “I’d rather be arrested.” He’s not ready. That is definitely the refusal of the call. What’s funny and what I find interesting about Neo’s character is that he was seeking out the white rabbit. He was pursuing this. He gets a phone call from the guy and he’s like, “Here’s what to do.” He’s like, “Nope, can’t do it.”
He even says, “I can’t do this.” I could be wrong. The hero in the ordinary world, the call to action, the call to adventure, initially the hero rejects for the reasons that you’ve stated. This is scary. It’s hard. It’s going to create change. The reader can see this perhaps in their own life. What happens next?
We are going to have the meeting with the guide, which is your mentor, the person who’s going to help you because none of us can change on our own. You need someone who knows more, who’s wiser, who’s been through it before, who has a different insight. The pessimists need the optimist and the optimist needs the pessimists. We need to be able to see that there’s another way. Meeting with the guide or the mentor, it gives you what you need so that you can take that next step. When you’re refusing, you’re refusing because it’s the unknown and you’re like, “I want it but I can’t do it.” If you meet with a guide and they’re like, “I know you can’t do this one. Hold my hand and let’s go.” You then jump together and you go into the unknown.
I am the mentor.
You are absolutely the mentor. You are the protagonist in your own story but definitely a mentor.
I’m trying to be a mentor. I’m being cheeky when I say that. That’s a role that I’m meant to play in a reader’s story, I hope, which is you can do this. In the case of The Matrix, Morpheus is the mentor there. In Star Wars, it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi for Luke Skywalker. Is there another story that people might be familiar with that they can go, “That’s a good mentor that I should think of?”Stories are all about change. Click To Tweet
It’s an inverse one, but if you think about Rocky and if you think about his manager. What I love about that story is his manager, Mickey, kicks him out of the gym. There are some interesting things there. That one, we’ll talk about it in a little bit that Rocky is an inverse of the hero’s journey. You couldn’t do this on your own. You need what this other person knows.
I’m not familiar with Lord of the Rings.
Gandalf is the mentor in that.
There’s this mentor who helps the hero become more courageous. If you’re going to be a hero, you need to be courageous in some way, shape, or form.
There’s information that you don’t have that you need. There are skills that you don’t have that you need. There are a lot of things maybe that you have in your programming and your way of thinking that you need to let go of. You need to release them because they’re in the way. It could be selfishness. It could be fear. It could be all kinds of things that are in the way of you self-actualizing. I would say a heroic journey is about self-actualization. It’s about getting out where you are, your comfort zone, your known world. You’re going to plunge into this unknown, this chaotic world, the extraordinary world and you’re going to go down to the depths of it. You’re going to go through this thing and you’re going to gain things down there that you’re going to come out being the master of both worlds. You’re going to go home at some point but you’re going to go home with treasure.
That’s why we call them heroes and they go on adventures. They’re going out. If you think about back in the early Homo sapiens days, we’re all gathered around the campfire where the light is and it’s warm. We need someone who’s going to go out into the dark. They’re going to come back and be like, “Check it out. I know how to take fire with me. I went out and I found this other thing.” They’ll bring stuff back. We’ll get through it as we go through the hero’s journey. You need to leave because there’s something to be gained by going. What you’re going to gain is worth so much more than what you’re going to lose. You need someone who’s been around the block before who can shape you and say, “You’ve got to get out. You can’t stay here. It’s time.”
The hero meets the mentor, guides them, helps them develop courage. What happens next?
They then accept, “Let’s do this.” They then cross the threshold and it’s the final farewell to the ordinary world. They do transition into the extraordinary world and everything is new and different. Alice in Wonderland, you’re stepping in, “What the heck?” What’s interesting about this heroic journey is it takes place in four phases. The first phase is we’re in our known world. It’s a known physical world and our known mental world. We get a chaotic thing that pops in. An unexpected event comes in and challenges maybe the way we think or maybe there’s a meteor that’s blown up our cave and now we’ve got to go, whatever it is. There’s something that is making us physically leave. We physically leave but we bring our mindset with us. We might physically change location into this new extraordinary world but we’re still holding on to system one. We are like, “I am not going to change.”
What’s fascinating about once we step into the extraordinary world is that you get to be tested. The next phase is tests, allies, enemies. It’s where you’re going to meet the threshold guardian who’s going to challenge you, who has their own agenda. You’re going to end up in some conflict. You’re going to make allies, meet friends, maybe gain some skills. You get to practice and test. Retrieve a sword, learn some skills, there are all kinds of stuff. You’re also going, “That’s the bad guy.” You’re going to start to see that there are other conflicts out here that you’re going to need to deal with, but you’re not ready to deal with them yet. If you went head to head with the antagonist right now, they would win. They do. You’ll see them have a test that they will fail because they’re not ready yet. They’re still clinging to their old way of being. Even though they’re in this new world, they’re like, “Okay.”
One thing I wanted to make sure I bring up, and it makes sense to talk about it now, is that if you map the heroic journey with the Kübler-Ross change model, because that’s how we process change, the process of grieving is the same model. You’ll see this pattern repeat over and over again in all different places. That’s how we learn. It’s how we teach something to someone. Stories are fascinating because it’s distilling this pattern of how to process new information and make a change. It’s doing it in a way it’s subversive. It sneaks it in because you’re fascinated but it still gets in you.
I want to highlight something. I’m going to keep doing The Matrix because I know the story well. There’s a famous scene in The Matrix which Morpheus tells Neo about what’s going on for real. He tells him about The Matrix and so on, and then he gives him a moment of choice where he says, “You could take the blue pill and go back to your life or you could take the red pill and you could see the world for what it is.” Of course, Neo takes the red pill. If he didn’t, the movie would be over.
You’d go back. You get plugged back in.
He gets plugged back into The Matrix. Of course, taking the red pill sets off a chain of events where this is not a pleasant world.
Taking that pill, that’s a point of no return. Once he takes that pill and he makes that choice, that’s when everything comes unplugged from him. The machines, he’s this battery, they’re like, “He’s defective. We’re going to flush it.” He’s physically removed from his place. Now he’s sent out into the cold, harsh reality and it gets picked up and now he’s like, “This is the real world.” That’s him. That’s definitely that moment. He’s meeting with the mentor. The mentor is saying, “This is what you want to do.” He accepts the call. He crosses the threshold and now he’s in. He’s physically transported into an extraordinary world that his brain is trying to process. You can’t instantly be like, “Here we are. I’m out of the Matrix.” It takes time, which is why stories happen little by little. It’s bit by bit. It’s why we process change bit by bit. We can’t do it all at once.
That’s why storytelling is a lot like music, which is great that you started talking about vinyl first and listening to music. They’re both art forms that take place in time. You have to experience them moment by moment, which is what life is. We are stuck for better or worse. We’re stuck in time. We are temporal beings. You have to experience things moment by moment. Storytelling is powerful and that we’re seeing these micro-decisions and micro changes and little by little we’re moving forward and moving back until we make our way around.
If we think about it in the Kübler-Ross sense, we start with shock, we go into denial, and then we’re going to get angry, and then we do some bargaining. All these first phases, the call to adventure, that unexpected event, that’s the shock that says, “This is what’s going to happen to you.” You’re like, “No, it’s not. I don’t have to deal with that.” That’s all denial. I don’t want anything to do with that and then you cross the threshold, you’re like, “I’m mad but I’m going to cross. Fine, I’ll go.” You get over there and you’re mad that you’re over there and you’re like, “I know what to do. I’m going to hang on to Kim 1.0, my old way of thinking and I’m going to do what I know works and I’m going to make it. I’m going to power through this.” You then end up falling flat on your face because Kim 1.0 is not going to get the job done. If we think about phase one of the hero’s journey and then now, we’re in phase two. We’re in the extraordinary world but we’re still clinging to our old mindsets and we’re mad about it. We’re trying to come up with like, “What’s the littlest that I have to change in order to get what I want?”
In The Matrix, he meets the cast of characters on the Nebuchadnezzar. He meets the cast of characters on the ship. There’s a love interest there and so on. Morpheus starts testing him. There’s a scene where they fight in this virtual world. Morpheus is by far superior and is pressing Neo in many ways to let go, to believe more in who he could be. One of the ideas that I like is you’re encountering allies and enemies along the way. One of the important things as we translate the hero’s journey that works in terms of thinking about your own life is you need enemies to make a story. You need challenges. As I like to say, “Anything worth doing is going to be difficult.” You can’t resent enemies. You have to embrace enemies because they play an important role. What might the enemy be in a pandemic? The enemy might be a loss of a job. Enemies don’t have to be Darth Vader. Enemies can be tornadoes. Enemies can be that thing that’s there. One of the things I like in this, and this fits my solo but not alone idea, is you also need allies. To do the hero’s journey, you don’t do it alone. You need Morpheus and you need Trinity as much as you need Agent Smith. If you’re reading this and you don’t know The Matrix, first of all, it’s worth watching. It holds up well. Secondly, I’m a tiny bit sorry.
You should have watched it by now. That’s on you. This idea with enemies, you need the bosses that you hit at the end of the level. The baddies that you have to come up against, they’re testing you. They’re training you. They are helping you build resilience and giving you new skills and teaching you things about yourself. You’re getting information about how to win later. Even in times like this, if we flip to reality, I’m realizing, “I’m struggling with change.” Everybody is. I get new information. Sorry, the kids are home. That feels like an enemy to me. It’s a cognitive dissonance and it’s takes me down for two days.
When I get a ball of chaos dropped in my lap, knowing that about myself says, “How do I beat that?” I’ve come up against this at least three times before. Usually, I’m down for two days trying to get my head wrapped around, “What now?” Now I know that about myself. What I can do is I can say, “Okay, new information.” I’m going to go ahead and email my people and be like, “I’m taking a personal day. I’ll get back to you about this stuff, not today.” Stop trying to power through everything. Learn something and apply it differently. That’s a small example but this is something that I’ve been constantly being tested about and it’s like, “Are you going to keep trying to do the same thing over and over?” Are you going to learn what you need and go, “I’m not going to keep going head-on at this bad guy. I’m going to learn some moves?”
I would say this. One thing that is important for folks to understand is friends and family sometimes are allies and sometimes they’re enemies. For example, let’s suppose that part of your hero’s journey has something to do with pursuing a solo lifestyle. For example, being in quarantine with your partner, maybe the call to action is this relationship is not worth having and you resist it, of course. Your friends and family may serve an ally function, which is they may get behind you and help you make these changes or they may not. They may say, “No, you shouldn’t do this. Don’t do this. This is scary. This is bad.” Because you have affection for them, you’re fond of them, you trust them, you care about them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re playing the ally role.
If you’re changing, it’s threatening them. Your change is their own call to adventure that they are absolutely refusing. They’re like, “No.” People want to keep things status quo. They want what they know because it feels safer, even if it isn’t.
Think about this. Imagine you have a drinking problem and your call to action is you have to stop drinking. That’s the change that you have to undergo. Maybe crossing the threshold is seeing a therapist or going into an AA meeting or whatever it is. What’s fascinating is your drinking buddies may become the enemies. Alcohol is the villain. That’s a tough situation that demands a complete change of who you are. That’s useful to recognize as you’re undergoing this. What’s next?
As we’re going through these tests, we’re getting skills, we’re making allies. We’re getting a glimpse of the enemy or maybe having a showdown with them. We’re going to get to a crucial moment in the middle. We’re thinking about this in four quadrants. We’ve had our ordinary world in the first quadrant. We accept the call and we step into the extraordinary world. Maybe we’re in a new physical location but we’re still clinging to that old-world view. This moment, when we hit the middle, specifically in The Matrix, it’s this meeting with the goddess. It’s when we go to see the Oracle. This is the midpoint. One of the story structure books that I like, it’s short, it’s by James Scott Bell and it’s called Write Your Novel From The Middle. He talks about the midpoint being a mirror moment. It’s where you have to look at yourself and you have to see things clearly.
If you think about one of the Star Wars movies where Luke goes into a cave, he goes in there and then he kills Vader in the cave and he looks and it’s himself. It’s this thing where you have to face down the thing that you’re most afraid of. You have to face down these things but you get something there in the middle. There’s something that happens that is almost like you’re crossing another threshold but this time it’s an internal threshold. It’s a mindset threshold and it’s where you surrender the things that were holding you back in a lot of ways and you start to embrace the change.
I have this nerdy analogy about a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. If you were to use this, you’d be a caterpillar in the ordinary world and you’d be like, “Okay.” Jumping into the extraordinary world is like, “I’m going to make a cocoon or a chrysalis.” Your whole part in the extraordinary world is you’re going through this weird change or being broken down from what you used to be and then you’re going to be rebuilt into this other creature. The midpoint, you can imagine, is when you take a big shift where you are fundamentally less caterpillar and more butterfly. You don’t go from 49% to 51%. You went from 40% to 60%. It’s a big jump where you get information that you cross over.
In mathematical modeling, we call this a step function.
It’s a major turning point.
It’s a big jump.
The midpoint of a story, this meeting with the goddess entering the cave, different stories have a different feel about it. Sometimes it can feel like a low point and sometimes it can feel like a high point. It depends on what the story needs. It’s this shift that makes you change. In The Matrix, this whole time, Morpheus has been telling him, “You’re the one.” He’s like, “I don’t know.” What’s interesting is that the Oracle tells him, “Sorry, you’re not the one.” She gives him some information that you’ll have to choose between your life and Morpheus’ life. Morpheus is this guy that’s poured everything into him. Neo, having this information that Morpheus’ life is going to be in his hands at some point, makes him sit up and take it. Getting that information, it lights a fire. It ignites him to be like, “Who cares if I’m the one or not? I am not letting Morpheus die.” Him accepting that makes him start pursuing things at a different level, which is how he comes to realize that he’s the one.
The idea is that at that moment, Neo isn’t the one. He’s not the one. He has to become the one. That trade-off sets him on that path. One of the things that I like about the hero’s journey, I have 5% of the knowledge that you have, Kim, when it comes to this. I love this idea because I like to keep translating it into life. I like this idea that oftentimes the hero is on a physical journey. There is some physical thing he or she needs to accomplish. Maybe you need to beat Apollo Creed in the fight. You need to blow up the Death Star. You need to save the Ark of the Covenant, whatever it is that’s there. In order to do that, you have to undergo a psychological change. That is fascinating in the sense that for those of us who see this pandemic as an inciting incident and it’s going to set us along a hero’s journey we would not have otherwise gone on, to recognize that you’re going to have to change something about yourself. In order to do it, you’re going to have to reinvent yourself, create a new identity. The thing is you’re going to have to address the thing that scares you.
It’s this interesting chicken or the egg phenomenon because, on the one hand, you have this external journey. It’s this thing that prompts you to start to have to change internally. Making this internal change is what helps you solve the external one. In the end, you’re different and you get to take that internal change with you. After this adventure is over, you’re this other person and you get to keep going. It leapfrogs itself. Everything’s connected and they get one another.
Once you know this, I don’t think it hurts movies for me. In some ways, it enhances the movies because you can then pick things out. You get to feel smart sometimes when you watch a movie. If you’re watching a movie and if it’s a Hollywood movie, you know it’s going to probably end well and you know that it’s going to be uncomfortable until the climax, so to speak. One that I find visually a beautiful movie and it’s an exciting movie is Mad Max: Fury Road.
I have not seen it.
It’s okay. Mad Max is a loner. This is a franchise that’s been around for 30-plus years, 40 years or so. His family is killed and he’s out in the wastelands, post-apocalyptic world. In Mad Max: Fury Road, it starts with a voiceover with the Tom Hardy character speaking and talking about survival. The way you survive is to run. You survive by being unencumbered. What’s fascinating is in the movie, he ends up getting hooked up with the Charlize Theron character and another band of allies there. He thrust into their world. What’s fascinating is what the director comes up with. He leads you down this path where you feel like the movie is going to end anticlimactically with the Mad Max character going off on his own and then this band of allies crossing the desert, so to speak.
The director even goes so far as sending these people out and having Max watch them as they’re going off into the sunset. The next thing you know, he’s flying, chasing after them, stops them and says, “This is how we do this.” What they have to do is they have to turn around and go back into the heart of the fight. What was great about that is, of course, they’re triumphant, as you might imagine because it’s Hollywood. What Max had to do was overcome his instinct, which is to run to survive. He had to continue to band with these people and go in completely the opposite direction, back into the heart of the battle.
He shifts from being a loner to being connected and from running to facing. It’s beautiful. Those things are metaphorical and they’re great. What I would guess, based on what you said, is that moment that happens, he’s sent them off and then him realizing, “No, this isn’t it.” That’s this epiphany. That’s the reward moment in the hero’s journey where he gets new information. He realizes something and then he goes and gets them. This is like the road back. He goes and gets them and says, “We’ve got to turn around and go back.” They turn around and they head back, that’s the road back. This is shifting into the final thing so then they will have their final battle, their final showdown. What that moment sounds like to me would be that final road back. He learned what he needs to learn and now he’s had this internal change and now it’s time to put everything together and have the final face-off with the baddie.
In The Matrix, the example of that would be when Neo stays to fight Agent Smith, or it would be when they go to rescue Morpheus. We shouldn’t do this, it’s too inside baseball.
It might be. We can nerd out about it later. To me, what it is, it’s a framework. It’s like having a model of the solar system. It’s understanding the way that atoms are put together. We can’t look at it with our eyes but we can have this model and we can understand how it works and then you can apply that to things. Understanding story structure and understanding the hero’s journey or whatever it is, to me, it’s a framework that you can apply to your life. Whether you’re a writer or a screenwriter or novelist or whatever, understanding your own cognitive functions because that’s all that it is. It’s a pattern that we have created as humans because it’s how we operate. It’s how your operating system works. This is giving tangible imagery and archetypical characters and making up weird names and symbols in different images for you to make sense of a process that’s happening to you whether you’re aware of it or not. I’m a story nerd, so it’s great.
If you’re working with a therapist or if you’re working on doing some personal growth and those kinds of things, there are different models that you can get ahold of to help you make sense of your environment and stories do that. Whether it’s journaling your own story or looking back at your life and creating a timeline of events and trying to understand what are these big key moments. Who are the different characters that I’ve had to deal with? Looking back what that hindsight helps you make sense of it. You then can step in as the protagonist on your own story and not a passive character and become active. You can start saying, “I’ve been passive and maybe I’ve had all this other crap happen to me, but I’m crossing a threshold now and I’m going to do it differently.” You can start becoming more active. Any of those tools are empowering. It’s one of those things like, “Why not lean into it?”
In one of the early episodes of Solo, the title is Why Are Superheroes Single?, the hero’s journey comes up. In it, I talk about this the way you’re talking about it right now. You are talking about it from a writing standpoint. I like to ask my students, “Are you the hero in the movie of your life?”
I like that idea. It’s important. You can be an ally in someone else’s story. That’s fine. You could be a villain and enemy and someone else’s story. In your own story, I want you to be the hero. You deserve to be the hero in the movie of your life. I like to say, “Are you the director of the movie of your life?” You can then start to exert more control over the things that happen, the decisions that get made and so on. I like what you’re saying, to understand the model is empowering even though the average person will never write a story that may rely on the hero’s journey. Understanding the framework, the model can then help you craft a life. The thing is you can’t have good without bad. You can’t have wins without losses. You can’t have good guys without bad guys and so on. I like that idea. Let’s tee this up. There’s the confrontation with the villain. There’s the internal change and the external triumph or change.
It looks like we missed one step, though. Let’s back up. After we had this midpoint meeting with the goddess, the cave, whatever, where we have this major shift, that leads us into this preparation phase where we’re starting to take action. We’re preparing to get Morpheus. We’re going to bring out all the guns, download all of the software in my head and we’re going to go and we’re about to kick some ass. We’re getting ready.
That’s the Rocky training montage.
If you think about the midpoint in Rocky, that’s when Apollo chooses him. Apollo chooses Rocky at the midpoint. This is now Rocky’s chance to prove himself. He has to rise above and that’s when Mickey’s like, “You need a manager.” He’s like, “I’m going to do this.” He shifts from being passive to being active. Same with Neo, he shifts from being like, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “I can do this. Let’s go.” You start taking action and you’re starting to apply things. You’re starting to try something new too. It’s not something old. Before, the reason why you got your ass kicked in the first part was because you kept trying to do it the old way. Now you’re starting to shift and go, “I’m going to try to do something new.”
You’ll end up having this face-off. You can rescue Morpheus or whatever happens but we’ll end up having this ordeal or the crisis in the hero’s journey. It’s this face-off and what will happen is you’ll have something positive but also something negative. Lots of times it will lead you to, we call it the all is lost moment. The rug gets pulled all the way out and all is lost. It’s from that moment, this dark night of the soul moment, that’s when you get the reward. That’s when the epiphany comes. You have to hit rock bottom first if you’re going to change.
What’s so interesting is you jump back to the beginning and you think, “We’re in our same physical location and same mental. I’m hanging onto my worldview. I’m going to change physical locations but I’m still going to keep the way that I was thinking.” I then decide to shift my thinking. I’ve only changed it a little bit, but I haven’t come to the absolute breakdown. That’s why you always have to have that all is lost total breakdown moment in a story and that’s when things seem darkest but that’s when the epiphany does come. It’s fascinating. This does feel like in that moment in The Matrix when he turns to fight Agent Smith. That’s his reward. It’s interesting. It makes sense that it’s archetypically similar to what you’ve described in Mad Max. Instead of running, we’re going to shift. That’s been the thing, when you see Agent Smith, you run. Now he’s like, “No, I don’t run because I know what I can do.” He believes in himself so he turns and he shifts.
That reversal is a big part of a lot of hero’s journeys. You have to reverse course in some way. The transformation is still radical that you have to do the opposite of what you would normally do. I’m going to keep bringing this back to changes as a result of the pandemic. This is useful for people to recognize that this will not be easy and that you might have to make a fundamental change. You might encounter the all is lost moment. You might feel like this is not working and the temptation is to potentially give up. By the way, there’s no shame in quitting but there’s shame in quitting too soon. Recognize that you might have to do additional work to see this through.
Having the framework, the way that stories operate, it’s most useful when things are at their bleakest. You can be sitting in your all is lost moment in your dark night of the soul and be like, “This sucks,” but I go, “This is that moment.” You can acknowledge this is the low point, “I have nothing less to lose then.” If you have nothing left to lose, if you’re at rock bottom, then there’s a whole freedom in that, a freedom to try something new. You can surrender what you’ve been afraid of losing this whole time. There’s new life that comes in that. From there, that’s where ingenuity and innovation and all of these amazing creative things can happen because of bleak moments. That’s probably the story of humanity. We’re all stuck in one of these moments. What does that mean for us?
Will you let go of your old self? Will you let go of the old way of doing things?
That’s neat. Now what?
We have our epiphany. The road back is where we are. We’re picking ourselves up out of the all is lost moment. We have new information. People have their own interpretations of this so they bring their own language. One way that one person put it was the Q factor. If you think about a James Bond movie, Q would give him a bunch of cool shit at the beginning of the movie and then they’d get to this point when he’s like, “What am I going to do?” All is lost, no way is he getting out of this and he’s like, “I have this thing, my exploding pen.” There will be this thing. When we’re talking about our own lives, there’s stuff that’s been planted in your life earlier. There are conversations, there are other experiences.
When you get to this all is lost moment, you get a shift in perspective so you can see all of that stuff that came before in a new way and that Q factor. You’re like, “I have this.” You start to recognize and you look around right, “What do I got? I’ve got to MacGyver my way out of this. What do I have? What can I use?” That can prompt you to find your actual inner gift. The hero’s journey is all about releasing the gift. Every person has one. It’s about you self-actualizing and coming to bring your gift to the world because that’s what we need. We need people to show up in the fullness of who they are and give their gifts and that benefits the whole.
The road back is starting to recognize. You pull your team back together. Let me get my allies. I might have to mend some fences. Maybe I offended a few people, I’m sorry about that. Let’s get back together. We’ve got to go and face down the bad guy. You pull all your resources together. You pull yourself out of the mud, pull your resources together, and then you’re heading for your final showdown, which is where you’re returning home. You’re on your way back to the ordinary world and you’re going to have one more face-off with the villain. This is where you get to bring everything that you’ve learned in this journey up until now. You bring it to bear.
I’m not Kim 1.0 that was back at the beginning of the story. I’ve went through so much shit since then and I have learned from each one of these things. I’ve gained skills. I’ve got a sword and I’ve got a shield. I’ve got all this stuff. Now I’m ready. Now it’s time to show up and have your final battle and make a sacrifice and share your gift, whatever it ends up being. That’s that final battle. When it’s over, you go home, but you go home changed. You go home different. What you have in you, all of the experience that you’ve gotten from this journey is the elixir. You have your information, your knowledge. You get to go and be someone else’s mentor.
You bring back the elixir of this experience that says, “I’ve been to the cave, I’ve been to the all is lost moment and I am coming out the other side. I have something to share with you.” When you have experiences, coming back and telling your story of what it was like when I was there is what helps people change. That’s the power of storytelling. Whether it’s a memoir, whether it’s someone at AA sharing their story, whether it’s someone with depression and posting on their blog, whatever it is. To share your story, talking about being solo on the podcast, you’ve got to do this stuff so that people don’t feel so fucking alone. It’s important.
I would say, I could not have done this at age 25. I could not have done this at age 35. I could have done it at 45. What I like to say is this is what I wish I had when I was 25. Getting out on the other side of it, it hasn’t always been easy embracing a solo lifestyle because it runs counter to the norms. There are a lot of friends and family who ended up playing the enemy role at times. They’re acting in a way that they’re trying to help but they’re misguided in terms of that.
Conflict and an antagonist aren’t so much about being bad. It’s just that their goals are in direct conflict with your goals. You ended up becoming obstacles to one another.
It’s not evil per se. It’s different goals. That’s fascinating.
They get in the way of one another.
I love that idea when you returned to the ordinary world a changed person and then you have the ability to play the role of mentor. That’s neat. It’s like Skywalker becomes wiser as the trilogy moves on.
He gets to show other people. We need that. That’s how we get to pass on knowledge and information and these valuable lessons because Obi-Wan died. He’s not around anymore. People have to pick up the mantle. We’ve got to carry the torch for the next generation. These are the things that matter. You can see that in storytelling. You go from the oral traditions to now we’re writing stuff down. One thing that we haven’t mentioned yet, but I figured we would get to it at some point is that the whole reason why we do all of this stuff is to help get people’s needs met. When we talk about Maslow’s hierarchy, we don’t have to think of it like a hierarchy. We have this one path but you can recognize that everybody has these needs and sometimes they’re operating at different levels. In the Story Grid world, we think of them more like gas gauges. Sometimes they’re high, sometimes they’re low.
For the reader who doesn’t know the Story Grid. I don’t think the average person knows what it is. Before it slips away, you’re talking about Rocky. In later films, he becomes the manager and the teacher. I don’t think the average person knows the nuts and bolts of the hero’s journey, obviously. They certainly don’t know what the Story Grid is. What exactly is it?
The Story Grid is a methodology created by Shawn Coyne. He was an editor in the big five publishing houses for years. He’s business partners with Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art. The Story Grid was his method that he came up with as an editor to help his clients, to communicate to them, “Here’s what’s working in your book and what’s not.” The way he would describe is he gets handed a manuscript and I’ve got to get this thing ready to publish in the soonest amount of time. That’s the way publishing works. We got to make money. He came up with this process originally. He’s an intellectual guy and he came up with a way you can quantify, qualitative and quantitative, to measure if a story is working or not.
It’s almost like you check this box where you give scores.
You’re looking at these specific criteria. Story operates on two lenses. You have the macro global story that we’ve been talking about with the hero’s journey. That’s this macro spine. We’ve got these major moments. Can you see these big shifts happening? Is the story progressing in a way that’s cognitively making sense to the reader? You then have this micro stuff, which is the scene by scene, moment by moment, beat by beat sort of stuff in a film. If you think about it in a film, you might have a scene and you have lines of dialogue, you have these actions. You have these micro things that are happening that culminate into a larger change. Its arcs within arcs or a Russian doll. Things repeat and then they build upon one another until they ultimately have this climactic ending.
He has ways of looking at the macro lens and then looking at the micro lens. We look at it scene by scene. There are all these qualitative and quantitative things that we can look at to try to make sense of what’s happening and is this stuff going to be satisfying for a reader? Is it going to be something that they’re going to have a transformative experience by reading what you’ve written? It’s his process. He wrote a book on it, The Story Grid. There’s the original Story Grid Podcast and then there’s the one that I’m on, which is the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast. We watch a movie every week and analyze the crap out of it, doing all kinds of weird stuff. It’s an absolute blast. For die-hard story nerds, you can’t beat it.
In Maslow’s hierarchy, what’s interesting is if you look at the different genres of storytelling, you have an action story, maybe you have a performance story, a war story, crime stories, there are all these different types of stories, love stories and there are worldview stories. There are all these different kinds of stories and they map directly onto the kinds of needs that humans need that we have to meet. We have our physiological, survival needs. We’ve got our safety needs. We have our love and connection needs, belonging. Whether or not you want to be solo or partnered, you still need connection. You still need love and connection in your life. There are other stories, buddy-cop stories. You’ve got a great buddy love story. It’s a show about people are better together, our powers combined like The Avengers.
People are bringing their unique gifts to the table and then you’re combining them for these awesome outcomes. Performance stories, those are all your esteem level stories and self-actualization and self-transcendence. You have genres that map directly to these needs because the whole point of storytelling is it’s a way that our ancestors helped each other get their needs met so that we didn’t die, like, “Don’t die. We need you to live.” We’re telling all these stories. Even now, it’s entertainment. They’re prescriptive and cautionary tales of how to get your needs met. Do this and good things will happen. Don’t do this because bad things will happen.
It’s fascinating about understanding ways you can get your needs met. Looking at your own life is such a great way to realize, “That did not work.” Look at the cautionary tales of your own life, like, “I should’ve listened to my own instinct and not done what my mom wanted me to do.” That’s a great lesson that you can reflect in your own story and figure out maybe some of these things. It’s fascinating to see how storytelling maps to Kübler-Ross, how it maps Maslow. There are all these pieces and that’s what Shawn Coyne’s work is all about, the sciences and humanities come together in a special way in storytelling.
If I could try to connect this back to what I started off saying, I had mentioned these three categories. One is health, another is relationships, and another is career. I could easily see how this pandemic can be an inciting incident for any of those. We’ve already alluded to the relationship one, obviously. You have someone who is not as supportive as they need to be a life partner, for example. The health one can be rather clear also. Think about this, if you are a smoker, if you are overweight, if you have poor health, you are at much greater risk from this virus than someone else. This might be that wakeup call that says, “It’s time to make some improvements in life.” As I like to say to my students, “When you get down to it, is your health number one?” Of course, the hero’s journey around changing your health is not trivial.
It maps well.
The allies and enemies and all those lost moments. Having to not only change your physical but change your psychological. You could imagine building a hero’s journey around your transformation of your body. That goes without saying, the career ones. Whether that be finding new work, pursuing a new career, whatever that might be. What we should do, Kim, is we should wrap up here. I’m going to say thanks to you but we’re going to come back for some bonus material and you’re going to dissect a few well-known stories using the hero’s journey. I’m always excited about this. The bonus material is always the best part.
Thank you. This has been great.
This was great. I knew it would be. I appreciate you taking the time and prepping all of this. I know how much you have going on.
It’s easy to show up and talk about stuff that you love and hopefully that you think are good tools for people to take some control over a chaotic situation.
We’re back for a little bonus material. Kim is still here. I asked Kim to prep a few stories that she was going to dissect with the hero’s journey. I have no idea what these are. I don’t know if I’ve seen them or read them. We’ll see. Kim, what is your first one?
The first one that I figured with being as big of a blockbuster as it was, probably everybody’s seen it, is Avatar. We would talk about Avatar. Pete, have you seen Avatar?
I’ve never seen Avatar. Can you believe it?
No, I can’t, but its fine.
There’s no good excuse, except its three hours.
Its two hours and 41 minutes. I went and checked a clip of it and I was like, “That’s a long movie.”
I have no excuse because as many movies as I’ve seen and as much as I enjoy film, it was a groundbreaking movie because of the special effects. Based upon the hero’s journey, I should be able to still understand what goes on.
What’s interesting is the ordinary world in this story is still extraordinary. The real extraordinary world gets even more extraordinary. That’s why I like this. It’s fun that way. We have Jake Sully as our protagonist. The story opens with him waking from hypersleep. He’s on a ship headed to the planet of Pandora. He’s been in hypersleep for five years and he wakes up and he’s there to do a job. His twin brother has died and he’s there to take his place because they have the same genetic code. They have the same DNA. He can take over as the avatar driver. They grow these avatars that are a mix of human DNA and then a mix of the Na’vi, which are the native, humanoid-type of creatures on the planet of Pandora. They’re 7 or 8 feet tall. They’re huge. These dummy clone bodies that are then driven by the avatar or Jake Sully. He’s lying in a weird tanning bed and his mind connects because of his DNA to be able to be in this body. Anyway, that’s the premise.
He’s going to this crazy world. He knows he’s going to do this avatar thing. He gets there but he’s still with the humans. He’s on this military base. The whole reason they’re on Pandora is to mine. It’s one of those corporate bad guys versus nature. It’s that story. He’s still in his ordinary world. He’s a fish out of water already but he’s with humans. There are the scientists and then there are the military Jarhead guys. He’s learning how to navigate between that. A couple of cool things happen, he gets to drive his body. I’ve left out an important piece of information. He is paralyzed from the waist down. He was a Marine. He’d been in a war. He got hurt in the spine so he cannot walk. He’s in a wheelchair. He shows up on this planet in a wheelchair. For him to get to go into the standing bed and become a badass avatar, he gets to run again. He has all these cool things happening for him that’s like, “This is amazing.”
I would say his call to adventure, his challenge is that the main military bad guy wants him to be a spy. He wants him to be a spy because they’re there to plow through and they want to take all the ore that they’re mining for. Jake’s job is to be a spy to try to figure out a way to get the natives to leave their home tree. He’s like, “If you do it, I will get you shipped back home and we will get you the surgery so you can get your legs back.” There’s this challenge that he’s given from the military guy. He has this thing and he goes out on patrol. This is still all ordinary world for Jake. He’s still doing his job.
They got on their first patrol. He goes out with the scientists and they try to take samples. They want to learn how this world works. Everything’s connected, bioluminescence and there are all kinds of fascinating things. While they’re there, they get separated. Some big, crazy panther animal separates them. He’s about to get eaten by this panther. Neytiri, who is Zoe Saldana’s character in this film, she is a Na’vi. She’s one of the native creatures. She saves him. This is, I would say, the meeting the mentor moment. He’s been challenged between seeing how amazing this world is but he’s also being challenged by this general to be a sneaky guy. He’s got this dueling thing. He then meets Neytiri and she is telling him that he is ignorant. She calls him a baby. She calls him a child, all these things, because he doesn’t appreciate nature. He’s clumsy, all this stuff, but he ends up winning her over and then she agrees to take him with her.
They crossed the threshold together. Now he gets to meet her people. He gets to go to Home Tree, but he’s doing it on this idea that he’s infiltrating. He’s like, “You’ve got to teach me.” Him passing into the extraordinary world is going from being an outsider to an insider. He’s on Pandora the whole time but he’s an outsider and then he becomes an insider and then he gets access. He gets access to be trained by them, to learn their ways. All of these things to act as this bridge, but it’s all under this deceit. They’re thinking that it’s going to be for good but he knows that it’s for bad. Tests, allies and enemies. He learns how to ride their version of a horse and he sucks at it. There’s this weird love triangle thing going on. There’s the love rival that hates him and wants to kick his ass. There are all kinds of stuff like that’s happening. He constantly has to shift between being in his avatar body and then waking up back in the lab and having to get back into a wheelchair. All kinds of stuff are going on.
When is his all is lost moment?
All his lost moment comes after he wins Neytiri’s affection. He’s one of the tribes, all these things happen. The bad guys decide that they’re not going to get them to leave peacefully. They decide that they’re going to bulldoze through and they’re going to take everything out. Jake has to come and give them that information and they are pissed at him for lying to them and being deceitful. They kick him out. He’s not allowed. They then blow up the tree. The whole thing gets destroyed and he’s rejected. The military Jarheads have won at this point and the Na’vi people are completely displaced. The land is being pillaged at this point. Him and his scientist buddies are all locked in a cell back at the place. That’s his ordeal. He wanted to save them. He wanted them to leave peacefully so they wouldn’t be destroyed because over the course of this time, he loves them. He’s fallen in love. He loves the culture. His whole mindset is awakening to how amazing nature is. All this cool stuff that’s happened to him and realizing how shallow all of these other pursuits are.
Eventually a buddy of theirs, Trudy, she’s the helicopter pilot. She breaks them out and they go back after the tree is destroyed and they escape. One of his scientist buddies, Sigourney Weaver plays Grace, is injured. This moment is not quite to the road back yet. It’s this transition moment. He’s stepping up in a new way. The major thing for Jake’s character is having something to fight for. If you think about the Mad Max story that we talked about, “I’ve always got to run.” It’s that thing. This moment where he thinks that everything is meaningless and he’s pretty much been out for himself to get his legs back and all these things and now he’s realizing, “I have something to fight for. I have something worth dying for again.” Maybe he used to feel that way but after his injury, life is meaningless. Now he’s realizing that this is worth fighting for and that’s his epiphany.
What he does is he’s turning back and facing, “I’m going to turn around and chase the bad guys.” He goes and he flies on his pterodactyl bird creature thing. He flies up high and he takes over an even bigger colossal pterodactyl bird thing that nobody rides anymore. It’s been generations since one of them have ridden one. It’s his way of winning them back over. He domesticates it in a second. He flies it into their temporary camp and they’re all shocked. That’s his road back. He has to win them back over by showing like, “I’m here. I’ve done this amazing feat.” He has to prove himself again because he deceived them. That’s his crossing back over. He has to do something extraordinary to show that he’s changed. He’s doing something that no one else has tried. They call that big bird the last shadow because it’s the last shadow you’ll ever see before you die because it’s big and scary. For him to make that sacrifice and to prove it, that wins them back over.
He’s able to rally all the forces. They believe in him now. They trust him. They get all of the tribes together and then they have a final battle against the bad guys. There’s a kick-ass moment when it’s starting to look bad. The helicopter goes down. People are falling left and right. The military people are winning and what happens is that all of nature, all of the animals come and join the fight on their side. The whole planet comes back and fights back. Anyway, it’s great. The final reward is that they do this awesome ritual that they’re able to transfer his consciousness from his broken body all the way into the avatar. Now he’s fully the avatar. He no longer has to switch back and forth between the bodies. That’s Avatar.
First of all, thank you for ruining the movie for me.
You’re welcome. It’s your fault.
It completely is. One thing I like about hearing that is, Avatar was celebrated for being visually stunning, incredible special effects movie. Let’s be honest, the movie doesn’t make a splash the way that it did without the strong story.
I was seeing a blog and it was saying it’s Pocahontas, it’s Dances with Wolves. It’s all of these outsiders become the insider kinds of stories. We’ve seen them over and over again. Sometimes they’re done well and sometimes they’re appropriation, which I’ve heard a lot of appropriation arguments for Avatar. There’s certainly validity to that. When it comes to the story about someone who is acting in their own self-interest to find something worth fighting for, to make a sacrifice for and then to be integrated in a new way, it feels good. It’s satisfying in that way.
Do you want to do another one?
The next one that I’ve got for you is A Christmas Carol. Everybody knows A Christmas Carol. Another interesting twist on A Christmas Carol is that he doesn’t leave his town, he doesn’t leave his bedroom. The extraordinary world here is through time and space and it’s emotional. It’s very much an internal journey for him. The ordinary world for Scrooge, he’s a rich miser. He’s selfish. We get dropped in on him on Christmas Eve. The ordinary world is established. It becomes clear to us who he is because he has people calling him like, “Can we get some donations?” His nephew comes by and is like, “Are you going to join us?” He’s like, “Bah humbug, I don’t want anything to do with that.” We see him for who he is.
I would say his call to adventure is Bob Cratchit. He’s a nice employee, asks for the day off. He’s like, “Can I have the day off tomorrow? It’s Christmas.” What’s interesting and what you see here is a false step. Scrooge is like, “No, I don’t want him to take a day off.” He decides, “Fine, you can have the day off but you have to come in early the day after Christmas.” To him, he’s thinking he’s being generous. It’s a false acceptance of the call in a way because it’s like, “I’m being generous to you,” but he hasn’t changed at all. That’s his ordinary world. What happens is, when we talk about meeting the guide, he goes home and he sees the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. He sees it on the door knocker. He sees these other ghostly images happening. It turns out, he gets this warning that there’s going to be these three ghosts that are going to visit him.
That’s his mentor.
It’s an interesting mix between the mentor and also this threshold guardian character. He’s being sucked into the extraordinary world into this place where ghosts talk to him. He goes to bed and then he’s awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Past. We have the Ghost of Christmas Present. Those are the rest of his ordinary world. He goes into the past and he sees his old boss that was nice to him. What a good boss looks like, he knows, he’s seen it and he’s chosen not to. That’s important for Scrooge. He saw the girl that he wanted to marry. In Christmas present, he sees the nephew’s party that he didn’t want to go to and he sees them making fun of him. He goes to the Cratchit’s house and he sees that Tiny Tim is sick and he sees the life that Cratchit is living and he’s like, “Oh my gosh.”You deserve to be the hero in the movie of your life. Click To Tweet
What I love is that you can see these are his trials. He’s going through these different ghosts, these different tests that he’s going to do. He has to see himself and the way that he was and people that would have been allies in his life but he rejected them. Now he’s finding himself alone. He’s at this point where he tells the ghost of Christmas present, “I’m changed. I get it.” He feels like he’s made it. He’s like, “That’s great but you still have one more ghost to come.” He has to face the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This is where we’ve hit the all is lost moment, having to face down the future. Tiny Tim has died. Everyone’s celebrating his death. He has to see his own grave. This is where he begs for his life. He believes he’s going to die. He begs for his life and he has to realize that if he doesn’t change, he’s going to end up like Jacob Marley going around with all these chains. This is that all is lost ordeal moment.
When he wakes up the next day, his epiphany, “I’m alive.” That’s his reward. He went through this whole experience and he wakes up realizing that he’s alive and now he has a brand-new lease on life. He had that experience. Is he going to change or not? That’s his final test. He went through this whole experience but now it’s time to put his money where his mouth is, put his money in other people’s mouths. He’s giving money away. He’s doing all these things. He then ends up showing up at the Cratchit’s. This is his final showdown to go back to see these bookends of the person that he wronged in the beginning. He goes back and he makes it right.
He makes sure they have money. He gives him a raise. He does all these awesome things. Tiny Tim gets to live because of Scrooge’s sacrifice. That’s the reward, Scrooge is going to get to go on and have a meaningful, fulfilling life because he’s generous, Tiny Tim gets to live, having that legacy that he’s leaving behind. Jacob Marley is the cautionary tale that says, “If you don’t change, this is what’s going to happen to you.” Scrooge learns that lesson and he becomes the prescriptive tale.
I wouldn’t have guessed you were going to do A Christmas Carol. That’s fantastic. Can we do one more quickly? Do you have one more?
The other one I want to do for you, which I’m going to leave it as a teaser because there’s this whole other thing that we didn’t even get to talk about. If we talk about Frozen, Frozen is not a hero’s journey. It is another archetypical story that’s the inverse of a hero’s journey. It’s called a Virgin’s promise story. Rocky is also a Virgin’s promise story.
I’ve never heard of this.
It’s fascinating. There’s a book by Kim Hudson called The Virgin’s Promise. I should tell you the full title because it’s fascinating. Here’s my theory. At some point, maybe we should do another one of these and talk about The Virgin’s Promise, because I think that a solo person is a Virgin in The Virgin’s Promise.
What a teaser in the bonus material.
I’m trying to get myself back here. The thing about The Virgin’s Promise story is it’s about becoming. It’s not about doing, it’s about being. What I love about this, The Virgin’s Promise is writing stories of feminine, creative, spiritual, and sexual awakening. This doesn’t have anything to do with gender. These are archetypes. The hero’s journey is this outward masculine story about going out and doing right. Learning to sacrifice is a lot about what the hero’s journey is about, learning to give up selfishness and to sacrifice something on behalf of someone else.
The Scrooge one is a nice example of that.
Even Jake Sully, even Neo, you see sacrifice for others in a heroic journey. A Virgin’s promise story is the inverse. It’s the flip side. It’s the story of the person who stays home. The hero goes out and leaves and the Virgin is the person who stays home and holds the shit together at home so that the hero can go. What ends up happening is you have someone rather than having an ordinary world, they have a dependent world.
This is It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart.
What’s interesting, George Bailey, I could nerd out on you.
We shouldn’t do this. We’re going way too deep for the average reader.
It’s fascinating. There’s all this cool stuff. I want to tease you about The Virgin’s Promise story. We talked about the hero’s journey. We’ve got the ordinary world. We’ve got the call to adventure. We meet the mentor. We cross the threshold tests, allies, enemies. We’re going to meet the goddess, go through preparation, the ordeal, etc. The Virgin’s Promise is about there’s a dependent world. There’s the price of conformity. If you think about this in terms of a solo person, the price conforming to a world that doesn’t fit you is horrific. The dependent world is that people want you to play nice. They want you to follow the rules, get married and have babies and do all those stuffs. That’s what I need you to do so that I feel okay. Your mom needs you to get married and have babies so that she feels okay. That’s the dependent world. You depend on her and she depends on you. There are all this stuff, but there’s a price to that. Anyway, it continues with the opportunity to shine, addresses the part and rather than the extraordinary world, it becomes the secret world. You’re using all of your magic and secret.
I’m going to stop you. We are going to have a cliffhanger. This is a huge cliffhanger. Solo is not known for cliffhangers. What we should do is we will return at a later date. I’m going to have you, because I don’t even know anything about this. We’ll do a subsequent one on The Virgin’s Promise. As part of that, we’re going to do the same bonus material where you dissect a few stories from that. Is that okay?
It sounds great to me. Your readers will love it because it’s their journey.
I’m happy to hear that. Kim, what a nice little cherry to put on the top of this.
Thanks for letting me nerd out. I appreciate your patience.
It’s great. I’m happy to do it. Kim, thanks so much. We will return at some later date with a follow-up about The Virgin’s Promise. To everyone, thank you for your continued support. I am certainly thinking about you during these troubling, tumultuous, uncertain, chaotic times. I do hope you are treating it as a call to action. If I can help, please let me know. Cheers.
- The Virgin’s Promise
- Kimberly Kessler
- Story Grid
- Shtick to Business
- The Work
- Chase Johnson – previous episode
- Write Your Novel From The Middle
- Why Are Superheroes Single? – past episode
- The War of Art
- The Story Grid
- Story Grid Podcast
- Story Grid Editor Roundtable
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