Plot vs theme: missing the point of the Hero’s Journey

“Will it go round in circles?” – Billy Preston

All the Cliff’s Notes style summaries of the Hero’s Journey concept – I mean all of them – emphasize the cosmic cycle. All of the diagrams I find are circles. All of them:

Circles, circles, circles

Here’s the problem. That business of the cosmogenic cycle and the world navel are about theme, not plot. But if you’re going to do a diagram, it’s much more relevant to writers if you focus on the plot aspect. And there’s nothing circular about that.

There are certain things that seem obvious to me and to some others, but that a great many people seem not to grasp. We shouldn’t have to point these things out, but we do have to. Here’s one: a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Really, there’s no such thing as a circular plot. And before you throw up examples, let me point out that sometimes a book pretends the plot is circular, but that’s a conceit or a sham or a framing gammick. Dhalgren has a beginning, a middle and – eventually – an end. The Wheel of Time series (from what I gather) has a beginning, a muddle, and then sort of peters out. And finally the author dies. The end.

Here’s another: a cycle does not really have a beginning, middle or end. We can arbitrarily choose a point in the cycle and call that the beginning, but this is not real. It is a convenient, er, fiction.

And if your chosen starting point feels right somehow, that’s because it actually is a beginning, and what you took for a cycle is not really a cycle at all. Consider Dhalgren: it begins with the entry into Bellona because there’s nowhere else it can begin and still work as a story.

For example, consider the so-called regenerative cycle. If one creature dies to feed another, we call that the circle of life. But from the point of view of the beings involved, it is no such thing. For one of them, it’s the end of the story. For the other, it’s just a lunch break. However Mufasa might rationalize and sentimentalize, it’s not a circle; it’s a food chain. The constituent atoms of the organisms may come around again – by various meandering paths – but no one wants a story about atoms.

Still with me? Good. Let’s explore the implications.

A plot has a beginning, middle and end. A cycle has none of these things, although we often pretend it does, or pretend that something is a cycle that is not really all that cyclical. We use the word too loosely.

The Hero’s Journey has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a plot structure. Say that again. It is a plot structure. It is about plot.

Remember, the Hero’s Journey is a journey, and the point of a journey is to get somewhere and then accomplish something there. You don’t even have to come back. Campbell discusses the refusal of the return as a permanent decision – which the summarizers either ignore or misrepresent for the sake of their circular diagrams. (Refusal of the call is also misrepresented as always temporary, for the same reason.) And if – not when – the hero does return, he returns changed. The end is not the beginning, except in the minor detail of geographical position.

But Campbell’s book (we’ve all read it, right?) goes on quite a bit about a big cycle and about the hero secretly being a belly button. What’s all that about? I’ll tell you. It’s about theme.

What Campbell is saying is that all these hero quests have a common theme, and that theme is along an Eastern mystical line. I do think he goes too far to shoehorn everything into that reductionist narrative, but that’s another matter. The point is, this part of the book has nothing to do with plot. Nothing.

That part where he says that the Hero’s Journey has a beginning, a middle and an end? That is about plot.

Now here’s what I have to add: it’s silly to diagram a theme as if it were a process, but it makes all sorts of sense to diagram a plot structure as if it were a process, because a plot structure is in fact a process. That would be useful. That would be an aid to both readers and writers. Theme matters in one way. Plot matters in another way. It does no one any good to get the two mixed up.

When this first occurred to me, I looked for a diagram of Campbell’s Journey that emphasized and clarified the plot aspect as such. I couldn’t find one. Just circles everywhere, all conflating the plot structure with the theme, and doing injustice to both in the process. So I made my own. A flowchart, showing all the variations and choices in the book:

Here it is.

It’s huge. Maybe too huge. But the important thing is it’s not a circle.

Campbell: Hero with a Thousand Faces