Mythic Hero Story Structure
By The Furox
At its core, Dragon Booster falls into a popular class of stories known as the Mythic Hero Adventure. Movies such as Star Wars and the Indiana Jones adventures are some well known examples of this type of story. Have you ever wondered why such stories are so popular? What makes certain stories "good"? Why is Star Wars the phenomenon it is? Are you a fan fiction author looking for ways to make your own stories better? If so, then read on to learn a little bit about the story structure of the mythic hero adventure.
When I first discovered Dragon Booster, I pretty much assumed it would be just another episodic cartoon where each week the good guys would simply defeat the bad guy's evil plan. But as anyone who has watched more than a few episodes knows, there is a larger story arc forming. Both the characters and the overall story line is evolving and growing as the episodes progress.
The story structure happens on two levels. First, each episode is its own mythic hero adventure from start to finish. Second, when taken together, the evolution of the story one sees by putting all the episodes together will form a grander mythic hero story.
There are two books that anyone interested in story structure or writing should get: "The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers" by Christopher Vogler and "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell. (Both books are cheap and available on amazon.com.) Vogler's book a simpler, more condensed version of Campbell's book. It's an easier read and is a better way to be introduced to the topic than reading Campbell's book first, which is a bit dry. If you only have time to read one of these, read Vogler's. If you read both, read Vogler's first then Campbell's.
If you've ever wondered what makes a good story good, then I can't recommend these books highly enough. They're worth reading even if you're not interested in writing yourself. Understanding story structure will give you a greater understanding and appreciation of stories you read or watch on TV or at the movies. What follows is an overview of the subject and how it applies to Dragon Booster. (Who says you can't learn something from watching cartoons!)
The basic structure of a mythic hero adventure can be broken into several common stages. Vogler uses 12 stages. Campbell uses a few more. It doesn't really much matter as this isn't supposed to be taken as a strict formula for writing stories. It's just a framework within which the writer is free to deviate and explore. I'm going to go with Vogler's stages because it's more concise and to the point. The way this works is that the story begins at stage 1 and progresses forward through the stages, concluding at stage 12. Here are the common stages to mythic hero stories:
Stage 1 shows us (the audience) the ordinary life and Ordinary World the hero starts in. In Star Wars, it's Luke on the moisture farm with his aunt and uncle. In "Track of Doom" it's the gang toasting marshmallows, having fun, hearing stories from Mortis and the beginning of the marathon race. Seeing the ordinary, frequently mundane life of the hero gives the audience something to contrast the rest of the adventure with and can also help the audience identify with the hero.
Shortly after the beginning of the story, the hero(s) will be summoned with the Call to Adventure where they will be asked (in one form or another) to take on the challenge of the rest of the adventure. In Star Wars, the Call is the recorded message from Princess Leia R2D2 is carrying and Obi-Wan's request for Luke to come with him to Alderan. In "Track of Doom" the Call begins when Cain suddenly appears and warns them of the orange dragons ahead and continues with Moordryd's cry for help. The main point here is that the Call to Adventure interrupts the Ordinary World the hero was living in.
The hero(s) will almost always initially Refuse the Call or be reluctant to accept it. Luke refuses Ben's request saying he has to stay on the farm. Lance wants to heed Cain's warning and turn back and stay in the Ordinary World and avoid the adventure that may lie ahead. It's worth pointing out at this point that every stage doesn't need to be in every story. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, Indy never refuses the Call. But one way or the other, the hero will eventually accept the call (otherwise, there wouldn't be a story!).
Before accepting the challenge of the Call to Adventure, the hero will usually have a Meeting with a Mentor who will give the hero information, wisdom and possible weapons to help the hero complete the challenge. In Star Wars, Luke of course meets with Ben who fills Luke in on what's going on, gives him the light saber and begins teaching him about the Force. In "Track of Doom", the meeting with Mortis occurs back at the beginning of the story when he tells them all about the legend and gives them the key piece of wisdom they will need to survive, namely that they must work together as a team, both with each other and their dragons. Note how the writer is free to combine and rearrange the stages at will. As Vogler continuously points out in his book, the framework isn't to be taken as a strict formula.
At this point, it's time for the hero to decide to accept the Call or walk away. Crossing the First Threshold represents the hero's acceptance of the Call. This marks the hero's departure from the Ordinary World and the entrance into the Special World of the adventure. In Star Wars, Luke eventually accepts the Call when he finds his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Empire and he tells Ben he wants to learn the Force and go with him to Alderan. In "Track of Doom", Artha Crosses the First Threshold when he decides to rescue Moordryd and is literally plunged further into the adventure as a result. Crossing the First Threshold is the hero's commitment to take up the Call. There's no turning back now.
Once in the Special World, the hero will face Tests, Allies and Enemies. For Luke, there's the fight in the Cantina, meeting Han Solo who turns out to be an ally, and they're pursued by storm troopers who are of course enemies. In "Track of Doom", Artha has his friends as his allies. Artha is tested with an initial brief fight with the Prophets, who are now the enemies. Stage 6 establishes the characters on both sides of the conflict and begins building towards the ending.
It's worth talking a bit about stage 8, the Supreme Ordeal, before going on. Despite its name, this is not the climax of the story, which actually comes in stages 10 and 11. The Supreme Ordeal instead occurs in act 2. In Star Wars, the Supreme Ordeal is getting out of the Death Star alive with the princess. The hero will generally face death and narrowly escape at this stage as Luke does in the trash compactor scene. In "Track of Doom" the Supreme Ordeal is the test of the Track of Doom itself with everyone, and Parmon in particular, nearly being killed.
The Supreme Ordeal will almost always take place in a place of power of the hero's main villain. In Star Wars, Darth Vader's place of power is of course the Death Star. In "Track of Doom", the place of power is the Prophet's underground lair. In classic mythic hero stories involving knights, the place of power of the evil wizard was usually a cave, hence Stage 7 being called the Approach to the Inmost Cave. The hero will usually have to journey deep inside and face numerous obstacles along the way, just as Luke has to journey deep into the Death Star to get to the prison level where the Princess is being held. Stage 7 is the journey that brings the hero up to the Supreme Ordeal.
For surviving the Supreme Ordeal, the hero obtains a Reward. In older stories, the hero frequently obtains a magical sword, amulet or whatever else that will help him/her complete the quest, which is why this stage is called Seizing the Sword. In Star Wars, the Reward from the Supreme Ordeal is Princess Leia herself. She knows the location of the secret rebel base and what to do with the plans R2 is carrying. However, the Reward in stage 9 doesn't necessarily have to be a physical item. It can also be knowledge or experience. In "Track of Doom" the heroes don't gain a physical reward for completing the track, but the experience of working together as a team and the wisdom of sticking together and not abandoning each other. They become stronger as a result and are now able to complete the final challenge. In any event, the Reward should be a key to resolving the rest of the story.
After the Supreme Ordeal, the heroes try to take the Road Back to the Ordinary World they started in, but the villain will be blocking the way or pursuing them. In Star Wars, Darth Vader pursues the heroes after having hidden a tracking device aboard their ship. In "Track of Doom" Propheci misjudges their completion of the Track of Doom and forces them into the pit. This leads to the climax of the story.
The conflict in the story is resolved when the hero is able to apply what he/she has learned during the story (typically using the Reward) during the Resurrection phase. This is typically a second life or death moment paralleling the Supreme Ordeal in some fashion. In Star Wars, the combination of the Reward, namely Princess Leia knowing what to do with the plans R2 had which located the vulnerable reactor vent port, coupled with Luke's new found knowledge of the Force enables him to make the key shot that destroys the Death Star. In "Track of Doom" the group of heroes stay together and Artha quite literally applies the advice from Mortis about becoming one with your dragon. Only through team effort are they able to survive and save Propheci, and it's saving Propheci's life that gets them out alive. This stage is called the Resurrection because the heroes are essentially reborn and can now return to their Ordinary World with the newfound knowledge, skills or whatever else that they have gained during the story. In "Track of Doom" the gang returns to the race still in progress more willing to work together as a team, and more able to succeed, than they were at the start.
If we look at the episodes most fans favor, like "Horn of Libris", we find that they closely follow the stages. Let's look at another example:
In "Horn of Libris", life in the Ordinary World continues until the end of the race, at which point Khatah issues the Call to Adventure when he reveals to Artha that the horn isn't just a trophy. Artha then meets with Parm and Kitt who play the role of Mentors in this episode. This is another point from Vogler and Campbell in that characters can change roles at various stages. Parm advises that this is something that can't be ignored and Kitt knows the location of Moordryd's compound. Stages 5, 6 and 7 occur as they head to the compound. The Inmost Cave is Vogler's term for a place of power for the villain, which of course is Moordryd's compound in this story. The Supreme Ordeal in this story is getting into the compound to rescue/help Khatah and get out with him and the horn. The Reward for the Supreme Ordeal comes when Khatah acknowledges that heroes don't have to work alone and accepts Artha's help out of the jail cell. The Reward is wisdom in this case, plus they can now go for the physical Reward which is the horn itself. Just as they're about to complete it, Moordryd blocks the Road Back. He throws up a further challenge by summoning Libris. The Resurrection occurs when Artha convinces everyone to stop fighting and all contribute some energy to re-balance Libris. Stage 12 is completed with the wisdom gained (Khatah repeats that heroes don't have to work alone) plus they now have physical possession of the horn.
Even short fan fictions can make use of the 12 stages of a mythic hero adventure. This helps focus the story and provide a satisfying journey for the reader. Take my short fan fiction It's Time, for example. Paragraph 1 presents the Ordinary World. Paragraphs 2 and 3 begin the Call to Adventure. The Refusal of the Call comes when Artha questions the need to do anything since the war is already over. In such a short fiction, it's easy to see how omitting any of these would weaken the impact of the story.
The Inmost Cave for this story is the Dragon Temple. Note the importance of the setting. If Mortis had called Artha to the corner coffee shop to discuss what's in the story, a lot of the impact would be lost. Having the story take place in Mortis' place of power heightens the impact since the Dragon Temple is his domain, not Artha's.
The Supreme Ordeal is Artha discovering and having to accept his destiny. Note how ending the story at this point would seem abrupt. There needs to be something else to resolve after the Supreme Ordeal to make the story satisfying for the reader. For this story, the final struggle for Artha is finding out what happened to his father which is the Resurrection stage. The Return with Elixir is Artha finally seeing his father again.
A final note I'll make is that this story structure works in places other than standard mythic hero adventures. For example, most Star Trek episodes follow these stages: The story begins with the crew going about their routine duties in the Ordinary World, when the Call to Adventure comes in as a distress signal, the detection of a spatial anomaly or attack by an alien ship. The story then proceeds down the remaining stages from there. Even some love stories are structured according to these stages. I find it uncanny how frequently it shows up.
That's the basic structure of these types of stories. The question I started with above is why are stories that follow this structure generally deemed "good"? The reason is that this structure and the elements in it symbolize or are metaphors for universal life experiences that everyone must face in one form of another. If you take a major experience in your life and analyze it according to the structure above, you will probably find parallels. Take going to college. Before going to college, people live in the Ordinary World safely taken care of by their parents. The possibility of going to college is the Call to Adventure which is usually issued by parents or others when they ask if you've decided what you want to study or what career you want. Many will hesitate to accept the Call. People will meet with guidance counselors and other people who advise what colleges to look at and how to proceed. Crossing the First Threshold is the first day on campus. There are several Supreme Ordeals involved in getting through difficult courses, all finally ending in stage 12 when the person receives their diploma. Similarly, every job change we face involves these stages as well with the Supreme Ordeal usually being the job interview itself. The decision to start a relationship, enter into marriage, have a child, and so on all have stages that follow the above sequence. Anyone that goes through any of these challenges and comes out the other side is a changed person in some form, thus the aptly named Resurrection stage near the end.
Of course, just following these stages doesn't guarantee that a story is automatically good. The writer still needs to come up with an interesting story to tell and find an interesting way to tell it. Using the stages helps get the story across since it presents the story in a framework that the audience has directly experienced themselves in one form or another. That is one of the key things you should walk away from reading this. If this subject interests you, I can't recommend the above books enough.
If we view all the episodes collectively as part of a larger story, we quickly find that stages 1-6 have occurred across these episodes. Stages 1-5 all occur in the first two episodes and all the remaining episodes that have aired so far form stage 6. More precisely, in episode 1 we see Artha as the ordinary teenager in the Ordinary World who wants nothing more than to write vid games. He receives the Call to Adventure from his father who tries to encourage him to go to the racing academy and to try riding Beau and be the hero. Artha Refuses both Calls. At the end of episode 1, Artha finally accepts the Call when he chooses to save Lance and ends up being chosen by Beau. In episode 2, Artha meets the Mentor who gives him the Dragon Booster armband. It is very typical for the Mentor to bestow a gift just as Obi-wan gives Luke the light saber. With the gifts and advice from the Mentor, Artha Crosses the First Threshold when his friends are in danger and uses the amulet for the first time. As Vogler describes it, this is where the hero fully commits to the adventure that is to come, along with all its problems and challenges. The remainder of episode 2 as well as the episodes that follow represent Tests, Allies and Enemies. For example, Artha and his friends are tested in the "Track of Doom", he gains Phistus, Khatah and possibly Kawake and Libris as future allies, and of course Word, Moordryd and Armeggaddon are the enemies. Characters like Propheci and Rivett are wild cards and could be allies or enemies.
All this makes for an interesting series that sets Dragon Booster apart from most western TV animation that is purely episodic in nature. There's a story line that's building and heading somewhere, and that makes all the difference.
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