Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Road Back

This is Part 9 of my series on mythic structure, or monomyth.

1. The Road Back is the transition from Act 2 to Act 3 of your story.

The hero has completed her initiation and is now an evolved hero. It is time for her to begin her transition from the Extraordinary World back to the Ordinary World.

There’s still a long way to go, however. The road back is filled with more danger and challenges for the hero.

2. At this point, antagonists may have been completely vanquished . . . or not.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West is dead and no longer a danger to Dorothy and the other characters. In Back to the Future, Marty has completed his task and made sure his parents have fallen in love, ensuring he and his siblings will be born.

In other stories, however, the antagonist/forces of antagonism may still be lurking about, ready to strike again. The hero may THINK they have finished them off, but the villain may have one last gasp with which to attack the hero. (The “we thought the monster was dead but it’s not” trope is very popular in the horror genre.)

Or, the hero may be told by other characters that they are not needed to deal the final blow to the antagonist. The attitude may be, “Thank you very much, you’ve been a big help, now get lost while we deal with the rest of it.”

Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is kept a virtual prisoner by a well-meaning government agency so he won’t interfere with their plan to send his love, double agent Eve, over to “the other side” with the villain. His escape from his benevolent captors is the beginning of the end of his journey.

3. The hero may experience setbacks during their efforts to return home.

Sometimes the means the hero is using to get back to the Ordinary World fail him. In Back to the Future, Doc Brown has an elaborate set-up in place to use a lightning strike to give the DeLorean time machine the energy it needs to go back to the future. While he’s setting it up, the cable becomes unplugged, forcing a race against time to get it up and running again. The Wizard promises to take Dorothy home in his balloon, but the cable keeping it earthbound comes undone. Dorothy watches in horror as he sails off without her.

4. Any forces of antagonism that have not been vanquished will likely retaliate at this point.

As a general rule, antagonists don’t take kindly to being beaten–especially by someone he or she initially thought insignificant. The hero may assume that there’s no fight left in the villain, leaving him vulnerable to a new attack. If the hero has committed an “elixir theft” (taken something important that everyone in the story wants) then he may find himself attacked by more characters than just the villain.

As in the North by Northwest example, the forces of antagonism holding the hero back may be benevolent or think they are doing the best thing for the greater good. In E.T. the Extraterrestrial, the scientists think they are doing the best thing by keeping E.T. on Earth.

5. There may be an antagonist the hero has forgotten about or discounted who strikes when the hero thinks he is safe.

In O Brother Where Art Thou? hero Everett and his friends Pete, Tommy and Delmar think their troubles are over because the governor has pardoned their crimes. They are captured by Sheriff Cooley, who had been pursuing them earlier in the story and is unimpressed by the news that they have been pardoned. In a serious setback of their fortunes, Everett and his friends face the possibility of being hanged by the crazed sheriff.

6. Chase/battle scenes are a common occurrence during the transition from Act 2 to Act 3.

Even though the major crisis has usually already occurred earlier in the story, at this point it’s not unusual for a major set-piece scene where a chase and/or battle occur. In spite of the set-backs, it’s almost as if the hero is jet-propelling out of the Extraordinary World and back into the Ordinary World.

In E.T., this is when Elliot and his friends lead their pursuers on a merry chase on their bikes, which eventually leads to E.T. escaping the pursuers by making all the bikes fly.

In a romance, there may be a “race across town” by either the hero or heroine to get to the other in time to confess their love before they lose them forever.

7. The chase may be an example of “magic flight” from monomyth.

The E.T. chase scene is a perfect modern example of “magic flight.” Elliot has stolen the elixir (E.T.) and must evade those who would take him back. Since E.T. is an alien with certain magical abilities humans don’t have, he helps Elliot escape by making the bikes fly.

Magic flight is common in fantasy stories. There are several examples in the Harry Potter books, notably Harry and Hermoine’s flight on the hippogriff Buckbeak in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Game of Thrones, Daenerys escapes from assassins on the back of her dragon Drogon.

Of course, “flight” doesn’t have to literally mean flying; it can refer to any fantastical means of escape. In O Brother Where Art Thou? Everett prays to God to help him. The valley they’re in is flooded at that exact moment, allowing them to escape the sheriff. Everett explains to his friends as they float in the new lake that there’s a logical explanation–the valley was flooded so the entire state could get electricity. But they still believe it was divine intervention.

8. Most of the major and minor characters from throughout the story may coalesce at this point.

Both the hero’s friends and foes may gather at this point to meet in an epic showdown. In Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, all of Ariel’s sea creature friends show up to help her reveal to Prince Eric the woman he is marrying is really the sea witch Ursula in disguise. In Shakespeare in Love, almost all the characters gather at the theater to either perform in or watch the first performance of Romeo and Juliet. This is the point in Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke and other rebels try to take out the Death Star. Nearly all the major and minor characters participate in the event in some fashion.

9. The antagonist may really, truly, totally be vanquished at the end of this section of the story–or may escape.

Darth Vader and Voldemort are examples of villains who manage to escape at the moment of defeat. Their minions suffer in their stead. Hannibal Lecter escapes in Silence of the Lambs. The hero may have won a major battle, but the war continues.

Conversely, the hero may escape, but knows there will be a rematch at some point in the future. This happens at the end of Divergent, where Tris and her friends stop antagonist Jeanine from eradicating one their society’s factions. They know they will have to go back at some point to stop her from trying to do it again.

10. The Road Back usually ends with a recommitment by the hero to either fight on or return home.

The setbacks and challenges during this section of the story will spur the hero on to face her final test.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Road Back

  1. Just wanted to relay that I’ve been enjoying this series. I’m a big proponent of story structure and you’re giving plenty of examples to when, where and why to use it in specific scenarios. Thanks and well done!

    1. Thank you so much! I am enjoying writing the series. Love thinking about the ways modern stories fit mythic structure, sometimes in ways we don’t expect.

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