Hero’s Journey 3

Steps 9-12


In a 300-page book, Step 9 should occur around page 200. In a two-hour movie, the audience should be watching the last 40 minutes.

In an action adventure, the hero has confronted death in Step 8, the Ordeal. In Step 9, the hero takes possession of the treasure. 

In a romance, the couple may have survived their first ordeal, and they may have decided to love each other. They may celebrate. 

In a tragedy, the ordeal has ended, the hero or the hero team has triumphed, but now they may realize how serious their situation is.

In April 1970, Apollo 13 was supposed to land on the moon, but something exploded. Filters stopped moving air. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise couldn’t breathe. Their capsule was filling with their own CO2. Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, radioed NASA. “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” 

The Apollo 13 screenplay, written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, rebooted the hero’s journey at this point. Broyles and Reinert changed the viewpoint from Odyssey to NASA in Houston. 

The writers also changed hero teams. The new heroes were the NASA ground crew. Ken Mattingly, the astronaut played by Gary Sinise, was supposed to be on the three-member astronaut crew, but he’d been left on earth because he had been exposed to measles. Now it was up to Mattingly to save Apollo 13 and his three friends. 

Mattingly started his hero’s journey in his ordinary world, home in bed, when he heard the call to adventure from his herald, Astronaut John Young.

YOUNG: Ken. Ken.

MATTINGLY (waking) What?

YOUNG: Good. You’re not dead. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for forty-five minutes.

MATTINGLY: Jesus, John. What’re you doing here?

YOUNG: I gotta get you in the simulators. We got a ship to land.


YOUNG: There’s been an explosion. Oxygen tanks ‘re gone; two fuel cells ‘re gone, command module’s shut down.

MATTINGLY: What about the crew?

YOUNG: Crew’s fine so far. Trying to keep ’em alive in the LM. We’re gonna have to shut that down pretty soon too… The command module’s gonna be frozen up pretty good…

So Mattingly and his ground crew occupied the Apollo 13 simulator. They didn’t refuse the call in a literal sense, they just realized how impossible their task seemed. Mattingly was both hero and mentor, but he also had mentors, including Flight Director Gene Kranz. Kranz never actually said, “Failure is not an option,” by the way, but Kranz did demand the backup crew to find ways for the Apollo 13 crew to breathe. 

What materials did the Odyssey command module and the Aquarius landing module have on board to filter the air? The ground crew sorted through every item in the simulator. Well, the Apollo 13 astronauts wore tube socks. And any problem can be repaired with duct tape. So the ground crew substituted socks for air filters.

LAUNCH DIRECTOR ANDREW LIPSCHULTZ: All right, Aquarius, this is Houston. Do you have the flight plan up there?

HAISE: Affirmative, Andy. Jack’s got one right here.

ANDY: Okay, we need you to rip the cover off. The other materials you’re gonna need are two lithium hydroxide canisters. Duct tape. You need two Liquid-Cooled Garment suit hoses… Tear the duct tape three feet long. Just use your arm. It’s a good arm’s length.

HAISE: Okay. Houston, I see what you’re getting at, hold on. Okay, Jack. Tear that piece of tape down the middle lengthwise. Hold on, Houston. Shit, I tore it. Houston, what do we do if we rip the bag?

TECHNICIAN: They should have one more bag.

ANDY: Once you have the sock in place, bungee the entire filter to the bulkhead.

HAISE: Houston, filters in place.

ANDY: Roger, Aquarius.

FRED HAISE: All right, here it goes.

SWIGERT: I can hear air moving.

JIM LOVELL: Just breathe normal, fellas.

ANDY: Aquarius, please advise on CO2 status.

JIM LOVELL: Yeah, Houston. We’re taking a look at those numbers right now… We’re still holding close to 15, Houston.

ANDY: Roger that. Standing by.

JIM LOVELL: Houston. The CO2 level has dropped to 9… and it is still falling.

For Apollo 13, the reward – what Professor Campbell called the magic elixir – was air. The astronaut’s original hero’s journey continued, but as subsequent problems were solved, screenwriters Broyles and Reinert rebooted the stages of the hero’s journey again and again for the ground crews. Their journeys continued until Apollo 13 returned to Earth, and then the two journeys merged.

In a romance, the reward can mean knowledge and experience that leads to understanding and reconciliation. That was Harry’s reward in When Harry Met Sally. Harry Burns was played by Billy Crystal; Sally was played by Meg Ryan. 

Harry had found his best friend in Sally, but they weren’t lovers, so Harry had no romantic responsibilities. However, three-quarters of the way through the story, Harry and Sally finally had sex, and Sally committed to their romantic relationship. Sally slept well that night and awoke smiling. And Harry? Harry didn’t sleep a wink. He knew he had to spend the night, but he desperately wanted to leave Sally’s apartment.

Sally got mad and stopped seeing Harry as a friend. Harry thought making love was a mistake, and but he wanted to continue as friends. Months later, while walking the streets of New York on New Year’s Eve, Harry realized he loved Sally. 


Think about your own life in Step 9 terms. All of us have faced death, or we’ve seen others die. That death may have been real or symbolic, like the loss of a job. I’ve been fired twice; some of you have been divorced. Like Ken Mattingly, who used tube socks for air filters for Apollo 13, which tricks helped you survive? What was your reward? Was your magic elixir an actual object like the emerald slippers from the Wicked Witch of the West, or did you win understanding and reconciliation, like When Harry Met Sally? How did you celebrate? This may bring up emotions you do not want to remember, but that’s precisely why you must remember it. Because it’s great stuff. Write for seven minutes.


Harry’s Special World was his perfect friendship with Sally. Why would he give up that? But of course, Sally wanted more.

The hero resisted going to the Special World, where he would have to fight the villain. After all, the hero might die. But after he learns the rules of the Special World, fights the bad guys, wins, and becomes a special person in the Special World, the hero realizes the Special World may be better than the Ordinary World. 

Step 10 is a Reverse Call. Now the Hero wants to remain in the Special World, but he holds magic elixir. He went to the Special World so he could save the Ordinary World. He may refuse the call to cross the threshold back to the Ordinary World, so this time the writer must push the hero to return home with the Reward.

Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs had a good life, but the Great and Powerful Oz had promised to help Dorothy go back to Kansas. So the Wizard of Oz prepared a hot air balloon. And then Toto leapt out of the balloon. Dorothy couldn’t leave her dog, so she jumped out of the balloon and stranded herself in the Special World. Now she had to find another way home. That set up the emerald slippers scene with the Good Witch.

The reader thought the story was over, but no, a quarter of the book remains. The hero still must return home, and the road home may be fraught with tests and trials. 

Spartacus is a tragedy, so the story must end with his death. Spartacus had thrown off his own yoke of slavery and freed 70,000 Roman slaves in a rebellion. All he had to do was leave the Roman Empire. But his hero’s journey wasn’t complete, so the writer had put one more roadblock in the hero’s way. Spartacus must face Marcus Crassus, whose second in command is young Julius Caesar. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and former slaves will battle to their deaths. Crassus asks, will Spartacus surrender before thousands are slain?

Surrender? And return to slavery? After months of living free? “Better to fall by the sword than the master’s lash!” Spartacus said.


In my novel, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, my older brother liked competing with me. When I didn’t compete, my brother started a fight. When I wouldn’t fight, my brother would pick on me until I did fight. 

Hans Landa, the Jew hunter in Inglorius Basterds, had charming qualities. So does my brother, he’s someone you’d probably want to know. I’m not as likeable. I’m remote, I’m hyper-literate, I consume books and movies. 

The best hero has unlikeable qualities; his antagonist has likeable qualities. Here’s how to write that: think about a person you love. List his dearest qualities. Now, without removing one dear quality, make him the antagonist. Give your hero unlikeable qualities.

Now write a conflict between the hero and the antagonist (who might be a rival or a mate). What is their natural conflict? Does one love more intensely than the other? What intensifies their conflict? Now, go back to their Step 1 ordinary world and foreshadow an event that will, as writer Jennifer Lawler says, sustain the entire length of the novel and make your readers care what happens when you write the backstory in the 11 subsequent steps.


The reader thought he had read the climax, but Step 11 is the actual climax. The hero, the one who was afraid to start the journey, the one who feared the villain, that hero is long gone. That hero from the ordinary world is effectively dead. This is a new hero. A resurrected hero. The special world hero is tested one more time. 

What is meant by resurrection? The Bible says Jesus was raised from the dead, restored to life. In Harry’s case, he left the old Harry behind. The new Harry loves Sally Allbright more than his previous single life.

Sally: I’m sorry Harry, I know it’s New Years Eve, I know you’re feeling lonely, but you just can’t show up here, tell me you love me, and expect that to make everything alright. It doesn’t work this way.

Harry: Well, how does it work?

Sally: I don’t know, but not this way.

Harry: Well, how about this way? I love that you get cold when it’s seventy-one degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend a day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

In each hero’s journey, the hero dies twice and is resurrected twice. Perhaps one death is real, one is symbolic. The first death and rebirth is during Step 8, the Ordeal, the second is in Step 11. The Step 11 climax should provide a catharsis, a purifying emotional release. 

Climaxes need not be explosive. Vogler says some climaxes are like a cresting wave of emotion. The hero may go through a mental change that creates a physical climax, followed by a spiritual climax as the hero’s behavior and feelings change. That’s the case in a romance like When Harry Met Sally.

In the Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, purification was leaving behind the cynical George Bailey who believed the world was better off without him. The old George Bailey and the old Harry Burns and the old Dorothy Gale are dead. The reborn George can’t live without his family and friends; the new Harry wants a new life with Sally; the reborn Dorothy desperately wants to return to her Kansas farm.

The audience wants the hero to admit that the prospect of resurrecting his life is appealing. Those moments George and Harry and Dorothy spend wandering are their emotional purifications. Harry’s single life is dead. Their relationship his resurrection, his new life.

Sally and Harry watched Casablanca again and again. Just before the plane left Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s reluctant hero sacrificed his love for Elsa Lund’s happiness. His noble gesture thrilled audiences and led to these great movie lines:

RICK: “Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

ILSA: “But what about us?”

RICK: “We’ll always have Paris… Here’s looking at you kid.”


The plot and resolution of conflict revolves around characters who change. They took drugs. They cheated on their mates. They returned from war. They started a job and drifted away. The audience wanted them to change.

For seven minutes, write about who was your father or your wife or your best friend before they changed, what the catalyst was for change, and how different this person was after they changed. How were the people around them better off? How was this person better respected, better loved, better understood? 

STEP 12 Return with the Elixir

One of my favorite teachings from Vogler is that a story is a woven fabric. It’s not a tangle of threads, it’s finished properly. That’s the definition of a denouement, an untangling of all the plot threads. The return is where the writer resolves the last of the subplots, and presents the solution – the elixir – for all the questions raised in the story. 

In the resurrection, which is the real climax, Clarence the guardian angel convinces George that he had a wonderful life. George runs to the bridge, begs for God to return his old life, the original timeline is restored, and a grateful George rushes home to await his arrest for the loss of $8,000 from his bank.

The denouement, the return with the elixir, is where the townspeople donate $8,000; the sheriff rips up George’s arrest warrant, and George’s family and friends sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Joyful tears, joyful tears.

Dorothy says goodbye to her allies and wishes herself home in Step 11. In Step 12, she’s back in the ordinary world, and her perceptions of Kansas around her change. Now she loves the farm and the people. The elixir she brings back is, “There’s no place like home.” And she wants everyone realize that.


At the finish of my book, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, my character’s magic elixir was that Daddy wasn’t coming home. It wasn’t the news my character’s mother and brother wanted, but it was something they needed to hear so they could get on with their lives. Think back to a journey, physical or metaphorical: You got a job, and now you can feed the kids. You graduated from college, and now you can start your career. What was your journey, and when you finished, what magic elixir did you bring back? Was it a new understanding? Was it love, wisdom, freedom, or knowledge? What was your journey? What was the elixir?