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The hero's journey: How to apply storytelling principles to your main essay

Brainstorming for your main essay can, at first, seem daunting. Which prompt should you choose? Which topic should you write about? And how should you go about writing it? While it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the possible prompts and angles for your essay, it’s important to remember that your main essay is simply a story—a story that tells a common narrative. And that narrative is called ‘the hero’s journey.’

The hero’s journey is an outline for a story in which a hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a crisis, and comes home changed or transformed. In literature, we see the hero’s journey in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In film, the hero’s journey appears in Star Wars (1977) or The Matrix (1999). By mastering the hero’s journey, these classic works received global praise and earned their spots within literary and film canons.

When writing your personal essay, you are the hero of your own story, and the journey you describe does not have to be a literal one. For example, in his main essay, “My Coming-Out Story,” one Thinktown student wrote about his emotional journey coming out to his mother. Using “My Coming Out Story” as inspiration, we will explain five key elements of the hero’s journey and provide strategies for applying these elements to your main essay.

1. Start in the Middle

Most main essays begin with an anecdote. To grab the reader’s attention, you will put the context on hold and jump right into the action. For example, “My Coming Out Story” begins with dialogue:

“What kind of girl do you want to marry?” This unassuming question shakes my heart like thunder. I don’t dare look up to my mom’s eyes, and instead I stare at the flowers embroidered on her pajamas and the uneaten apple on her lap. After a short moment of silence, my mom asks, “Are you gay?” My palms began to sweat, and the apple I had taken a bite of tastes like wax in my mouth.

Notice how this essay begins in the middle of a conversation. The writer does not provide context; as a reader, we do not know when or why this conversation is taking place. Instead, the dialogue and sensory descriptions bring us right in the middle of the action and leave us wanting to read more.

When drafting the introduction of your main essay, you might use dialogue or other descriptive language to engage the reader. But no matter your approach, you will slow down a specific moment in time and start your story in the middle.

2. Provide Context

Now that you grabbed the reader’s attention, it’s time to introduce context. Context orients the reader and provides necessary background information for your story. When writing context, you’ll want to consider the ‘who/what/when/where/why’ of your essay. Explaining this basic information will allow the reader to better understand the events of your story and become invested in the conflict and outcome.

In “My Coming-Out Story,” after the student describes this painful conversation with his mother, he writes, “My relationship with my mom has been constantly evolving since I was young.” The paragraph goes on to explain a brief history of the narrator’s relationship with his mother.

As a child, the narrator viewed his mother as a teacher because she would give him extra homework; as a pre-teen, he viewed his mother as a coach because she would encourage him to lose weight; and as a teenager, he viewed his mother as a friend because she would talk to him about his emotions.

This history is important because it establishes the evolving relationship between mother and son. This context allows the reader to feel invested in the conflict: will the narrator be able to open up to his mother, his closest friend and confidante?

When incorporating context into your essay, you will consider all the relevant background information for your story. You might even jump back in time and describe the events that led up to your initial anecdote. No matter your topic, it’s crucial that the reader understands the full scope of your story so that they can fully empathize with your journey.

3. Raise the Stakes

Once you establish the context and conflict of your story, it’s important to raise the stakes. When raising the stakes of your piece, you might ask yourself: what do I have to lose? In “My Coming-Out Story,” the writer raises the stakes by describing potential consequences of coming out:

I was ashamed when I first realized in middle school that I was homosexual. In China, homosexual people are often stereotyped by the public and face discriminatory social environments and government policies. Even my dad was openly against homosexuality. Considering this, I had struggled to come out to my mom through feelings of anxiety and despair.

The stakes here are clear: if the narrator comes out, he might be stereotyped or suffer from discriminatory policies and social norms. Additionally, his mother might speak out against homosexuality like his father did. Now that the stakes have been raised, the reader is fully invested in the conflict and feels “anxiety and despair” along with the hero.

When reflecting on your own hero’s journey, consider the sacrifices involved in your story. Were you scared to lose a loved one? Or an activity you enjoyed? Were you afraid of becoming an outcast? Were you afraid of failure? Only once you get in touch with your own fears and anxieties about your topic will you be able to translate those powerful emotions onto the page.

4. Reach the Climax

Every personal essay reaches a climax or turning point. Something happens that changes the course of the story. At the beginning of “My Coming-Out Story,” the narrator comes out, and his mother provides a vague response. The climax later occurs when the narrator finally gains clarity on his mother’s beliefs:

I could finally share the real me with the person I’m closest to. However, her vague response confused and worried me until I borrowed her iPad to do school research and saw her past google search: ‘how to comfort homosexual son’. As I continued scrolling through past searches, the words became blurred with tears. I will always remember the moment when my mom came back and we hugged each other tightly, both feeling so relieved.

After looking at his mother’s search history, the hero realizes that his mother loves and accepts him for being gay. The narrator went on an emotional journey, and at the end, he hugged his mother and felt relief. In other words, the hero was victorious.

When brainstorming for the climax of your piece, think about a moment when everything changed. When did your problem begin to solve? When did you experience an important realization? These are the moments that will inspire profound reflection in your essay.

5. Transform Your Hero

When writing your main essay, it’s important to consider how you changed from the beginning of the story to the end. What lessons did you learn? How did you grow? In “My Coming Out Story,” the student reflects on his emotional growth and maturity:

If I hadn’t told my mom my secret, I would always be worried that she disapproved of who I am. Now, whatever obstacles I meet, I know there will always be a person standing by my side. The nod I gave my mom symbolizes my newfound pride in my identity. Being homosexual is a destined thing, but facing your authentic self is a choice. Making this choice has allowed me to feel both supported and courageous.

Coming out allowed the hero to no longer feel scared; instead, he felt comforted and proud of his identity. At the beginning of the story, his lip was trembling with fear, and at the end of the story, he felt courageous. The hero has returned home, transformed.

The conclusion is the most important part of your essay, and it requires the most introspective thinking. When writing your conclusion, consider the ways that your journey shaped you or the lessons that your crisis taught you.

Even though crafting your main essay may seem like a complicated task, following the hero’s journey can be a simple, and even exciting, exercise. Ultimately, your main essay is an opportunity to share an adventure from your life, to reflect on any challenges you faced, and consider the heroic ways you’ve changed in the process. Now that you have the tools you need, it’s time to channel that main character energy and start writing!

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