by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of the necessity of sending your hero into the underworld. As polite people in society, we often lack the nerve to be as mean to our characters as we need to be. It’s in the underworld where our characters will suffer their greatest pain, take on their most profound challenges, and sometimes score their greatest victories. The severity of the underworld can speak to the stakes in the story. The more foreign, dark, and undesirable the underworld seems, the greater emotion the audience experiences when the hero traverses through to safety.
Not all underworlds are literal, though some are. Some stories even turn this idea on its head. In Sling Blade, Karl Childers ascends out of the underworld to fight his toughest battle, only to return back to the underworld at the end of the story. Here are three underworlds to send your hero down into.
1. THE LITERAL UNDERWORLD
One of the most classic yet effective scenes in film is when a protagonist descends down a long flight of stairs. This is a sure sign our character is going into the underworld. The Goonies descends down a portal in a fireplace to an underworld full of danger and treasure. Clarice Starling descends a dark flight of steps each time she must go visit Hannibal Lecter, who holds the key to what she’s looking for in the underworld of The Silence of the Lambs. In Real Genius, Mitch enters a portal in the closet, taking a mechanical elevator to his underworld. Craig also takes an elevator to the underworld in Being John Malkovich.
Clarence must navigate the underworld of Drexl Spivey in True Romance, while Ree must ascend into the Ozark Mountains to enter the underworld in Winter’s Bone. Occasionally the underworld lies deep inside someone. It might be less literal, but can be just as harrowing. This is frequently the case with independent films, but also works with more general market stories such as Inside Out, where the underworld is literally inside a little girl.
2. THE UNDERWOLRD OF REVOLUTION
The underworld of revolution is seen when a character descends into a social underground, where coming change is brewing. In Suffragette, Maud goes into the underground world where people are working tirelessly to bring about voting rights for women. This underground is just as dangerous as any a Greek hero could navigate, full of violence, imprisonment, and loss. Jackie Robinson must battle in the racist underworld of Major League Baseball in 42. Jefferson Smith does the same in the underworld of politics in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Sometimes the hero lives to see the world of coming change, as is the case in The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg successfully maneuvers through the underworld of the tech revolution. Sometimes the hero does not, as is the case with Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club.
3. THE UNDERWORLD OF ANOTHER (SUB) CULTURE
Sending a character into the underworld through a foreign land is a tried and true method in storytelling. Bill Murray’s hilarious performance in Rock the Kasbah is evidence that this underworld will never be fully tapped for laughs, chills, or emotional appeal. Tony Mendez takes a similar journey to the underworld of a foreign land in Argo.
Sending a character into a foreign sub-culture can accomplish the same effect. In Almost Famous, William Miller descends into the sub-culture of rock and roll. In Rounders, Mike McDermott descends into the subculture of high stakes poker, comes out, and then descends right back in, much to the dismay of the audience. In Whiplash, Andrew descends into the underworld of classically trained musicians and in Pitch Perfect, Beca humorously descends into the underworld of college a cappella. Sub-cultures are endless. The underworlds we can send our characters to are just as infinite.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.