Study Guide

Back to the Future Hero's Journey

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Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

The Ordinary World

Nothing special about Marty's life. He has a run-of-the-mill family, a run-of-the-mill girlfriend, and a run-of-the-mill tardiness habit. He's an average kid in an average town. Golly gee, he's relatable.

The Call to Adventure

The call to adventure isn't always a literal call… but in this case it is. While Marty's at Doc's place, the phone rings, and it's the Doc himself, telling Marty to meet him that night.

Refusal of the Call

Marty doesn't put up much of a fight, but he does take issue with the 1:15 AM meeting time.

Meeting with the Mentor

Usually we prefer our mentor-related meetings not to take place in the dead of night, but ah well. Doc shows up and explains to Marty about his recent accomplishment… then briefly scares him by making him think he incinerated a dog. Classy.

Crossing the Threshold

"When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you're gonna see some serious s---." Marty crosses the threshold of space and time.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

After performing his good deed for the day and pushing a man out of the way of an oncoming car Marty finds his life… basically ruined. So much for being a Good Samaritan.

Now he has to get two people together in order to ensure his survival. He also has to deal with an interfering Biff, plus there's the little matter of figuring out a way to get back home. He's definitely got his hands full.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

As Marty and Lorraine pull up to the school on the night of the dance, stuff is about to go down. And, of course, it does not go as planned. But isn't life about surprises? Like having your mortal enemy drag you out of a car, punch you in the stomach and then have you locked in a trunk?


You want a calm before the storm? How about an actual calm before an actual storm? Marty meets up with Doc near the clock tower, and all systems appear to be go. Marty's at the start line. He's got plenty of time, and that bolt of lightning is due to strike very soon. He's on his way home. Nothing could possibly stop him now.

But as Marty approaches the finish line, he sees a disconnected wire. That ain't good. If it doesn't get fixed in a jiffy, he could be stuck in the past forever. And he really doesn't want to have to get used to life in the sock-hop, malt-shop era.


Doc to the rescue. Just in the nick of time, he reconnects the disconnected wires, completing the circuit as lightning strikes the clock tower. As if his hair wasn't already frizzy enough.

The Road Back

It worked! Marty's back in 1985. And Doc lives. Cue the "happy ending" music.


Marty wakes up the next morning (almost a literal resurrection, wouldn't you say?) to discover that he now lives in a drastically different house, with a drastically different family. And he's changed, too. They're all changed for the better. Not one dud in the bunch. Even Biff, who is now an absolute loser—we like him more, too.

Return with the Elixir

With the car un-totaled, Marty and Jennifer are about to head to the lake… and then spend the rest of their lives together. Happily.

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