• The Hero's Journey in science communication

  • My name is Crescenzo Tortora



Stories evoke an emotional experience in the audience, through touching narrative arc shapes. The Hero's Journey represents one of the most prolific frameworks for describing impacting stories: in fact people are unconsciously touched by this narrative format since they have seen its principle at work in myths, books, and movies. This paper aims at encouraging mass adoption and awareness of these concepts in science communication and public outreach: I describe how to frame the emotional arc in a talk, through the 12 stages of the Hero's Journey. To demonstrate the feasibility of our attempt, I focus on different astrophysical applications.



Stories and storytelling have the power to share information among speakers and listeners and can help the audience to understand better ideas and concepts. For these reasons, storytelling is being embraced by the scientific community, by scientists who want to connect more authentically with their audiences, colleagues and non-expert people, aiming at understanding the best way to communicate science results. The discussion on the relation between storytelling, narrative and science communication has received some attention (e.g., Krzywinski and Cairo 2013, Dahlstrom 2014, Green et al. 2018, Padian et al. 2018, Suzuki et al. 2018, Cortes Arevalo et al. 2020), although we do not need to underestimate the risk of a distorted and unrepresentative display of the results of the research [editorial 2013, Katz 2013].

Figure 1. A story is made of ups and downs and can be graphed revealing the story's shape. Credits: Maya Eilam.

Different authors have demonstrated that most successful stories are narrated following specific formats and structures. Kurt Vonnegut has defined the emotional arc of a story as a line on the Cartesian system made by the 'Beginning-End' (BE) and 'Ill Fortune-Great Fortune' (GI) axes (see Figure 1). The "GI" axis, the y-axis, places Ill Fortune, at the bottom, and Good Fortune at the top. The "BE" axis, the x-axis, represents the beginning and end of the story. Green et al. (2018) have discussed three different shapes for stories, which depend on the fortune of the character, all of the three finishing with his/her success: 'Discovery', 'Rescue' and 'Mystery'. With 'Discovery' they refer to a journey through the successes and failures of the main character of the story. The key to 'Rescue' shape progression is that the audience steps into the story at a high point in the character's fortunes; they then experience a traumatic loss, followed by a recovery. Finally, different from the first two plots, we step into the 'Mystery' story at a low point, where an event of unknown origin or cause happened, creating an ill fortune for the main character; the main character's fortune will increase, attempting to resolve the mystery, among successes and failures. Applying principal component analysis, hierarchical clustering, and self-organizing map techniques to 1327 books, Reagan et al. (2016) have proved that Vonnegut theory was correct, demonstrating the existence of six core emotional arcs, which can combine to shape stories: 'Rags to riches' (rise); 'Tragedy', or 'Riches to rags' (fall); 'Man in a hole' (fall-rise); 'Icarus' (rise-fall); 'Cinderella' (rise-fall-rise); 'Oedipus' (fall-rise-fall). They also found that 'Icarus', 'Oedipus', and two sequential 'Man in a hole' arcs were the three most successful emotional arcs, as measured by book downloads.

Figure 2. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers is a screenwriting textbook written by Christopher Vogler, presenting the theory that most stories are based on a series of narrative structures and character archetypes.

The emotional arcs of stories that have the greatest success are therefore characterized by precise shapes, which are not flat, but describe the fortune of the protagonist from despair to prosperity, and vice-versa during the narration. One of the most prolific, powerful and flexible attempts to schematise the storytelling has been made with the Hero's Journey (Campbell 1949, Vogler 1992, Figure 2). The Hero's Journey is a narrative format, framed by Christopher Vogler, in which an individual, the hero, starts his/her adventure, experiencing a transformational experience (resembling the 'Discovery' shape discussed by Green et al. 2018). This format of stories appears in myths and stories from different cultures around the world and the human history. Most of myths followed the same basic story patterns. They had the same overarching structure, containing the same types of characters. People from every corner of the earth had been using these basic story elements to communicate with each other for thousands of years.

Watchers of movies, readers of books, or listeners of talks can connect in profound ways with characters who struggle, learn and grow, who experience both highs and lows, and finally come back home with a reward, a lesson learned, transformed, becoming a new woman, a new man. And good stories teach new things, by violating expectations and surprising listeners or readers, and surprise and suspense generate engagement (Green et al. 2018, Matei and Hunter 2021). Studies on the neural activity of listeners of stories have shown that the neural activity can be connected to the story's narrative (Suzuki et al. 2018).

Ulysses, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Star Wars, Matrix are a few stories based on the Hero's Journey, with recurring archetypes, following similar guidelines (Figure 3). If these stories have great success it is certainly due to the way they are narrated to the public. Their narrative structure can likely strike the right notes. Likely, these kinds of formats are unconsciously or consciously familiar to the audience. As Ettinger [2020] pointed out, the research process is connected perfectly to these narrative concepts. Presenting the speaker's success, inconclusive results and failures, his struggle against the adversities, the final rewards he has achieved, can provide a framework to guide the audience to a full understanding of the research and science [Ettinger 2020]

I moved from these considerations to project and structure talks based on the Hero's Journey. I found lately that similar considerations have been also made in ElShafie (2018). I apply this format in a regular science talk and an outreach presentation based on two astrophysical topics.

Figure 3. Stories narrated in ancient poems, books and movies are written following the Hero's Journey format.

Hero's Journey in movies and books

Hero's Journey in movies and books

The Hero's Journey is structured in 3 acts: Departure (or Separation), Initiation and Return. The story starts with the Departure or Separation, the main character is presented, together with his "ordinary world", in this phase he will then start his adventure and step into the "supernatural world". In the central part, the Initiation, the hero meets friends and enemies, is trained, gain conscience of the new world and of his role in the story. In the third act, the Return, the hero grew, is transformed, now defeats definitely his enemies and get home with a lesson learnt, with a new knowledge.

The full narrative arc is then divided by Vogler (1992) in 12 stages, which I summarize below doing parallelism with the movie Matrix. Figure 4 presents this scheme in a nutshell.

  1. The Ordinary World. The Departure (or Separation) act starts with the introduction of the world in which the hero lives, in Matrix the protagonist is Thomas A. Anderson, a software programmer, and during the night he is Neo, a hacker. The hero can manifest some dissatisfaction.
  2. The Call to Adventure. The hero has the first contact with the supernatural world, in Matrix this first contact happens with the text on the screen of his computer: "Wake up, Neo".
  3. Refusal of the Call. The hero experiences some hesitation to answer the call, he does not believe that what is experiencing is true, is anchored to its "fake" world. In Matrix, this happens when Neo meets for the first time Trinity, and also when Morpheus, the Mentor, calls him and asks him to escape from the agents.
  4. Meeting the Mentor. The hero can physically meet the Mentor, can gain the right confidence to start for the adventure. Neo starts interacting with Morpheus and then will physically meet him.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold. The hero accepts to enter the supernatural world. Neo meets Morpheus, who offers to him the blue and red pills, giving him the opportunity to enter the real world.
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies. The Initiation act starts after the hero crosses the first threshold. The hero enters the supernatural world, meets friends and enemies, faces trials. This is the central part of Matrix, Neo learns about what is the real world and what is Matrix, trains with Morpheus, meets the members of the Nebuchadnezzar. Morpheus is kidnapped by Agent Smith.
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave. The hero is approaching the center of the story, he prepares the energies, set the group, before the big fight. This can be a moment of preparation, confession of secrets or fears, the hero can be abandoned, escalating the tension in anticipation of the ultimate test. This respite can help the audience to understand the importance of the ordeal. Neo and Trinity prepare for the fight and enter the palace to save Morpheus.
  8. The Ordeal. The hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth. Neo fights against the enemies in the building, reaching the top of the palace.
  9. Reward. The hero obtains the reward: the princess in Mario Bross, or Morpheus for Neo in Matrix.
  10. The Road Back. Then, the Return act starts, with the hero who returns to his world, he thinks that he can be safe, but there is still something to face with. Neo fights for the last time with Agent Smith.
  11. The Resurrection. The hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth, becoming pure when he re-enters the ordinary world. Neo is kissed by Trinity and rebirth in the Matrix, he will defeat the enemies.
  12. Return with the Elixir. The hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world or his life. Neo gets the knowledge of himself, he is the elect, he knows how to lead in Matrix, he knows how to manage Matrix.
Hero's Journey in a talk

Hero's Journey in a talk

Moving from the original Hero's Journey, I have framed a similar structure for outreach or academic talks, to build the storytelling within a scheme that we know to have an impact on the audience. I will report below the different stages in which the talks are structured, doing two practical examples, making explicit reference to the 12 stages. In a first act the state of the art is presented, the current paradigm is then replaced by a new vision of the world. In the Initiation the speaker enters the core of the story, discuss the new paradigm in more details, presents his own research and the results of his work. Finally, in the third act, the Return, the speaker can discuss further issues, and the way to solve them with future instruments or methodologies, leaving the audience with a take-home message. A general schematic view is shown in Figure 4, where the fortune of the character is presented through the Kurt Vonnegut's 'beginning-end' and 'ill fortune-great fortune' coordinate axes.

  1. The Ordinary World/The initial status of the art. There is a moment in which some paradigm works, it is the ordinary world in the hero's journey. The talk starts with the state of the art, with what has been commonly assumed. Eventually some open questions can be asked.
  2. The Call to Adventure/First issues. This paradigm is not able to explain some data, some observations, some facts. Evidences of this failure emerge.
  3. Refusal of the Call/Refusal to abandon the state of the art. The first reaction of researchers is the refusal of changes, they want to save the current paradigm, the current knowledge, by further testing the data, by upgrading the current theory. These new attempts can be unsuccessful.
  4. Meeting the Mentor/A new paradigm. There is an event, a scientist, a group of people that will start a revolution replacing the previous paradigm with a new one.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold/Acceptation of the new paradigm. To the world is offered a new vision of the world, and the new paradigm solves some of the issues which affected the previous one.
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies/Meeting the new paradigm. The speaker presents the new theory, the new paradigm or new data. He presents this new world, explaining what is predicting the new theory, e.g. General Relativity replacing classical mechanics in the description of the gravity, or quantum mechanics describing the microscopic world far better than classical physics. The speaker can discuss if there are still issues. Eventually he can also start presenting his research.
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave/The importance of the speaker research. The speaker can say more on the time-evolution of the new paradigm, or present some new results he/she has obtained, before reaching the ordeal and the acme of the story, demonstrating the importance of his/her research. This phase is very important to introduce the audience to the core of the talk.
  8. The Ordeal/The speaker research. The speaker discusses the most important results of his research. He/she uses theoretical and empirical models, collect data, he model them, and demonstrate his/her hypotheses. The speaker can talk about some work he/she has done, some papers he/she has written, his/her past and current research for an outreach talk, the most updated results for an academic talk.
  9. Reward/The results. The speaker finalizes the work discussed in the previous point, by presenting the most important results of this analysis: a discovery, a paper which received consensus, new data that allowed to give an answer to open questions. This is a high moment in the empathization with the public, it is one of the happiest part of the talk, the speaker has obtained the reward after failures and successes.
  10. The Road Back/Final further issues. However, science is a building made step by step. The scientific analyses cannot be ever complete, there is still something missing, something to fight with, some unsolved issues that the current data cannot help to solve. A moment of difficulty can arise.
  11. The Resurrection/The present/future solution. But, as the hero can resurrect, the researcher find new instruments, new methodologies, new data to solve these latest issues. He/she is preparing for another high in his/her fortune, these new data will bring new discoveries, new answers, a better understanding of the Universe.
  12. Return with the Elixir/Take-home message. The researcher has learned new lessons from all this work. These are presented to the audience. Take-home messages are left to the audience.

This scheme can be adapted case by case. When preparing the talk, these stages can be followed using two approaches: a) no mention to the journey's hero and the 12 stages is done, and b) a clear mention to the stages is done, a narration made in parallel with pictures of a book or a movie (e.g. Matrix) can also help to further emphasise with the audience.

I will present two examples: an outreach talk on General Relativity and the discovery of gravitational lenses and an academic one on the discovery of (generic) rare/special objects, from two points of view (the object one and the speaker one).

Figure 4. The Hero's Journey in Science communication in a nutshell. The talk emotional arc is presented on the Vonnegut's 'beginning-end' and 'ill fortune-great fortune' axes. The talk fortune is shown as a function of talk time, as a progression through lows and highs, divided in the 12 stages and the three acts: Departure or Separation (blue), Initiation (green) and Return (orange). Stages in the lowest part of the diagram correspond to issues/problems/failures, while on the top to discoveries and positive results. Note that the precise vertical position of each stage in the diagram is flexible. Credits: C. Tortora



Outreach talk on gravitational lenses

I present here a scheme for a talk directed to a public audience on the discovery of gravitational lenses, a prediction of Albert Einstein's General Relativity. The gravitational field of an astrophysical body affects the motion of other bodies with mass and photons. This was demonstrated by the General Relativity of Albert Einstein. Mass deforms the space-time, and this induces a modification in the path of photons, which becomes curved around the body. General Relativity demonstrates that when a source emits light and this light passes through a gravitational field of a star, a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies, it can be deflected and a series of events can manifest: the image of the source is amplified, distorted and multiplied and photons in different images can arrive to the observer delayed. This kind of outreach talk allow us to touch different topics: the history of one of the most successful scientific theory, the General Relativity, the physics of gravitational lenses, the needs of advanced technologies and telescopes to observe billions of galaxies in wide portions of the sky, and the power of artificial intelligence techniques to discover new gravitational lenses hidden among the huge amount of data available from such telescopes. In Figure 5 a parallelism between refraction of light by a wine glass and gravitational lenses is done to explain the gravitational lensing effect.

Figure 5. A gravitational lens uses a different physics, but has a very similar effect as a glass lens. Depending on the orientation of the glass with respect to the light direction, the path of the light through the glass changes and the candle light is imaged as a full ring, or multiple arcs/images. A similar effect is created by gravity and explained by General Relativity. In this astronomical case, a foreground red galaxy (equivalent to the glass), with its gravity deforms the space-time around it and deflects the paths of photons emitted by a background blue galaxy (the light of the candle). The image of the background source is consequently deformed, creating a ring (the Einstein ring) or multiple arcs/images. Credits. Phil Marshall, HST.

Isaac Newton formalises his law of universal gravitation, which has been demonstrated to predict the motion of bodies under gravity (The Ordinary World). Newton's theory had some issues: the instantaneous action at distance and the precession of Mercury's perihelion (Call to Adventure). But scientists wanted to save the Newtonian theory successful till that moment, conjecturing the existence, among the others, of a planet Vulcan or a satellite of Mercury, never discovered (The refusal of the Call). But Einstein arrives on the scene and presents his new theory, General Relativity, having the intuition to connect the gravity to the space-time curvature, basing his theory on the work of mathematicians like Riemann and Levi-Civita (Meeting the Mentor). The scientific community accepts this theory, which was able to solve the previously mentioned issues afflicting the Newtonian view. The General Relativity will predict the existence of new astrophysical events like black holes and gravitational waves, and will explain the evolution of the Universe [Weinberg 1972]. But it also predicts the existence of gravitational lenses, mirages created by the gravity (Crossing the First Threshold). The speaker and the audience can familiarize with this kind of astrophysical events, e.g. doing the parallelism with light refraction and optical mirages (see Figure 5); to the public classical mirages and various effects of refraction can be presented (Tests, Allies and Enemies). The speaker presents the story of the gravitational lens discovery, showing some examples of lenses and discussing why they are important astronomical tools for astronomers and cosmologists, who use them to constrain the mass of the foreground galaxy, to observe background galaxies which without the magnifying lens effect could not be seen, and for estimating the age of the Universe (Approach to the Innermost Cave; Schneider et al. 1992). But gravitational lenses are extremely rare, therefore astronomers need survey telescopes to observe wide sky areas to collect millions or billions sources. However, to scan these large numbers of sources astronomers need automated procedures. In the last decade artificial neural networks have demonstrated to be the perfect candidates to achieve this kind of duty. These techniques allow astronomers to find gravitational lenses in a fast, efficient and automatic way, with a minimal human intervention (Petrillo et al. 2019). In this phase, the speaker will present to the audience his/her own work in this research field (The Ordeal). These algorithms are trained to recognise gravitational lenses from normal galaxies, and are applied to many thousands of images containing galaxies of unknown nature. The neural networks will find among them new gravitational lens candidates (The Reward). However, most of these analysis are done using ground-based telescopes. Optical observations from the Earth are limited by the fact that there is the atmospheric refraction of light, that blurs astronomical images, making more difficult the recognition of rings and arcs in the images (The Road Back). To solve this issue, astronomers plan to search these objects through wide-field surveys from the space. One of this survey will be performed on an area of 15000 sq. deg. (1/3 of the whole sky) by the space telescope Euclid (Laureijs et al. 2011), that will be launched in 2023 (Resurrection). The speaker can finish his talk with a take-home message, or leave the final open, asking the audience to write their final (Return with Elisir).

In the following, you can see the video of my presentation (in italian) on gravitational lenses, prepared following the Hero's Journey format. Read more on my research in this field on my personal home page.

Academic talk on the search of rare/special objects: speaker point of view

The story of a rare or peculiar astrophysical object, useful for answering some open questions, is a perfect test bench for applying the Journey's hero format. This talk is presented from the point of view of the scientific community and of the speaker, which will also talk about his own experience, made of successes and failures. The speaker starts the first act of his presentation, discussing the state of the art, the current knowledge and start listing some open questions (The Ordinary World). Scientists have started to conjecture the existence of some outliers in scaling relations, or the existence of peculiar objects (Call to Adventure). The first systematic searches were failures, since astronomers were not able to find them (The Refusal of the Call). But later, the first objects of this new class were finally discovered; the investigation of the properties of these galaxies can help to answer open questions on galaxy/star/cluster evolution (Meeting the Mentor). The speaker crosses the first threshold, he/she discuss his/her story, when he/she entered this new world, this field of research, describing his/her first systematic search of such rare/special objects (Crossing the First Threshold). The initiation act starts, the speaker started searching for these objects, e.g. using imaging data and starting validating these samples with more imaging and spectroscopy (Tests, Allies and Enemies). Some further results related to this work can be discussed, this can also be the moment to communicate again to the audience how important can be this kind of research, before discussing the core of the research (Approach to the Innermost Cave). The core part of the talk will describe the most important part of the research made by the speaker, further data are acquired to fully determine the nature of these objects, e.g. spectroscopy for determining their stellar populations or deeper imaging to constrain a colour-magnitude diagram (The Ordeal). It is a high in the narration, the speaker presents the main result of his research, he has the data to assess the nature of these objects, enlarging the known samples or discovering new systems in different environment, in different galaxies, at different distances/redshifts (The Reward). But issues can arise, more data can be needed to further characterize these objects to allow these systems to provide definite answers on open scientific questions (The Road Back). Spatially-resolved imaging and spectroscopy (space- or ground-based), and data from next-generation instruments can answer these unsolved questions (Resurrection). Finally, the speaker ends with take-home messages (Return with Elisir).

Here it is an example presentation about our work on the discovery and characterization of the so called relic galaxies. Read more on this topic on my personal home page.

Academic talk on a rare/special object: object point of view

The subject of this talk could be an object like a planet, a star, a star cluster, a galaxy, a tidal feature around a galaxy, a cluster of galaxies or a detection of a gravitational wave signal, a system with abnormal stellar and dark matter content, an extremely far object, an object with a nature which is contrasting expectations, theories and simulations, an object which for its peculiarity can give answers on open questions. The astrophysical object is the hero who starts his adventure, from the ordinary to the supernatural world. With respect to the previous subsection, here the story is narrated from the point of view of the object. The question I want to answer is: "Is the object special?" The protagonist, a rare galaxy/star/cluster at the beginning of the story is just an anonymous galaxy/star/cluster, according to the state of the art this rare class of objects could also be unexpected (The Ordinary World). Some observations reveal that this object has a peculiarity, this is a preliminary step to unveil its special nature (Call to Adventure). No more data are available, therefore such first indications are not enough to say something secure on the object (The Refusal of the Call). Further discoveries, data, instruments can allow to unveil the real nature of the object (Meeting the Mentor). I describe these new observations (Crossing the First Threshold). The system has to pass through a series of checks to validate its nature (Tests, Allies and Enemies). Before entering the core of the talk, I can discuss why this object and the class of systems it is part of are important for understanding physical processes (Approach to the Innermost Cave). I can further discuss the previous data/results or new data which will strengthen our knowledge of the object; this is the central objective of this work (The Ordeal). Here are the central results of the talk, the object is really rare, peculiar or in any case helping to answer open questions (The Reward). But issues are around the corner, new questions arise, the object need more investigations, how do we obtain the answers? (The Road Back). Future observations can solve these issues (Resurrection). Finally, the speaker leaves the audience with a take-home message (Return with Elisir).

Here it is an example presentation about the discovery and characterization of the relic galaxy KiDS J0842+0059.



Storytelling has been embraced by scientists who want to communicate their scientific results to colleagues and public audiences. Stories in books and movies can follow different emotional arcs, describing the fortune of the main character from despair to prosperity, and vice-versa, emphasising with the readers or the watchers. And the audience can connect in profound ways with characters who struggle, learn and grow, who experience both highs and lows (Reagan et al. 2016, Green et al. 2018, Matei and Hunter 2021). Myths and many stories described in books, movies or videogames follow the so-called Hero's Journey, one of the most prolific, powerful and flexible narrative framework: Vogler (1992) have presented a detailed character arc, based on 12 stages, which is recurring in books and movies, as, among the many, The Lord of the Ring, Matrix and Harry Potter.

In this paper I propose to use this scheme to project, frame and present scientific work, driving the audience through the emotional experience of the research, made of lows and highs, made of issues to solve, paradigms to accept or change, data to gather, failures, and finally successes; they are driven through the 12 stages of the Hero's Journey. In particular, I present two example applications in astrophysics: an outreach presentation about General Relativity and the discovery of gravitational lenses and an academic talk about the discovery of rare objects (narrated from the point of view of the author/speaker and of the object itself).

Future systematic and quantitative analysis will be needed to completely evaluate this approach and the relevance of the Hero's Journey as a guide for creating an emotional link between the speakers and the audience, improving science communication.



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