Mentors appear to the heroes at the exact right time, usually in the second sequence, after the Inciting Incident has left the hero lost and confused.
Reluctant to take up the challenge, the Hero continues to live in denial.
The Hero denies the fact that the world has changed, that he/she needs to change and that urgent action is needed.
When the wise old man finally appears, the hero welcomes his advice and happily follows the mentor’s guidance.
Not so in The Untouchables.
Eliot Ness has just seen his world collapse: the first day in his job at the Treasury has ended in public humiliation.
He can’t trust the people he’s working with and he is reluctant to face his wife, who had such high expectations from him.
Enter Jim Malone, a ‘beat cop’ with exactly the type of integrity Ness is craving from his colleagues.
Yet, after Malone teaches Ness his first lesson on the bridge, Ness allows his future mentor to walk off into the night.
The 3-Act Mentor Sequence
SCENE 9: The scene on the bridge is the Inciting Incident of a beautifully self-contained 3-act story in which Ness will try and get his mentor on board.
After meeting with the mother of the girl killed in the bomb attack, Eliot realises that Malone would be a terrific asset in his struggle to nail Capone. He decides to look him up. End of Act One of this mini-sequence.
SCENE 12: The scene starts with an exterior establishing shot, showing the address: “1634 Racine” (a setup for the climactic scene with Frank Nitti outside the courtroom in the movie’s third act).
Ness knocks on the door at Malone’s appartment and pitches the job to him.
Malone sees his own survival more important than the justice of getting Capone off the street and refuses. This is the mini-story’s crisis.
Ness leaves, unsuccessfully.
SCENE 14: Ness walks out of his office, incredulously leaving his desk to Wallace; they have sent him an accountant…
Outside, in the corridor he finds Malone, who has accepted the call.
So, what’s there to learn?
First acts are often riddled with undramatic exposition. Because the Hero hasn’t embarked on the journey yet, writers struggle to create anticipation and audiences are in limbo. The story drags, we’re wondering where it’s all going.
Making effective use of the Hero’s Journey stages can resolve this. Mamet did it brilliantly by dramatising the Journey’s fourth stage and creating a unique mini-story.
This simple example shows how the Hero’s Journey is not a rigid template. It allows you to experiment, be original and solve typical story problems using the myriad of tools it offers to enhance your writing.
To say that the Hero’s Journey forces the writer into a repetitive formula again shows ignorance of its meaning and form and a lack of imagination.
On the contrary: using this ‘formula’ creatively will at the same time solidify and spice up your structure.
The audience will love you for it.
Here endeth the lesson.
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Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.