The Voyage and Return: A Framework for Stories about Learning

An alternative story map for when obstacles are too great for the first pass.

Also co-authored by Calvin Koon-Stack, Hattaway Communications.

The Social Impact Story Map used on Hatch for Good is based on a classical storytelling structure known as the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is an archetype—a pattern so fundamental to the human experience that it describes successful stories across cultures, formats and time. From ancient mythology, to modern blockbuster cinema, the Hero’s Journey has remained central to human storytelling.

By definition, a Hero’s Journey is always a success story: it is a story where the protagonist goes out into the unknown, faces challenging obstacles, and overcomes them. But not every story is a success story. The social good sector must learn from failures, mistakes and miscalculations in order to make progress. And stories originating from these moments can be just as powerful and motivating as stories of triumph. Actors in the social good space want to hear that they are not alone in their struggles—and there is value in learning from one another.

When the obstacles are too great for the first pass, another model is needed. Enter “the Voyage and Return.”

Like the Hero’s Journey, the Voyage and Return is an archetype with a long tradition in storytelling. *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe*, by C. S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum’s *The Wonderful Wizard of Oz*, the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the *Ramayana* all draw from this archetype, as do many others. What these stories have in common, despite their varying circumstances, is this: a protagonist who goes on a journey or a quest, and—regardless of success in their original goal—returns home with new knowledge. This knowledge is the crux of the Voyage and Return story.

The Voyage and Return model of storytelling is described by this general arc:

Just as in the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist ventures forth into the unknown, and at first, the world of the unknown is fascinating and exciting. The protagonist faces challenges, but is able to overcome them. But the longer the protagonist stays, the more difficult the experience becomes. Challenges turn to trials. The world becomes confusing, then frightening, and then—perhaps—threatening, before the protagonist is forced (or is able) to retreat back to the safety of home.

While this may seem demotivating at first, the real value of the Voyage and Return story comes at the end. Once the protagonist has returned to a place of safety, they are able to reflect on the experience. Though the protagonist may not have had success in their original endeavor, through reflection, they are able to think critically about what worked—and what didn’t—and to leverage those lessons learned to plan for the next attempt.

The Voyage and Return helps to communicate that there is value in failure. It provides a framework to share stories of learning. It says that it is okay to retreat from the unknown. It is okay to return home and not know immediately what are the next steps. But through reflection and contemplation, valuable lessons can be learned and shared.

Writing this kind of story requires taking a hard look at one’s experience. And then, the journey can start again: perhaps this time as the hero’s.