Whipping Stories into Shape with the Hero’s Journey


Despite having seen this movie written up as a “Jazz Thriller,” which sounds like a sexy, new sub-genre that I’d love to see more of, Whiplash is a Performance Story through and through. That doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of Thriller present; it simply means they take a back seat to Performance, as does the Love Genre subplot.

In her post, Secrets of the Performance Genrehttps://storygrid.com/secrets-of-the-performance-genre-part-one/ Rachelle Ramirez writes, “Characters in a Performance story WANT validation from others because they NEED esteem and self-respect.”

Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, expertly turns almost every scene in this movie on the values of Shame and Self-Respect/Honour. These values are at the heart of this story. Our Hero’s main “want” is to be validated by his terrifying, fastidious teacher, and he literally risks life and limb to obtain this outer goal.

But, ultimately, this story isn’t about our hero getting what he wants; it’s about getting what he needs (self-esteem and self-respect). F

The Hero’s Journey, like the Story Grid methodology, is a powerful tool that helps us analyze masterworks by looking at their underlying mechanics. This, in turn gives us insight that we can use to create, innovate, and restructure our own. I hope that this analysis helps you to see how you might use The Hero’s Journey in your own stories.

Before we dive in:

My original intent was to look only at the Middle Build with the Hero’s Journey, as so many writers get stuck here, but once I got started, it seemed unfair to leave out the beginning and the end. I will leave such delicate manoeuvres to the more skilled: Shawn Coyne himself.

Because Shawn will be giving a detailed course on “how to use the Story Grid tools and principles to write amazing fantasy works based on the Hero’s Journey,” in 2020, and because most writers have, at the very least, heard of it, I will only give a brief introduction:

In his extensive studies of myths and legends across the world’s many cultures, a man called Joseph Campbell found that the heroes of these powerful stories moved through similar patterns of action, which ultimately led them to extraordinary achievements that resonate deeply with us all – still today. Campbell popularized this sequence of stages in his book, A Hero With a Thousand Faces. He called this adventure The Hero’s Journey.

Christopher Vogler further distilled Campbell’s extensive research into a book called The Writer’s Journey, making it even more accessible to writers and easier to understand. I will, for the purposes of this post, mostly be using Vogler’s terminology and some descriptions from Stuart Voytilla.

~

THE HERO’S JOURNEY in the movie WHIPLASH

ACT I: 

Before the audience watches the movie, Whiplash, an expectation is created by the title. It naturally makes us think of a car crash, of damage, of violence. It sets the tone. The word draws us gravely in like a rubbernecker, never expecting to see the worst but not ruling it out either.

  1. THE ORDINARY WORLD:

When we first present our hero there are certain things that we must show the audience:

  • Our hero must “be” in a world that he knows well: The Ordinary World.
  • Our hero must be pursuing a goal, which is sure to put him up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
  • He must be relatable so that the audience experiences his adventure as if they are him. To do this we make him empathic. This doesn’t necessarily mean likeable.
  • The Ordinary World must offer a contrast that is very different from the Special World that he will enter fully in Act II.
  • We need to see where he is in his life at the beginning so we can compare that with how much he has changed by the end.

What this looks like:

As the movie, Whiplash, opens, we hear the sound of drums, but we cannot see anything until they come to an abrupt stop. The first image shows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) sitting at a drum set in a cavernous room at the end of a long, dark hall. This is where Neiman spends most of his free time: practicing alone.

When we first meet Andrew Neiman, Chazelle has broken the “rules” of the Hero’s Journey already as he is already in the thinnest outer layer of the “Special World.” He has what it takes to get into the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, but he carries the Ordinary World inside him, as his meek attitude betrays low self-esteem and naivete.

As Neiman continues his practice, a man, who blends in with the dark shadows at the door, catches his eye. Neiman startles and jumps up – all apologies. It is the infamous Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an imposing, late-50s teacher who graduates world-class musicians. Neiman is polite and quickly overpowered by Fletcher‘s big swagger, as he asks the question that only the most arrogant can get away with:

FLETCHER: You know who I am?

A huge power differential and pattern of playing head games is established when Fletcher tests Neiman, on the spot, for his Studio Band (a top tier jazz ensemble). Neiman closes his eyes to concentrate. His failure is met by the sound of a door slamming. Fletcher has left without a word.

~

“He walks through the city. Middletown New York buildings loom over him like giants – immense, forbidding.” ~ Whiplash by Damian Chazelle

Neiman goes to the movies with his dad, Jim, and tells him, “He saw me play today,” but he also indicates that it didn’t go well. When his dad’s response is, “You have other options.” Neiman begins to separate from his “Ordinary World,” as he decides that his father doesn’t have what he wants or the guidance he needs. This is further confirmed when a movie-goer bumps Jim’s head, yet Jim is the one to apologize.

The next day in band practice, Neiman notices that Ryan Connolly (Austin Stowell) is distracted by Fletcher’s shadow lurking outside, listening for talent, and then leaving.

On a break, Neiman sees Fletcher’s Studio Band, which is fast and dazzling. When Fletcher turns sees him, he darts behind the wall to hide.

2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE

An opportunity is delivered by The Herald that raises the stakes and helps to determine the Hero’s goal.

What this looks like:

Neiman is back at practice when Fletcher bursts into the room.

Everything stops. Fletcher tests each section of the band, including the two drummers Ryan and Neiman. Sighing, Fletcher says, “Drums with me.” Smiling, Ryan gets up…

FLETCHER: No. Other drums.

In disbelief, Neiman walks over to Fletcher.

FLETCHER: Room B-16 tomorrow morning. Don’t Be late.

Neiman goes back to his seat, stunned but proud. He’s been validated – by Fletcher.

  • “Would you want to go out with me – ever?”

With a boost of confidence, Neiman returns to the movie theatre to ask the girl behind the popcorn counter out. Nicole agrees and they plan to meet.

3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL

The hero’s fear can keep him from taking on the adventure at hand. Usually a hero will refuse it at first. If they are a willing hero, they may skip this stage or refuse it unconsciously.

What this looks like:

The next morning, Neiman’s alarm clock doesn’t go off. He wakes up at 6.03a.m. He’s late! He tries to get to Room B-16 as soon as he can – snatching things, running across a lawn in the dark, and falling down some stairs. But when he arrives, the room is completely empty.

Being late for the 6a.m. meeting was Neiman’s subconscious, self-defeating way of refusing the call to become a part of Fletcher’s Studio Band.

  • “Isn’t he cute.”

Unsettled, Neiman waits until 9am for Studio Band practice. When the band members file in they are different from what he’s used to. This is definitely the inner circle of the Special World. The players are 3rd and 4th year students – older, savvy, and with harder edges.

When Neiman meets core band drummer Carl Tanner (Nate Lang), he makes an enemy right away, as Carl snaps:

CARL TANNER: Tune the set to B-flat. Then you’ll turn my pages during rehearsal.

When Fletcher walks in, the band jumps to attention as if doing a military drill. No one looks him in the eyes. their sight is trained ahead or to the floor. Neiman looks around – as green as ever.

FLETCHER: We’ve got a squeaker today, people. Neiman. Isn’t he cute?

This joke at Neiman’s expense infantilizes him and may express Fletcher’s disapproval that Neiman was late.

The Studio Band plays Whiplash. Neiman is in awe that they play so fast. He can’t keep up with the difficult piece and Tanner yells at him to turn the page.

Fletcher stops them cold. Someone’s instrument is flat, but no one owns up to it.

Fletcher picks on Metz – an easy target – and brutally demolishes him, bringing him to tears by yelling and insulting him about his being fat and flat. Neiman has felt Fletcher’s “power” before but never heard him shout abusively inches from someone’s face.

Fletcher intimidates Metz into admitting that his instrument is flat, when his face shows that he believes it isn’t. Then Fletcher kicks him out of the core band, after which he looks at Neiman, who appears to be overwhelmed and frightened.

FLETCHER: Alright, take ten. When we get back– the squeaker’s on.

4. MEETING THE MENTOR

“The mentor provides motivation, insights and training to help the hero overcome his doubts and fears and prepare for the journey.”  ~  Stuart Voytilla: Myth and The Movies 

  • “The key is – relax.”

After witnessing the humiliation of Metz, Neiman scurries off to study, but Fletcher finds him and gives him an encouraging pep talk that includes his philosophy about how “Charlie Parker became “Bird” because Jones threw a cymbal at his head.”

Neiman is soothed by Fletcher’s encouragement and soft-and-sweet about-face (a la Jekyll and Hyde). He feels confidence replace fear when Fletcher tells him to relax, have fun, and to not worry what anyone else thinks.

Despite having met Fletcher before, this is the first time that he has acted like a mentor to Neiman. In other places he has played other roles, such as the Trickster, Threshold Guardian, and Herald.

5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

  • This acts like a bridge between Act I and Act II
  • The hero fully commits to his adventure by crossing the threshold and venturing into the unknown/the abyss.
  • Threshold guardians may try to get in his way with tests, deception, or blocks.
  • Our hero experiences an internal shift or makes a conscious decision that helps him to move through the different energy he encounters there.
  • He must summon all his courage to take a leap of faith, as there will be no crossing back.

What this looks like:

Neiman fully commits to his journey by “crossing the threshold”/walking back through the doorway into room B-16, wherein only minutes ago he witnessed the humiliation and terror of a fellow student. Neiman takes this “leap of faith” because Fletcher has convinced him that he is special and that he has his support.

Act II:

In Level up Your Craft, Coyne says that “this is where the hero steps out from his private world into the public arena, where a spotlight is going to be turned on him.

Now that our hero is fully committed, he will face a series of trials.

Coyne says a good number is three. According to Coyne these tests “become progressively more complicated until we reach the All is Lost Moment that will push us into Act III.”

6. TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.

  • The story has taken off and our hero is pursuing their main goal.
  • This is where our hero learns new rules and clashes with the new culture. It is where he learns how to navigate this Special World.
  • The hero goes through a series of tests, the function of which is to train him and prepare him for bigger tests in the future. This gives our hero things he will need later in the journey.
  • He will figure out who can be trusted (allies) and who cannot (enemies).

What this looks like:

After walking back into the Studio Band practice room, Neiman confidently takes a seat at the drums with Tanner as the alternate for now.  Fletcher tells the band to play under tempo and tells Neiman to do his best. Neiman smiles, knowingly. 

At first Fletcher smiles and nods at Neiman’s drumming. Neiman smiles back, but at a certain point Fletcher stops and corrects him. Then Neiman goes back to drumming, after which he is stopped and corrected by Fletcher nine times in a row after mere seconds of play. Neiman’s confidence drops with each stop until he looks quite insecure. 

Fletcher walks away nodding as before. He leans his hand on a chair top.

  • “Was I rushing or was I dragging?”

Suddenly Fletcher grabs the chair and hurls it at Neiman’s head. The entire band ducks. It hits the back wall. Neiman is shocked.

Fletcher asks Neiman if he was rushing or dragging. Neiman utters the words that turn Fletcher into an animal: “I don’t know?” Fletcher makes him count in 4/4 time, slapping Neiman’s face on every forth beat, after which he demands, “Am I rushing or am I dragging?”

When Neiman gets it right, the slapping stops, but Fletcher continues to yell at Neiman until he also breaks down and cries. After further humiliation, Fletcher makes Neiman switch with Tanner and listen to the core band play out in “Big Boy tempo.” 

This abuse of power is horrifying and leaves the audience wondering, if this has happened at just over a quarter of the way in, where else can this go? They are hooked, not by the desire to see more abuse but by the need to see what Neiman will have to accomplish/become to even match Fletcher.

7. THE APPROACH

According to Stuart Voytilla, this is an approach towards the “Journey’s heart or central Ordeal.” It isn’t the ordeal itself. This is just preparation for a bigger ordeal that will come later where our hero will face his biggest fear. It “may signal a Ticking Clock or a heightening of the stakes.”

  • Our Hero has survived his descent into the Special World, our hero may need a break: some romance or fun.
  • Having incurred setbacks, he will need to regenerate and replenish for the difficulties ahead. This may include planning, reconnaissance, or practice.

What this looks like:

Neiman takes some time alone to think this experience over, but then he doubles down in a series of tough practice sessions, that lead to “blisters tearing… hands bleeding… blood smearing the sticks…” but Neiman patches his hands with band-aids and continues to play.

~

Neiman goes on his date with Nicole who still represents the Ordinary World. They have a fun time but their differences are clear. Nicole gets a bit punchy when Neiman queries about her studies. She hasn’t decided on a major yet. Neiman asks if Fordham was just a random school.

NICOLE: I applied to a bunch of schools. Fordham let me in. Why’d you choose Shaffer?

NEIMAN: It’s the best music school in the country.

~

Fletcher’s Studio Band is at Overbrook’s First Competition of the Winter Season. Neiman is still the alternate drummer. After a good first set, Tanner slaps his folder of music onto Neiman’s chest and tells him to look after it. Neiman drops it on a chair while he gets a drink. When Tanner says he needs to see the music, it has gone and Tanner yells abuse at Neiman that tops even Fletcher’s. Neiman is stunned.

Fletcher calls Tanner backstage and is furious when he hears that he lost the folder. Fletcher tells him to get onstage without the music, but Carl “can’t.” He needs visual cues. Neiman says, “I can.” He knows the music by heart and brings the band home for a first-place win!

  • “Don’t forget to turn Neiman’s pages.”

Neiman has made a few enemies after losing the folder, but Fletcher promotes him to core drummer for the band at the next practice session and tells Tanner he doesn’t have time for alternates today. This is another win for Neiman and a big public boost to his self-esteem. Now Fletcher really believes in him.

  • “You got any friends Andy?”

Neiman takes a bus home to visit his family, way back into the Ordinary World. Things are going great at school and with Nicole. Neiman’s dad makes dinner, but seems a bit peeved that Fletcher’s opinion means so much to his son. It’s a bit uncomfortable.

At dinner, Neiman (Andy at home) puts his foot down by insisting that his aunt, uncle and cousins all hear his story (that was rudely interrupted by one of the noisier cousins arriving late and taking the attention away) of being made the core drummer of Fletcher’s elite band. He lays it on thick making sure that they understand that he is playing in a band with the best musicians in the country.

They steamroll over him as usual and he retaliates by dissing the cousin’s “touchdown” as being a ridiculous example of high achievement. This silences the room until his uncle asks, “You got any friends Andy?” A family debate ensues wherein Neiman stands up for himself, while they try to level him about his concept of success. But he is hurt when his dad chimes in and sides against him. Pissed, Neiman leaves.

8. THE ORDEAL

  • Vogler describes this as a descent into death, where the protagonist’s old ways of living and being will die, allowing for a rebirth. This could be the dying of the ego, of a relationship, or some other metaphorical expression.
  • Voytilla describes this as, “the central life-or-death crisis during which the hero faces his greatest fear, confronts his most difficult challenge, and experiences death. His journey teeters on the brink of failure.”

What this looks like:

Back at Shaffer, Neiman finishes up a good practice and even seems to be on a friendly basis with some of the students. Fletcher tells them all to pick up a new chart on the way out and be back at 9 to rehearse it. He calls Neiman over who looks like he’s sailing on his good fortune right now. Fletcher tells him that he has another kid coming in to take a shot at the core drummer part. Neiman is taken aback.

Then Ryan Connolly saunters in, all smiles and boyish charm. Fletcher tells him that he made Neiman the “temporary core drummer,” which is a surprise to Neiman. He was under the impression that he was THE core drummer.

Despite not having had time to look at the piece yet, and despite Connolly’s having received it this morning, Neiman is up first.

Fetcher stops him mere seconds after he begins and tells him to switch with Connolly. Neiman puts up a bit of a fight, but Fletcher makes him give the seat up. While Ryan plays, Neiman stands over him shaking his head.

Despite Connolly’s lack of preparation – the music was crumpled in his backpack and he had to borrow sticks from Neiman – Fletcher gives him the part.

Connolly is super happy but Neiman uncharacteristically blurts out, “Oh my God. Are you serious? That shit?” Neiman doesn’t seem to be able to hold in his thoughts or push down his feelings any more. The words just come flying out of his mouth.

Fletcher gets a call and leaves the room. Neiman gathers his stuff, but instead of leaving he goes after Fletcher and bursts into his private office, insisting that he can play that part.

Fletcher is holding his head; he looks like he got bad news. Neiman continues to press him. Fletcher yells, “If you want the fucking part, earn it!”

Enraged, Neiman leaves.

This is the MIDPOINT of the story, the death of Neiman’s core drummer part, ended on a whim by Fletcher. Everything is at the whim of Fletcher. It doesn’t even make sense. Here, something about Neiman’s old self also dies. Neiman makes a distinct change: No more Mr. Nice Guy.

This is typically where the hero burns his bridges and commits to his goal on an even deeper level.

Neiman breaks up with Nicole, so there is another death: the death of his relationship. He has to focus too much to have a relationship. He states his goal aloud: “I want to be great. I want to be one of the greats.”

A montage of Neiman practicing like a madman follows, preparing with a jug of ice water for his hands, and at one point punching right through one of his drums with his fist.

At the next band practice, Neiman looks exhausted and defeated. The shine has gone and he looks like his dreams have been stolen.

Fletcher comes in. He is different than usual. He makes everyone put their instruments down and tells them the story of Sean Casey – a student that no one believed in but him (a speech in praise of the villain, said by himself). He tells them that by the time he graduated Sean, Marsalis (Wynton) made him 3rd Trumpet at the Lincoln Centre and the next year made him 1st Trumpet.

Then Fletcher tells them he learned that Sean died in a car crash yesterday and that he wanted them to know that he was a beautiful player. Even more astounding, Fletcher sheds tears in front of them all.

This story gains Neiman’s interest. Does Fletcher truly care about his students? Neiman perks up. Life is short… and yet another death.

Fletcher gets back to practice. He gets Connolly off the drums, “I’d like to try Neiman on this. Maybe now’s the time for Neiman to earn the part.” But, no. So he puts Tanner up, then back to Connolly, and Neiman. With each switch Fletcher gets angrier and angrier. He dismisses the band saying they will stay all night if they have to. In a brutal scene of battling it out on the drums, with Fletcher hurling insults that get nastier with each switch, the three drummers fight to the death for the part for three gruelling hours.


Neiman’s practice pays off, as he is the one that has the most endurance as a result of all the savage practices he has had by himself. And after three hours he is the only one who can keep going at Fletcher’s tempo. Fletcher yells at him to go faster, over and over and gets a cow bell to pound out the rhythm he wants as he circles him.

9. THE REWARD

“The hero has survived death, overcome his greatest fear… or weathered the Crisis of the Heart, and now earns the Reward that he sought.”  ~  Stewart Voytilla

What this looks like:

Neiman plays at breakneck speed for so long and so well that Fletcher stops him. He has met every challenge and Fletcher is eventually satisfied. He tells him he “earned the part.” This is the biggest win for Neiman so far. Fletcher said he earned it, and yet he’s so exhausted that he can’t even feel the glory of this win.

Fletcher asks the others, “Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drum set?”

Fletcher makes the band practice until the wee hours of the morning

THE ALL IS LOST MOMENT:

Although this is not specifically a Hero’s Journey moment, this is an important part of structure that I decided to include.

“The All Is Lost moment is that crisis (usually two-thirds to four-fifths of the way through the story) where the hero hits the wall. He has failed in all his efforts to attain his objective; he’s completely stuck. There’s no way out and no way forward.” ~  Steven Pressfield

The very next morning, the band has to get to Dunellen for another competition which is at least two hours away. Neiman takes the bus, but as they get close to his destination the bus gets a flat tire.

Neiman runs to the nearest car rental place and rents a car. He calls in to let Fletcher know that he is on his way, at which time the person on the other end says that Fletcher has got Connolly warming up.

Neiman makes it in time: Fletcher tells him that Connolly is playing the part. Neiman snaps back, “Like hell he’s playing my part.” Neiman and Fletcher fight. Neiman stands up to him with full force.

Fletcher tells him that usually the person who plays the part has sticks. Newman has left them at the car rental place. Fletcher tells him he has 10 minutes to get them and be on stage or Connolly is playing the part.

Neiman drives back to the rental place, grabs his sticks and races back. He makes another call but gets into a yelling scrap with the guy on the phone and yells at him to tell Fletcher he’ll be there. Then he tosses this phone into the passenger’s seat.

And Bam! He gets hit by another vehicle. The car flips and everything stops for a moment.

But then, Neiman pulls himself out of the car, his face and hands covered in blood. He goes back to get his sticks. And then he runs to the competition. He arrives on stage when the whole band is seated.

Everyone is surprised to see the state he is in. Fletcher lets him play, despite the blood. Neiman can barely drum, as he is in so much pain with a broken index finger and other injuries. When he drops a stick, he finds it almost impossible to pick back up. Finally, Neiman stops drumming altogether.

Fletcher comes over and ferociously tells him that he’s done, completely!

“Done!”

Fletcher turns to apologize to the audience, but Neiman kicks a drum out from the set and attacks Fletcher on stage in a homicidal rage.

Act III

10. THE ROAD BACK:

“When the hero-quest has been accomplished… the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the Monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds. But the responsibility has been frequently refused.” ~ Joseph Campbell 

What this looks like:

This doesn’t start out well.

Neiman sits in a lobby bar with his dad and an elegant lawyer named Rachel Bornholdt. Rachel asks Neiman if he knows anything about Sean Casey. The name registers with Neiman. Rachel explains that Sean hanged himself because of anxiety and depression that started in Fletcher’s class.

This is the same guy that Fletcher cried over that day, but Fletcher said Sean had a car crash. As the conversation continues Neiman gets angry at his dad, as he wants Neiman to help get Fletcher dismissed from Shaffer by saying that he intentionally inflicted “emotional distress” on his students.

Neiman’s is hurt by his father’s betrayal. He doesn’t want to harm Fletcher but he’s been put in a difficult position. He says what he would have said if he had stayed In the Ordinary World before his adventure with Fletcher: “Just tell me what to say.”

Out walking the summer streets at night, Neiman sees a place that has Live Jazz. Neiman scans the chalkboard outside. Terrence Fletcher is the special guest. He pokes his head in the door and sure enough, it’s Fletcher at the piano. Neiman watches, as Fletcher plays a beautiful, soft piano piece.

When the set ends, Neiman turns to go, but Fletcher sees him and calls his name. The two have a drink and talk about Fletcher’s dismissal. Fletcher says he thinks a kid in Casey’s year turned on him.

FLETCHER: I don’t think people knew what I was doing at Shaffer. It’s about pushing people beyond what’s was expected of them. And I believe that is a necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of the next Armstrong… its next Parker. Why did Charlie Parker become Charlie Parker, Andrew?

NEIMAN: Because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him.

FLETCHER: Exactly… goes up to play his solo in a cutting session, fucks up–and Jones comes this close to slicing his head off for it…. he practices and practices… A year later he goes back to the Reno, and he plays the best… solo the world had ever heard… There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than “good job.”

NEIMAN: But is there a line? Where you’d go too far and discourage the next Charlie Parker.

FLETCHER: No man, because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged… I don’t know if I ever had a Charlie Parker… But I tried. I will never apologize for trying.

11. THE RESURRECTION:

“This last Life and death ordeal shows that the hero has maintained and can apply all that he has brought back to the Ordinary World.” The ordeal and resurrection may represent a cleansing or purification that must occur now that the hero has emerged from the land of the dead.” ~ Voytilla

What this looks like:

As they leave the bar, Fletcher tells Neiman that he’s got a band kicking off the next JVC competition, that the drummer’s not doing so well; he needs someone who knows the charts: Caravan, Whiplash…

Another shot for Neiman. The last showdown..

On the day of the concert, as Neiman approaches his drums on stage, he sees the chart to Whiplash on his stand. He looks pumped up. Another chance to play.

Just before Fletcher starts, he walks over to Neiman and says, “You think I’m fucking stupid. I know it was you.” (the one who got him fired)

Fletcher turns back to the audience and introduces them to a new upswing tune. He looks back at Neiman and sees the shock on his face, knowing that he doesn’t have the music. He’s been set up to fail.

Despite not having the music to the first piece, Neiman tries to play something but it’s a mess and he drums past Fletcher’s wrap up.  This is the ultimate humiliation. Fletcher comes over and says, “I guess maybe you don’t have it.”

Defeated, Neiman gets up and leaves the stage. This is a horrible moment. He gives up.

Offstage, his Dad is there to hug him and to say to him, “Let’s go home.” But Neiman pulls away and marches right back on stage. Fletcher is talking to the audience but Neiman starts to Drum right over him. The other band members harass him, but he yells, “I’ll cue you in” and he takes lead of the whole band; they play Caravan brilliantly.

Fletcher has to join in at this time to save face, but this is a showdown between them and, pissed, Fletcher comes over and threatens Neiman, but Neiman is completely in control.

After Fletcher wraps this one up, Neiman keeps drumming, Fletcher is furious. He comes over again, at which point Neiman says, “I’ll cue you,” to him too. He’s taken over from Fletcher, completely. He has no fear of him, no need to please him. He doesn’t even need him. The band is following Neiman.

This drum solo becomes one of the longest, most spectacular and difficult that Fletcher has ever seen or heard. A feeling of Triumph washes through the movie audience, as it becomes apparent that every piece of Neiman’s training, of his brutal, animalistic practice sessions, of the endurance that Fletcher made him acquire, the resistance he has built to folding under pressure, and the ability to play through pain have all led up to this moment.

“The Core Emotion is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story. In a Performance story, the Core Emotion is Triumph” ~ Rachelle Ramirez

At a certain point, Fletcher, not only understands what Neiman is trying to accomplish, but he even supports him and comes over to fix his cymbals. Neiman has internalized all he was taught by Fletcher – every lesson.

12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR

The true hero returns with an elixir to share with others or heal a wounded land. The elixir can be a great treasure or magic potion. It could be love, wisdom, or simply the experience of surviving the Special World.… the hero may show the benefit of the elixir using it to heal a physical or emotional wound, or accomplish tasks that had been feared in the Ordinary World. The return signals a time when we distribute rewards and punishments, or celebrate the journeys and with revelry or marriage. The elixir may bring closure to the journey and restore balance to the Ordinary World” ~ Voytilla

What this looks like:

That elixir, the thing that heals, is Neiman’s internal power, the esteem he once needed so badly from Fletcher is now owned by him. He has it within himself.

A look of uncertainty crosses Neiman’s face, for just a moment, and a look of hate crosses Fletcher’s, but they are both back in the game. Fletcher becomes the Mentor again and conducts the rest of Neiman’s performance; they ride it out together at break-neck speed. With a knowing smile that reunites them, their relationship is healed. They are one with each other and the audience.

They both get what they want: Neiman has become one of the greats who can impart his magnificent gifts to the world and Fletcher gets his Charlie Parker.

Neiman also gets what he needs: self-esteem and self-respect, and also the respect of others. Fletcher no longer defines him. He defines himself.

N.B., I used male pronouns throughout this text, since the hero of Whiplash is a young man. All heroes, heroines, and other protagonists are welcome here. <3

Special thanks to Larry Pass and Julia Blair.

References: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Myth and the Movies by Stuart Voytilla, The Power of Myth – both the book and the television series (Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers). The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

About Tanya Lovetti

Tanya has always worked in the entertainment industry. Her first career as an actress led her to writing screenplays, after which she moved into the world of television writing and eventually novels. She loves The Story Grid Methodology and is excited to share it with others in order to help them improve their work. Her main focus as an editor is to save writers the ten-twenty years that it took her to find solutions to story problems. She looks forward to helping other writers improve their work quickly, taking their scripts or novels from good to great! Tanya loves bold, provocative work that pushes boundaries in any genre. She especially loves strong, imperfect protagonists and fascinating villains. Her absolute favourite genre is the Thriller. Tanya's website is currently under construction, but if you would like to contact her, she can be reached at [email protected]
Comments (8)
Authors Tanya Lovetti

8 Comments

Tanya Lovetti says:

Thank you Tom. I hope you have a chance to see the film. It’s quite something 🙂

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Ariadne says:

I’m WOWED – this is a great read and truly the best hero’s journey “retold” I’ve read so far! Thank you Tanya.

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Lita says:

I don’t need to see the movie; you’ve shown me the movie. I’m exhausted – in a good way. Thank you, Tanya. 🙂

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Stefan says:

Great article and detailed work!
My son is a drummer and he was eight when this movie came out. He was both terrified and fascinated by it. I watched it with him like ten times.
I’d just like to add a subtlety. Neiman had self-esteem early on. He was the best drummer in the band and he knew it. But Fletcher kept pushing him – towards musical perfection. And only when Neiman proved to Fletcher that he was capable of musical perfection, Fletcher accepted him (Fletcher’s acknowledging smile in the last scene). The last scene was not about self-esteem, rather transcended it.
I think, we acquire (or lose) self-esteem by comparing ourselves to others (status is always relative). But Fletcher disliked status, in fact, he destroyed it whenever he could by giving the role of the leading drummer to others. He was after musical perfection. We reach perfection by transcending. This requires ‘breaking’ the ego and ‘breaking’ self-esteem. The German have an idiom for that. They call it ‘overcoming the inner pig dog.” The greatest artists are humble and that’s a technicality. It’s a great, long forgotten message. One can only guess how much blood, sweat and tears it took for Michelangelo to become Michelangelo and Mozart to become Mozart (played the first violin at age 8).
Neiman’s want was self-esteem, his need musical perfection.
The problem with Fletcher was that he justified the end with the means, breaking the ego by ‘mentor bullying’ – a two-edged sword. He did not change his way – and that’s why he was the villain. Neiman managed to transcend – that’s why he was the hero.

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Tanya Lovetti says:

I love this comment. Thank you so much. “Transcended…” I knew I hadn’t nailed that part 🙏

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