The Hero’s Journey with National Treasure
The Hero’s Journey is something most writers are aware of and fond of, but we typically see it explained through Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings. I wanted to do something different and use one of my favorite movies, National Treasure. It follows the Hero’s Journey nearly flawlessly. If you want to download this nifty outline of The Hero’s Journey, do so below!
ACT ONE: The Departure Act
The Hero Leaves the Ordinary World
1. The Ordinary World
Meet the hero in his normal world.
Flashback: Starts in the past. Grandpa Gates tells the story of the Freemasons. His grandson, Ben Gates, our hero, believes the story of the hidden treasure. But Ben’s dad, Patrick Gates, the skeptic, doesn’t want anything to do with it. Money and time and generations wasted, he proclaims.
Back to the present: Ben Gates, the world’s best history buff and treasure hunter, moves forward with his plan to find the treasure hidden by the Founding Fathers. We’re thrown into the action of Ben and his crew discovering Charlotte, a ship, their first clue. Ian Howe invested into this project. Riley, the techy sidekick, helps them track the ship. They find a pipe and realize that in order for them to find the hidden treasure, they must have the Declaration of Independence.
Ian says, “We could borrow it.” Ben replies, “Steal it?”
Ian says he’ll make all the arrangements to steal it, but Ben says no. He has a moral compass, but Ian does not. As the fight ensues, Ian quickly decides to get rid of Ben and Riley, despite Ben being the only one who can solve these riddles. A flare drops on the gunpowder and the ship explodes, with Ian thinking he got rid of Ben and Riley.
But they escaped through the smuggler’s hole. They realize Ian is crafting a plan to steal the Declaration of Independence, so they must make a decision: how will they stop him?
2. The Call of Adventure
An adventure starts
Ben is now thrust out of his comfort zone. He’s faced with a challenge he cannot ignore. Will he rise to the challenge? Will he stop Ian from stealing the Declaration of Independence?
3. Refusal of the Call
Hero digs in his feet
Instead of stopping Ian on their own, Ben and Riley take their information to the FBI, but they’re laughed at. Next up, they meet Abigail Chase (Ben’s love interest eventually) at the National Archives and try to tell her the same story they told the FBI. She dismisses them as crazy treasure hunters.
In the National Archives, Ben sees the Declaration of Independence and makes a decision in his heart to rise to the challenge.
“I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence,” he says. The only way to protect it is to steal it. It’s a paradox.
4. Meeting the Mentor
The hero gets a personal trainer
Although Rylee is the sidekick, he morphs into the mentor by teaching Ben, the inexperienced hero, everything he needs to know about breaking into the Preservation room and stealing the Declaration of Independence during a gala.
Riley proves how impossible it is to steal it. He gives all the facts about security to prove to Ben how hard it’s going to be.
Meanwhile, the bad guys get explosives and guns and silencers to prepare for their plan. Both plans are evil because they’re both doing the same thing: stealing.
Both crews get fingerprints too, but in entirely different ways. Still wrong!
ACT TWO: The Initiation Act
The Hero ventures into unknown territory and is birthed into a true champion through various trials and challenges.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
Hero enters other world in earnest
Ben follows through with the plan, makes it into the gala, sees Abigail, and heads to the Preservation room to steal the Declaration of Independence.
Ben is committed to the journey. The adventure is getting kicked into high gear now. From this point on, there’s no turning back.
Now Ben has the Declaration of Independence in his hands, but Ian is there too. He’s face-to-face with the enemy, the villain. Ian isn’t playing games. He’ll stop at nothing to get it—even shooting at Ben.
Ben barely escapes and gets sidetracked by having to pay for the Declaration in a gift shop, which is mistaken for a souvenir copy, and leaves a paper trail, which will be a big issue shortly.
Suspecting something, Abigail chases after Ben, wondering how he got into the gala. She remembers what he said about someone stealing the Declaration. She realizes it’s him and takes it, but then Ian grabs her and throws her—and the Declaration—into the van.
Meanwhile, everyone at the gala knows the Declaration has been stolen, so the place goes into lockdown and the FBI is on the scene.
Ben saves Abigail from Ian while simultaneously tricking him into thinking he has the Declaration.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
New challenges and gets a squad
With Abigail now part of the crew to keep the Declaration safe, they need to find a hideout and look at the back of the Declaration for another clue. Because of Ben’s paper trail, they can’t go to his house. Instead, they go to his dad’s house, and Patrick isn’t happy about it.
Meanwhile, FBI Agent Sadusky wants to know everything about Ben and his obsession. Sadusky = yet another antagonist.
Ben tells Patrick that he found the Charlotte, and for a moment, Patrick is excited because he always thought it was a ship. But then he goes back into pessimistic mode: “That’s all you’ll ever find—clues!” Note that Patrick is also an antagonist to our hero. Not a villain but an antagonist.
They try to find the next clue with lemon juice. Moment of truth: nothing happens. But without his dad, Ben wouldn’t have known to breathe on it. Thus, the invisible ink shows the next clue.
Ben asks his dad for the Silence Dogood letters, but Patrick donated them to the Franklin
Institute. They have to go find them.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The hero gets closer to the goal
Off to the most dangerous spot in the other world. Note that the protagonist hasn’t entered the Inmost Cave just yet. This stage is all about the approach to it. It covers all the prepwork that's needed in order to defeat the villain. (Thank you to Reedsy for this succinct explanation.)
They go to see the Silence Dogood letters. They find the letters but bribe a kid to do the dirty work to grab the code. They have to stay out of Ian’s sight. Ian is there too—always one step behind. Remember: He needs Ben’s expertise.
Once they receive the code from the letters, they head to the Liberty Bell, but the bad guys are hot on their tail.
Ben finds Benjamin Franklin’s multicolored glasses, which is the next clue to finding the treasure. They’re getting much closer.
8. The Ordeal
Faces his biggest test
Abigail runs from Ian, drops the Declaration, and risks her own life to get it from the street. She is willing to die to get it. But now Ian has it. What can they do now?
Grim news: FBI Agent Sadusky arrests Ben. They find him on the security camera in the gift shop. Ben is told he has two options: Door #1: He’ll go to prison for a very, very long time. Door #2: He helps the FBI get the Declaration back, but he still goes to prison for a very, very long time.
Ian calls Ben and wants those glasses: the key to reading the map.
The FBI keeps visuals on Ben as he meets Ian at a ship for an exchange, but Gates finds “door number three.” He jumps off the ship and lands in the water and grabs his oxygen and takes off to the next destination: Ian Howe, the villain.
Ian returns the Declaration and the pipe and asks for the next clue, but when Ben remains coy, Ian reveals he has kidnapped Patrick as a hostage. Now the stakes are even higher.
They go inside Trinity Church with Riley and Abigail in tow. Ben must read the map again, using the glasses to find the resting spot of the treasure. Ian and Ben work together to read the map. For a moment, hero and villain are united. Patrick still says it’s just another clue.
They find Parkington Lane’s burial site and remove the casket. This is their way inside.
Hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel
The fruits of their labor are now at hand—if they can just reach out and grab them! The “reward” is the object or knowledge the hero has fought throughout the entire journey to hold.
Abigail and Ben finally kiss! Ah, romance.
They go deeper into the underground tunnel. They find the elevators. They have to descend into this abyss. They must proceed with caution, but then Shaw, Ian’s muscle, falls through the elevator and dies. Everything starts falling apart from 200 years of termite damage, and they all start jumping. Abigail nearly falls, But Ben saves her and the Declaration. Again, these two are willing to risk it all to save the Declaration.
They enter a room, but it looks like a dead end. Everyone is in shock. Has this all been for nought? “There are no more clues!” Ben yells.
Ian threatens to leave them—unless they give him the next clue. His dad and Ben play Ian and send him to Boston. Ian doesn’t keep his word: he leaves them anyway.
“We’re all gonna die,” Riley proclaims. But Ben and Patrick aren’t worried. They gave Ian a fake clue.
There’s another way out. Through the treasure room. It looks like they finally won. But they go inside and find . . . another empty room. It looks to have been looted.
ACT THREE: The Return Act
The Hero returns in triumph.
10. The Road Back
Light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s kind of dim
Patrick finally believes his son. “I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong,” he says. This is major character development for an antagonist to change like this. They all agree to keep looking for the treasure. They all believe in Ben and support him.
Suddenly, Ben takes “the secret that lies with Charlotte” (the pipe) and places it into the notch and then turns it. Suddenly, a secret door opens: the treasure room!
They find the treasure from thousands of years of collecting. They did it! But how will they escape? Ian left them down there—doomed forever.
The treasure room has stairs leading out. They escape and meet up with Agent Sadusky.
The last test is met
The final exam: Ben could still go to prison, but he barters with the agent. He wants his crew off scot-free. He gives Agent Sadusky the Declaration and tells him the treasure is a few stories below his feet.
We find out the agent is a Freemason too. They both agree the treasure belongs to the world. It’ll be donated to museums. But the agent still wants someone to go to prison. Luckily, Ben has someone in mind.
The FBI meets up with Ian and his crew and arrests them in Boston. Justice!
12. Return with the Elixir
Later, Ben and Abigail have started a relationship. Meanwhile, Riley is upset that Ben turned down the 10% finder's fee for the treasure but accepted a much smaller amount of only 1%, which still has netted them all significant wealth.
As Riley drives away in a Ferrari from Ben and Abigail's newly bought house, Abigail gives Ben a treasure map. When Ben asks her what the map leads to, Abigail simply replies "You'll figure it out."
The Yukon Writers’ Society is an encouraging, supportive group for fiction writers in Yukon, Oklahoma. They meet biweekly on Thursdays to embrace accountability, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to help group members start and finish their books. The Yukon Writers’ Society was founded in 2016 and provides free meetings for its members. Their group anthology, Shivers in the Night, was published in April 2018.