Story Skeleton—The Alchemist
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
By David Griffin Brown
A Novel that Hits all the Hero's Journey Plot Points
In Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, the journey of Santiago, a young Andalusian shepherd, unfolds not just as a quest across physical landscapes but also as an exploration of personal fulfillment and destiny. At the heart of the novel is the concept of a "Personal Legend," a path that each individual may choose to follow in order to find true happiness—the utmost accomplishment one can achieve in life.
“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
This maxim reverberates through Santiago’s journey from Andalusia to Tunisia and across the Sahara to Egypt.
Plotting with the Hero’s Journey
Coelho's storytelling aligns seamlessly with the hero's journey stages or plot points—a narrative structure identified by Joseph Campbell that is often found in mythic storytelling across cultures.
Santiago, a shepherd, is content but yearns for more. This phase represents Campbell's idea of the hero's comfortable yet unfulfilled initial state. In traditional plotting terminology, this is often referred to as the story’s stasis.
Call to Adventure
Santiago has a recurring dream about finding treasure in Egypt—a symbol of the young shepherd’s desire for a greater purpose. Another common name for this plot point is the inciting incident. An inciting incident is when the story’s narrative goal first forms in the protagonist’s mind. It also sets readers’ expectations, both about what the protagonist will seek over the course of the story and what is at stake should he fail.
Refusal of the Call
Note that Santiago’s dream about treasure recurs. In other words, he receives several hints of his greater purpose but has yet to take that first risky step forward. This is his initial refusal of the call.
The shepherd’s refusal ends when he again sleeps beneath the sycamore tree where he always has this dream. The next morning, he asks a fortune teller what the dream might mean, and she points out the obvious: that he is meant to travel to Egypt in search of this treasure. Now the stakes are set: Santiago will gamble everything he has worked for (his flock) in order to pursue the dream.
Meeting with the Mentor
Soon after his discussion with the fortune teller, Santiago meets Melchizedek, the King of Salem, who encourages the young man with a discussion about Personal Legends and the Soul of the World (a divine force of fate that can help someone pursue their Personal Legend).
Crossing the First Threshold
Santiago sells his flock and travels to Tangier. In traditional plotting terms, this is the point of no return. The protagonist is now fully committed to the quest.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Shortly after arriving in Tangier, Santiago is robbed. He is completely destitute, so he finds a job working for a crystal merchant. The boy convinces the merchant to take some chances with his business, and together they prosper as a result.
Now that the protagonist has overcome his trials, he is ready to continue his journey eastward.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Santiago joins a caravan to cross the Sahara. Here he has time to reflect on his Personal Legend, the Soul of the World, intuition, and perseverance. An Englishman travelling with the caravan tells the young man that he is seeking an alchemist, someone who can turn metal into gold.
In Campbell’s analysis, the “approach to the inmost cave” is a time in the story when the protagonist approaches their innermost fears and challenges. In comparison to “tests, allies, and enemies,” this is a more personal challenge that leads to the self-reflection needed for personal growth—a key component of a character’s arc.
In Santiago’s case, the inmost cave is a desert oasis where his journey is stalled because of tribal wars. Another hitch is that he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Fatima. His journey could end here, but he is forced to act when he has a vision of an attack on the oasis—he warns the chieftains so they can ready their defenses. When word of Santiago’s vision spreads, the alchemist comes looking for him. He will guide Santiago on to the next stage.
Here we arrive at the climax. Together, Santiago and the alchemist travel toward Egypt. Before they can find the pyramids, they are intercepted by an army and arrested as spies. His companion then declares that Santiago is an alchemist who will demonstrate his power to transform himself into the wind—in three days. This is the young shepherd’s biggest test. He must fully embody all the lessons he has learned along the way to achieve this magical feat. After much effort and meditation, Santiago unites with the Soul of God and is therefore able to turn himself into the wind.
The two travel onward until they reach a monastery. The alchemist creates some gold, which he gives to Santiago to help him complete his mission, and then he leaves him on his own.
When Santiago finally arrives at the pyramids and starts digging, he finds nothing. Some jerks rob him and beat him up because they think he is hiding more gold. Santiago shouts about his dream, saying that he has come all this way to search for treasure. The one jerk says that dreams are just dreams; he tells the boy of his own fanciful dream of a treasure buried beneath a sycamore tree in the ruins of a sacristy—and adds that “I’m not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.”
Here is the protagonist’s reward: he set out in search of a hidden treasure, and now he knows exactly where it is.
The Road Back
The protagonist journeys all the way back to where he started. His quest has come full circle.
Back in Spain, Santiago digs up his treasure—a chest full of jewels and gold. He has been transformed; he is now a very rich man and has achieved his Personal Legend. But this treasure is more than just gold; it represents the culmination of Santiago's journey to understand himself and his purpose, underscoring the novel's central theme that true success lies in self-fulfillment and realizing one's dreams.
Return with the Elixir
Santiago now has the wealth and self-assuredness he needs to return to the desert so he can marry Fatima and begin the next phase of his life.
Anything can be done well
In crafting The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho dared to prioritize narrative context—in this case his personal philosophy—over traditional story elements like subplots and character development. This approach, while enriching the novel with thematic depth, also presented a risk: the potential to diminish the story’s emotional draw.
Coelho's success shows that unconventional storytelling can indeed captivate audiences when executed skillfully. With the right balance, even the most challenging narrative choices can resonate deeply with readers. Coelho’s triumph is a reminder that in writing, as with all art forms, anything can be done if it’s done well.
Paulo Coelho's publication journey with The Alchemist is a true reflection of its core message. After the book’s initial slow start with only 900 copies printed in 1988, Coelho's faith in his work never wavered. His determination led to its re-publication and global success, notably after its English translation in 1993. The Alchemist has achieved staggering success, selling over 65 million copies and being translated into a record 80 languages. It also spent over 300 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and holds a Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author. This journey of The Alchemist from its modest beginning to a worldwide phenomenon mirrors the novel's theme of pursuing one's Personal Legend with unwavering determination and belief.
How do you interpret Santiago's journey and the concept of a Personal Legend in your life? Does Coelho's philosophy resonate with your experiences? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.