The Hero’s Journey – Writing a Compelling Story
One of the most compelling storytelling structures that writers can use is The Hero’s Journey. In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he discusses the central myth which he argues is at the heart of all stories.
However you look at it, the Hero’s Journey has formed the basis for the narrative arc of a wide variety of literary works across time and all cultures – something we’ll look at within this article. Mostly though, this story structure offers a great way to give your narrative both a strong arc and emotional power.
In this guide, you’ll learn the essential steps involved in the Hero’s Journey in order to structure your novel with style.
What is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a particular structure in which the lead – otherwise known as a hero, heroine or protagonist – is called to head off on a journey or adventure in response to facing a problem or challenge. This issue leads them to set a specific narrative goal and they go off to achieve this, finding allies and facing enemies and their own weaknesses along the way. Once this aim has been achieved, the much-changed protagonist then returns home, bringing wisdom and knowledge to share with their community and loved ones.
You’ve probably already realised from just reading the above summary that most literature uses this particular storytelling structure. In fact, it has similarities to the three act structure which is also used in drama and screenplays, as well as novels and memoirs to create a powerful narrative arc.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to set out the main steps of the Hero’s Journey, so you can use them to build your own compelling story.
Stages of the Hero’s Journey
All stories can be broken down into three stages — the beginning, middle and end — and the Hero’s Journey is no different in the way that it is comprised of three main sections: Departure, Initiation and Return.
The opening Departure section is very much focused on the way the hero is called to go on a quest (often reluctantly) due to having to deal with a problem or challenge. The Initiation then takes place after they embark on their journey and begin to face obstacles, temptations and fears and develop skills and wisdom as a result which allow them to attain their narrative goal. Hence, once this has been achieved, they return home triumphant and often more enlightened than before.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re probably thinking of how the geeky teen, Luke Skywalker, gets pushed by tragedy into his Hero’s Journey of becoming a Jedi (he even mucks that up!), before defeating evil (cue scary Darth Vader voice!) — and you’d be right on the money, as George Lucas was profoundly influenced by Campbell’s work.
Steps of the Hero’s Journey
In Campbell’s original breakdown of the Hero’s Journey, the hero’s story is comprised of seventeen steps. However, in 1993, Vogler broke down this storytelling structure into just twelve steps in his book, The Writer’s Journey, making it much easier for authors to use.
In this guide, we’ll utilise this twelve stage model and I’ll go through it step by step.
1. Ordinary World
At the start of the Hero’s Journey, we get a glimpse of the everyday life of the lead and the unique world they inhabit. This allows us to grasp the setting if it’s something unusual like we see in sci-fi or fantasy, but we are also able to start to get to know the hero and care about them, as well as noting some of their particular strengths and weaknesses which may get in their way.
2. The Call to Adventure
This is what might also be seen as the narrative’s inciting incident or trigger as it’s what really sets the story and the whole Departure section of the book going.
It involves the hero having to face a problem or challenge – just as in the classical story of The Odyssey, Odysseus is called to fight the Trojans.
3. Refusal of the Call
The hero doesn’t simply trot off on their journey though – Odysseus struggles with leaving his family and similar inner conflicts beset most leads during this stage, including fear at what might befall them if they accept the call.
By showing these doubts, the humanity of the hero is revealed and the high stakes of the journey ahead are brought into focus, increasing the narrative tension in a very potent way.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
At this point, the hero meets a mentor who offers advice and wisdom for the journey ahead and whose presence often helps them overcome their reluctance to embark on their journey. (Do we need to mention Yoda here? “Do or do not”, my writer friends.)
This step is important as we come to understand that the quest is something difficult which requires support, as well as personal bravery, and the encounter with the mentor shows that this is a spiritual and personal path, as well as a more concrete journey to get a certain goal.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
Here, the hero leaves their ordinary world and takes the decision to embark on their journey. This is incredibly important, as despite the call to adventure having started the story off in some sense, the real adventure begins now for the hero as they leave behind everything they know and walk into a realm of external dangers and personal doubts.
We only have to think of the terrifying quest Frodo and Sam go on in Lord of the Rings to understand how powerful this moment can be in a story as our rather vulnerable, tiny Hobbit heroes shed safety and familiarity to pursue a noble goal.
This setting off closes the Departure part of the story and we now see the hero enter the Initiation stage of their journey.
6. Test, Allies and Enemies
Having committed to their journey, the hero now has to learn the rules of the new world they’ve entered, encountering friends who will act as supportive confidant(e)s and sidekicks during their quest, as well as dastardly foes who often present terrifying obstacles.
This first section of the Initiation is important in developing the story’s cast of characters, including the hero’s allies and establishing those who will oppose them, such as a vile villain, increasing the stakes by showing that the road ahead will not be easy, despite the hero having assistance.
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
The rising action of the book will see failures and setbacks, with the hero often facing multiple obstacles or finally progressing towards their narrative goal, only to confront an even bigger challenge from enemies, or even due to their own inner fears and flaws. This rises to the point that, in the innermost cave, they’re really in deep and are feeling the pain of their journey!
For example, in The Odyssey, the crew opens a bag of winds which blow them far away again when they were almost home – doh!
In this second dramatic part of the Initiation, the hero thus needs to persist and be flexible in their approach in the face of these nightmares, trying new ways to reach their aims, as the stakes are rising and they know that the cost of failing to achieve their journey’s end is far too high.
8. The Ordeal
You think it was tough in the innermost cave? Well, now the hero faces a major obstacle — often a life or death ordeal.
What’s worse, this challenge often highlights their character flaws to boot, showing they need to overcome their weaknesses or perish.
Most heroes barely get out of this ordeal alive, leaving the Initiation phase of their journey in tatters and with readers on the edge of their seat wondering how the heck they’ll ever complete their journey.
For example, you thought the bags of wind were bad for Odysseus? Now, he has to go to the Underworld! (You cannot be kidding me!)
9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)
But, hey, it’s not all bad as, after surviving death, the hero gets a reward – maybe even achieving their journey’s goal, such as grabbing the Ring and tossing it away so it cannot darken the world any more.
This is a great moment of success and celebration in the story and the hero has clearly emerged from their trials an improved person, although we may not see the full extent of this yet as they still have other preoccupations.
However, now the hero has their goal, they need to Return to their ordinary world in the third section – and that’s often not as easy as it sounds.
10. The Road Back
After all the challenges of the Initiation phase, meeting new friends and facing off with foes, the hero who left their home isn’t the same person who returns. Hence reintegrating into their old reality can come as another form of challenge in this final part of the story.
In fact, they may not even want to go back! The reluctance to embark on their journey which we saw at the beginning of the story may reappear to haunt the hero as they now cannot imagine returning to their ordinary world, showing just how much the struggles they’ve been through have changed their character.
11. The Resurrection
If you thought it was just a case of the hero getting home now, I’m afraid they have to face yet more trouble in terms of a test which puts at stake everything they’ve achieved.
This is where the personality changes and skillsets they’ve developed from their challenging journey become obvious and they realise they’re made for the times they’re facing. Hence they emerge as a resurrected hero — reborn from the one who embarked at the beginning.
This part is obviously important for adding climactic drama to keep readers engaged right ‘til the end – they think they’ve killed the alien, or other baddie, but they’re back! – and showcasing the full depth of the lead’s character development.
12. Return with the Elixir
The hero returns home with knowledge or a particular ‘elixir’ or item which symbolises their achievements on their journey and this is often used to help others.
This altruistic result is the real reward for their battles and represents deep personal and spiritual transformation, bringing the Return section and the story as a whole to a close in a way which hopefully leaves the reader both satisfied and enlightened.
The Hero’s Journey in Literature
As you can see from my examples above, the Hero’s Journey is prominent in both film and literature. From classical storytelling to more modern sci-fi and fantasy, the Hero’s Journey has given powerful narrative arcs to many great works.
Indeed, if you look carefully enough, even many contemporary crime novels or TV series will feature a reluctant detective who, at first, is scared to take the case – perhaps due to retirement or trauma – who then changes their mind and solves the murder.
The Hero’s Journey has thus influenced many writers across the ages and across all literary genres, but it’s still important to note that not all stories follow this paradigm – so, if it’s not inspiring for you, then don’t use it!
Using the Hero’s Journey to Tell Your Story
If you have found the structure set out above to be thought-provoking or something which might fit your story, then the Hero’s Journey model can easily be applied to your writing project. Structure is such a key part of creating a compelling story and the Hero’s Journey offers a clear way to build a potent narrative arc.
It’s important to plan ahead though, when using this paradigm, fitting your narrative to the three stages of Departure, Initiation and Return and plotting your scenes along the steps above.
Consider your hero’s particular personal flaws, just as Shakespeare often did in his tragedies — making Othello too jealous, for example – in order to set out how your hero might trip themselves up, or what would absolutely freak them out (like Indiana Jones and snakes!) in order to really test them on their journey.
You might also riff on the reasons they might be reluctant to embark on their quest – such as family commitments or outright fear, and who might act as a wise mentor and change their minds, or boost them up as allies along the way.
It’s also important to think of a strong opposition figure who is out to stop them achieving their journey’s goal as this is great for adding conflict and tension.
The Hero’s Journey is in so Many Stories
As you’ve seen, the Hero’s Journey is present in so many of the stories which surround us — and for good reason as it provides a fantastic narrative structure which allows for deep character development, high drama and profound emotion.
Although every story has a hero, not every story is a Hero’s Journey, yet this storytelling structure has a lot to teach all authors. Try it with your adventure or quest novel, and see how far you and your hero get.
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