The hero’s journey is a structured path for your story. It goes something like this:
Your character goes on an adventure, struggles with challenges, takes decisive action, grows, and returns home a changed person.
That’s the nuts and bolts of it, in a tidy little package. But to get the real meat on the bones of your story, you’ll want to keep reading. It’s not just following those steps, but understanding why your character takes those precise actions and how they change. Let’s dig a little deeper.
First a bit of history…
A common pattern emerged when stories were studied over time. Joseph Campbell modernized the information back in 1949, and it became The Hero’s Journey.
It sounds funny to say modernized when it was so long ago, but seeing as the gathered information was dates as far back as the 1800’s and with mythology, 1949 doesn’t sound so old.
Campbell’s analyzed these common traits in a book called, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” A more modern day adaption came from Christopher Vogler.
Vogler wrote a book called “The Writer’s Journey” for screen writers. This was based on Campbell’s book. He took the patterns and modernized the information yet again.
The Hero’s Journey in 12 Steps
The simplified, super easy-to-follow, non-fancy version…step-by-step:
- Your hero is minding his/her business in their every day world. This is important. We can show an inciting incident and the need for change and growth over time.
- The call to adventure is your inciting incident. Something happens and rocks your character’s world. This incident can be internal or external.
- Next is what is what’s known as the refusal of the call. The character doesn’t want to move forward. No thanks, no way, no how. It’s usually the fear of the unknown or potential danger.
- An experienced mentor steps in–think of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. The guide/mentor isn’t convinced the character is prepared for the journey. They have hesitations. They’re going to have to help them, teach them, or tag along if the hero has any hope of accomplishing the problem they’re facing. They are prepping for the journey.
- Your character moves into a “new world” (or mind set if not a physical transition), almost crossing a doorway from one world to another. Think of Harry Potter going from his muggle world to Hogwarts. Often, there’s a visual transformation on screen or in the story to emphasize the change.
- The hero faces challenges. The hero’s challenged multiple times. (Not set in stone, but basically, they tend to fail the first time, fail a second time, finally learn why, then succeed the final time.) You are the driver of your story and can adjust it as needed. This formula is time-tested. Consider it a best practice in an adventure/quest time of story.
- The character reassess the situation. They must face another ordeal. This is the second challenge we discussed a moment ago.
- Right about now you’re hitting the center of your story. The mid-point is crucial for pacing. This is where the hero has a near-death experience or something tragic happens that forces your character to face their fear. While harrowing, it teaches our hero a vital lesson, so they can move forward on their journey.
- The scary situation has come to pass, and they’ve won…sort of. They’ve snatched up the treasure, the princess, the goal they were hoping for and think the road is clear. They are feeling triumphant.
- The hero is cruising along, on their way home. They feel pretty sure of themselves, but things aren’t going as smoothly as they anticipated. In fact, they are in danger. Somebody is chasing them, or there’s a sense of urgency. Think of a ticking bomb. A race against time. What felt like a victory only a moment before, has turned into a dire situation. Will they make it home safely?
- Not again! The hero is challenged in a big, scary, and major way. Thankfully, because of the lessons they learned earlier in the story, they’re better prepared this time. Psst, this is the third challenge we spoke of in a previous step. What they were afraid of in the beginning of the story, they can now tackle.
- They’ve come full circle. They’re a better version of the person they were before. They’ve brought back with them their courage or treasure, or whoever or whatever they were on a quest for.
Phew! We made it. And your hero made it back safely. Good thing–that was a close call.
Did you notice I slipped in a couple of examples? Harry Potter going into his “new world” with Hogwarts, and Obi-Wan Kenobi being Luke’s mentor.
Take a look at popular movies you love and see if you can spot the different steps of the hero’s journey. Breaking down familiar stories and spotting the patterns helps you grasp what you’ve learned.
You’ll never look at stories the same way once you understand and come to love story structure!
You’ll find a new appreciation for the work you read, when you start to notice the layers of the story and why they are where they are.
Check out the massive list of writing questions which are answered on a huge FAQ post.