The Hero’s Journey: A Classic Story Structure

The Hero's Journey

Writing a compelling story, especially if you’re new at this, can be grueling.  

Conflicting advice online can overwhelm you, making you want to quit before you’ve written a word.

But you know more than you think.

Stories saturate our lives. We talk, think, and communicate with story in music, on television, in video games, in books, and in movies.

Every story, regardless of genre or plot, features a main character who begins some adventure or quest, overcomes obstacles, and is transformed.

This is generically referred to as The Hero’s Journey, a broad story template popularized by Joseph Campbell in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

In essence, every story ever told includes at least some of the seventeen stages he outlined.

In 1985, screenwriter Christopher Vogler wrote a memo for Disney titled The Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that condensed the seventeen steps to twelve.

The Hero’s Journey template has influenced storytellers worldwide, most notably George Lucas (creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones).

Vogler says of Campbell’s writings: “The ideas are older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge, older than the earliest cave painting.”

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a prime example of The Hero’s Journey, so I use “she” inclusively to represent both genders.

The 3 Hero’s Journey Stages

1. The Departure (Separation)

The hero is compelled to leave her ordinary world.

She may have misgivings about this compulsion, and this is where a mentor may come to encourage and guide her.

Example: Katniss Everdeen is a devoted sister, daughter, and friend. She’s an avid hunter, well acquainted with the forbidden forest outside District 12, where she and her friend Gale hunt to keep their families from starving. The Hunger Games, wherein only one winner survives,  loom, and she fears she or one of her friends will be chosen. 

2. Initiation

The hero crosses into the other world, where she faces obstacles.

Sometimes she’s alone, sometimes she’s joined by a companion. Maybe a few.

Here she must use the tools she’s been given in her ordinary life to overcome each obstacle. She’ll be rewarded, sometimes tangibly.

Eventually she must return to the ordinary world with her reward.

Example: District 12’s Representative and Stylist Effie Trinket arrives to choose the Tributes who will compete in The Hunger Games. 

Katniss and her family attend, and she breathlessly wills Effie not to draw her name. She gets her wish, but to her horror, her little sister Primrose is chosen. 

Peacekeepers shove Prim toward the stage before Katniss volunteers to take her place. She’s joined by the male tribute, the baker’s son Peeta. They are soon whisked away for training and then the competition. 

3. Return

The hero crosses the threshold back into her ordinary world, which looks different now. She brings with her the rewards and uses them for good.

Example: Unexpectedly, Katniss and Peeta are told there can be two victors instead of one. But Katniss and Peeta, to the dismay of the Capitol, decide they’ll die together or emerge as victors together. They emerge not only as victors, but also as celebrities. They have changed in unimaginable ways. 

The 12 Hero’s Journey Steps (and How to Use Them)

Departure

1 — Ordinary  World

Before your hero is transported to another world, we want to see her in her ordinary world—who is she when no one is watching? What drives her?

This sets the stage for the rest of your story, so show her human side. Make her real and knowable.

But don’t wait long to plunge her into terrible trouble. Once you give your readers a reason to care, give them more to keep them turning the pages.

Example: Katniss Everdeen is introduced as a teenager for whom life isn’t easy. Her father is dead, her mother depressed, and Katniss will do anything to provide for her family and protect her little sister. 

2 — The Call to Adventure

This is the point at which your hero’s world can never be the same. A problem, a challenge, or an adventure arises—is she up to the challenge?

Example: The Reaping, where Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place. 

3 — Refusal of the Call

Occasionally, a hero screeches to a halt before the adventure begins. When faced with adversity, she hesitates, unsure of herself.

She must face her greatest fears and forge ahead.

Example: There is no refusal of the call in The Hunger Games. Katniss eagerly steps forward. 

4 — Meeting With the Mentor

The mentor may be an older individual who offers wisdom, a friend, or even an object, like a letter or map.

Whatever the form, the mentor gives your hero the tools she needs for the journey—either by inspiring her, or pushing her in the direction she needs to go.

Example: Katniss is introduced to Haymitch the minute she reaches the stage to accept the challenge. He’s the only person from District 12 to have ever won The Hunger Games. She’s not initially impressed, but he eventually becomes her biggest ally. 

5 — Crossing the First Threshold

In the final step of the departure phase, your hero musters the courage to forge ahead, and the real adventure begins.

There’s no turning back.

By now, you’ve introduced your hero and given your readers a reason to care what happens to her. You should have also introduced the underlying theme of your story.

Why is it important for your hero to accomplish this task?

What are the stakes?

What drives her?

Example: Katniss is transported via train to the Capitol to begin training for The Hunger Games. She’s promised Prim she’ll do everything in her power to return home.

Initiation

Your hero is laser focused, but this is the point at which she faces her first obstacle. She will meet her enemies and be forced to build alliances. She will be tested and challenged.

Can she do it?

What does she learn in this initiation phase?

Example: Katniss meets her competitors for the first time during training and is able to watch them to get a sense of what challenges lie ahead.  

6 — Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Things have shifted in the new world. Danger lies ahead. Alliances are formed, chaos ensues.

Your hero may fail tests she’s confronted with at first, but her transformation begins. She has the ability and knowledge to accomplish her tasks, but will she succeed?

Example: The Hunger Games begin. Tributes die. Katniss fights without water or a weapon. Her allies are Peeta and young Rue (the 12-year-old Tribute from District 11). The strongest players have illegally spent their young lives training for The Hunger Games and loom as her enemies from the start. 

7 — Approach to the Inmost Cave

Your hero approaches danger—often hidden, sometimes more mental than physical. She must face her greatest fears time again and may even be tempted to give up. She has to dig deep to find courage.

Example: Katniss is in the arena, the games underway. There’s no escape. She’s seen death, fears she may be next, and must find water and a weapon to survive. 

8 — The Ordeal

Your hero’s darkest moment and greatest challenge so far, in a fight for her life, she must find a way to endure to the end.

This may or may not be the climax of your story, but it is the climax of the initiation stage.

During this terrible ordeal, the steepest part of her character arc takes place.

Example: Katniss faces dying of thirst (if she’s not killed by another Tribute first) and faces every obstacle imaginable, including the death of Rue, before she finally wins the battle. 

9 — Reward (Seizing the Sword)

Against all odds, your hero survives. She’s defeated her enemies, slain her dragons—she has overcome and won the reward.

Whether her reward is tangible depends on the story. Regardless, your hero has undergone a total inward and outward transformation.

Example: Peeta and Katniss stand alone in the arena, told that because they are from the same district they can both claim the victory—or can they?

Return

10 — The Road Back

As she begins to cross the threshold back into the ordinary world, she learns the battle isn’t finished.

She must face the consequences for her actions during the initiation stage.

She’s about to face her final obstacle.

Example: The Capitol reverses and announces that only one winner will be allowed. 

11 — The Resurrection

During this climax of your story, your hero faces her final, most threatening challenge.

She may even face death one more time.

Example: Katniss and Peeta decide that if they can’t win together, there will be no winner. They decide to call the Capitol’s bluff and threaten to die together. As they are about to eat poison berries, the Capitol is forced to allow two winners. 

12 — Return With the Elixir

Your hero finally crosses the threshold back into her ordinary life, triumphant. Only things aren’t so ordinary anymore.

She’s been changed by her adventure. She brings with her rewards, sometimes tangible items she can share, sometimes insight or wisdom. Regardless, this all impacts her life in ways she never imagined.

Example: Katniss and Peeta return home celebrities. They’re given new homes, plenty of food to share, and assistants who tend to their needs. Katniss learns that her defiance of the Capitol has sparked a revolution in the hearts of residents all across Panem. 

Hero’s Journey Examples

You may recognize The Hero’s Journey in many famous stories, including Greek Mythology and even the Bible. Other examples:

  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Star Wars
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Hobbit
  • Indiana Jones
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pilgrim’s Progress
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Toy Story

Should You Use The Hero’s Journey Story Structure?

Structure is necessary to a story, regardless which you choose. Because the Hero’s Journey serves as a template under which all story structures fall, each bears some variation of it.

For fiction or nonfiction, your story structure determines how effectively you employ drama, intrigue, and tension to grab readers from the start and keep them to the end.

For more on story structure, visit my blog post 7 Story Structures Any Writer Can Use.

jerry-jenkins

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