Today I’m sharing a tool that can help you craft your story, regardless of what stage you’re in (planning, plotting, writing, editing). I’d like to say it’s my best-kept secret for writing successful fiction, but that would be a lie. The “secret” is a basic pattern found over centuries in narratives around the world: The Hero’s Journey. It’s a structure so fundamental to fiction, it was embedded in my subconscious before I can remember —back when my dad told me bedtime stories before I could read— and cemented by the tales I grew up on: The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, The Lion King, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games. (Okay, you caught me — I was already grown up for Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.)
When I started crafting my own stories as a kid, I followed the hero’s journey pattern without any conscious idea that’s what I was doing. Much later I became aware of it as a classic story-telling structure through Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) when I was in college (NOT in 1949). I found it a fascinating way to look at stories, but I wasn’t yet pursuing writing as a career, so it slipped into the recesses of my memory. Years later when I began writing fiction in earnest, I was reintroduced to it by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey where he explains the structure in a clear, concise manner I find totally accessible (and a whole lot less academic than Campbell’s work) as well as totally applicable to my own storytelling process.
Once I read Vogler’s book I began to see the hero’s journey everywhere: The Little Mermaid, The Notebook, Outlander, The Matrix, Die Hard, Mission Impossible, The Golden Compass. At first my family hated when I’d blurt out during a movie, “That’s the Call to Adventure.” But now they’ve joined in the fun, shouting “Look, she’s “Crossing the First Threshold,” or “he’s Approaching the Inmost Cave” almost as often as I do.
I think a lot of writers reject using a structure like the hero’s journey on the basis that it’s formulaic or derivative, and I can relate to that. But the hero’s journey structure is as pervasive and successful as it is because it resonates in some profound way with the human psyche, and I think we as writers can learn a lot from it whether we choose to follow it in our own writing or not. Know “the rules” (or the structure or the formula) and then use them or break them, it’s up to you.
The hero’s journey breaks down nicely into the “three act structure” commonly used in popular fiction. Here are the basic components of the journey laid out in that three act structure. Note that not every story with a hero’s journey structure includes each of these elements or follows them in this exact order.
The Ordinary World (shows the hero in his/her regular life, whatever that “normal” may be)
The Call to Adventure (hero has opportunity to enter a new/special/different world)
The Refusal of the Call (hero turns his/her back on the adventure and returns to the ordinary world)
The Mentor (hero gains knowledge/supplies/confidence)
Crossing the First Threshold (hero commits to the adventure; enters the special world)
Tests, Allies, Enemies (show the hero the new/different rules of special world)
Approach the Inmost Cave (hero prepares for the ordeal)
The Ordeal (the crisis not the climax; this shows the reality of death; hero comes out changed/reborn)
Seize Sword of Victory/Reward (momentary celebration)
The Road Back (the rest of the journey; recommit to the goal)
The Resurrection (climax; last and most dangerous meet with death)
Return with Elixir (denouement–hero returns to ordinary world with something to change it, or starts new life/adventure as a changed person)
There are a ton of resources where you can learn more about each of the components of the hero’s journey and how they fit together, but you don’t have a spend a whole lot of time on it. A basic understanding of the mythic structure and archetypes can help you outline your plot, identify hurdles and turning points, and give you options when you’re stuck, stalled, or in the doldrums. You can use it to determine what “should” happen in your story, then decide if you’ll follow the classic journey or depart from it in a conscious, purposeful way.