The Hero's Journey and Story Structure
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
In my first blog, I talked about the six most important things you're going to need if you're going to succeed as an author in today's ruthless publishing world - a world that's more demanding than ever for authors, both aspiring and experienced practitioners of the craft. This is a world where you have to have a great premise for your book (a killer idea) and where the book has to be well designed and beautifully written to capture people's attention. That's the minimum requirement.
When it comes to creating a great product, you need to organize your material in a coherent way. As T.S. Eliot once said of poetry, "organization is necessary as well as inspiration." Most of the writers that come to us at BookLab are strong on inspiration, but weak on organization, so I spend a fair amount of my time coaching them how to present their ideas in the right order and the right way. This organizational competency is one of the skills that all budding authors need to master.
For me, one of the most satisfying of all story structures is the "Hero's Journey", a basic and even archetypal structure for storytelling that involves twelve stages. Since the 1970s, I have been greatly influenced by this ancient, almost mystical, way of telling stories and I've used it in my own writing, whether my own books or one of the many books I've ghostwritten for our clients at BookLab. It is a tool that writers need to have in their utility belts.
Joseph Campbell, an expert in mythology, is the man behind this famous story structure. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he examined and compared myths about heroes from all over the world. He defined a hero as the person who gives their lives to something bigger than themselves. He discovered that the countless stories of heroes can be reduced to one, big story. He called this ‘the monomyth’ and argued that every myth-maker tells a version of this one tale.
Let’s take the story of Simba in The Lion King – one of my all-time favorite animated movies. The Lion King tells the story of a lonely orphan who makes friends with social outcasts. He gets on well with them and enjoys life until the time comes when he must confront an evil enemy who is trying to take over his world. In the end, he defeats the villain and order is restored.
That’s a very simple summary.
But hang on!
Doesn’t this sound familiar?
This is Batman’s story.
It is the story of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Cinderella, Princess Tianna, and Mowgli too.
Why do they sound so similar?
Hollywood consultant Christopher Vogler took Joseph Campbell’s findings and described ‘the hero’s journey.’ In a now legendary memo while working for the Walt Disney Company, Vogler showed that all stories about heroes describe a journey of twelves stages. Here’s a summary of Vogler’s twelve-stage journey. If you want more detail, read his book, The Writer’s Journey.
Stage 1: The Ordinary World. Here our hero is shown living in their regular, mundane world, doing everyday things.
Stage 2: A Call to Adventure. Our hero is presented with a great challenge and embarks on a mission to deal with it.
Stage 3: Refusal of the Call. Our hero initially resists this mission, experiences a frustrating delay, hesitates, or faces outright opposition to it.
Stage 4: Meeting the Mentor: Our hero meets someone with special resources, whose presence motivates them to push on and push through.
Stage 5: Crossing the Threshold. Our hero leaves their regular, ordinary world and crosses over into the special world, committed to bring change.
Stage 6: Tests, Allies and Enemies. Our hero makes new friends and enemies and is presented with moments of inner and outer conflict.
Stage 7: Approach of Innermost Cave. Our hero realizes that the hour of their greatest test is approaching and prepares for the challenge.
Stage 8: The Ordeal. Our hero now enters a dark and demanding place where they must face their greatest fears and undergo a death experience.
Stage 9: The Reward – or, Seizing the Sword. In the midst of this ordeal, our hero finds a treasured resource for their quest, a power or a virtue that will help them to win.
Stage 10: The Road Back. Our hero now begins their journey back to the ordinary world, pursued by the dark powers that they are called to conquer.
Stage 11: Resurrection. Our hero defeats this great shadow at some cost to themselves, but they rise victorious from the ashes of this conflict.
Stage 12: Return with the Elixir. Our hero now has what’s needed to bring life and healing to the ordinary world. That elixir can be a physical object (such as a healing balm) or a spiritual quality (such as love).
When Vogler’s readers saw this, the lights came on. Here was a classic, even ‘archetypal’ pattern of telling stories about heroes. Since then, many Hollywood films have followed this structure. You can see it in films that Vogler himself worked on, such as Aladdin and The Lion King.
If you’re writing a story about a hero, use these twelve stages but do so in a creative way. The structure is a guide not a formula. Furthermore, try to see these twelve stages within a three-act structure.
Here’s how the twelve stages of the hero’s journey fit into the three-act structure.
In Act 1, the hero lives in the ordinary world, receives a call to adventure, experiences some form of refusal of that call, meets a mentor who provides wisdom and encouragement, before crossing the threshold from the ordinary to the special world.
Then in Act 2, the hero experiences various tests, makes allies, confronts enemies, and moves towards a cave (either metaphorical or literal) in which there will be an intense ordeal – one which will involve finding a vital resource hidden in the darkness.
It is at this point that the road back to the ordinary world begins. This road is the point of no return between Act 2 and Act 3 where there is often a death and resurrection, followed by a return to the ordinary world with some form of healing elixir for the world the hero has left.
And don’t forget, you can write the story of your own life using this three-act structure and the hero’s journey. This model can give meaning to parts of your story (i.e. seasons of your life, such as your schooldays), and even to the whole of your life.
So, this story structure is beautifully versatile. You can use it to organize the material for a memoir, biography, autobiography, etc. You can use it for a short story, novella or novel. It works beautifully with both nonfiction and fiction genres.
I wrote at the beginning that this is a ruthless world for authors. Even established authors are finding it tough to get their books published. What hope is there for aspiring authors? This is where the "Hero's Journey" can become not only a Big Story; it can become Your Story.
You have seemingly insurmountable odds as a writer today, and so do I. But we are heroes in the making. We have heard the call to adventure. There may be many tests and some great ordeals. There may be moments when we feel as if the dream has died. But there is no turning back. We have embarked on the journey. We will return from the special world with brand new books under our arms and big smiles on our faces. We will give our writing elixir to this ordinary world.
As Joseph Campbell once said, “You are the hero of your own story.”
So, don't give up!