Using The Hero’s Journey To Organize Your Writing

By on December 11, 2015
Using the Hero's Journey To Organize Your Writing - Writer's Life.org

Hello and welcome back to Writer’s Life! Today, we’ll be looking at using the Hero’s Journey to organize your writing. The Hero’s Journey is a plotting device adapted from Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was later modified by Christopher Vogler in his 2007 book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. It is a similar plotting tool to the nine-cube system I discussed in my last post, but is a little more detailed and has a few more parts. As with nine-cube or any other plotting system, this is a tool for a writer to structure his or her writing. Like any tool, it is not always appropriate or necessary! The idea behind any plotting strategy is to give you a starting framework on which to hang the first draft of your work.

The steps in the Hero’s Journey follow the arc of the Major Character’s (MC) events in the story and marks both the adventure itself as well as the MC’s internal struggles and change over the course of the story. The first step is the Ordinary World (which is not just a Duran Duran song!), the world the MC inhabits every day. In this step, give the reader an idea about the MC’s every day, normal life. This does not have to be a huge step, sometimes a paragraph or two is all that is needed to establish 1) who they are, and 2) their normal environs.

Next, the hero hears the Call to Adventure. Something happens in the MC’s life that inspires him or her to action. Like the Ordinary World, this can be brief, a sentence or a paragraph, or a few paragraphs.

Once catalyzed, the hero doesn’t respond: she or he Refuses the Call. Something happens, but the MC chooses not to follow up on it or is prevented from doing so.

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Refusing the call, the MC normally would disappear and there would be no story. But because there is a story, something or someone has to provide the MC with a reason to continue. Perhaps the MC Refused the Call because they fear what it will mean to their personal or family safety, and someone has to cajole her or him into acting. The MC may lack critical information about the danger they face by Refusing, or they need special equipment or training to carry on. They meet The Mentor! The Mentor may be a person who teaches the MC about the danger of their lack of action or provides them with tools, training, or information necessary for the MC to change his or her mind.

Thus armed, literally or figuratively, the MC Crosses the First Threshold. She or he has decided they must act on the events of the Call, and does so by taking their first steps toward that goal.

Along the way toward that goal, he or she comes across Tests, Allies, (and/or) Enemies. In this stage, the MC will start to encounter people, events, places, or actions testing the power of the MC’s will, helping her or him along the way, or actively acting to discourage or defeat the MC. This stage sometimes continues for a good portion of the rest of the story, with multiple Tests, Allies, Enemies appearing and disappearing throughout.

While dealing with the Tests, Allies, Enemies, the MC comes across the Approach to the Innermost Cave. Sometimes, this is referred to as the Point of No Return. This is a threshold that, once crossed, the MC cannot cross back over. The “Innermost Cave” can be an actual place—a location where the MC must go, in order to deal with the Call—or it can be a mental or emotional “cave,” a place where the inner self must go to proceed. During the Approach to the Innermost Cave, she or he must do some final preparation to be really ready to face the monumental challenge that comes next.

Once the Innermost Cave threshold is breached, the MC has the Supreme Ordeal: the most taxing experience of the story so far. He or she is tested to the limit, and must use all the preparation and experience so far gained to overcome this Ordeal. It might be a physical confrontation, or it could be emotional or psychological. Whatever it is, it should be the major, most epic part of the story.

Succeeding over the Ordeal, the MC gains the Reward. This can take a myriad of forms: a physical object, a personal transformation, even a spiritual renewal. No matter what the actual Reward, it permanently changes him or her.

However, despite overcoming the Ordeal and gaining the Reward, the character must now try to return to their previous life—even if it is forever different—on The Road Back. Here, the character is not quite done with the adventure. She or he may need to have another Mentor-like experience to move in the right direction again.

While on The Road Back, the MC has one final climactic encounter, one that threatens to kill him or her, or destroy everything they’ve been trying to save/create/protect. This encounter not only affects the MC, but also involves others—perhaps the character’s family or other loved ones, or the town or society they are protecting—and so the stakes are much higher than in the Ordeal. Failure is not an option, the character must win lest others suffer, and greatly so. In completing this encounter successfully, the character experiences a Resurrection. It may be literal, but it can also be metaphorical. The character’s transformation is complete.

Now, finally, the MC can go back. They Return with the Elixir, and to their previous life though they are forever changed as a result of the experience. The “elixir” might be a physical object, returning a sacred item to its rightful owner, for example, or it could be metaphorical. Whatever it is, it resolves the crisis and proves the correctness in the MC being the person for the job.

Sometimes, setting up your writing project using a plot framework like the Hero’s Journey can seem almost like cheating. “Won’t it lead to formulaic stories?” you might ask. Well, it can, but so can writing without a plot framework. Think of it like a recipe. If you bake a cake, you follow a recipe. The first time you bake it, you follow all of the instructions to the letter, and change nothing. If you do, your cake should turn out just fine, and taste great, even though you followed a formula to create it. The next time you bake a cake, you have a better understanding of the process, and can think about making adjustments. The same thing works for plotting when you write. If you write your first draft strictly according to a template, it will contain the elements of a good story, but it may read like a formula. So in the revision process, you can now change up some of the elements, move parts around, and expand or contract other parts. Once the framework is in place, it will be easier to see the changes you might want to make in order to make it your story, not a generic Hero’s Journey.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed learning about using the Hero’s Journey to organize your writing or one of the other plot frameworks that exist. As always, leave comments and questions below!

About Bacil Donovan Warren

Bacil Donovan Warren is the author of Hooray for Pain!, and lives in Tucson, AZ.

5 Comments

  1. Jeff

    January 3, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    I think this is a fantastic post, and it any raider can benefit from reading and understanding Joseph Campbell. In terms of the fear of the area formulaic novel, I think the difference isn’t in the elements of a story, but how the author tells it. The more interesting your characters are, the less formulaic your novel becomes.

    • Bacil Donovan Warren

      January 3, 2016 at 9:19 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Jeff! I agree, the formula aspect of it is important because it provides structure, but it’s up to the writer to make their story different.

  2. Gavin

    January 3, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    As Jeff points out above, this is a great summation of the elements of The Hero’s Journey. What’s that, you say? You’re NOT writing another Lord of the Rings? These elements can be applied to any story, even the basic girl meets boy romance. Every story (any one worth telling) has at least one main character who has to overcome some obstacle, be it internal or external. I feel this formula is more straightforward than the 9-cube previously discussed and better adapts to not just novels but short stories as well. It is up to the writer as to how simple or complex the tale needs to be. Yes, I said needs. Over-complication risks confusion.

    • Bacil Donovan Warren

      January 3, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      Gavin, I’m happy you enjoyed the article as well! Your point is well-taken, that the writer has a lot more control than might be evident from the outside.

  3. Ohita Afeisume

    August 20, 2016 at 6:47 am

    Thanks, Bacil for this informative piece.

    I particularly liked the imagery of baking a cake which you used.

    Indeed a frame work is always helpful, As you suggested, in the first draft one can follow the template religiously. Thereafter, during revision time one can play around in the creative process. One thing I love about writing is the freedom for self expression that it gives one. Our own individual experiences, taste, style and peculiarities would make all the difference.

    I remember our school days. Even though the teacher assigned the exact same essay to the entire class of thirty-five or more students, we all managed to write our own story. No two people’s essays were exactly the same. So there ‘s no need to bother about the issue of things being formulaic.

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