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Step Four: The Hero’s Journey (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the archetypal Hero’s Journey and how it works as a basic story structure. Here’s a quick refresher:

  1. Ordinary World
    The hero’s everyday life—peaceful yet unfulfilling.
  2. Call to Adventure
    Something disturbs the peace and tells about the story’s central problem.
  3. Refusal of the Call
    The hero can’t or won’t set out to explore the problem.
  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The hero meets someone who tells him about the problem.
  5. Crossing the Threshold
    The hero sets out to explore the problem in such a way that he can’t go back.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
    The hero learns about the problem through firsthand experience.
    (Midpoint goes here!)
  7. Approach
    The hero is no longer passive—action, not reaction.
  8. Ordeal
    The hero faces a difficult situation that tests his resolve.
  9. Reward
    Overcoming the Ordeal grants the hero some form of reward.
  10. The Road Back
    The hero returns to face the problem.
  11. Resurrection Hero
    The hero overcomes the problem.
  12. Return with the Elixir
    The hero is changed by his journey.

(Disclaimer: Before we get any further, this is the part where I put on my really hokey pirate accent and say, ”But they’re more guidelines than actual rules.” I’ve played with this method of outlining so long that my definition of the steps may be a shade different than the original. It works for me, so I apologize for nothing!)

Now, you may look at this and say, “Okay, you’ve shown us this same list how many times now—doesn’t that mean it’s predictable?”

At first glance, twelve simple steps might seem like too little to build a story on, but that’s where your three changes—Public, Personal, Private—come in. Because the absolute brilliance of the Hero’s Journey isn’t that you can use it just as a simple outline—it’s the fact that the Hero’s Journey is the perfect pattern for how a character experiences change.

Interested? Let me rewrite the twelve steps again, with a twist.

  1. Ordinary World
    The character is unfulfilled with their everyday life.
  2. Call to Adventure
    The character becomes aware of some kind of challenge, but they cannot overcome it unless they change.
  3. Refusal of the Call
    The character can’t or won’t explore the change.
  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The character gains secondhand information about what the change entails.
  5. Crossing the Threshold
    The character steps (or is forced) to explore the change.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
    The character gains firsthand information about what the change entails.
  7. Approach
    The character begins to accept the change.
  8. Ordeal
    The character faces some challenge that cements the change.
  9. Reward
    Accepting the change grants the character some form of reward.
  10. The Road Back
    The character returns to face the original challenge.
  11. Resurrection Hero
    The character overcomes the challenge due to the change.
  12. Return with the Elixir
    The character experiences their ordinary world from a changed perspective.

I know you guys are sick to the back teeth of seeing Avatar as an example, but we’ve come this far, so I’m going to use it at least one more time.

Remember our three changes?

 Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans
 Jake: human → Na’vi
 Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na’vi

The cool part? Each one of these changes follows the twelve steps of change.

(Here’s where I whip out my handy-dandy Table O’ Plots for easier visualization.)

Table O’ Plots

Colonized → Freed
Human → Na’vi
Loyal to humans → Loyal to Na’vi
 Ordinary World Jake sees the human colony on Pandora, sees signs of conflict with Na’vi. Jake is a paraplegic human soldier. Jake is a loyal soldier.
 Call to Adventure Jake is lost in the forest, separated from humans.  Jake tries out his avatar body; joyous moment. Jake meets Neytiri (1st Na’vi encounter).
 Refusal of the Call Jake vs. Pandora (fighting/killing animals, trampling plants–violence, not harmony).  Quaritch tells Jake to spy in exchange for “getting his (human) legs back.” Neytiri almost kills Jake, wants nothing to do with him.
 Meeting the Mentor*
  • Quaritch
  • Grace
  • Neytiri
 Crossing the Threshold Jake agrees to learn the Na’vi way of life.  “
 Tests, Allies, Enemies Jake explores Na’vi life while spying for humans.  “
 Approach Jake/Neytiri romance. / Jake is loyal to the Na’vi.
 Ordeal  Hometree destroyed.  Jake outcast from the Na’vi. Jake’s initiation trial (riding a Banshee).
 Reward Jake becomes Toruk Makto to lead the Na’vi.  Jake gains Toruk.  Jake initiated into the tribe.
 The Road Back Na’vi prepare for war.  Jake returns to the Na’vi.  (N/A)
 Resurrection Hero Na’vi defeat humans. / Neytiri defeats Quaritch.  Jake leads the Na’vi to war.  Jake attacks a bulldozer to save a Na’vi sacred grove.
 Return with the Elixir  Pandora freed.  Jake is fully Na’vi.  Jake fully loyal to Na’vi.

(I know it’s a lot to look over. Take your time. There’s no quiz.)

There are several points where all three plotlines overlap. That’s okay! That just means that there are areas of the story pulling double- or triple- duty. It’s also a handy way to keep an eye out for key areas of your plot (more on that later).

Also, note that each plot point can either be a single scene or something demonstrated through multiple scenes. For example, Tests, Allies, Enemies has multiple scenes depicting Jake learning the Na’vi way of life (thought it’s mostly shown montage style).

The twelve step pattern holds true for your subplots as well! The Jake+Neytiri romance subplot hits most if not all of the steps (though I won’t subject you to another chart unless it’s something people want to see).

(Some lesser subplots may only have a few of the points. The Jake+Tsu’tey friendship plot doesn’t really fill all twelve steps, but it still has a definite beginning-middle-end.)

It’s really important at this juncture to choose your main subplots** and only your main subplots for this part of the process—you could do twelve steps for an infinite number of things and wind up with an outline longer than War and Peace. We’re looking for the high points here.

When you take all of these plot points and organize them along a timeline, you get a much more thorough (though not quite complete) outline. We’ll get into that later. For now:


  1. Decide on your main three plots/changes as well as any subplots you want to work on.
  2. For each plot, create a twelve steps outline that shows how the plot changes from Beginning → End. You can do a chart like the one above, or you can do them as separate lists. Dealer’s choice!
    (Also, you’re allowed to be vague! No one has everything figured out in the outlining stage. You may get a clearer idea of what’s going on in your story when we get to Step Five: Tentpoles.)

I’ll see you guys this Friday for the Weekly Writing Wrap Up. See you then!


* “Meeting the Mentor” can encompass multiple characters at multiple points through the narrative. I call it a floating plot point since it can land just about anywhere. The key is that your character gains secondhand information from some kind of source. The mentor could even be a book!

**I typically have my three main changes (private, personal, public) and up to three subplots. The subplots are usually relationships—a developing friendship or romance, a friendship that decays into hatred, strangers into family (personal favorite). Getting into more plots than that means that you’re looking at a lot (A LOT) of plot points, and that can be overwhelming. For now, stick with the important ones!


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