To most writers, the words ‘Hero’s Journey’ conjure up images of sword and sorcery, magic and grand armies, kingdoms at war, and the standard Orphan Farmboy of Mysterious Lineage Bound by Prophecy to Become the Chosen One and Save the Kingdom.
If you’re one of those people fascinated with how stories work, you might know the steps, from the Ordinary World all the way through Return with the Elixir. You may even have read the work that codified the term, Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. You may recognize the pattern in many popular novels or movies (Star Wars, anyone?).
The Hero’s Journey is a storytelling archetype that has been proven to appeal to audiences. Even though most people assume it’s applicable only to adventure or fantasy stories, the ones featuring Good vs. Evil and grand battles to decide the Fate of the World… it’s really so much better than that.
We’ll get into why I love the Hero’s Journey for outlining in Part 2, but for now, let’s have an introduction to the twelve steps.
This is your starting point. It seems simple enough. What are things like when the curtain opens on your stage? What is your main character’s life like before everything goes rump-over-teakettle into adventure?
More importantly, what’s wrong with it?
Because that’s the entire point, the core of your story. Something is wrong and must be fixed.
Maybe your character doesn’t fit in (Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon). Maybe he’s got a rotten personality that’s just screaming for some intensive therapy (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). Maybe there’s a problem in the Ordinary World that he can see but not yet understand (Jake Sully in Avatar). The Ordinary World is where you show your character in his normal habitat and introduce us to the main parts of your story: character, setting, and plot.
The Ordinary World is your leaping-off point before things begin to change.
Call to Adventure
Something is different. This is where you introduce the beginning of the change that will come to your hero’s world (and your hero’s personality). It can be something as innocuous as a strange letter arriving in the mail (a la Harry Potter), as amazing as finding a hidden world inside a wardrobe (Narnia), or as world shaking as being attacked, wounded, and taken prisoner by a terrorist cell (Iron Man). The main thing is that it’s something different, something out of the ordinary, and something that hints at the changes that are to come.
Refusal of the Call
Nobody likes change. Whatever form your Call to Adventure takes, your hero wants nothing to do with it. Or rather, your cast wants nothing to do with it.
Harry Potter is happy enough to trot off to Hogwarts and learn magic (Who wouldn’t be?), but first Vernon Dursley spends days fighting against the growing tide of Hogwarts letters and running away from the ‘freakishness’. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund denies Narnia’s existence, making Peter and Susan believe that Lucy was telling tales. The point is, whatever form your Refusal takes, there is something that prevents your character (or ensemble) from diving headlong into the plot. This creates that magic known as conflict – either your character’s inner conflict as he resists the change or the conflict as he fights against whatever holds him back from the new world awaiting him.
Meeting the Mentor
The term ‘mentor’ has been bandied about until it now conjures up the image of a bearded man, spouting wisdom to wide-eyed youths as they set take their first steps into adventure: Gandalf and Bilbo, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke, Hagrid and Harry Po—Wait, not Dumbledore?
No, in this case, we’re talking about a Mentor as a point in your plot, not as the archetypal Mentor character (which Dumbledore certainly is).
Meeting the Mentor is when your character receives information about the upcoming Change or the New World from an outside source. The Mentor can color your character’s perceptions, sometimes for better or worse. Think of Hagrid, taking Harry on his first foray into the Wizarding World, telling him about You-Know-Who, and warning Harry about the dark depths of Slytherin house. How differently might the books have turned out if Hagrid had let Harry form his own opinions of the houses?
The Mentor gives your character the sitch, the sit-rep, New-Worlds-for-Newbies-101. He explains things that your character could not easily learn on his own and helps your character orient themselves in relation to the New World. (He’s also a sneaky way to “tell, not show” in your story, especially for those pesky elements that are going to be deucedly hard to explain without some form of outside help.)
There can also be more than one Mentor. In Avatar, Jake Sully learns about Pandora from the Na’vi-sympathetic Dr. Augustine as well as from the ruthless human general. Each has a Mentor position, but Jake has to explore the New World and make his own judgements… which is the whole point of the journey, after all.
Crossing the First Threshold
The First Threshold is a very special place in the narrative that has two key characteristics. 1) Your character moves decisively into the New World. 2) Your character does so in such a way that it is impossible for things to go back to the way they were.
All four Pevensie children enter Narnia through the wardrobe. There’s no denying Lucy was telling the truth any longer. Moreover, they learn of Mr. Tumnus’ abduction and the White Witch’s evil reign… and Edmund abandons his siblings to go to the White Witch. There’s no going back, not until they rescue Edmund.
In Iron Man, Tony Stark sees that the terrorists are using Stark weapons, and he takes the first steps to fight back: creating the first miniaturized arc reactor and installing it in his chest, forging the Mark I armor, and fighting his way out. Yinsen, his Mentor, dies in the attempt, and if Tony fails, the terrorists will kill him as well. It’s do-or-die, and it’s Tony’s first steps to take responsibility for his company.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Your character is in the New World. This is the section often known as the dreaded Second Act, the long, bland no-man’s land that so many authors dread.
Your character received second-hand information of the New World from the Mentor. Now he gets to explore it for himself.
This is Harry in his classes at Hogwarts, unravelling the mystery around the forbidden corridor. This is Jake Sully, learning the ways of the Na’vi. This is Luke, exploring the Force. The key is that your character explores and, most importantly, learns the skill or knowledge that will help him overcome the final problem of the novel.
Why does this seem so insurmountable? For me, it usually falls into one of two categories: loss of momentum or possibility paralysis.
You’ve spent a quarter to a third of your book propelling your character out of his rut in the status quo and giving him a good, solid boot in the butt to get him over that first threshold… and now what? The momentum just peters out. This is where you need to introduce a new conflict, stat, or else risk losing your readers’ interest in the lull.
With possibility paralysis, you have too many options open to your character. You need to add direction – a desire, a pursuer, anything to get your character up and moving again.
In either case, this is where it is handy to have a good grasp on the main problem of your story and on your desired ending. When things get muddled, knowing exactly where you’re aiming to end acts like a beacon in the darkness, helping to point you in the right direction.
BONUS STEP: Midpoint
In Write Your Novel from the Middle, James Scott Bells extolls the virtues of the Midpoint at length. I love it because it is one of the best signposts for story structure. I’ll go into more detail about it when we get to the discussion about acts and tentpoles, but for now, suffice to say that the midpoint is where your character flips from passive to active.
This is the latter half of the learning process. This is when your character has learned enough about the New World that he can form his own opinion and, more importantly, change his approach to the problem.
Jake Sully realizes that he values Neytiri and the Na’vi over his place with the humans. Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn that Fluffy is guarding the Philosopher’s Stone and that it’s in danger. More than that, when they approach McGonagall to warn her, they are rebuffed, and they choose to take matters into their own hands in order to protect the stone. Tony Stark builds the Iron Man armor and sets out on his journey to reclaim control of his life and his company.
Your character has begun to change, but he’s not quite there yet.
The Ordeal is what cements the change in your character. It’s a situation where the only way for your character to emerge is by accepting the change and accepting what it means.
Sometimes the Ordeal is part of the final showdown or the last problem, like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the Ordeal consists of Harry, Hermione, and Ron working their way through the puzzles protecting the Philosopher’s Stone. Each of them has to use their strengths and skills they have learned in school in order to get through: Harry’s quidditch skills, Ron’s chess skills, and Hermione’s problem solving skills. This leads directly into Harry’s solitary confrontation with Quirrell.
Other times, the Ordeal takes place well before the final problem, such as in Avatar (again, sorry). The Ordeal in Avatar is fairly long: the attack on Hometree, Jake’s repudiation by Neytiri, the scientists’ imprisonment and their subsequent escape, Dr. Augustine’s injury – all culminating in Jake’s desperate effort to ride Toruk to win his way back into the Na’vi.
The Ordeal forces your character to choose sides, to pick which path they will take. You might consider it like the refiner’s fire, burning away the last bits of their old doubts, leaving them certain as to what they have to do.
The Reward varies greatly. After the Ordeal, your character will have a payoff of some sort. That payoff may be purely mental, the quiet assurance that they are doing the right thing or the stone-cold determination to keep on fighting until they win. Usually, there is something physical – either a symbol of the mental change or some sort of talisman that will aid him on his quest.
Harry Potter receives a talisman, the potion that will let him go forward and confront Quirrell. Jake Sully receives Toruk and regains his place among the Na’vi to lead them to war.
Susan and Lucy, after the Ordeal of witnessing Aslan’s sacrifice and waiting beside his body through that long night, find Aslan returned to life. More than that, they ride him to the White Witch’s castle where they help Aslan free all the poor unfortunates that the Witch had turned to stone. Their reward is both Aslan and an army with which they can turn the tide of the final battle and save their brothers.
The Road Back
The Road Back can be long or short, depending upon how close together your Ordeal and final confrontation are. It’s a relatively straightforward section of the story featuring the final preparations for the final confrontation. It’s the short breath of calm before the storm.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Road Back is the brief moment where Harry steps past the final barrier of fire, leaving his friends behind, to confront Voldemort alone. In Avatar, the Road Back is the period of time between Jake returning to the Na’vi as Toruk Makto and the final confrontation with the soldiers.
Note that while the time in the story world varies widely (short minutes for Harry Potter and long days for Jake), the time for the audience is short in both examples. Your hero has changed and matured to face the final challenge. There are no more discoveries to be made, and excitement is running high — don’t let the Road Back turn into another detour.
It’s the final confrontation. The boss battle. The armies are locked in combat, and the hero’s companions have faced off with their own adversaries. Everything rides on the outcome… and it all comes down to your hero.
No matter how big the army or how skilled the companions, there comes a point where the conflict hinges on the actions of your hero. Harry versus Voldemort for the possession of the Philosopher’s Stone. If Harry fails, not only will he die but Voldemort will return to power and dominate the Wizarding World. There is no one else who can save the day. Moreover, Harry is uniquely able to do so, using the protection left by his mother’s sacrifice in order to defeat Voldemort.
Resurrection Hero, like most of the other steps, can be subverted. In Avatar, Jake does fight face-to-face with the human general, using all the skills that he has learned over the course of his Change, but Jake loses. Neytiri takes up the fight and is the true victor, avenging the wrongs done to her people.
The important part is that the large battle and the large stakes ultimately be decided by the actions of one (or a few). The more you can sharpen your focus, the better. Zoom in on your final battle, less characters and less time, until you can pinpoint the exact place and moment that the battle is ultimately decided.
Return with the Elixir
The battle is over. Your hero has won the day (or lost, or won and lost for a nice bittersweet ending), and now it’s back to life as usual, aka the Ordinary World.
Yep. Right back where we started.
Sometimes literally. The Pevensies return from Narnia to resume their lives as schoolchildren, but all of them have changed inwardly. They’ve learned about adventure and responsibility and loss. Their Elixir is that new maturity, though their world remains the same.
Sometimes it’s back to the original Ordinary World, but that world has changed. At the end of How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s world changes. The viking accept the dragons into their lives, creating a new Berk, one that accepts Hiccup just as he is.
And sometimes your hero returns to an ordinary life on a new world completely. Jake Sully joins the Na’vi permanently, transfering his consciousness to his avatar body to begin a new life.
The point is, something — perhaps many things — has changed for the better, be it within your character or all around him. Here at the end, you can leave your hero safely in his changed life, until you’re ready for him to set out on his next Hero’s Journey.
Take some time and think about your concept and how your plot may line up with some of these steps. Don’t worry about creating a step-by-step outline. Just let the ideas begin to simmer.
Next time, we’ll discuss where the Hero’s Journey gets really interesting, and I’ll show you exactly how I use it for my outlines. That’s where the fun begins.
I’ll see you next time!