by Chris Mandeville
Welcome to “Tools for Writers,” a new semi-regular feature of Kobo Writing Life. I begin this series by sharing a tool that can help in any stage of fiction writing. I’d like to say it’s my best-kept writing secret, but that would be a lie. The “secret” is a basic pattern found over centuries in narratives around the world that’s come to be known as “The Hero’s Journey.” It’s a structure so fundamental to fiction, it was embedded in my subconscious before I could read, when my dad told me bedtime stories. This structure was then cemented by the books I grew up on: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, 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 this same “monomyth” pattern without any conscious idea that’s what I was doing. 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 The Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey where he explains the structure in a clear, concise manner that I find much more accessible than Campbell’s work. Vogler’s approach is particularly useful to me as a fiction writer because it’s written for fiction writers. Plus there are tons of examples from movies —great movies you’ve seen or should see— that illustrate the stages of The Hero’s Journey, making the structure easier to understand, and fun, too.
The Hero’s Journey breaks down nicely into the “three act structure” commonly used in popular fiction. Below are the basic components of the journey as I understand them, laid out in that three act structure. Note that a story can be a “hero’s journey” without including every component or following them in the exact order below. Also note that not every story is a “hero’s journey.”
The Ordinary World (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 refuses the adventure and returns to 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 (hero learns 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; hero recommits 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)
Once I understood the basics of The Hero’s Journey, I started seeing it in movies and novels everywhere: Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, Outlander, The Matrix, Die Hard, The Notebook, The Golden Compass, Mission Impossible. At first my family hated when I’d disrupt a movie yelling, “That’s the Approach to the Inmost Cave!” But now everyone joins in, blurting out, “Look, she’s Crossing the First Threshold,” or “That’s the Call to Adventure,” almost as often as I do. (This behavior often meets with disapproval when we’re in a public theater, but your mileage may vary.)
I think some writers may reject employing a classic story structure on the basis that it’s formulaic or derivative, so it’s important to note that I’m not suggesting we follow The Hero’s Journey like a recipe. Instead, I’m suggesting that by studying story structure, we can broaden and deepen our understanding of story. Given the pervasiveness and success of hero’s journey stories in popular culture, I’d venture to say this structure resonates in some profound way with the human psyche. Given that we want our stories to resonate that way, too, shouldn’t we at least check it out? Know “the rules” (or the structure or the formula) and then use them or break them, it’s up to you.
I’ve used The Hero’s Journey in every stage of writing. When brainstorming a new story, I use it to help lay out the plot. After outlining, I use it to identify elements I left out but might want to include. When I’m in the throes of a first draft and get stumped by what happens next, I consult it for options. When I’m revising and the story isn’t holding together, I step back and look at the big picture, comparing my plot structure to that of The Hero’s Journey. In all these instances, The Hero’s Journey story structure gives me a fresh vantage point from which to view —and improve— my work.
There are tons of resources where you can learn more about The Hero’s Journey (and The Heroine’s Journey, too). You could spend a whole lot of time studying it (believe me!) but you don’t have to. 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.
Will you accept this mission, to use The Hero’s Journey as a tool in your fiction writing? Decide quickly because this message will self-destruct in . . . no, wait. It’s on the Internet. It will be here forever. So bookmark it and come back as often as you like! After all, this is my story and I don’t have to end it with the expected self-destructing message if I don’t want to.
Chris Mandeville is the author of 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and is author of the forthcoming Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure. She served for more than ten years on Pikes Peak Writers’ Board of Directors, five of those years as president, and remains an active volunteer in the nonprofit sector helping writers, military families, and service dogs. For information about her books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, see www.chrismandeville.com.