Are you having a hard time structuring your hero’s journey? You’re not alone.
Getting your novel’s structure down is probably one of the trickiest things to master, and it’s vital to making sure your pacing is correct. Basically, if your structure is strange, everything else is going to suffer for it. Those epic character moments might not land, or the plot might feel like it moves too quickly. This is especially important in structuring for the hero’s journey.
But don’t worry! There are plenty of existing ways we’ve been structuring stories since the very beginning of novel-writing itself. In fact, some would argue there’s one key way that most of our stories are structured.
That’s what we’re here to talk about today.
You may have heard of the Hero’s Journey already, either in writing classes or in conversations about film. It’s a popular story structure, and it’s one that almost any book can fit into.
If you’re looking for some extra help getting your book structured check out this guide also. If you’re just looking to learn a little more about how the Hero Journey works, we’re here to break it down and show you how to apply it to your book!
So, first off…
What is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a storytelling structure that breaks stories down to their core elements. In its most basic form, the Hero’s Journey breaks stories down into three parts: the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return. These stages describe a character existing in their current world, the action which causes them to leave it, and how they’ve changed when they come back home.
The Hero’s Journey was originally outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In this book, Campbell argues that all books and all heroes follow the same basic plot points. He also outlines a story structure that aims to categorize every story into a series of plot beats. These plot beats make up the Hero’s Journey.
For the sake of this article, we’ll just be covering the core elements: the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return. But the entire Hero’s Journey structure actually contains about 17 total story beats.
It’s important to note that Campbell doesn’t require stories to follow each of these 17 beats. Also worth noting, it’s important that these beats happen exactly in order. Instead, these are just a list of things that tend to happen in each story. A writer can use this to their advantage by arranging them in the order that’s best for their story!
Now that we know what the Hero’s Journey is, let’s take a look at those individual parts. The Departure, the Initiation, and the Return, and how we can use those points to add structure to our stories.
Hero’s Journey Parts
Every story starts with the main character living in their ordinary world. In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo starts out living his ordinary life in the Shire. We get a sense of who Frodo is, who the hobbits are, and what the Shire is like. In this stage, we’re just getting to know the characters.
It’s important to establish a starting point for your world and characters. This doesn’t have to be too long. In fact, it’s best to keep it brief so that we can get into the action as soon as possible. But to appreciate a character’s growth, we need a sense of where they started out.
Here are a few things to ask yourself when you’re setting up your story:
- What kind of person is your character? What are their flaws?
- Where do they live? Do they like where they live? Why or why not?
- What does your character want, and why can’t they have it?
Asking yourself these questions will help you clearly establish your character and world so you’re ready to move on to the next part of the Departure, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Departure also includes a call to action, where someone comes along and convinces the main character to leave their established setting.
In the Lord of the Rings, it’s Gandalf who comes along and convinces Frodo to leave the Shire. This takes Frodo out of his established setting and propels him into a journey, which makes up the plot of the rest of the series.
What’s the inciting incident that causes your character to leave their world and venture into a new setting?
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that they leave their hometown–this is just where the plot starts, and we leave the established ‘normal’ behind. In a romance novel, this is where the character meets their love interest, for example. After the meet-cute, things are never the same for the main character, and the plot has formally begun.
After the Departure, it’s time for the Initiation.
The Initiation stage is the stage where the hero, now removed from his regular world, is thrown into the new world and has to learn the ropes. In a romance novel, this is where the characters fall in love with each other. Lord of the Rings, the Initiation stage takes up a vast majority of the series, following Frodo through Middle Earth and taking the reader with him. In Harry Potter, this part starts when Harry gets to Diagon Alley, and both the reader and Harry Potter see the wizarding world for the first time.
The term ‘Initiation’ implies that this stage just includes that first exposure, but in fact, most of your plot will take place here. In Campbell’s full Hero’s Journey structure, this stage includes:
The Road of Trials
the stage where a hero must navigate a set of challenges or problems in pursuit of their goal, or along their journey
The Meeting with the Goddess
the stage where a hero runs into someone who gives him a special token, knowledge, weapons, or items to help them along their journey
Woman as the Temptress
the stage where a hero is tempted to abandon their quest. Campbell describes this stage as a woman seducing the male hero from their quest, but this temptation doesn’t have to be seductive–maybe the hero is faced with homesickness, or they’re offered an easy out instead of having to face more suffering.
Atonement with the Abyss
at this stage, the hero must confront the core of the conflict. In Star Wars, this is the final showdown with Darth Vader, where Luke learns the truth about his lineage. Lord of the Rings, this is when Frodo finally gets to Mordor and has to get the ring into the fire. Must romances, this would be the darkest hour where a characters experience some conflict that threatens their relationship.
this is where the hero overcomes the Abyss, and their takeaway helps them fight in the final conflict. This might be quick–in Star Wars, Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father and converts him to the light side in one sequence. In a romance like Pride and Prejudice, this is where Elizabeth learns that Darcy has actually been helping Lizzy’s family behind the scenes and saving their family from dishonor, all out of love for her.
The Ultimate Boon
this is the climax of the story! The character finally defeats the villain, conquers their fears, and unlocks key information about themselves in the process. This is where the Death Star explodes, where Sauron falls, and where Darcy and Elizabeth finally confess their feelings to one another.
Again, we don’t need to include each of those story beats in our own work, nor do we need to have them in that order. Maybe a character is tempted away from the plot before facing a set of trials, and maybe the character is never tempted away from the plot at all.
The thing all of these beats have in common, and the overall takeaway from this section, is that the Initiation is where the hero is plunged into the new, unfamiliar world, and must learn to navigate that world and rise to its challenges (or fail!).
Keep these things in mind when you’re writing this stage:
- What sorts of challenges does this new world bring to our character? Are those challenges exacerbated by the hero’s character flaws?
- How will the hero overcome these challenges, or will they?
- How Could the hero grow from these challenges, and how will that growth impact the way they face future problems?
- Will the character be changed forever by the Ultimate Boon? This is the climax of your novel and the place where all the character’s experience and trials culminate, so it should have a big impact on them as a person which builds on how they started out.
Phew! The hero has gone on the adventure of a lifetime. The Death Star is in pieces, Sauron is defeated, and Elizabeth and Darcy are in love. Now what?
Novels have to have a resolution. We’ve seen the character in the place they started, and we’ve watched them grow throughout the Initiation. Now, there’s been a status quo change, and the world of the story has shifted to a new normal. The hero will never be the same, and it’s important to show what this new normal looks like to really let the impact of this story sink in for the reader.
The most literal version of this is to have your hero return to their starting point. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo returns to the Shire, but his experiences have changed and harrowed him so much that he can no longer fit in there. This leaves an impact on the reader because we saw Frodo at the start, and we know how he used to fit in and love the Shire.
But you might not have a character literally return to the exact place they started. Elizabeth moves in with Darcy, since she marries him, and we see her in her new, happily married life, which is much more extravagant than the one we started out in.
What if my character fails?
Your story doesn’t have to follow all of these beats, and these beats can take on different forms. What if your character comes to the Ultimate Boon and fails? What if they can’t return home, or what if they don’t want to?
That’s fine! The important thing is that, after the climax of your novel, you describe where the characters are now, and how they’re changed from the start. If they fail, where does that leave them?
A few things to ask yourself while you’re writing the Return:
- How does my character make it out of the Ultimate Boon? Maybe they were injured or in a jam–Campbell describes ‘Rescue From Without,’ where characters need a little extra assistance in getting back to their original life. Think of the eagles from Lord of the Rings.
- How does my character fit into their original setting now that they’ve changed? It might be that they don’t anymore, and like Frodo, they have to leave forever. Or it might be that they love it, like Elizabeth Bennet.
- What image do I want to leave the reader with? Our last look at the hero and how the hero has ended up is going to leave a big impact on the reader, and often will be the main takeaway. If the hero is harrowed and sick, that leaves a very different impression than if the hero is happy and celebrating.
And that’s really all there is to it!
To sum it all up: the Hero’s Journey follows a hero from their regular life, watches them grow and develop as they meet the challenges of the new and exciting world they’ve been plunged into, and sees how they’ve changed when they finally beat the bad guy (or don’t).
Try breaking your novel into these core pieces and seeing how your story fits into it! You might find that not every beat fits, but it’ll help give you a better understanding of how your novel progresses.
Do you have any tips for people using the Hero’s Journey? Do you find it to be a helpful tool in outlining your work? Let us know!