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  • Writer's picturePhil Parker

Writing 101: The Hero's Journey

This narrative model is common in speculative fiction. Nonetheless, it works well and is broad enough to create something original. Elsewhere in this blog, I've written about being a Planner or a Pantser - this framework helps regardless of which one applies to you!

Step 1: The Ordinary World

Establish your hero and their world. Define who they are, what they want and hint at what might prevent them from achieving it. At this stage your protagonist is 'normal' (whatever that might mean in the world in which they live). It's tempting to 'info dump' here but don't! Let this person's world unfold as it helps to define the people in the story.

Step 2: Call to Adventure

The hero is kicked out of their comfort zone for reasons like:

  • they seek something they want/need (they may become someone important)

  • they're sent to get something (by someone else, good or bad) - a quest!

  • accidental discovery of something mysterious/important

  • they must fulfill an obligation that takes them away

Step 3: Refusal of the Call

The comfort zone is too nice to leave behind! There are reasons (a love interest, cowardice, cultural restrictions etc) but these must be confronted. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children enter the adventure because of their encounter with Mr Tumnas and they're willingness to help him.

Step 4: Meeting the Mentor

Setting off without help is going to get them killed. They need help, training, information. It might be a friendly wizard (Aslan), a brutal training sergeant, a mysterious figure (Mr Wednesday), a character who's been a friend and suddenly become much more (Obi Wan Kenobi). It's an opportunity to test our hero but also to discover more about others around them and the world itself - it holds the dangers they must prepare for!

Step 5: Crossing the First Threshold

This represents the completion of the 'first act' of the story. The hero sets off on their journey, perhaps having assembled allies (and created enemies) with (some) knowledge of what lies ahead. By this point in the story you should have established:

  • the hero's character (though it will develop as events test him/her)

  • what is driving the story - what does the hero need to do & why?

  • what stands in his/her way - the central tension and source of conflict

  • the world in which the story takes place (it will build as events demand)

In Lord of the Rings, this is where the Fellowship set off, in The Hobbit it's where Bilbo joins the dwarves on their quest.

Step 6: Tests, Allies, Enemies

The beginning of Act Two is often complex, full of excitement and fast-paced. The hero (and allies) encounter challenges which test them in different ways. We find out more about the characters of the friends/allies, perhaps about the Opposition too. This is where worldbuilding needs a focus - the challenges define the landscape and society. (Remember my point at the start of saving some of this information? Now there is a purpose in defining WHY the world is like it is - answers the hero discovers painfully!

Step 7: Approach to the Inmost Cave

Notice it's the 'approach'. This is where the Hero's goal is located, but getting to it will prove problematic. There may be more challenges, puzzles too. Mysteries will make it difficult to locate perhaps. Warnings will exist (and be ignored). Location is critical here; this place (it may be a city, a citadel, another realm, a holy-of-holies) needs to generate tension and excitement in the threats it poses. After all, if anyone could go there, why haven't they? Why does the hero need to do this?

Step 8: The Ordeal

Our hero (and allies?) must face the ultimate challenge, a will-they-or-won't-they? event which will come to define the protagonist in some way. You've probably established in Step 1 or Step 4 something that enables them to succeed here - a magical ability, an iron will, a demon that needs exorcising. Whatever it is, the hero should be deconstructed here. In Grimdark terms, it will be bloody, violent and, well, grim. We find out more about the antagonist(s) here too, they are likely to be ruthless, sadistic, cruel or insane. Perhaps they believe what they're doing is the best option for everyone?

Step 9: Reward (Seizing the sword)

After the ordeal, something works in the hero's favour. They acquire what they need to defeat the antagonist. (It may not provide escape!!) Our hero is bloodied, reeling from the ordeal but they've found enough energy/confidence to finish what they started. This step is also where you might find the landscape changes as a result - does society change in small ways? Has the landscape actually changed? Are minor characters different now? This is the end of Act Two. Time to review how the hero's intervention has changed everything.

Step 10: The Road Back

The sun appears from behind the cloud, the hero is held aloft by those rescued. BUT, just when it appears everything is happy again, the antagonist returns. The battle that they thought they'd avoided is reinforced at the last minute, the dragon isn't dead after all! One of the allies turns out to be a traitor who lands the rest in trouble. This is where you place the story's big twist. We're at the start of Act 3 and we're building rapidly to the climax of the story. This is where you set it up. Gather your weapons!

Step 11: Resurrection

The climax of the story. The hero is to be tested yet again and this time survival is doubtful. Whatever happened in Step 8: The Ordeal, comes back to bite the hero now. Perhaps they didn't recover? Or the antagonist learned something vital? The tables have turned. The defining criteria of a hero is someone who is prepared to die for a cause. So we must consider this to be possible. Certainly some of their allies will perish. This is the ultimate battle. Nothing will be the same afterwards. You get to destroy everything here if you want - leave the reader wondering what, if anything, will survive.

Step 12: Return with the Elixir

Victory. The antagonist is defeated. The hero returns home with whatever they set out to obtain. Happy times are here again! Tra la la! Except in speculative fiction, it's never like that. The costs are immense. There is grief for those lost in battle. There are costs to account for - the landscape is in ruins. The hero has changed, they are not who they once were, events have reshaped them - perhaps for the better. Not necessarily. But some part of the story needs light to filter through all this gloom - whatever has been brought back/whatever the goal was - makes a positive impact. It was all worth it, we may not see it at the moment though!

The Hero's Journey narrative model was created by Joseph Campbell in 1949 in 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces'. He was influenced by psychologist Carl Jung and anthropologist Edwards Burnett Tylor. Their research developed out of the analysis of hero myths for a variety of different cultures.


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