At one point in your writer's life, you've probably come across the term Hero's Journey. Maybe you've even studied this guide for storytelling and applied it to your own books—and yet, something about your own application felt off. You wanted to learn more, but didn't know where to start.
You needed a resource that would simplify the hero's journey steps and all the other major details instead of complicate them.
You needed this post.
The Hero's Journey is as old as humanity itself. And over the history of humanity, this single story form has emerged over and over again. People from all cultures have seemed to favor its structure, and its familiar types of characters, symbols, relationships, and steps.
If you want to build or strengthen your writing career and win a following of many happy readers, you want this particular tool in your writer's toolbox.
Let's dive in.
Need help applying The Hero's Journey to your story outline and manuscript? Download this free Hero's Journey worksheet now!
Like many young boys, I grew up loving Star Wars. I especially loved the music and bought the soundtracks at some point in middle school. When my parents weren't home and I had the house all to myself, I'd slip one of the CDs into my stereo, crank the volume up, and blast the London Symphony Orchestra as it laid the epic foundation for Luke Skywalker's unforgettable trench run on the Death Star. I even swung my arms high in the air, pretending I was conducting the violins and timpani myself.
I know it's nerdy to admit. But we love what we love, and I love the music of great movies.
In a way, the Hero's Journey is like a wonderful soundtrack. It follows familiar beats and obeys age-old principles of human emotion. We can't necessarily explain why a piece of music is so beautiful, but we can explain what it does and simply acknowledge that most people like it.
As I've come to understand Joseph Campbell's groundbreaking monomyth theory, commonly known as the Hero's Journey, I've fallen deeper and deeper in love with it.
But it's important to make sure you know what it is, and what it isn't.
The Hero's Journey isn't a formula to simply follow, plugging in hackneyed characters into cliched situations.
The Hero's Journey also isn't "selling out" and giving up your artistic intregrity.
However, the Hero's Journey is a deep set of steps, scenes, character types, symbols, and themes that tend to recur in stories regardless of culture or time period. Within these archetypes are nearly infinite variations and unique perspectives that are impacted by culture and period, reflecting wonderful traits of the authors and audiences.
Also, the Hero's Journey is a process that your reader expects your story to follow, whether they know it or not. This archetype is hard-wired into our D.N.A. To expect anything different would be practically inhuman.
Let me put it this way: To know the Hero's Journey is to know the human soul.
This may not make sense right now, but I promise it will as this post unfolds.
[share-quote] To know the Hero's Journey and its steps is to know the human soul. Learn why in this post. [/share-quote]
In the beginning, there were stories. These stories were told by mothers, soldiers, and performers. They were inscribed on the walls of caves, into tablets of stone, and on the first sheets of papyrus.
This is how the Hero's Journey was born.
In this post, I'll walk you through the Hero's Journey twelve steps, and teach you how to apply them into your story. I'll also share additional resources to teach you some other Hero's Journey essentials, like character archetypes, symbols, and themes. By the end of this post, you'll be able to easily apply the Hero's Journey to your story with confidence.
And don't skip out on the practice exercise at the end of the post! This will help you start to carve out the Hero's Journey for your story with a practical fifteen minute exercise—the best way to really retain how the Hero's Journey works is to apply it.
The Hero's Journey is the timeless combination of characters, events, symbols, and relationships frequently structured as a sequence of twelve steps. It is a storytelling structure that anyone can study and utilize to tell a story that readers will love.
First identified and defined by Joseph Campbell, the Hero's Journey was theorizied in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Today, it has been researched and taught by great minds, some including Carl Jung and Christopher Vogler (author of The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers).
This research has given us lengthy and helpful lists of archetypes, or story elements that tend to recur in stories from any culture at any time.
And while some archetypes are unique to a genre, they are still consistent within those genres. For example, a horror story from Japan will still contain many of the same archetypes as a horror story from Ireland. There will certainly be notable differences in how these archetypes are depicted, but the tropes will still appear.
That's the power of the Hero's Journey. It is the skeleton key of storytelling that you can use to unlock the solution to almost any writing problem you are confronted with.
The Hero's Journey is the single most powerful tool at your disposal as a writer.
But it isn't a "rule," so to speak. It's also not a to-do list.
If anything, the Hero's Journey is diagnostic, not prescriptive. In other words, it describes a story that works, but doesn't necessarily tell you what to do.
But the reason you should use the Hero's Journey isn't because it's a great trick or tool. You should use the Hero's Journey because it is based on thousands of years of human storytelling.
It provides a way to connect with readers from all different walks of life.
This is why stories about fantastical creatures from imaginary worlds can forge deep emotional connections with audiences. Hollywood knows this, and its best studios take advantage. As an example, The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, contains mythical creatures like elves and hobbits. Yet it is Frodo's heroic journey of sacrifice and courage that draws us to him like a magnet.
[share-quote] The Hero's Journey is based on thousands of years of human storytelling. It reflects elements the human soul craves.
Learn how to easily apply the Hero's Journey 12 Steps to your books in this post. [/share-quote]
I can't wait to guide you through The Hero's Journey. Below is a list of all the topics that will help you master this in your books. Today, let's focus on the creme de la creme of what allows the Hero's Journey to impact the reader or listener: The Hero's Journey's Twelve Steps.
Make sure to bookmark this page for your writer's journey, since it will continually updated!
In addition to its character archetypes, Campbell's monomyth is probably best known for its twelve stages of the hero. This structure is used by modern storytellers to create films that make billions in revenue. If you've enjoyed a film by Pixar, Lucasfilm, or Marvel Studios recently, then you've probably seen the Hero's Journey at work.
"The Twelve Steps of the Hero's Journey" identify twelve actions, situations, or moments that nearly every Hero experiences. These "steps" need not always appear in order, and they can (and often do) repeat themselves.
Remember: these steps are not always scenes. They serve more as checkpoints or beats, marking progress on a familiar path that all Heroes more or less take. Sometimes a story will use steps more than once (The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt). Other times, a story will skip a step, like when a Hero doesn't have an explicit Mentor (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
So let this structure serve as inspiration for your story planning, not as a rigid rule that stifles your creativity.
Here are the Twelve Hero's Journey Stages or Steps:
The Hero lives his or her life in an otherwise peaceful and quiet world. However, danger comes from within (a world that is broken or corrupt, like The Hunger Games, or from without, like The Lord of the Rings).
Frequently the Hero is itching for some kind of adventure or change; this is why he or she is primed for what is to come. When the danger comes in Step 2, the Hero is ready to take the next step due to their eager, adventurous, or frustrated spirit.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #1: Ordinary World
When the danger comes, or when a Herald (another popular Hero's Journey Character Archetype) announces that danger is coming, the Hero must face the choice to stay or go. Both choices have dire consequences, and the Hero must weigh the cost of both.
The Call to Adventure is usually a brief, sudden story beat. It can be in human form (The Hunger Games), a letter (Harry Potter), the discovery of an ancient treasure (The Lord of the Rings), or an act of violence (Captain America: The First Avenger).
But the Hero isn't quite ready to go . . . yet.
At the beginning of a story, Heroes are human, just like you and me. That makes them frail, fearful, and very mortal. They often have relationships they don't want to leave behind. And at this point in the story, a Hero doesn't realize they are a Hero yet (because no heroic steps have been taken!).
There is a moment of doubt and indecision that plagues almost every Hero. Whether it's self-doubt, fear, or ignorance, many Heroes hesitate before accepting the Call. This is one of the reasons the Hero's Journey harmonizes with the human spirit—it's something any reader can relate to.
As long as humanity has existed, there has been an older generation ready to pass on what it knows to the younger. When the Hero cannot move on because they are not strong enough, both physically and mentally, a Mentor steps in and provides the teaching and encouragement the Hero needs.
Due to its prevalence, the Mentor is a character archetype that requires much innovation. To avoid the "wise old bearded man" trope, many stories will make their Mentor questionable in judgment (The Hunger Games), or transform the Mentor into the Shadow (Batman Begins). What will you do to innovate the Mentor archetype, and the Meeting the Mentor Step of the Hero's Journey?
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #4: Meeting the Mentor
Armed with the proper training and support, the Hero sets out on their journey. In order to signal that the Hero is departing the familiar, safe world of the Ordinary, the storyteller will have the Hero cross a boundary of some kind that seperates the new world from the old. This is known as the Threshold.
Almost always, the Threshold is physical. This way readers can see it in their minds. Your Hero may cross a bridge or a border; they may board a plane, train, or automobile; they may climb a fence or descend into a chasm. However you depict this step, make sure the journey's beginning is clearly signaled by the Crossing of a Threshold.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #5: Crossing the Threshold
The middle of every heroic journey is filled with adventures of every kind. Usually, though, the Hero will encounter three types of people: a friend, an enemy, or something in between.
These encounters serve to develop the Hero as a character. They simply cannot be heroic from the start, and must earn that title by helping the weak, overcoming enemies, and outlasting a road of trials and series of tests that come their way. It's important to create a variety of tests, as well, where the hero meets mysterious or treacherous characters, powerful monsters, or his/her greatest fear. The hero must grow and change as a result of all these tests.
Eventually the Hero must arrive at the destination, and that destination is frequently a fortress, cave, or dungeon crawling with monsters, enemies, or traps. This will lead to the story's climax, but the best heroic journeys include a step before the big fight. It's called the Approach, and it gives your Hero (and their companions) a moment to pause, breathe, and truly weigh the stakes of what's about to happen.
In this scene, the Hero's loyal companion might abandon them (at least for awhile); it could be when the Shadow reveals a new weapon, minion, or threat; it could be when the Hero completes some final training, often depicted in film as a montage. There are many ways to force your Hero to stop and think, and your reader will thank you for doing it.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #7: The Approach
Every heroic journey features a unique Shadow with a unique "fortress," and yours will, too. As your Hero enters this place, it's time to clash swords!
There must be a scene where the Hero (and possibly their companions) sneaks in, attacks, parachutes down . . . whatever is true for the world and story you're telling. And it is usually one of the most fun scenes to write. While this may not be the actual final battle, you want the stakes to be high and absolutely thrilling.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #8: The Ordeal
For their valiant efforts, the Hero must acquire the goal, yet the goal, as acquired, must be revealed to be inadequate. Usually this takes shape by the Hero reaching a crisis in their inner journey, where an inner need (for justice, peace, morality, etc) comes into conflict with the reality of the physical goal and what it provides (like wealth, fame, comfort, etc).
The point of this step in the Hero's Journey is that the Reward is never enough. As much as we believe they will, the physical rewards of life never satisfy as deeply as we hope. The Hero's Journey reflects this universal human truth by continuing the story even after the Hero seems to get what they want.
Another way to identify the Road Back could be the Response to the Reward, whether it is the Hero's response (disgust, disappointment, resolve, etc) or the Shadow's (vengeance, change-of-heart, etc). After the Hero acquires the goal, there must be a flight or return back to the Ordinary World.
The key to the Road Back is that it creates a false sense of peace, safety, and finality. Because the Hero has seemingly gotten what they wanted all along, the reader may be left with a sense of completeness, but not a deep thematic satisfaction. Some readers might even wonder why the book isn't complete yet.
Everything in the Hero's Journey leads up to this climactic step: the Resurrection. In this scene, the Hero must face the story's evil in an ultimate way, often in the actual final battle (after the fake-out ending in Step 10). Then the Hero must suffer a form a death. It may not be literal, actual death; but it must be a death, regardless. During this death, the hero is often trapped somewhere, like a dungeon or the "belly of the whale."
Then the Hero must be resurrected. This is not easy to pull off. It requires careful planning and revision when the details don't add up exactly as you'd like. But through their own power, skill, righteousness, cleverness, or kindness to others, the Hero must earn a resurrection that brings them back into the fight.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #11: The Resurrection
The conclusion of your Hero's Journey necessitates some kind of return. This is a return to the original Ordinary World, or a return to the community of the world if it has had to relocate.
When they return, the Hero brings back gifts and blessings, an ultimate boon that usually takes physical form, like food, rain, or safety. However, it also takes spiritual form, as in hope, faith, and love. The Hero must bring these gifts back and share them with their community. It is essential to your reader's experience of catharsis, and represents the apotheosis of the story's themes and values.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Step #12: Return With the Elixir
One final way to do this is by noting checkpoints as they outline and/or verify if and how the Hero's Journey works in their story.
To distill this lengthy structure into an easy checklist, writers need to learn how to plan and draft five scenes that are the building blocks of a well-written Hero's Journey. I cover each of these in their own individual post, which I highly recommend you check out:
Scene One: "Choice to Go"
Scene Two: "Initation"
Scene Three: "Task"
Scene Four: "All Hope is Lost"
Scene Five: "Hero Returns with the Ultimate Boon"
Structure is an extremely subjective matter to storytellers. It is the source of the schism between so-called "Planners" (those who write with a plan) and "Pantsers" (those who write by the seat of their pants).
No matter where your preference lies, there are principles of storytelling that can benefit you on your mission to write a great story with a solid, timeless Hero's Journey at its core.
In order to help you apply the Hero's Journey Twelve Steps to your story, consider these three (practical!) principles of solid story structure:
How does Three-Act Structure overlap with a Twelve-Step Hero's Journey? It's actually not that complicated. Usually, the Three-Act Hero's Journey looks like this.
The Beginning of your story shows the reader the Hero's Ordinary World, their Call to Adventure and Refusal, the introduction and early work of the Mentor, and the Hero's "Choice to Go," or Crossing of the Threshold.
Yup. All of Act Two, the Middle Build, is a single Step: Trials, Allies, and Enemies. This is why it's essential to realize that this Step uses the entire twelve-step structure within itself, and must put the Hero to the test a number of times on their journey toward the final goal.
The Ending of the story begins when the Hero pauses to Approach the final Ordeal. It then proceeds to the major Ordeal, the Reward and consequential false ending, any Road Back that may be involved, the ultimate showdown resulting in Resurrection, and the Hero's triumphant Return with the Elixir.
There are benefits to generating an idea of how many words and chapters you should be writing. If that sounds like too much planning for you, consider this question: Do you like wasting time?
I don't. And I'd prefer to waste as little as possible. That's one of the great benefits of planning your writing with word counts in mind.
Knowing a rough estimate of how a Hero's Journey could break down by the numbers can help you plan, write, and edit a novel with a steady and strong pace. And simultaneously, it's likely that this road map will give you even more motivation to finish your story.
You might also consider devoting certain percentages of your time to the Beginning, Middle, and Ending of your book, which I'll cover more in a future post.
Once you've made upon a rough word count estimate, you can plan your steps quite deliberately. As you complete this process, you can alter your estimate as well.
With this kind of plan in place, you can determine when it's time to move on to the next step as you draft. This isn't to "follow the rules," but to stay attuned to the kind of stories that readers love and have loved for thousands of years.
With this in mind, you'll be able to use the Hero's Journey as a guide that provides a massive canvas for you to freely paint upon—and one that will come in extreme convenience as you study and apply the Twelve-Step Hero's Journey.
Learning these concepts one-by-one is certainly useful, but might not help you see the power in a well-told, well-structured Hero's Journey story.
In order to really master the Hero's Journey, you can explore popular books and films that use these steps and archetypes with expert artistry.
These three examples were a turning point in my writing career while studying the Hero's Journey:
Perhaps the most obvious Hero's Journey example, Star Wars contains a feast of archetypes and structural choices that will help us see Campbell's work in action.
As an appetizer, I explore some Hero's Journey essentials in Star Wars in its own post. In it, I discuss topics like the ways Luke Skywalker is an ideal Hero, and how on his journey, Luke faces the villainous Darth Vader, the story's Shadow. And who could forget the mysterious supernatural aid: Luke's Mentor, Obi-wan?
Whether you love or hate George Lucas's space opus (and/or what Disney has done with it since 2012), the films of the Star Wars universe are excellent examples to study and learn from.
Few Hollywood studios regularly utilize the Hero's Journey to incredible effect more than Pixar. In its first outing, Toy Story, Pixar successfully told two Hero's Journeys for both Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear. In subsequent sequels, it would recapture the magic, taking its cowboy protagonist along a sequence of heroic steps that resonant with the human experience.
For example, Woody begins in an Ordinary World in which he comfortably runs Andy's bedroom; he's Called to Adventure when a new toy arrives and challenges him for the role of Andy's favorite toy; and he Refuses the Call by choosing a crooked path, in which he attempts to have Buzz knocked into a corner where Andy won't find him.
As you can imagine, the story continues from there, with Woody and Buzz split between two worlds, and our heroes choices seem to perfectly follow the Hero's Journey as they attempt to reunite with Andy and forge a relationship that isn't purely antagonistic.
Beloved by generations of audiences, Toy Story is an ideal work to focus on as we study Campbell's work.
I'll breakdown the Hero's Journey Twelve Steps in this iconic film in a future post.
The dystopian genre is filled with unlucky heroes who realize that their worlds are broken, only to rise up against invincible forces. In one of the most popular of these stories, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, follows a dirt-poor girl on a quest to unseat a tyrant and bring justice to Panem. As you certainly expected, The Hunger Games is a perfect case study of the power of myth to bring a fantastic world into stark reality.
For example, Katniss Everdeen, the story's hero, follows in the footsteps of many other protagonists by bearing a Magic Weapon, or object that seems to heighten the hero's powers and reveal his/her greatness.
Once out of her comfort zone, she endures numerous Tests and Trials, including the lengthy Task of surviving the Hunger Games themselves. Along the way she enters a Belly of the Beast, or cave, where she must nurse her partner Peta back to health. And in the story's gripping conclusion, Katniss must survive an onslaught of Creatures of Nightmare as the "Mutts" swarm the Cornucopia where she and Peta must make their last stand.
These situations, symbols, and more appear all throughout the Hunger Games trilogy, and I'll share exactly how these Hero's Journey essentials apply in a future post.
These three stories are by no means the only examples of the monomyth executed to perfection. Some other stories great for analyzing the Hero's Journey could include:
Applying the Hero's Journey steps to your story will connect with readers on a human level. However, that's not the only insight you can learn from the Hero's Journey. If you're up for it, learn more about why the Hero's Journey touches readers with these bonus essentials.
Every story begins with great characters, and the Hero's Journey is the study of recurring character types, known as archetypes.
A character archetype is a character type that serves a specific role in a story and tends to reoccur in myths, legends, and stories across genres, cultures, and time periods.
In order to be properly utilized, a character archetype must fulfill its set purpose while exhibiting new, innovative traits. There are several important character archetypes used in heroic storylines—especially these five: hero, shadow, loyal retainer, mentor, and threshold guardians.
Learn more: Hero's Journey Character archetypes that will make your story awesome
A Hero's Journey Symbol, also known as a symbolic archetype, is an object, location, or image in a story that contains more than one functional meaning. It has both a physical meaning in the story world and a thematic meaning for the reader to interpret.
Within your Hero's Journey scenes and relationships, you can use objects and small events to add even more thematic significance to your story.
Read more about five effective Hero's Journey symbols here:
A Hero's Journey Theme is a relationship between two opposite ideas or elements. Throughout the story, the pros and cons of each idea/element are explored, with the Hero making high stakes choices in the context of this conflict-filled relationship. The conclusions the reader comes to about this relationship are its themes.
Read about five favored Hero's Journey themes in these posts:
Star Wars, Toy Story, and The Hunger Games are just three members of a near-limitless collection of stories, new and old, that use the Hero's Journey structure and archetypes to thrill readers.
The next, I hope, will be written by you!
Use the Hero's Journey Twelve Steps to outline, write, and/or edit your book—and touch all your readers on a human level.
Need help applying The Hero's Journey to your story outline and manuscript? Download this free Hero's Journey worksheet now!
Have you applied the Hero's Journey to your stories before? How did it go? Let us know in the comments.
For today, spend fifteen minutes writing a story premise that (1) you're eager to write, and (2) you can use to outline the Hero's Journey as you learn.
When you're done, share your twelve-step story in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, as well!