Preparation is the key to finishing a novel! Even if you’re a pantser (or discovery writer), having a general idea of where the story is going is a good idea. But how can you come up with a good structure that makes your story consistent and well-rounded? Luckily for you, you don’t have to! The Hero’s Journey is the most popular novel structure out there, and for good reason. Let’s take a look at how you can use it!
What is the Hero’s Journey (in brief)
You might also know the Hero’s Journey as the Monomyth! Whatever you know it as, it’s a plot structure originally formulated by Joseph Campbell. But he didn’t just pull it out from thin air! This is a structure that’s present in the earliest myths and folk stories of the world, which means it’s a great tool to analyze them. And, of course, it’s a great way to structure a story in a circular way, which feels very satisfying to the reader.
The Hero’s Journey is divided into the following 12 steps.
- The Ordinary World: As the name says, this is the known world where the hero lives. However, the world “suffers from a symbolic deficiency”. That is to say, the hero is lacking something.
- The Call to Adventure: This is where the hero first gets a challenge or a problem to resolve. This establishes the hero’s goal for the story.
- The Refusal of the Call: Usually, the hero is reluctant, so they won’t accept the call to adventure at first. Before that, they need a strong motivation to accept the challenge.
- Meeting with the Mentor: a wise person prepares the hero for the journey. They will give them advice or helpful resources (like a powerful item), but they won’t go with the hero all the way to the end.
- Crossing the Threshold: the hero has accepted their task and enters the special world (i.e. the place where the adventure happens). There’s often a “threshold guardian”.
- Tests, Allies and Enemies: the hero learns the special world’s rules by meeting its inhabitants. Through the circumstances of this new world, the hero’s true characteristics are revealed.
- Approach to the Innermost Cave: the hero, often with some allies, gets to the edge of the dangerous place where they’ll find the object of the quest.
- The Ordeal: this is a high-stakes moment, often life-or-death, that challenges the hero. It could be physical or psychological.
- Reward: the hero survives and gets the object of the quest. It doesn’t have to be a physical object: it could be knowledge, reconciliation, or anything else.
- The Road Back: actions have consequences, and this is where they come crashing down! For example, the enemy’s remaining forces could pursue the hero, who now needs to decide to return to the ordinary world.
- The Resurrection: this is the last test the hero needs to go through to be reborn.
- Return: the hero returns to the ordinary world with the elixir. The elixir is a symbol that could be wisdom, freedom, love, treasure, or anything else.
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What are the steps of the Hero’s Journey Plot Type in detail?
Step 1: THE ORDINARY WORLD
We begin the Hero’s Journey by presenting a world that feels normal. Sure, you can have fireballs-shooting wizards, spaceships, or three-eyed aliens—but it needs to be part of the normal life in your world. To reinforce that, make sure that the protagonist is an average person going on their average life. They can (and should) have interesting features, but nothing that would be world-changing… yet. This is so the reader can better relate to the hero, which means that they’ll care more about them.
Take your time to present the world’s core values or themes, too. The dark evil forces, whatever they might be, will threaten these values, so make sure the reader cares about them too! Finally, give everything a false sense of security, make your readers think “What could possibly happen in this beautiful and peaceful country?” The Hero’s Journey is all about set-up and pay-off, and by setting up a peaceful world and then attacking it, the readers will feel more involved with the hero’s struggle!
The residents of Emond’s Field lead ordinary lives. Rand al’Thor, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene are youths coming of age in a quiet agrarian town. Rand and Egwene have a romantic interest in one another, while Rand, Mat, and Perrin are boyhood friends.
— The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
Step 2: THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
The call to adventure is usually a single, sudden event (sometimes you’ll see it referred to as “inciting incident”). The call could come from a person, from the discovery of an ancient object or knowledge, from a violent attack, or anything else that could shake up the ordinary world. Sometimes, the threat comes from within the world (for example, in The Hunger Games, the call to adventure is the celebration of the Reaping), while sometimes it comes from without (in The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is a foreign object to the Shire).
Harry receives letter after letter to attend Hogwarts. When they are ignored, he receives hundreds of acceptance letters. These letters are delivered with persistence, in various magical, and unthinkable, ways.
— Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling
Step 3: THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL
What would most people do when faced with a challenge that will put them (and possibly the whole world) in danger? Most people will refuse, and since we’ve established that the hero needs to be an ordinary person, they will refuse too. This is another opportunity to show your hero in a relatable light. Show their flaws, their personality, and make sure the reader understands why they are refusing.
However, it doesn’t need to be an explicit refusal. Maybe the hero tries but fails immediately, or they start the journey but then chicken out and go back home. Or they could even genuinely think that there isn’t any actual danger, so why should they do anything about it?
Originally warned by some passing hunters that she, the Unicorn, may be the last of her kind, the unicorn does not believe that she is. As time passes, and no others come near, the Unicorn’s doubt and worry becomes so great that she leaves her forest to seek out any hint of her own kind.
— The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
Step 4: MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
The hero is an ordinary person that most people treat as such. However, there’s someone who knows the hero is something more than just an “average Joe”: enter the mentor! The task the hero has to accept is incredibly difficult, so the mentor will be there to train them and often go with the hero for at least part of the journey. The mentor is usually an older person who can no longer complete the task on their own—or, alternatively, they are young enough but something prevents them (death is a common solution to this).
However, death is rarely permanent in mentors. Sometimes literally (like Gandalf), but most often they live on in spirit—Dumbledore, Mufasa, and Obi-Wan die, but they still manage to give advice and encourage the heroes. Of course, not all mentors die either: they can just be sidelined, like what happens to Haymitch in The Hunger Games (he’s forbidden to enter the arena, so he’s forced to mentor Katniss from a distance).
Through a seemingly chance encounter, Arthur, or Wart, as he is called, stumbles upon the cottage of Merlyn. Merlyn is a wizard who then goes back home with Wart and becomes his tutor, teaching him the way to become a great man through a series of magical transformations that teach him about the animal kingdom.
— The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White
Step 5: CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
This is the threshold between the first and the second act—as well as between the known and unknown world! Remember that Lord of the Rings scene where Sam notes that if he takes one more step, it will be the farthest away from home he’s even been? Well, that’s the threshold. But it doesn’t have to be a physical place: in The Matrix, Neo crosses the threshold when he takes the red pill.
Crossing the threshold is a dangerous thing to do. There’s often a “Guardian of the threshold”—a new danger the hero needs to face in order to keep going. Going back to The Lord of the Rings, shortly after Sam’s scene, the four hobbits encounter a Nazgûl and Frodo almost falls into the One Ring’s temptation. This not only shows the dangers of the new world, but also humbles the hero, which raises the stakes.
After setting out secretly, Eleanor stops in Hillsdale for lunch and is faced by the resentful people in the gas station. The road that leads to Hill House is rutted and in poor condition, and the trees themselves seem to try to keep her from proceeding. The gate is “clearly locked– locked and double locked and chained and barred,” and to gain entrance she must face the house’s guardian, Mr. Dudley, who is altogether unwelcoming and tries to convince her to leave. Even as she drives her car up the driveway, she feels an overwhelming sense that the house itself is vile. Every move toward the house is a deliberate choice that Eleanor must make with all of her strength. This deep internal unwillingness to enter Hill House is another threshold guardian.
–The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
Step 6: TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES
During the adventure, the hero will need to overcome many different challenges and trials. But they won’t be alone: they’ll find allies and enemies along their path. If the hero started as an ordinary person, why should we believe they are hero? That’s your opportunity to show the reader the protagonist’s heroic traits. Push them past their limits and make sure they learn and grow from the trials. Don’t put them into a difficult situation just to show the reader how cool they are—they should struggle, and they should rise a better person after they overcome it.
Use the hero’s allies to show how they deal with other people. This is another aspect of the story that will let you develop the hero as a character and humanize them. A hero who spends the story overcoming trials will hardly feel relatable—but put them in a conversation with a friend, and they’ll suddenly become normal humans again! Of course, some of the people the hero meets should be enemies or something in between ally and enemy. Dealing with enemies and character conflict is a great opportunity to develop the hero’s personality.
The party of dwarves (and hobbit, Bilbo) are trapped by trolls, but are saved by Gandalf. They travel to Rivendell and receive aid from Elrond. As they pass through the Misty Mountains, goblins catch them. While the party is saved by Gandalf, Bilbo is separated from them in the tunnels. He is found by Gollum, who offers to lead him out, in exchange for the answers to a series of riddles. He manages to escape on his own through the power of the invisibility ring that he found. This ring aids him throughout the rest of his trials in Mirkwood forest, where he is able to save the party of dwarves from giant spiders, and from the Wood-elves’ dungeon.
–The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Step 7: APPROACH TO THE INNERMOST CAVE
The final confrontation will take place in the “cave”: an evil place controlled by whoever or whatever the big evil is. However, before getting there, the hero has to approach it. This is usually a moment where the hero contemplates their journey, prepares for the final confrontation, confesses their secrets and fears, or is abandoned by some of their companions. This is the set-up of the final conflict, so it’s very important to get it right!
Make sure the stakes are as high as they can be for your story, and that they are clear to the reader. This last task will be extremely challenging, and if the hero fails, the world will end (or whatever fits your story). The hero no longer has doubts about their skills: they know they must complete the task, and they will. At this point in the story, there is no turning back.
Carrie and Tommy have arrived at the Prom, despite all odds. His friends welcome her, even though they are not her friends. Despite the dread she felt entering the prom, and the worries of Sue, everything seems to be going well. Then the Prom King and Queen are announced, and both Carrie and Tommy are surprised to be selected, heading towards the stage.
— Carrie, Stephen King
Step 8: THE ORDEAL
This is the climax, the final battle. It’s an almost impossible challenge to overcome, and it could be an action sequence, a test of wit, or anything else, depending on your story. The goal of the scene is for the hero to get the object of the quest, whatever it might be. Make sure it’s not a string of constant shooting, slashing, and running. Uses pauses to your advantage: the protagonist could have a short internal monologue or a conversation with another character, for example. This will let your readers catch their breath and the following action sequences will be more impactful.
Remember that the action is not the only conflict in this scene. If the hero doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t grow as a person, and doesn’t have any internal conflict, the scene will feel empty. The action scene should be as epic and high-stakes as the internal conflict!
During the final battle, Garion faces the God of Angarak, Torak. This battle was foretold for hundreds of years, and the god tries to tempt him, but is refused. Garion vanquishes him with the sword of the Rivan King, bringing peace to all the lands.
–Enchanter’s End Game, David Eddings
Step 9: REWARD
After the ordeal, the hero is rewarded with the object of their quest. This could be wealth, a legendary weapon or magic item, wisdom or knowledge, or whatever you set up in the story. However, this is not the end of the story! More often than not, the hero will discover that this reward doesn’t satisfy their internal conflict. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, after the Ring is destroyed, the story is far from finished, because many characters have internal conflicts that they still need to work out (and, in the books, there’s still Saruman to deal with).
After the Narnian army defeated the White Witch’s forces and Aslan kills her, there is peace once more in Narnia. As a reward for their role in the battle, the Pevensie children are crowned high kings and high queens at the castle in Cair Paravel.
–The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Step 10: THE ROAD BACK
The hero begins their journey back to the ordinary world. This could be a literal journey, an internal monologue or any other kind of scene that gives the reader a feeling of security and familiarity. But then, this feeling is thwarted by a new threat! Or rather, by the remnants of the old threat. Conflicts are rarely resolved in one go, so this is your opportunity to not only make the conflict a bit more realistic but also to show the resilience of your hero. This new challenge shouldn’t be as difficult as the Ordeal, but it should still be challenging.
After defeating Arawn’s forces and the defeat of Annuvin, Taran and his allies travel home to Caer Dallben. Here, the champions discover their journey is not quite finished; the Sons of Don and all those with magic, will now have to depart Prydain for the Summer Country.
–The High King, Lloyd Alexander
Step 11: THE RESURRECTION
The hero must die so they can resurrect. But when I say “die”, I don’t necessarily mean physically! The resurrection is a breaking point for the hero: after the scene, their opinions, values, or feelings will change. Make sure the hero ears their resurrection too. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry willingly goes into the Dark Forest, knowing that he’ll probably die. He doesn’t (kind of), but he was still willing to sacrifice his life for everyone he loved. That’s what makes him a hero and why his resurrection is so powerful. To take things to the next level, apply this resurrection to the world around the hero too!
Ged faces the shadow that has pursued him since its release during his magical duel. By giving the shadow his own name, he is able to face it finally, merging with it. He is reborn, finally healed and whole from his previous injuries.
–The Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Step 12: RETURN
This is the last step of the Hero’s Journey: the hero returns to the ordinary world with an elixir, which, again, is just a symbol! The elixir is anything that “heals” their community, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. This is the actual ending of your story, and the hero fixes whatever is broken in the world.
After hearing the complete tale from the vampire Louis, the reporter is still desperate to be turned immortal. Angering the vampire, by clearly not receiving his message, the vampire attacks the young reporter before disappearing into the night.
— Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
How to write a Hero’s Journey story?
World Anvil has all the tools you need to write your Hero’s Journey novel! Start by creating the Hero’s Journey structure in Whiteboards to display everything visually and interactively. Then, if you need to, use plot articles to turn the structure into a proper outline. Finally, open Manuscripts, our novel writing software, to create your story while having all your outlines and worldbuilding at your fingertips. Once you’re done, you can publish and even monetize your work on World Anvil!
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