If you haven’t heard of the Hero’s Journey, then brace yourself, you’re about to learn one of the most useful tools to help develop your skills as a novelist.
Have you ever wondered if there is some kind of structure, a tested formula which you can use as a guide for writing your novel, rather than having to just flail around wildly in the dark, with no idea whether you’re on the right track or not?
Well, you’ve found it.
The Hero’s Journey is the backbone of popular fiction and appears in everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Da Vinci code to Slumdog Millionnaire, and pretty much every action movie ever made. It works for more specific genres like romance and detective mystery as well, but they have a load more memes that are also usually followed.
The Novel Factory includes a Hero's Journey template that you can complete, as well as more specfic templates for popular genres, such as mystery, romance, horror and more.
Now, of course, as with all creative writing tools, the Hero’s Journey needs to be accepted for what it is – a tool. It’s not the be all and end all, and it can be interpreted and deviated in a hundred, a thousand, a million different ways. Not every story follows it, but once you’ve learned it, you’ll be amazed at how you spot the majority of the elements in most of the books you read and movies you watch.
A second note is that the Hero’s Journey itself has quite a few interpretations and even names (a key one being the monomyth). We use a simplified version that we have found to be the most useful, but you can find out more about other variations by searching the Internet.
So! Without further ado, let’s find out the nuts and bolts of the Hero’s Journey.
Overview of the Hero’s Journey
Here is a brief overview of the elements of the Hero’s Journey, with more detailed explanation below.
- Introduction to the protagonist's world
- Call to action
- Crossing the threshold
- Mentor teaches the lead
- First challenge
- Dark moment
- Final conflict
- Return home
More detail of the stages in the journey
You set the scene, introduce your character and their normal life, just in time for them to...
... be torn from it! Actually it's better if they're not torn, but have to commit to the decision themselves. In any case, the challenge is put forward. You can start building sympathy for your character by ensuring their decision is something the reader can identify with and / or respect.
In order to ensure your lead has the pressure on and therefore your readers are hooked into wondering how they'll ever get out of this mess, it’s good if your hero crosses some kind of threshold that is difficult, if not impossible, to get back to normal life from. It may be a physical journey across land, the removal of allies, self-inflicted isolation or becoming wanted and on the run.
Readers want to see a character develop into a real hero who can overcome the odds. Everybody needs help sometimes. Mentors in popular fiction include Dumbledore, Morpheus, Rafiki and Obi Wan Kenobi.
Time to put your lead under pressure. It may be that they have a first encounter with the villain, or for a slower build, it could be the villain’s cronies.
I can resist everything except temptation, said someone pithy. Add depth to your lead by giving them a challenge they have to find the strength of character to overcome.
As you near the climax of your book, circumstances start piling up. Push your lead to the limits to the point they are questioning everything they know, and very nearly slip to the dark side. The closer they get to failing, the more nail-biting it will be. But in the end they pull through, which brings them to...
The final battle! This is the climax of your story and you must pull out all the stops to make it great. We'll work on this in great detail later, looking at what makes a satisfying ending, so for now you should just have a loose idea of whether your hero succeeds or fails.
Once your climax is completed all there is to do is tie up loose ends, will your lead live happily ever after? Do they return home or stay in their new place? Who is with them at the end?
It really is a good idea to try to identify the various stages of the Hero’s Journey in some of your favourite stories. The stages may be at varying times (Simba doesn’t get his call to action until almost halfway through the movie), they may be reordered (Dumbledore teaches Harry throughout the first book) and one or several of them may even be missing.
But in a surprising number of stories, you will find the Hero’s Journey present. So, join the greats, learn to take advantage of the Hero’s Journey and use it to great effect.
You might want to check out this post about The Hero's Journey in popular fiction.