The Hero’s Journey is a pattern discovered in mythological stories by the American Scholar, Joseph Campbell. Campbell maintained that all mythological stories (and all good stories) share a common structure or flow. This revolves around the inner and outer journey of the protagonist, whom he calls the hero.
The steps don’t always flow in perfect order. Sometimes two or more steps are combined. But here is the basic structure, using Star Wars as an example (Lucas borrowed heavily from Campbell for A New Hope):
The Ordinary World
We get to know the day to day life of the hero.
Luke is a farm boy living with his Aunt and Uncle.
The Call To Adventure
Something happens to upset the normal life of the hero, which often includes an invitation or pressure to leave their normal life behind.
Luke buys a droid that plays a holographic distress call from Princess Leia and a plea for rescue.
Refusal Of The Call
The hero resists, or tries to resist the inevitable.
Luke clings to his commitment to his uncle and the farm.
Meeting With The Mentor
A wise person helps put things into perspective, encouraging the hero to accept the call to adventure.
Enter Ben Kenobi.
Crossing The Threshold
The hero accepts the call to adventure, which propels them past the point of no return.
The Lars Homestead is burned the ground and Luke leaves with Ben Kenobi.
Tests, Allies, And Enemies
The hero’s resolve is tested and they meet friends and foes along the way.
Luke and Ben are hunted by Stormtroopers and meet Han and Chewie.
The hero is trained or prepared for the mission they have accepted.
Luke is trained in the ways of the force by Ben Kenobi and receives his first light sabre.
The Ordeal (The Cave)
The hero is tested and often comes to their lowest point in the story.
Luke and his friends are taken captive in the Death Star and nearly die in the trash compactor.
The hero begins to rise with a victory in the bag.
Luke and friends escape the Death Star with Princess Leia and just as critical, information about how to destroy the Death Star.
The Road Back
The hero is forced to finish what they started by renewed opposition from the enemy.
Darth Vader and the Death Star zero in on the Rebel Base, forcing the Rebels to launch an all-out assault on the Death Star.
The hero is tested again and nearly dies, but in such a way that they rise stronger than ever.
Luke hears Ben Kenobi’s voice, uses the force, and delivers the death blow to the Death Star.
The hero returns home but life will never be the same.
Luke is a hero but his training has just begun.
American scholar, mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell is famous for his monomyth “Hero’s Journey” — a narrative structure that has existed in and influenced just about every culture in the world. Campbell described a mythical quest in a very straightforward way:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
He argued that many heroic tales, regardless of the related culture or period in history, follow the same basic story structure. According to him, the stages of the Hero’s Journey are woven into each and every quest — whether in fiction or life.
We come across Campbell’s monomythic journey structure in legends and folklore, in books and movies, and even in news stories and our own lives. The Hero’s Journey is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular and loved storytelling formats.
Are you a fan of Bilbo Baggins? I am. His story follows the storyline of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. What about Star Wars? It’s also a representation of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. You know… the list is endless.
A good story, like a catchy song, sticks in our minds. Stories connect us with other human beings. Our brains are wired for stories. We learn through stories. We find meaning by telling, hearing and internalizing stories. And we also connect through stories — especially when we are able to identify ourselves with its hero or heroine.
Think Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit, or Neo from the movie trilogy Matrix. As a watcher, listener or reader, it’s at the moment when we identify with the hero that we lose ourselves in the story, connect with its message, and both witness and co-experience the hero’s quest and transformation.
Each time a hero sets out to follow their calling, whether it is about an inner or outer quest, they go through the same stages: a starting place, an ordinary world that is somehow deficient or inadequate; a call to action; first steps on the journey; the encounter with a mentor; the crisis; a reward; and, ultimately, a return with the result or a prize that corrects the deficiency or inadequacy that initiated the quest.
But not all journeys include all of the stages of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sometimes a few of the stages are combined or take place simultaneously. And most of the time, the steps follow a certain sequence — but not always.
Now, let us take a closer look at all 12 steps of Campbell’s monomyth. Here is how Christopher Vogler, the author of the book The Writer’s Journey, summarizes the twelve steps of Campbell’s classic narrative structure:
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL
The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
6. TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES
The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.
8. THE ORDEAL
Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
9. THE REWARD
The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
10. THE ROAD BACK
About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
11. THE RESURRECTION
At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
Your Writing Prompt:
Write about a quest — your quest. You can decide to look at your entire life or pick a specific period or milestone. Think of a challenge you tackled and the way you came out of it changed. Then, write about that time in your life using the 12-step structure of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And describe the twelve stages of your quest:
- The Ordinary World
- The Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave
- The Ordeal
- The Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- The Resurrection
- Return with the Elixir
What is your Hero’s or Heroine’s Journey? How did it begin? How did it evolve? What was the purpose of your quest? Was it an inner or an outer one? How was it related to your calling? What stages have already taken place? What is next? What was the elixir you were searching for? What did you need to be able to return with it?
You can also write about the quest of a family member or close friend whose quest and story you witnessed. And when you finish writing, come back here and share your piece in the comments below. I’d love to read it!
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
~ JOHN STEINBECK, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Filed Under: Writing Prompts