How to use Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to strengthen your storytelling.
After his success with American Graffiti, George Lucas, the visionary creator of Star Wars, started researching folklore.
“It came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology… so that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading [Joseph Campbell’s] books,” he says in The Power of Myth. “It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs.”
The Hero’s Journey, as explained by Campbell, represents more than a mere narrative structure. It embodies a universal pattern that resonates with the human psyche, capturing the essence of personal growth, struggle, and triumph. From the call to adventure to the return transformed, this framework mirrors not just the hero’s external quest but their internal evolution—a journey that has captivated and inspired storytellers and audiences alike.
What is The Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey, a step-by-step narrative blueprint coined by Joseph Campbell, is an exploration of the universal stages a protagonist navigates during an adventure. Campbell’s extensive study of myths and stories across cultures highlighted recurring patterns—a hero ventures on a quest, faces challenges, gains wisdom, and returns transformed, benefiting their world.
Writers, filmmakers, and storytellers have embraced Campbell’s insights, reshaping narratives using his Hero’s Journey framework. Popular works that use this monomyth template include The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, Homer’s Odyssey, as well as works by J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and Stephen King.
Campbell’s monomyth concept posited that any story—be it religious epics or modern tales—could follow a singular explanation. Central to Campbell’s analysis were Carl Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious and archetypes. He broke the explanation down into 3 acts and 17 steps:
The 3 acts are:
- Departure: The hero receives a call to adventure, but is reluctant to leave the status quo of their ordinary world.
- Initiation: The hero is guided into a special world where they face challenges and must grow through their trials.
- Return: Changed and transformed, the hero brings newfound wisdom or treasures back to their ordinary world.
The 17 stages are:
- The Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Supernatural Aid
- The Crossing of the First Threshold
- Belly of the Whale
- The Road of Trials
- The Meeting with the Goddess
- Woman as the Temptress
- Atonement with the Father
- The Ultimate Boon
- Refusal of the Return
- The Magic Flight
- Rescue from Without
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold
- Master of the Two Worlds
- Freedom to Live
The 12 steps of the hero’s journey
Screenwriter Christopher Vogler popularized a condensed 12-step hero’s journey framework in 2007, which has been influential in American literary studies since the 1970s through Vogler’s book “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.”
This framework, now used in modern creative writing and filmmaking, originated from Vogler’s 1985 company memo while working at Disney, offering a streamlined version of the hero’s journey for crafting a great story.
These 12 steps are what we’ll focus on in this article to help you outline your novel.
The 12 stages of the hero’s journey are:
- The ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting the mentor
- Crossing the threshold
- Tests, allies, enemies
- Approach to the inmost cave
- Reward (seizing the sword)
- The road back
- Return with the elixir
Let’s talk about each one in detail.
1. The Ordinary World
The Ordinary World is the starting point of the hero’s journey and represents your main character’s familiar environment and everyday life. When the story begins, life is routine, comfortable, and predictable. That’s not to say it’s good. While the Ordinary World may offer comfort, it can also represent a state of stagnation or dissatisfaction for the hero, prompting The Call to Adventure.
This first phase of your story establishes the protagonist’s character, relationships, and any challenges they face, providing a baseline against which their growth and development will be measured. The Ordinary World serves as a contrast to the extraordinary events and challenges the hero will encounter, highlighting the significance of their eventual transformation.
2. The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure is the initial disruption or invitation that propels the hero from their familiar world into the unknown.
It could be a literal invitation (think: Harry Potter), a prophetic message, or an unexpected occurrence that thrusts the hero into a situation demanding change or action. Think of it as a problem, an opportunity, or an unexpected event.
The Call to Adventure is important because it kicks off your story. It presents an opportunity or challenge that is intriguing, urgent, or impossible to resist. It serves as the trigger for the hero’s departure from the Ordinary World, with the promise of potential rewards, such as the fulfilment of a prophecy, the acquisition of knowledge or power, or the chance to right a wrong.
3. Refusal of the Call
You don’t think your hero gives in right away, do you? Where would be the drama or conflict in that? No, before the hero can begin the journey, the hero must resist the journey. The Refusal of the Call is that point of resistance.
Why would the hero resist? It’s often because of their apprehension about the risks involved, uncertainties about their abilities, or a reluctance to leave the safety and comfort of their Ordinary World. This is where the hero expresses doubts and seeks advice or guidance. They may even outright decline the opportunity presented by The Call.
What you need to remember here is that this is a point of inner conflict. The hero must grapple with this decision to step into the unknown and embrace the adventure or remain within their known or secure boundaries.
Of course, there is a cost to both choices, and this is where you make clear what those costs are.
4. Meeting the Mentor
As in life, so in storytelling. You can’t expect your hero to figure everything by themselves.
The hero, especially at this point in their journey, needs a mentor figure to provide them with guidance, advice, and crucial insights. This mentor archetype frequently appears as a teacher, guide, or source of wisdom who will aid the hero in navigating the challenges ahead. They offer valuable lessons, impart essential knowledge, or present the hero with tools necessary for their quest. The encounter itself might occur through various forms, such as a chance meeting, a deliberate seeking, or an unexpected revelation.
There are two things to keep in mind when writing this section:
- If the mentor is helping the hero make the decision, they must challenge their beliefs, push them out of their comfort zone, or offer tests to assess their readiness for the journey.
- The mentor may give the hero a gift, talisman, or symbolic object that aids them on the journey and becomes instrumental in the hero’s success.
5. Crossing the Threshold
So the hero has hemmed and hawed, dealt with their inner reluctance, and found a mentor to help them along the path. Now it’s time to actually get on the path and commit to the adventure.
The threshold crossing often symbolizes a significant change or transformation in the hero’s life, propelling them forward into a new world. It’s a metaphorical passage from the known to the unknown, signifying the hero’s willingness to embrace the uncertainties and risks associated with their journey.
This transition may involve physical movement to a different location, a mental shift in perspective, or an acceptance of a new reality.
Crossing the threshold represents a point of no return for our hero. They are committed to their quest, and their actions from this point forward set the adventure in motion, making it challenging to revert to their previous life.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Now we’re in the action. This is the highs, the lows, the challenges, encounters, relationships, and all the fun stuff for which a reader picks up a book.
In this phase, the hero will encounter a series of tests or challenges designed to push their limits, hone their skills, and prepare them for the ultimate goal of their quest. These trials may vary in difficulty and nature, ranging from physical or mental challenges to moral dilemmas.
They’ll need allies as they go through this journey, of course. Allies are individuals who align with the hero and can be mentors who offer guidance or companions who share the hero’s quest. And let’s not forget the enemies who will pose threats or obstacles and serve as the antagonists whose actions oppose the hero’s objectives and values.
This is one of the longer phases of your book or screenplay. One of the primary aspects to focus on during this part of the hero’s journey is character development. The hero’s interactions with allies and enemies must influence their character arc. They may learn from their allies’ virtues or confront their flaws through clashes with adversaries. These experiences contribute to their evolution as a protagonist.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The inmost cave symbolizes the heart of darkness, a metaphorical or literal place where the hero will encounter their most profound fears, doubts, or adversaries. Before this daunting trial, the hero often seeks a moment of contemplation, strategizing, or introspection, aiming to gather strength, uncover hidden truths, or fortify their determination.
This stage presents an opportunity for the hero to confront their deepest insecurities or unresolved issues, paving the way for a transformative experience.
It’s a time of heightened tension, where the hero faces an impending showdown, possibly battling internal demons or external adversaries.
Success at this critical point is essential for the hero to progress toward their ultimate goal, bringing them closer to the climax of their journey.
The Ordeal is the apex of the hero’s journey, a defining moment that encapsulates intense trials, life-threatening challenges, or a profound psychological battle that forces our hero to confront their greatest fears.
This critical phase tests the hero’s resilience, courage, and newfound insights gained through the journey, often pushing them to the brink of physical or emotional endurance (or both!) Success hinges on the hero’s ability to apply newfound wisdom or powers acquired along their journey.
Surviving the Ordeal marks a turning point, triggering a transformative experience that reaffirms the hero’s purpose and strengths. Overcoming this challenge will now propel the hero toward the ultimate goal or revelation, setting the stage for the climax where they emerge stronger, more enlightened, and closer to fulfilling their destiny.
9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)
The Reward or “Seizing the Sword” marks a critical juncture in the hero’s journey where they attain a valuable insight, a physical object, or a boon that aids in their quest. This reward could take the form of knowledge, a magical artefact, or a significant realization that grants the hero newfound power or understanding.
This phase showcases the hero’s growth, earned through perseverance and the trials faced during their journey. The acquired boon can serve various purposes, from a weapon to defeat the antagonist to a piece of wisdom that reshapes their perspective. Its significance lies not just in its material or symbolic value, but in how it propels the hero toward the ultimate goal.
The hero’s success in obtaining the reward bolsters their self-confidence and determination. It reinforces their commitment to their quest and their belief in their ability to overcome challenges.
10. The Road Back
Having “Seized the Sword” our hero thinks it’s time to head back home. Not so fast! This is a false ending, that is, the hero tries to return to the Ordinary World, but finds that it’s not so simple. The hero must now deal with the consequences or fallout from the actions taken during the adventure. Further, in some stories, the hero might actually resist the idea of returning to the Ordinary World due to their newfound abilities, knowledge, or attachments formed during the journey. There is one last test or reminder of the journey’s perils, and that’s our climax.
The Resurrection is the climax of the story, the point at which the hero faces the ultimate test. This will often involve a life-threatening situation or a decisive final battle. The Resurrection requires the hero to apply everything they have learned and undergone throughout their journey, testing their newfound strength, wisdom, or skills. The hero’s success can often involve sacrificing something important or making a selfless decision that contribute to their victory.
12. Return with the Elixir
The final phase of the hero’s journey, Return with the Elixir, encapsulates the hero’s return to the Ordinary World, armed with the knowledge, boon, or newfound wisdom acquired throughout their quest. This stage marks the completion of the hero’s transformational journey and represents the return home from their adventurous ordeal and the start of a new life.
Examples of The Hero’s Journey in Action
The monomyth can be found in many of the most popular stories in our culture. Hollywood has certainly embraced the structure, but you’ll find it in many popular novels as well. Here are some well-known stories, broken down into the main stages of the monomyth.
- The Ordinary World: Luke Skywalker lives on Tatooine, dreaming of adventure but stuck on his uncle’s moisture farm.
- The Call to Adventure: Finding Princess Leia’s distress message hidden in R2-D2 prompts Luke to join Obi-Wan Kenobi to help her.
- Refusal of the Call: Luke hesitates initially, feeling tied to his responsibilities, but ultimately decides to follow Obi-Wan after tragedy strikes.
- Meeting the Mentor: Obi-Wan becomes Luke’s mentor, teaching him about the Force and guiding him on his journey.
- Crossing the Threshold: Luke leaves Tatooine and ventures into space with Obi-Wan and Han Solo aboard the Millennium Falcon.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: Luke faces trials, encounters allies like Han and Chewbacca, and confronts enemies like Darth Vader and the Empire.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: The group infiltrates the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia.
- Ordeal: Luke faces a personal trial when Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to ensure their escape from the Death Star.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword): Luke learns about the Force, destroys the Death Star, and gains confidence in his abilities.
- The Road Back: The Rebel Alliance regroups, and Luke, now a hero, plans his next steps in fighting the Empire.
- Resurrection: Luke emerges as a changed person, having embraced his destiny as a Jedi and taking on a leadership role.
- Return with the Elixir: Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance, bringing back hope and knowledge of the Force to aid in the fight against the Empire.
- The Ordinary World: Neo lives an ordinary life as a computer programmer, feeling disconnected and seeking answers about reality.
- The Call to Adventure: Neo is contacted by Morpheus, who reveals the truth about the Matrix and invites Neo to embrace his destiny as “The One.”
- Refusal of the Call: Initially skeptical, Neo hesitates to accept his role and doubts his abilities.
- Meeting the Mentor: Neo encounters Morpheus, who guides and trains him, providing insight into the truth of the Matrix and the nature of his abilities.
- Crossing the Threshold: Neo takes the red pill, entering the world of the Matrix and leaving behind his old reality.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: Neo faces challenges within the Matrix, gains allies like Trinity and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, and confronts adversaries like Agent Smith.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: Neo delves deeper into the truth of the Matrix and his purpose, culminating in a meeting with the Oracle.
- Ordeal: Neo encounters various trials, including his fight against Agent Smith in the subway station, where he undergoes a profound transformation.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword): Neo embraces his identity as “The One,” unlocking his full potential to manipulate the Matrix and realizing his destiny.
- The Road Back: Neo returns to the Matrix with newfound confidence and powers to confront the machines and bring change.
- Resurrection: Neo’s symbolic rebirth occurs when he rises after his apparent death, demonstrating his newfound abilities and determination.
- Return with the Elixir: Neo becomes a symbol of hope and freedom, spreading awareness about the Matrix’s reality and challenging the control of the machines.
The Lord of the Rings
- The Ordinary World: Frodo Baggins lives a peaceful life in the Shire, unaware of the impending danger posed by the One Ring.
- The Call to Adventure: Gandalf reveals the truth about the Ring’s power and the need to destroy it, setting Frodo on a quest to take the Ring to Mount Doom.
- Refusal of the Call: Initially hesitant, Frodo is reluctant to leave the Shire but eventually accepts the responsibility of carrying the Ring.
- Meeting the Mentor: Gandalf becomes Frodo’s mentor, offering guidance and wisdom throughout the journey.
- Crossing the Threshold: Frodo leaves the safety of the Shire and begins his perilous journey towards Rivendell, encountering danger and challenges.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: Along the way, Frodo gains allies like Sam, Merry, and Pippin, faces enemies like the Nazgûl, and endures trials in Moria and beyond.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: The Fellowship reaches the heart of Mordor’s territory, approaching the perilous territories where the Ring must be destroyed.
- Ordeal: Frodo’s ultimate test occurs at Mount Doom, where he confronts the temptation of the Ring and battles against its corrupting influence.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword): Frodo claims the reward of destroying the Ring, saving Middle-earth from Sauron’s tyranny.
- The Road Back: The victorious Frodo returns to the Shire, profoundly changed by his experiences and sacrifices.
- Resurrection: Frodo’s return to the Shire marks a personal transformation, but he grapples with the emotional scars and trauma caused by the Ring’s influence.
- Return with the Elixir: Frodo’s return with wisdom and enlightenment impacts the world, leading to a new era of peace in Middle-earth.
When to use The Hero’s Journey structure
While the Hero’s Journey is a versatile and widely used structure, it’s not the only option available. Depending on your story’s themes, goals, and audience, you may choose to experiment with other narrative structures, such as the Three-Act Structure, the Snowflake Method, Save the Cat, or the Heroine’s Journey.
Here are some situations where the Hero’s Journey is a good story structure to consider:
- Epic adventures: Quests in fantasy, sci-fi, or historical narratives.
- Fantasy worlds: Fantastical settings with supernatural elements, guiding exploration in unfamiliar realms.
- Character-driven stories: To illustrate the protagonist’s evolution and inner journey.
- Coming-of-age tales: Narratives exploring the transition from youth to adulthood.
- Mythology and legends: Stories that are rooted in cultural myths.
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Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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