On Pacing and Structure (Part 2): The Hero’s Journey

In the year 1949 Joseph Campbell published his influential work ‘The Hero with a Thousand Face,’ discussing and dissecting the so called ‘monomyth.’ Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about it any great detail. I’ll just say that the ‘monomyth’ is Joseph Campbell’s theorized ur-myth; a Structure common to many worldwide myths and legends.

In recent years, his work has come into some doubt in an anthropological perspective. However, I do believe that the Hero’s Journey can still be used by us modern authors in creating and diagnosing stories. As an example, George Lucas very publically used the monomyth in the creation of Star Wars, so you know it can’t be all that bad.

When I write, I like to refer back to Structures (such as The Hero’s Journey), both to help me compose my book initially as well as to diagnose problems I might be having. Hopefully this analysis can help you in your trials as well.

Before I continue, I suggest you watch this video. It’s only three minutes long, and it does a good job of clearly explaining what exactly the Hero’s Journey is. I must admit I have no idea who Dan Harmon is, nor have I ever watched his show ‘Rick and Morty’ in my entire life, but in this video he created a very clear explainer of what the Hero’s Journey is.


You watched it? Good. Let’s get started.

The Hero’s Journey is the prototypical story of adventure, a sort of distillation of a thousand myths from around the world (mainly from the West but also some Asian and Eurasian stories) in order to create a base template of a generic story. Campbell’s analysis proposed that it was a many staged format of storytelling, but for us modern authors, the Hero’s Journey can be summarized. I have renamed many of the stages.

  1. Normal Life
  2. The Call to Adventure
  3. Refusing the Call/Jumping at the Call
    1. (If the Protagonist Refused the Call, then) Destiny Intervenes
  4. Searching for the Plot
  5. Finding the Plot, For Better or For Worse
  6. Success!
  7. The Climax
  8. Denouement/How the Characters have Changed

(I got this infographic from wikipedia.)

Normal Life

When I write, I like to begin the story slightly before the plot actually begins. This is so we get a baseline of the protagonist’s personality. For example, if you have a story about a soldier, the ‘Normal Life’ might include details about his/her home life with the kids and spouse. The initiation of the plot disrupts the status quo of the protagonist, so by including a scene/ a few scenes focusing on the narrative ‘normal life’ of the protagonist the reader gets a fleshed out view of the protagonist’s character arc as well as a full knowledge of the stakes of the plot.

It is not necessary to include this stage (especially in shorter books like Thrillers and Mysteries) because it can add bloat to your story without adding needed depth. In other genres (such as Epic Fantasies) this storytelling stage can be used. If you chose NOT to use it, feel free to lump the ‘Normal Life’ stage in with ‘The Call to Adventure/Refusing the Call/Jumping at the Call’ stages.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the status quo for the reader, and hopefully interest the reader in reading a story about the protagonist. This act serves as a hook.

Examples:

  • The Shire sections of the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring before the party. Bilbo putting on the One Ring begins the next stage.
  • The scenes with Luke before he buys the droids in Star Wars: A New Hope. Buying the droids begins the next stage.
  • In Harry Potter book 1, all the book leading up to the first letter arriving (and being stolen from him). The Dursleys destroying the letter begins the next stage.

The Call to Adventure

In this storytelling stage, the outside world butts in on the everyday life of the protagonist, forcing them into action. Perhaps a beloved family member has contracted a disease which needs to be cured, or perhaps a Dark Lord has sent assassins after the protagonist, or perhaps the protagonist just graduated from college and now has to get a job, or perhaps someone is murdered and the detective needs to be called in- this stage can take any number of forms.

The purpose of this stage is to kick off the events of the plot.  Maybe a femme fatale shows up at your detective’s office, or the Dark lord is about to send assassins after the orphan farmboy. Either way, nothing will ever be the same again.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To set the two parallel plots plot of the story in motion- the external plot (aka the Dark Lord plot/the mystery plot/the romance plot) as well as the internal plot (aka the character plots).

Examples:

  • The Shire sections of LotR, after Bilbo puts on the ring, and then leaves Frodo with all his possessions. Gandalf returning to the Shire after many months begins the next stage.
  • All the scenes of Star Wars: a New Hope between Luke getting the ‘You’re my Only Hope’ message and Luke going to Old Ben’s house. This stage ends with Obi Wan telling Luke that he needs to join the rebellion.
  • Harry Potter learning that he’s a wizard from Hagrid is the Call. This stage ends when Harry and Hagrid leave the Dursleys.

Jumping at the Call/Refusing the Call

This is an either/or storypoint: you can either include a ‘Jumping at the Call’ story stage, or a ‘Refusing the Call’ story stage.

If your orphan farmboy is just itching to see the rest of the world, he’ll jump at the call to adventure and book it with his mentor. If the orphan really wants to stay behind to buy and sell power converters, he refuses the call. If you have a detective protagonist, then he’ll Jump at the Call if he’s desperate for money; he’ll Refuse the Call if he has doubts about the intentions of the person who hires him.

Why choose one or the other? To establish important features of your protagonist’s personality. If they’re a homebody, or maybe must take care of a sick relative? Then chances are they’ll Refuse the Call. Are they the adventurous sort, with no one to tie them down? They’ll jump. This is a storytelling opportunity, to establish a baseline level for your protagonist.

When I use this trope/writing stage, I like to use the decision to jump/refuse as a method to explain how the protagonist’s personality will change throughout the novel. For example, if a reckless protagonist learns to be wise and cautious by the end of the book, I’ll have them Jump at the Call to add contrast to later in the book when they make the opposite choice. Equal and opposite’s true too; a reticent protagonist who Refuses the Call, later on will chose to Jump at the call after they’ve grown into their confidence.

Now why do we have either of these stages? To act as the last gasp between Act 1 and 2. From this point onwards we have an entirely new setting/theme. Aka, Dorothy’s not in Kansas anymore.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To show the reader how the protagonists respond when put under pressure. Do they stand and fight? Or do they run? The choice here should be the inverse of the choice they make later in the story. In this moment the parallel internal/external plots intersect for the first time, showing us whether or not the protagonist has the moral fiber for this job.

Examples:

  • Luke originally turns down the offer to go fight the Empire.
  • Frodo agreeing to take the Ring to Rivendell.
    • Also from LotR, in Rivendell when Frodo agrees to carry the ring to Mordor
  • Harry Potter learning that he’s a wizard from Hagrid, and deciding to go with Hagrid to magic school.

Destiny Intervenes

This stage is optional. You only have it if the protagonist Refused the Call and did not willingly go on an adventure. Basically, this structural device is where the plot starts happening forcing the protagonist to go along with the plot whether they like it or not.

If you choose to use this structural segment, it is wise to play up the ‘consequences of your choice’ paradigm. For example, if the protagonist Refused the Call and something bad happened as a result of that refusal, then the protagonist can be motivated for the rest of the novel based on the guilt of that inaction.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To keep the plot moving. If the protagonist denies the Call, then some external force has to keep them in motion whether they like it or not.

Examples:

  • Luke going home and discovering his parental figures had been murdered by the Empire.

Searching for the Plot

This is when the fun begins. The protagonist has a job- be it to find a murderer, defeat the Dark Lord, or impress the in-laws who are coming over for dinner. The problem? The protagonist hasn’t gone through their character arc yet so they’re not ready for the final battle. Maybe the protagonist must find the McGuffin, or go to Magic School, or fall in One-True-Love- doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they must get there first.

Oftentimes, this segment of the story includes a Training Montage of the main character practicing their skills. Or it includes a travel scene of the main character going from place to place. Or it includes your detective protagonist going out and checking the scene of the crime, looking for clues, speaking with witnesses. This section of the story is very adaptable, and depends in a huge way on your story. What is your story about? Answer that question here

In some books the ‘searching’ stage will consume the majority of the story (stories such as Mysteries where most of the plot involves gathering clues and following up leads), while in others it will be very short, only a chapter or two.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To inform the reader of the general scope of your story and what types of tropes it uses, and make them enjoy watching the protagonist grow in skill/likeability as they struggle.
  • Author, you must expand your story out from the vignette of the Ordinary World your protagonist comes from (the farm/the detective’s office/the everyday life of your romantic lead) to show the reader the new world they must explore. Move the protagonist out of their comfort zone, and have them conquer obstacles and gain skills.

Examples:

  • Beginning when Luke goes to Mos Eisely to get a ride off of Tattooine, and ends when Luke and Han rescue Leia .
  • Begins with Frodo escaping the Black Riders as they pursue him to Bree, and ends when they arrive in Rivendell.
  • Begins with Harry Potter escaping from the Durslies and going with Hagrid to Diagon Alley, and ends when Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised.

Finding the Plot, For Better or For Worse

The hero’s have found out a secret bit of information, or found the magical McGuffin, or have arrived at their destination, but… they hit a bit of a snag.

Perhaps the heroes first attempt to kill the Dark Lord failed, and now on he’s guard. Or maybe the detective have discovered the one key piece of information needed to figure out who’s the murderer. Or maybe the two romantic leads have a misunderstanding and suddenly fall out of love.

What do all of these things have in common? In this section of the story, there is a twist in the main plot. All the preparation and study the protagonist(s) have gone through up until now won’t be enough. So the hero(es) need to make a new plan on the spur of the moment in order to achieve their ultimate goal.

The story’s tension starts rising in earnest in this structural segment of the story, as the pieces start falling into place for the inevitable climax.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • Your protagonist has gained some skills, and begun to navigate the special world outside their homeland like a native of that special world. The main plot of the story finally catches up with them… but even with their new skills they are completely incapable of defeating it. They have to form a new plan if they wish to continue.
  • This act is a setback for your protagonist. They’ve gained new skills, but ultimately fail. This failure makes the protagonist more likable, because nothing in life is easy and the fact that they don’t give up after trying and failing makes them more interesting for your reader to read.
  • In more traditional versions of the Hero’s Journey, the heroes do not have to fail at defeating an obstacle in this stage. I added it as a requirement here because making your protagonist sometimes fail makes them more relatable to the rest of us mere mortals. This is called a try-fail cycle.

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, this phase of the story begins when Harry learns that the Mirror of Erised contains the Philosopher’s Stone(or Sorcerer’s Stone for my fellow Americans). It ends when Harry, Ron, and Harmione learn how to defeat Fluffy and enter the labyrinth guarding the mirror.
  • In Star Wars, this segment begins when the trio jump into the garbage chute and ends when they escape the Death Star.
  • In Lord of the Rings, this segment begins when they enter Rivendell, and it ends when Frodo agrees to carry the Ring to Mordor.

Success!

The hero’s need the McGuffin to defeat the Dark Lord… and they finally have it! Or maybe the protagonist has found the perfect gift to apologize to their love interest so they can get back together. Or maybe the detective has found the second piece of evidence needed to definitely prove that the antagonist is the killer. With this final development, the climax can begin.

This structural element combines with the ‘Finding the Plot’ element to create a micro arc. They had to create a new plan on the spur of the moment in the last segment, and now they’ve pulled it off. Next step, we’re ready for the final battle/the confrontation with the murderer/meeting the in-laws.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • In the last act the protagonist failed in their objective, and had to make a new plan. Well, they made a new plan, conquered more obstacles, engaged in more try/fail cycles, and have pulled off their new plan. They now have all the tools they need to take on the climax.

Examples:

  • In Lord of the Rings, this segment begins when they leave Rivendell and ends with the heroes leaving Lothlorian… I think. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ breaks down after this point.
  • In ‘A New Hope,’ this structural element begins when the heroes escape the Death Star and it ends when the pilots begin to enter their x-wings.
  • In Harry Potter, this structural element begins when the good guys knock Fluffy unconscious and ends when Harry passes through the final door and confronts Voldemort at the Mirror of Erised.

The Climax

The heroes have gained the McGuffin, and use it to beat the bad guy. Or the detective confronts the murderer and use the secret clues he’s gained to trick the murderer into confessing on tape. Or the two romantic leads get back together again.

In this structural element, we have the final battle. All the chips are down, and the heroes are gambling their lives one last time to achieve the impossible. The heroes (hopefully) win the day.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

    • To finish the story and allow the internal and external to intersect once again. The choice they made at the beginning of the story of whether to Answer the Call or not, is echoed here in some form.
    • Throughout the story, the protagonist had to learn valuable lessons and overcome their flaws, as a natural part of their internal character arc. At the climax, they use these valuable lessons to succeed at the external plot, the external plot being defeating the Dark Lord, or a successful romance, or catching the murderer.

Examples:

  • In Harry Potter, the climax is the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.
    • The internal plot of Harry gaining friends (Ron and Hermione) allows him to defeat the external plot of Voldemort (aka Harry’s emotional trauma caused by the death of his parents and the cruel upbringing of the Dursleys).
  • In Star Wars, the climax is the Death Star run.
    • The internal plot of Luke learning to trust the Force (with the Force being a metaphor for Luke’s lack of confidence in himself as a result of him being an orphan raised on a backwater planet), allows him to succeed with the external plot of blowing up the Death Star and save the galaxy.
  • In the Fellowship of the Rings, the Climax begins when Boromir attempts to steal the One Ring.
    • The external plot of the corruption of the One Ring (in the form of Boromir trying to steal it from Frodo), forces the final stage of development of the internal plot of Frodo taking responsibility for the One Ring and abandoning the Fellowship to take the Ring to Mordor by himself.
    • This is an inversion of the traditional Hero’s Journey, but that makes sense given the context of how Frodo’s story in the Lord of the Rings is a story of falling to corruption.

The Denouement/How the Characters have Changed

The story’s over, pull the curtains. The heroes head home, and we the audience get to see how all the trials and tribulations the protagonist(s) have gone through have changed their personalities. This can be a bittersweet moment where the heroes remember those who’ve they’ve lost… or it can be a happy moment where the lovers get their happily ever after.

Technically speaking this structural element is optional. You can skip it. But the Denouement is a valuable moment to show the completeness of character growth. If your protagonist started the story a bad father, now’s the moment to show what they’ve learned in being a good father. If your lovers began the book hating one another, now’s the moment to show how they can work through their differences like adults. If the book began with the protagonist being an orphan farmboy of mysterious parentage, the Denouement is when they’re welcomed back into their family (aka find their sense of identity).

You remember how I said that if the protagonist Rejected the Call early on, that later on they should make the opposite choice? Now’s the moment for that. The point is to show definitively how the character’s personality has changed.

If your setting functions on the Fisher King principle (aka if the good king rules the kingdom prospers/the bad king rules the kingdom suffers), you can show how the characters are healing by showing how the setting heals.

Short and sweet, (or short and bittersweet) is usually for the best when it comes to Denouement. Usually only one chapter or two is all that’s needed. In published work. Any more than that can be too much. The only occasion I’d have more than that is for the conclusions of entire series, where you need many chapters to sum up the character growth of multiple characters.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To wrap up any plot lose ends, finish easing the tension built up over the course of the story, and prepare the reader emotionally for the end of the story. You just dragged your readers through an emotional roller coaster by reading your good book; do them the kindness of giving them a soft landing at the end.

Examples:

  • In Harry Potter, everything which happens after the confrontation with Voldemort is Denouement.
  • In Fellowship, everything which happens after the final battle with the orcs is Denouement… so there’s really no Denouement.
  • In A New Hope, the medal ceremony is Denouement.

And there you go! That’s the Hero’s Journey. You can use this as a guide to writing your book, or diagnosing problems you might be having after you’ve written it.

Finally, I suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on the Hero’s Journey if you want more info on the original topic, such as how it relates to ancient myths as opposed to modern commercial storytelling.

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