On Pacing and Structure (Part 8): The Heroine’s Journey

I recently read Gail Carriger’s book ‘The Heroine’s Journey,’ with an eye to translating it for the purpose of inclusion in this very ongoing series of writing advice. That book is very worth reading, and I have no regrets purchasing it.

First, some context. The Heroine’s Journey is the female counterpart to the Hero’s Journey, but just like with the Hero’s Journey a protagonist of the opposite gender can star as the hero/heroine. The BIG difference between Hero’s and Heroine’s is the focus on teamwork and cooperation. If you want to write a story where your protagonist goes and and defeats the enemy singlehanded, use the Hero’s Journey (usually using themes of self-sacrifice, independence, and maybe even a power fantasy). If you want to write a story where the protagonist has to make friends, use teamwork and compromise to succeed, use the Heroine’s Journey (usually using themes of cooperation, making friends after being socially isolated, and compromising with the enemy).

I will not be able to provide all the nuance and cultural reflection Carriger was able to in her nonfiction book on this topic. I suggest you read it. I am doing this write-up, because one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else.

Let’s get started.


What is the Heroine’s Journey? It is a structure based around a series of plot beats and character choices, culminating in the resolution of the story. I’m using Carriger’s format as a guide, as I am not as familiar with this structure than she is

  1. The Descent
    1. Broken Family
    2. Ignored Pleas/Hollow Promises
    3. Involuntary Abdication of Power
  2. The Search
    1. Social Isolation and Danger
    2. Disguise
    3. Creating a New Family
    4. Visiting the Underworld, Together
  3. The Ascent
    1. Finding What You’re Looking For and Negotiating with the Enemy
    2. The Real Adventure is The Friends You Made Along the Way

  • The Descent

The first act of your novel is The Descent. Tragedy has befallen your protagonist, usually from the outside. The heroine must abandon her position of safety, security and authority, leaving her comfort zone, and begin a quest to recover what was lost. Whatever was lost need not be a physical object or person; it can be something metaphorical like personal status. The hero/heroine usually voluntarily leave their friends and family behind to being their quest- though given the nature of the tragedy he/she endured, the protagonist probably doesn’t feel as though they have any choice BUT to leave.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the tone of your story.
  • To establish the genre
  • To establish the main character, and introduce their everyday struggles, and then upset those everyday struggles when something bad happens.

  1. The Descent
    1. Broken Family

The story begins with the heroine happy. She lives a safe life with her friends/family/job. But then tragedy strikes, and the heroine must strike out on her own.

Why does this story beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the status quo.
  • To break the status quo and get the plot rolling.
  • To increase the tension of the story.

Examples:

  • In ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’, the Descent is Harry receiving his his invitation to Hogwarts, and then breaking the status quo/breaking up his family by leaving the Dursleys to go to school.
  • In the Demeter myth, Demeter’s life is happy until the status quo is disrupted when her daughter Persephone suddenly disappears.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls’ by Lois McMaster Bujold, the stifling status quo of Ista’s life is disrupted when her mother dies.

  1. The Descent
    1. Ignored Pleas/Hollow Promises

Now that the heroine’s Status Quo has been disrupted, the protagonist has resolved to proactively leave their comfort zone and adventure, trying to reclaim that which was lost. But just because the protagonist wants to leave, doesn’t mean that everyone around them want her/him to. The protagonist might beg for help with her/his friends and family, but those pleas for aid will either be ignored answered with hollow promises. When it becomes clear the protagonist’s old friends/family will be of no help, they resolve to leave.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • This is the moment when the protagonist goes from passive observer of the plot to active participant.
  • This story beat shows that even in the beginning, the protagonist must rely on friends/family for help. Early on, her/his family/friends offers no help, so the protagonist is left with no other choice but to leave.
  • This should be a moment when PRESSURE is applied directly to the protagonist, moreso than the inciting incident of the tragedy itself falling. Focus on the pressure. The heroine must feel ALONE. And as the heroine is probably used to having friends, this is a scary moment for her/him.

Examples:

  • In Harry Potter, Harry repeatedly receives mail from Hogwarts. The Dursleys steal that mail. Harry pleads to be given his mail, but they ignore those pleas.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ after Ista makes her desires to leave Valinda behind known, her toxic ‘friends’ try to bully her into remaining.
  • In the Demeter myth, after Persephone vanishes Demeter goes to the Olympians for aid, but Zeus (who knows that Persephone was captured by Hades) declines to tell Demeter where Persephone is.

  1. The Descent
    1. Involuntary Abdication of Power

The heroine has realized that there is no hope for recovering what was lost in her present circumstances, so she gathers together what allies she can and leaves.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To provide a launching-off moment, where the protagonist actively begins his/her search for whatever it is she/he has lost. Where the previous story beat was all about feeling alone, this story beat is all about resolve. The heroine is willing to expose himself/herself to danger if that’s what it takes to reclaim what was lost.

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, the Involuntary Abdication of Power is when Hagrid shows up and kidnaps him from his legal guardians, taking him to school (though, as is the case most heroes/heroines at this story beat, he’s happy to go).
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ the Involuntary Abdication of Power is when she recruits a handmaiden, some bodyguards and a priest, schemes up an excuse to abandon her toxic friends, and leaves her home.
    • Her leaving is involuntary because she’s been held a captive in her house for the last two decades, and now that her mother’s dead she needs to be free or else she’ll go insane.
    • Note: her scheme is a false pilgrimage. She’s going to go on a pilgrimage, but she’s lost her faith in the gods and has no desire to regain that faith. This is important at the climax.
  • In the Demeter myth, after Zeus fails to tell her where Persephone went, Demeter, in her grief, takes off her crown and descends Olympus to search Gaia herself.

The Search

The hero/heroine is all on his/her own in the big scary world, probably for the first time in their life. This Act roughly coincides with the ‘Road of Trials’ in the Hero’s Journey, where the protagonist adventures from place to place, gaining knowledge, skills and friends on their quest towards a greater goal.

Note: in Gail Carriger’s analysis of the original texts, there is an emphasis on how the heroine acts as a civilizing force on the world around her. As the heroine goes on her Road of Trials, she makes the world a better place in her wake- solving problems, building buildings, helping feed the hungry.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • This is where the bulk of the Adventure in the story takes place. This act is called ‘The Search’ for a reason; the protagonist doesn’t just instantly find that which they’re looking for.

The Search

  1. Social Isolation and Danger

The protagonist has left their comfort zone, and goes through one (or more) minor adventures/story beats/episodes on their way to reclaiming their lost legacy. He or she is all on their own, and as they go through these one or more episodic adventures they gradually make friends and allies.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • The protagonist is alone, having abandoned their old friends and family. As the protagonist goes through the next several story beats/episodic adventures, they struggle to succeed- and maybe even fail- as a result of not having a network to rely on. These failures emphasize the protagonist’s social isolation and the danger of their circumstances, driving home the fact the protagonist NEEDS to have friends to succeed.
  • These try-fail cycles help raise the stakes and tension of the story.
  • With these story beats, it’s wise to ‘reward’ the protagonist with knowledge, tools or new allies/friends to help him/her on the coming journey.

Examples:

  • In ‘Harry Potter,’ Harry very nearly gets Hermione killed. Harry insults Hermione, and she goes to cry in a bathroom, only for a troll to wander into that bathroom. This mistake raises the stakes.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ Ista being kidnapped by Jokonans as a result of her leaving the safety of her hometown raises the stakes of the story.
  • In the Demeter myth, Demeter stops by a farm, and by Hecate’s place, asking for help in finding her daughter. She is ultimately not successful in either location, but she is able to help the farmer by teaching him agriculture.

The Search

  1. Disguise

The heroine is in the middle of her/his journey, and in one of their episodic adventures he/she finds the need to assume a disguise for their own safety. From a modern storytelling perspective, I do not believe that the inclusion of this story beat is mandatory, however I’m including it for the sake of being true to the original stories.

Speaking from a sociological perspective, I think it makes sense that this trope is included in this feminine storytelling structure and not the masculine Hero’s Journey. Traditional heroes like Achillies, Gilgamesh and King Arthur would never sully their honor/pride by disguising themselves to fight the enemy. A woman doesn’t have the luxury of such pride, because they are not as strong as a man like Achillies, Gilgamesh or Arthur. The heroine has to use her brains where the hero uses his muscle.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To emphasize the hero’s powerlessness, forcing her/him to use non-traditional methods to achieve victory.

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, he is given the Invisibility Cloak which literally turns him invisible. He uses this cloak to sneak around the school at night and go on his adventures.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ when Ista is kidnapped by the Jokonans she lies to them about her name, telling them she’s someone she’s not. Why? Because she’s the dowager queen of Chalion, and would make a fantastic hostage. By lying about her name, she protects her daughter.
  • In the Demeter Myth, Demeter assumes the guise of a common village woman and goes to work in the household of a farmer, teaching him agriculture and almost giving him immortality.

The Search

  1. Creating a New Family

The protagonist has experienced some try-fail cycles, perhaps failing because they lacked allies. Well, remember how I said above that in the traditional Heroine’s Journey the heroine goes around helping people? Feeding the poor, righting wrongs, doing good? Well, as the heroine goes around helping people, she makes friends and allies- she finds a new family after she abandons her old one.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • These new allies will help her in the trials to come.

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, Harry begins to create a new family, with Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore and even Neville.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ Ista creates a new family with Ferda, Foy, Liss, dy Cabon, Arhys, and Illvyn. Additionally, Ista herself ‘adopts’ Catalara, acting as a mother figure for troubled Catalara, helping save Catty from making the same mistakes which Ista herself made.
  • In the Demeter Myth, Demeter makes friends with Hecate, Helios, Iambe, King Keleos and Queen Metaneira. Together, she makes a new home for herself on Gaia and not Olympus, and begins to freeze the world in eternal winter.

The Search

  1. Visiting the Underworld, Together

The time has come for the climax of the story. The hero/heroine has gathered her/his allies and learns about the true reason for the earlier tragedy. Not only that, but she now knows where she needs to go to confront the antagonist (if there is an antagonist). To do so they must cross the liminal boundary between the ordinary world and the magical world, and venture into the underworld.

In more ordinary terms, it’s time for the Big Fight with the Big Bad. Of course, in the traditional Heroine’s Journey they probably don’t fight. Violence isn’t too feminine.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • The heroine suffered a tragedy in the beginning of the book, and endured multiple try-fail cycles in the middle of the book due to the insufficiency of her abilities. At last the heroine is ready.

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, the Visiting the Underworld, Together stage is when Harry, Ron and Hermione literally sneak past the three headed dog (Cerberus) to enter the dungeon (the Underworld) where Philosopher’s Stone is being kept (Philosopher’s Stone can create gold, and gold is Hades’ associated mineral).
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ Ista Visits the Underworld, Together with Illvyn, when she turns herself over to the Jokonans for a second time, this time without a disguise. Her mission is to assassinate the enemy demon-prince and demon-queen, and she fully expects to die in the process.
  • In the Demeter Myth, Demeter never actually goes to Hades to fetch Persephone herself. Instead, Zeus sends Hermes to do it for her.

The Ascent

This is the wrap-up act of the novel, when the protagonist resolves their differences with their enemies and rewards their allies for their faith.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To show character growth and change. In Act 1 the protagonist failed to prevent the tragedy, and in Act 2 the protagonist failed multiple try-fail cycles. However in Act 2 the protagonist made allies and gained new abilities. In Act 3 the protagonist uses their new friends and abilities to succeed where he or she previously failed.

The Ascent

  • Finding What You’re Looking For and Negotiating with the Enemy

The protagonist has ventured into the underworld, be that a literal underworld or a metaphorical one. In the heart of their antagonist’s power, the protagonist is at their weakest and the enemy is the strongest. However the protagonist has trained and gained new abilities- and more importantly has replaced their old family network with a new one who is willing to stand with them through thick and thin. Together, the good guys can take on the enemy.

Only, the heroine doesn’t want to slaughter the enemy. No, the heroine is a good person, and a paragon of civilization. Instead she negotiates with the enemy- negotiates from a position of strength thanks to his or her allies.

As a result of the negotiations, neither the allies nor the antagonists get everything they want. They compromise, and everyone is happy (or at least the tragedy which began the book is reverted).

Note: compromising with the enemy is part of the original mythos. Does a modern author have to be beholden to it? No. But you should at least think about it. If you’re writing a story about Good vs Evil, then The Heroine’s Journey might not be the appropriate structure, because good can’t compromise with evil.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To show that even in victory, the Heroine is kind to her enemies. She remains a force for life and growth and civilization, not destruction.
  • If you are an author and want to write a traditional final battle, featuring the protagonist + their allies, you would instead place that here. For example, the movie The Seven Samurai involves a group of soldiers coming together over the course of the movie, to fight together at the end.

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, this is where this example falls apart. As I said, you can’t compromise with evil, and Voldemort is evil. As a result, the climax of this novel does not follow this format. Harry does find what he’s looking for (the Philosopher’s Stone), but can’t compromise with his antagonist.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ Ista finds what she’s looking for since the book began. Remember when I said that Ista had no intention to actually find her faith again when she went on pilgrimage? Well, she actually did find her faith. Additionally, the Chalionese negotiate with the Jokonans after the final battle, ensuring a peaceful surrender of the Jokonans who survived the demon invasion.
  • In the Demeter Myth, Demeter, Persephone and Hades come to a mutually agreeable solution together, where Persephone spends half her time above ground with Demeter, and half her time below ground with Hades..


The Ascent

  • The Real Adventure is The Friends You Made Along the Way

The protagonist, having achieved his/her goal can now safely return to the status-quo world. They re-integrate with their old family and friends, but also maintain their new family and friends. As a consequence of their adventures, they’ve learned important life lessons and grown emotionally stronger.

Also, at the very climax of the story, the heroine rewards those who stood by her throughout the narrative- and maybe even begins a romance/gets married with one of her allies. The protagonist might even retire, trusting their friends to continue fighting the good fight without them.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To give the book a happy ending!

Examples

  • In Harry Potter, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville are rewarded by Dumbledore for their actions by winning the House cup for the year.
  • In ‘Paladin of Souls,’ Ista rewards her retainers for standing with her. She elevates Liss to being nobility, allows Foy to become a sorcerer, dy Cabon gets a permanent promotion in the clergy, Gorum has his memories restored, Arhys is sent to Heaven, and Ista begins a romance with Ilvyn. Additionally, Catalara is given a dignified next-chapter in her life despite being an antagonist. Ista tried to spare the villain Joan of Jokona, but instead Joan chose death.
  • In the Demeter Myth, Demeter rewards all of mankind for the restoration of Persephone by allowing people to farm again, and bestowing agriculture upon the world.

Now that was fun! As with all other story structures, this list of story beats only provides the bare minimum of story beats to tell a story; as a writer, feel free to include more. For example, in Harry Potter, I never mentioned the story beats involving his classes, him going to Diagon Alley, the Forbidden Forest, or Quiddich. None of these story beats directly interacted with Harry’s Heroine’s Journey, but they nonetheless flesh out the story. A structure is a skeleton of an outline; as the author, you fill out the skeleton with muscle, tendon, skin and organs.

I suggest you check out Gail Carriger’s book on The Heroine’s Journey. She talked about the cultural context of how this schema has been used in the past, for good and ill. She’s done a better job talking about it than I can in this short space. I hope you find this resource useful.

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