Breaking Down The Hero's Journey Plot Structure
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Writers, it's time to discuss one of my favorite storytelling topics: plot structure.
Today, in particular, we're going to break down a structure originally outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The Hero's Journey is a classic plot structure that appears in many speculative fiction books, films, television shows, and other forms of media.
Examples of works that utilize The Hero's Journey include Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Ender's Game.
It's important to note before we dive in that The Hero's Journey goes hand-in-hand with the Chosen One trope, which highlights a character of vital importance to the fate of a people group or nation. This character usually has some sort of unique power, trait, skill, or ability beyond that of the average person that defines them as integral to the plot.
When you consider the Chosen One trope, you may think of characters such as:
- Luke Skywalker, who uses the Force to save a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars.
- Katniss Everdeen, whose archery skills and uncommon compassion make her the perfect hero in The Hunger Games.
- Aragorn, whose destiny as a descendant of Isildur leads him to join the Fellowship, fight to save Middle-Earth, and eventually claim the throne of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings.
Are you eager to write a speculative fiction novel that centers on one character's epic journey? The Hero's Journey may just be the perfect structure to lend power and purpose to your story's plot. Ready to being integrating it into your next novel? Let's get started with today's breakdown!
An Introduction to The Hero's Journey
The Hero's Journey operates as a circular story structure, meaning that the hero's physical journey will end where it began, though their internal journey as a character will leave them forever changed.
This physical journey, in particular, will take your hero from a known world into an unknown one, often introducing them to new powers or skills or encouraging them to utilize known abilities like never before.
With these two functions of The Hero's Journey in mind, it's easy to see how one of the core themes of any Hero's Journey story is transformation. Rarely do such stories feature a flat character arc, in which the protagonist fights to stay true to their beliefs rather than undergoing change as a result of new experiences.
If you aren't prepared to develop your character throughout their journey, I would recommend checking out the 3-Act Story Structure instead. You can catch a breakdown of this story structure here at Well-Storied by clicking here.
Ready to move forward with The Hero's Journey? Let's break each story beat in depth below!
Note: Several variations of The Hero's Journey can be found online, some more complex than others. The version outlined here is fairly standard, though tweaked slightly to my tastes and simplified in comparison to Joseph Campbell's original outline.
Outlining The Hero's Journey:
experiencing The Known World
In order to give depth and meaning to your hero's journey as a whole, you must begin by establishing the hero's known world. Readers need to see who the hero is before their journey begins, how they live, and why it is they're unsatisfied with their life as is.
Call to Adventure.
After establishing your hero's known world and their dissatisfaction with that world, it's time to interrupt their everyday lives with a call-to-adventure. Suddenly, someone or something should present your hero with the opportunity to move outside their known world.
For example, in The Hobbit, Gandalf arrives in Hobbiton to encourage Bilbo to join the dwarves in their journey to reclaim their homeland.
In many instances, as in The Hobbit, the hero will initially decline or ignore the call-to-adventure, fearing the dangers — whether real or imagined — that the unknown world presents, believing themselves to be in some way unworthy of the adventure, or feeling initially duty-bound to stay where they are in life.
Acceptance of the call.
In some cases, if the hero does decline or ignore the initial call-to-adventure, they may simply change their mind after some deliberation. However, in most cases, a hero who has declined the call will only take it up when compelled to do so as a result of raised stakes.
You see this occur in Star Wars, when Luke initially hesitates to leave his family farm for flight school, feeling duty-bound to his aunt and uncle. It's only when his aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire that Luke joins Obi-Wan Kenobi in leaving Tatooine behind.
After accepting the call-to-adventure, the hero typically encounters a being of famed, mysterious, or supernatural origins who sets out to aid them in their journey. Examples of such beings include Obi-Wan Kenobi, Albus Dumbledore, Glinda the Good Witch, and Galadriel.
In most cases, this character also gifts the hero with supernatural training and/or a trinket or talisman that will help them in their journey.
Journeying into An Unknown World
Crossing The Threshold.
In The Hero's Journey, the threshold is the literal or figurative door between worlds. The hero crosses the threshold when they leave behind their everyday life in a known world and journey into an altogether new and unknown world. Often, crossing the threshold requires the hero to complete a difficult task presented by a "threshold guardian".
Keep in mind that this unknown world does not have to be an altogether separate land. In some cases, the hero crosses the threshold when they come to see an entirely different version of the world they thought they already knew.
This occurs in City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, when Clary kills a demon — the threshold guardian — and is introduced to the world of Shadowhunters by Jace Wayland, who acts as her supernatural aid. Suddenly, Clary adopts an entirely new understanding of New York City, a city she's lived in her entire life.
Experiencing the Unknown World.
After entering the unknown world, the hero experiences a series of events that open their eyes to both the wonders and dangers of this world. They may move a little closer toward the goal they set out to achieve when they embarked on their journey, but they haven't yet committed to the fight.
The Belly of The Whale.
Just as the hero begins to acclimate to the unknown world, an event occurs that marks the point of no return for your hero. Typically, this event presents your hero with their first real taste of danger, especially as presented by the story's villain or secondary antagonists.
The hero chooses to continue on their journey despite their new awareness of the unknown world's dangers, thus cementing their willingness to change. You see this occur in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is attacked — and nearly killed — by the Ringwraiths but still volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor during the Council of Elrond.
Trials and Tribulations.
After solidifying their commitment to the journey, your hero's journey doesn't get any easier. Trials and tribulations begin to crop up, forcing the hero to fight hard to keep moving forward. In many cases, these conflicts prey upon your hero's doubts, fears, or personal character flaws, jostling your hero's resolve.
Still, your hero presses forward, determined to achieve their story goal and complete their journey despite the heightened stakes and increasingly dangerous conflicts on the road.
Undergoing the Death & Rebirth Cycle
Beginning at roughly the midpoint of The Hero's Journey, the hero undergoes a death and rebirth — literal or figurative — that forever cements their transformation as a character.
Approaching The INnermost Cave.
The first step the hero takes toward cementing their transformation is in recognizing the full power of the physical danger — often that of an archetypical villain — or the internal fear that threatens the life(s) or happiness of themselves or those they love.
This recognition often presents itself fully as your hero knowingly heads into the thick of that danger. But before facing this epic conflict, the hero takes a moment to reflect upon all they have learned, sometimes wrestling with doubts and fears they experienced earlier in their journey, and may also face a small series of additional trials and tests.
This moment works to both build tension and highlight the magnitude of the event to come, which can be seen in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her company are attacked by the winged monkeys and assaulted within the Witch's castle in their quest to steal the broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West.
Facing The Great Ordeal.
Upon making their approach to the innermost cave, the hero is faced with a task of great and dangerous importance, such as a physical fight, a complex and life-threatening puzzle, or a deep inner conflict. To emerge victorious, the hero must draw upon everything they've learned thus far in their journey and, in some cases, make a terrible sacrifice.
This moment marks the story's midpoint and the biggest climactic event the hero has experienced thus far. In most cases, the hero will emerge victorious, though not without great cost. A metaphorical — or sometimes literal — death has forever changed the hero, transforming them into a stronger version of themselves.
This can be seen in Star Wars when Luke, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi enter the innermost heart of the Empire, the Death Star, to rescue Princess Leia. Luke is forever changed when he witnesses Obi-Wan's death at the hands of Darth Vader as they attempt to escape.
Receiving the Reward.
Despite finding victory at a steep cost, the hero is often rewarded for facing the great ordeal by receiving some sort of prize or reprieve, either for themselves or for their people. This most often comes in the form of receiving a magical object, receiving new insights or powers, or reuniting with a kidnapped or long-lost relation.
Examples of such rewards include the rescue of Princess Leia in Star Wars, Aslan's return to life in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and Harry's realization that he is very much loved (and now the proud owner of many a chocolate frog) in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Beginning the Return Journey
Atonement on The Journey Home.
After finding victory during the great ordeal and receiving their just reward, the hero sets out for home. In many cases, they've fulfilled the objective they originally embarked on their journey to achieve, but their life now doesn't quite match the vision they'd had for it when they began. Something remains amiss.
The hero may try to overcome this strange feeling by atoning for any wrongs committed during the first half of their journey. However, while the dangers of the unknown world have been replaced by the acclaim of being a known hero, conflict far worse than the great ordeal lurks just over the horizon...
In Ender's Game, Ender experiences such a discord between his former self and his current identity upon learning that he was tricked into committing genocide against an alien race.
At last, the hero finds themselves in their last and most dangerous encounter with death. Whether battling the story's villain, facing great physical peril, or choosing between personal success and that of higher meaning, to emerge from this conflict unsuccessful would have vast consequences for both the hero and those they left behind in their known world.
The stakes in this moment are incredibly high, marking this moment as the story's true climax, as well as the true and ultimate rebirth of the hero. In finding victory over literal or metaphorical death, the hero saves their people from harm and at last finds acceptance for their new sense of self.
Continuing with our Ender's Game example, Ender experiences true resurrection when he discovers a dormant bugger's egg and sets out to transport it to a new home planet, also writing a book in the alien race's defense.
Returning to the Known World.
Having found and forged lasting peace, the hero crosses the threshold and re-enters their known world a changed person, having grown much and learned even more. This return may mark a celebration, a moment of great self-realization, or the saving of those the hero left behind.
In any case, this final sequence reaffirms the necessity of the hero's journey, showcasing how their journey has not only improved their heart but the lives of those in their known world. In some cases, the return to the known world is a radical transformation in and of itself, and the hero must forge for themselves a new normal in which to thrive.
Popular examples of this return to the known world include the Pevensie children's return to England in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Frodo's return to the Shire — and later his journey to the Grey havens — in The Lord of the Rings.
Isn't The Hero's Journey an amazing plot structure?
As evidenced by the many examples used throughout today's breakdown, The Hero's Journey is truly an incredible tool when it comes to forging an epic story readers won't soon forget. So many of fantasy and science fiction's most popular stories find their roots in this classic plot structure.
I highly encourage you to check out the books and films we mentioned today. Doing so can help you see The Hero's Journey in action, giving you a better understanding of how you, too, can utilize this epic plot structure in your stories!