Monday, November 25, 2019

Plotting With the Hero's Journey

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The Hero's Journey is a plot structure that's been around as long as storytelling. And with Thanksgiving this week, it's a good time to dip into the archives for a little refresher.

In this mini-series, I've discussed the Three-Act Structure, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat structure, Michael Hague's Six Stage Plotting Structure), and Joyce Sweeney's Plot Clock structure. These are among the most-popular and often-used structures in creating stories, from short fiction to novels to screenplays. This time, let's dig into the hero's Journey.

The Hero's Journey is an archetypal narrative structure created by Joseph Campbell to describe the basic myth format used in storytelling for centuries—the hero on an adventure. It covers classic turning points and elements of the journey that are the basis for most modern storytelling formats.

These elements are metaphoric in nature. For example, "the reward" doesn’t also mean literal treasure or wealth, just a victory of some type. The hero “wins” something and is “rewarded.”

I’ll add in [brackets] where this aligns with the Three-Act Structure for comparison since we just talked about that. It should make it easier to show how these structures work together. I'll also mention areas where this overlaps the Save the Cat Structure.

The Ordinary World

The hero is introduced to readers within the setting of his typical environment and life in a sympathetic way. There’s a problem, and he’s being pulled in multiple directions, uncertain how to proceed. [The opening scene]

This is what folks are talking about when they say start with the protagonist in the normal world. It doesn't mean show a boring life, it's that "things are about to happen" moment that allows for contrast between the life the protagonist lives and what he's about to be thrown into.

The Call to Adventure

Something happens to trigger the hero to act, or the hero is dragged into something that is happening. This call is the beginning of change for the hero. [The inciting event]

Something gets the protagonist into the story. If this isn't the inciting event itself, it'll be the catalyst that gets the protagonist there.

Refusal of the Call

Out of fear, the hero refuses the call (tries not to act). Other characters might also express fear or concern over the adventure as well, setting up the stakes and all the reasons why the hero shouldn’t go on this adventure. [Beginning of character arc]

This is when you show the flaw or weakness of the protagonist, and establish the stakes. It's all the reasons why this adventure is a bad idea. (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is called the debate section)

Meeting with the Mentor

The hero runs into someone who will give him training, guidance, or wisdom that will help him on this journey. This inspires him to answer the call and start the adventure.

Not every story will have a mentor, and those that do might not be the "wise old man" character the word mentor makes brings to mind. A best friend with good advice can work as this archetype. Think of it as anyone who gives the protagonist advice or help that will aid them on the adventure.

Crossing the Threshold

The end of act one, where the hero leaves the ordinary world and begins the journey into the unknown, facing unfamiliar rules and situations. [Act two choice]

The protagonist leaves the normal world and jumps into the chaos of the plot. It's a choice to act, even if it's a choice where there "is no choice." (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is where the protagonist's world gets turned upside down and things change)

Test, Allies, and Enemies

The hero undergoes the trials and tests as he learns how to navigate the new, unfamiliar world. [First half of act two]

It's all about the struggle here. The protagonist tries to achieve things and stuff keeps getting dumped on him. Often, the tests and struggles are more "fun" here, because the stakes haven't been hiked up to serious levels yet. (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is called the fun and games section)


The hero prepares for a significant challenge in the unfamiliar world.

Things start getting serious and the protagonist can see something pretty big that has to be done or dealt with.

The Ordeal

The hero confronts death and faces his greatest fear. [Midpoint]

No matter what the structure, the middle has something significant going on.

The Reward

The hero is rewarded for facing death. Celebration may occur, but the risk of losing the reward is also there. [Second half of act two]

Instead of a loss (which is common in both the Three-Act Structure and Save the Cat), the protagonist achieves a small victory. The trick is holding onto that "reward."

The Road Back

The hero is racing to finish the adventure and return home with the reward, often with adversaries chasing him.

Things start off looking good for the protagonist, but then he realizes that people are after him and he might not get to keep the reward. He thinks he's won, but then things start falling apart. He has to figure out how to keep the reward. (In the Save the Cat Structure, this is the bad guys close in section)

The Resurrection

The climax, where the hero is tested once more. He resolves his inner conflict by facing death or making a sacrifice, and emerges purified. [The climax]

The climax, with a metaphorical "dies and is reborn" element. This correlates with digging deep and figuring out that last piece needed to finish the character arc and become the person the protagonist wanted to/needed to be.

Return with the Elixir

The hero returns home or continues the adventure, with the newfound power or belief that can transform the world as the hero was transformed.

The wrap up, the aftermath, the closing where you get to see how the protagonist was transformed and is now the person he always wanted to be.

It should be easy to see how similar this is to the Three-Act Structure, and even the Save the Cat Structure. At their core, stories follow a basic structure, and while there are subtle difference in how different people interpret or define then, they're all very interchangeable. The differences might make one model more appealing for a particular genre or type of story, so it can be helpful to change the structure depending on what type of story you're writing.

For example, any type of mythic or adventure story can work well with the Hero's Journey, while a romance might be better suited to the Three-Act Structure, and a thriller or suspense is great for the Save the Cat Structure. You can mix and match as you see fit. But you can also use any structure for any story if you prefer one over the other.

I like aspects of all of them, so I created my own custom structure template using elements from all three. It helps me pinpoint the elements I like to have in my novels.

Any questions or thoughts regarding the Hero's Journey? 

Originally published October 2011. Last updated November 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I swear by the Hero's Journey. I've yet to see the movie or book that I can't apply the model to.

    That said, I would advise against using it as a basis when first drafting a story. Use it as a guide in the editing process, recognise where your story hits the marks, and if you feel it's falling flat, consider whether making the stages more well-defined will help.

    1. Exactly! It works beautifully that way -

    2. Thank you Janice Hardy and Paul Anthony Shortt. I just used the outline to craft a query letter. Very helpful. I agree natural story telling comprises these elements, organically produces the surprises in character thought and action that delight readers.

  2. My favorite books involve the hero's journey. Janice, you blog is full of great information. Thank you for posting it all for us would be writers. I link my readers to your blog often. :)

  3. Paul, that's another great use for all these structures. I've never tried to write a draft from this one, but I have stolen elements from it.

    Christine, thanks so much! I just love talking about writing with other writers. You should see me in person at a writers' con, lol.

  4. I'm also a firm believer in the hero's journey. I used Campbell's outline as a basis for loosely drafting an outline for my story. I found it really helpful, since I'm writing a novel with three point-of-view characters. I wrote a synopsis of each person's journey. Now that I'm writing the draft, having this structure has helped speed things along tremendously.

    1. Great tip for multiple POVs. That would also let you double check to make sure each POV has a story and arc and aren't just there to infodump.

  5. I like what Paul said about using the structure for revisions. I never thought of it that way, but it is usually AFTER a story's plotted that I start thinking about whether it's a hero's journey or not.

    One thing that took me way longer than it should to figure out is that the `journey' doesn't have to involve travel. The story can take place in a small town or a single house and still follow the `hero's journey' structure.

    1. Jami Gold swears by it as well. I plot with one and I still go back and double check it after the first draft. Structures are great tools for the entire writing process.

  6. I have to admit, all the time I have spent reading this blog is transforming me from a pantser into a plotter. I really wish I had put a little more structure into my WIP before now (the editing stage).

    I love these plot structures, and will definitely use one (however loosely) before starting my next book.

    1. I think a lot of folks think of structure and outlining as the same thing, but they're really different, and that's where a lot of the confusion comes from. You can have structure and still pants a story. Your plotting stage might be a bullet list of five or six arc points to guide you as you explore the story.

      I guess you're on dry land again since you're leaving comments! How soon til you're back on the open seas?

  7. Thanks for another awesome post. I loved how you added how the hero's journey plot and the 3 act story and Save the Cat are so similar in some ways.

    1. They really are. I'm glad I did them at the same time, cause it made it really easy to see the similarities. I think that makes it easier to understand the differences and how they all work together.

  8. Thank you so much for all your wonderful posts, Janice! You always provide such great information and in a way that makes so much sense to me. I don't comment often enough, but I do read and appreciate your shared knowledge.

    Today, a new scene exploded onto the virtual page for me, a perfect scene I didn't know the story needed until I read this post. I found my mentor -- he was there all along just waiting to be brought more fully into the story. I've read about Joseph Cambell's The Hero's Journey many times, and have applied the story structure to other manuscripts, but today your post jogged something loose for this revision on this manuscript. And now I'll see what other nuggets will shake loose from reading the rest of the post.

    Color me excited.

    Oh, and I loved what Paul said about using the structure for revisions. That makes sense to me and has worked best when applied this way.

    1. My pleasure! That's my goal, and it always makes my day to hear it's working.

      That's awesome. I love when that happens.

      Structure is great for revisions. An easy guide to test for holes or weak spots and let you know if you need to expand or cut back on any scenes.

  9. Thanks for posting this Janice! The "Meet the Mentor" section turned on a light bulb in my brain. So glad you brought this up.

    I first heard about "Save the Cat" a couple of years ago but was reluctant to read it for fear of a formulaic written novel. BUT after having read it and your Three-Act Structure I have create a template from both concepts that I'm hoping is THE thing that helps me reach my goal.

    I am so looking forward to reading your post next week about Snyder's plot structure. I do have one request. Since you are sooo very good at providing examples for better understanding, could you please pick a popular story/movie to better explain each beat to help out writers like me?

    Until next time...


    1. Looks like a few folks got inspired by the mentor comment, that's so cool.

      I love mixing and matching these. I can customize the turning points to the type of story, since some plots work better with certain moments. Looking at the other options also lets me add layers I might not have done without that little nudge.

      There are a ton of beat sheet examples out there, so here are some links:

      Toy Story 3:
      Die Hard:
      Star Wars:
      The Waterboy:
      And a whole list of other movies:

      The last one has a slew of links to movies going back several years.

    2. Or web addresses, since the links didn't actually work :)

  10. there is a plot-structure called "the heroines journey" as well, if I'm not misstaken, would you tell me/us bit more about it?

    1. Not that's I've seen, but the structure works for both genders. "Hero" is really just the protagonist.

  11. Hi Janice, do you think the hero's journey could be applied as the structure for a nonfiction short story for 4000 words? I want to write a memoir incident for a competition and wondered if this would work as a structure in a short piece? Thanks for breaking up the hero's journey into manageable steps!
    Maribel from Australia

    1. Nonfiction has a different structure than fiction, so I'm not sure it would apply. Though if you're doing more of a narrative nonfiction, then it might, as that has a storytelling feel to it.

      You could certainly try it and see what happens. It was first used to describe myths and whatnot, which were shorter. I think it would depend if your memoir has that "journey" feel or not. Some of the steps might not apply.

      You could also try Michael Hague's six step plotting structure. That's a little smaller and might be more manageable for a memoir.

  12. I read Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, then the simpler Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which had greatly simplified Campbell's work. Now, suddenly I find Save the Cat beet sheets everywhere. The idea of beats came from movie makers and script writers, I guess. It seems to me that all twelve steps in the Hero's Journey presented by Vogler ARE all the beats needed to write virtually any book, from literary to action. Not sure what all the fuss is with Save the Cat for novelists, unless it is because it takes away a lot of self doubt by providing page numbers for each of the milestones. Mmmmm...maybe a Hero's Journey beat sheet for those in need. Interesting. Good site here.

  13. Really great article thanks a bunch!!

  14. Really great article thanks a bunch!!

  15. Jerry Evanoff10/10/2017 12:41 PM

    Great article, but a question. Can I mix up a couple steps? For example, can the Meeting the Mentor happen before the Call to Adventure. For example, Luke meeting Obi Wan before Obi Wan tells him he needs to go with him and learn the force?

    1. Sure. These are just classic story turning points, but there's flexibility in how we use them.