How to Write Classic Narrative Structure: The Hero’s Journey

Every story has a narrative structure. From the simplest narrative, like a joke, to a complex narrative like an epic novel series, stories are built on frameworks deeply embedded into our cultures.

Understanding narrative structure can be helpful in working out how to best develop and write your story.

There are many different types of narrative structure. One of the most familiar, especially to fantasy readers, is the Hero’s Journey or Monomyth structure. Developed by Joseph Campbell in seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), the monomyth story structure is summarised as this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The 17 Stage Hero’s Journey Narrative Structure

The Hero’s Journey has three phases: Departure; Initiation and Return. Each phase has its distinct sections with 17 stages to the story structure as a whole.

Before we get into the details as described by Campbell’s work, remember this is not the be all and end all of a heroic journey narrative and should not be treated like a checklist of steps for your character to go through. The Hero’s Journey is a guide not a rule book.

 

Departure
1. The Call to Adventure

Your protagonist starts off in a normal, everyday situation. He or she receives some information that prompts them to head off on an adventure into the unknownnarrative structure

2. Refusal of the Call

Your hero is reluctant to leave his or her everyday circumstances for a variety of reasons. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that staying in the comfortable everyday will lead to all kinds of troubles.

3. Meeting the Supernatural Aid

Once your protagonist commits to the adventure, a guiding mentor figure will typically arise sometimes bearing items that will help your hero on his or her journey.

4. Crossing the Threshold

At this point, the hero has committed both subconsciously and consciously to the adventure and takes the first steps of the journey outside his or her everyday comfort zone. The rules of this new world are unclear and potentially fraught with danger.

5. Belly of the Whale

When your hero is in the metaphorical belly of the whale, he or she has finally been cut off from the world left behind and the person they once were has symbolically died. The protagonist will be embarking on their own metamorphosis.

Initiation
6. The Road of Trials

Once your hero has accepted the challenge and begun on the path of their own transformation, they are typically beset by a series of challenges that will serve as their catalyst for change. Typically, a character will fail at least one of these tests.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess

As your protagonist journeys along, he or she will likely encounter an all-encompassing love. Campbell describes this as the final test of the talent of the hero where complete enjoyment of life itself is the reward.

8. Woman as Temptress

Temptations, usually of a physical nature come to the hero, threatening to derail the quest. This isn’t necessarily sexual, but can represent materialistic aspects of life.

9. Atonement with the Father

Here, your protagonist confronts whatever holds the most power in his or her life, often represented by a parental figure. This is the high point of the journey, with everything so far leading to this point and everything afterwards leading away from it.

10. Apotheosis

The end of the quest is drawing nearer and your hero now rests within their new selves, gathering temporarily before going on for the final achievement.

11. The Ultimate Boon

The quest is fulfilled. Everything in the story before has served to prepare your protagonist for this moment.

Return
12. Refusal of the Return

Now that your hero has fulfilled his or her quest, he or she might feel reluctant to return to the everyday world they came from.

13. The Magic Flight

In some cases, your protagonist might need to put up a final fight to get away with the quest fulfilment and find his or her way back to the normal world.

14. Rescue from Without

In some cases, the hero might find he or she cannot find his or her way home without help.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The hero returns to the world he or she came from, but must retain the lessons learned during the quest and perhaps look for ways to apply this new wisdom to the everyday world.

16. Master of Two Worlds

Returned from their journey, the protagonist now occupies a double place of existence, balancing the material world of the everyday with the spiritual world represented by the wisdoms they acquired on their journey.

17. Freedom to Live

By the end of the story, your hero finds him or herself in this new sphere of living in the moment, equally pleased with the present as with the past and with no anticipation of the future.

Given this narrative structure was identified using myths and folklore, it’s easy to see overtones of a fantasy genre and to understand how this structure would be quite easily transferred onto a speculative fiction narrative. George Lucas has famously stated he based the structure of the original Star Wars films on the Monomyth structure. J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are also excellent examples of a hero’s journey narrative structure. Take a look at this post to see how the hero’s journey can be applied to mystery novels. I’ve also taken a stab at applying the hero’s journey structure to a typical romance plot.

The monomyth story structure has not been without its criticisms and not every story will fall into its patterns.

Remember, The Hero’s Journey is not a step by step guide to structuring a narrative. Just like other paradigms such as the soul triptych character model, the monomyth is a study of a certain kind of narrative form and another tool in your writer’s tool kit.

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Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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