Narrative Structure: The Hero’s Journey

For anyone who edits creative writing, understanding narrative structure can be extremely useful. There are many different ways of conceptualizing narrative structure, but one of the most common is known as the Hero’s Journey.

In this post, we’ll explain what the Hero’s Journey is and how you can use it when editing your client’s work.

What Is the Hero’s Journey?

It might help to think of different narrative structures as templates for stories to follow.

One of these templates is the Hero’s Journey, a narrative structure that’s found in all types of stories, from The Lord of the Rings to Finding Nemo.

This way of looking at stories was popularized by writer and academic Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he summarizes the Hero’s Journey as follows:

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

In other words, the Hero’s Journey structure splits a story into three distinct stages:

  1. The departure: The hero leaves their everyday, ordinary world.
  2. The initiation: The hero enters the new, unknown world and must complete a series of tasks before earning a reward.
  3. The return: The hero returns to the ordinary world but is changed in some way by their journey.

We’ll take a closer look at each of these stages next by using author and screenwriter Christopher Vogler’s 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey.

Stage I: Departure

This is the stage in which the hero leaves behind the world they know. We can break the departure down further into:

1. The Ordinary World

Before the journey begins, we’re introduced to the hero and the world they inhabit. This is where the reader should be provided with information about who the hero is, how their world works, and what their life has been like up to this point.

2. The Call to Adventure

Something happens to disturb the status quo. This is a problem or challenge of some kind that the hero will have to deal with by leaving the ordinary world. This section usually establishes the hero’s motivation and the shape that their adventure will take.

3. Refusal of the Call

The hero doesn’t initially answer the call. Either they are unable or unwilling to depart, or they’re convinced to stay by another character.

4. Finding a Mentor

The hero is encouraged to embark on their journey after encountering someone who will aid them. The mentor usually provides advice, training, or something else to prepare the hero to leave the ordinary world.

Stage II: Initiation

With the departure stage completed, it’s time to move on to the initiation.

5. Crossing the Threshold

The hero finally makes the decision to leave behind the ordinary world and enter the unknown. This is a good time to make sure that the central conflict and themes of the story have been established.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero faces a series of tests in the unknown world, getting to grips with how it works while meeting allies and enemies alike.

This section tends to be one of the longest, as it’s where the rules and challenges present in the new world are established and built on. It’s also usually where supporting characters and their relationships to each other are introduced and explored.

7. The Approach

The hero and their allies approach the most dangerous part of the unknown world. This is where any setup required for the ordeal happens.

8. The Ordeal

The hero faces off against their greatest challenge. They are ultimately victorious, but the ordeal changes them in some way.

It’s important to remember that the ordeal isn’t always the climax of the Hero’s Journey. After all, we haven’t even reached the final stage yet! But it’s here that the hero overcomes something central to their character.

9. The Reward

After completing the ordeal, the hero is able to claim their reward. This might be an actual object, or it could be something more abstract, such as a promise of something hopeful or an important piece of knowledge.

Stage III: Return

In the final stage, we reach the climax of the story.

10. The Road Back

With the reward in hand, the hero begins the return back to the ordinary world. But this journey shouldn’t be an easy one, as the hero must face the consequences of the previous stages. This stage will often feature some sort of chase, emphasizing the importance of the hero (with the reward) returning safely.

11. The Resurrection

Just when the journey seems complete, the enemy returns. This could be a sudden betrayal, the sacrifice of an ally, or a final battle. This last climax should finally settle the conflict at the heart of the story.

12. The Return with the Elixir

After emerging from the climax, the hero can finally return to the ordinary world. They bring with them the reward that they obtained on their journey, which, in some way, improves the world they live in.

An Example of the Hero’s Journey

To help you get your head around the Hero’s Journey, we’ve used the stages outlined above to explore the narrative of Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

1. The Ordinary World

The hero, Duny, is a proud and impatient boy living with his father in a remote village in the land of Earthsea.

2. The Call to Adventure

Duny’s village is attacked, and he must summon a magical fog to help the villagers fight back. In doing so, he attracts the attention of an experienced mage named Ogion, who gives him a new name – Ged – and attempts to train him.

3. Refusal of the Call

Ged gets on well with Ogion, but he soon grows bored with his lessons. He ignores Ogion’s warnings and tries to use a powerful spell. It backfires and summons a shadow creature that Ogion must drive off.

4. Finding a Mentor

Ogion decides that Ged would be better suited to learning at the school of Roke, where wizards are taught to use magic.

5. Crossing the Threshold

Ged leaves his village and Ogion to attend the school.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

There, Ged meets Vetch, a young mage who soon becomes his friend. He also meets another mage, Jasper, and immediately clashes with him.

7. The Approach

Ged studies hard and learns to perform stronger magic. He continues to argue with Jasper.

8. The Ordeal

Jasper finally provokes Ged, who challenges him to a duel. Ged attempts to use a spell against Jasper, but he instead summons the shadow creature again, which attacks and scars him. The head of the school drives off the shadow but is killed in the process.

9. The Reward

Ged is able to resume his studies, and he eventually graduates as a wizard. He travels to an island plagued by dragons, where he protects the villagers who live there.

10. The Road Back

Ged learns that he’s still being pursued by the shadow that he summoned as a child. He decides to chase it, and it runs from him.

11. The Resurrection

Ged traps the shadow on an island. He names it as himself and touches it, and the two become one person.

12. The Return with the Elixir

Reunited with his shadow, Ged feels healed and whole. Together with his friend Vetch, he sails back home.

Becoming An Editor

Remember, the Hero’s Journey is simply a tool for understanding a certain type of narrative. Not every story will follow this structure, and as an editor, you should never force your client’s work to fit into it. But it is a useful lens through which to assess a piece of writing, and it can help you identify any potential gaps or issues with a story.

Think you’ve got what it takes to edit narrative fiction? Sign up for a free trial of our Becoming An Editor course and find out. You can even buy it as a bundle with Becoming A Proofreader and save 15%!

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