The 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey help writers to plot a novel or a screenplay, but they can be used for memoirs or non-fiction.
The Hero’s Journey idea comes from Dr. Joseph Campbell, a Sarah Lawrence College professor who examined the myths told by tribes from the Greeks to the Norse to the Eskimos, from Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Who uses Campbell’s method? The best storytellers and scriptwriters in the world use the Hero’s Journey methodology. I’ve been to dozens of writer’s conference, and I ask the pros. Their answers are almost always yes. Even if they don’t know it, their answers are still yes.
What Campbell found is that, almost universally, we all tell stories in the same way. Writers throughout the ages, from Homer to Stephen King, from to Matthew to Mark, start heroes in their ordinary worlds. The hero hears a call to action, then he refuses that call. Then the hero meets a mentor, and so on across the 12 steps.
Is your story about a hero? Your answer is yes. All stories are about a hero, including yours, even if your story is about yourself. Your protagonist may be male, female, an animal, a robot, a god, or hero teams like Star Wars or Star Trek.
Hollywood scriptwriters found out about Campbell from a Disney script consultant, Chris Vogler, who read The Hero with a Thousand Faces and then wrote a memo in the mid-1980s that was universally read – and that’s no exaggeration. Vogler broke down Campbell’s rather arcane writing in his own book, The Writer’s Journey.
I don’t suggest reading Campbell. His work is philosophical and academic, but I do suggest you read Vogler. Vogler, a scriptwriter, speaks in a writer’s language; his work is simple and explanatory and far shorter than Campbell’s.
STEP 1. Ordinary World
The hero’s journey always begins in his ordinary world. Star Wars began in space, with Princess Leia’s ship being chased by Darth Vader.
The ordinary world sounds boring, but it’s the right way to begin the story because it shows the protagonist before he became a hero. The ordinary world also establishes the character arc. Before he’s a hero, Luke is just an ordinary boy on an ordinary moisture farm on an ordinary desert planet in an undistinguished corner of the galaxy.
In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is a corn farmer with a wife and kids. Roy loves baseball. That’s how his hero’s journey begins. He’s an ordinary guy with an ordinary life in the most ordinary part of Iowa.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the audience sees Roy Neary as an electrical lineman in Muncie, Indiana.
The Sorcerer’s Stone begins with the emergence of Harry Potter’s unexplained abilities. Before he’s a wizard, he’s a middle school boy who lives below the stairs in Surrey, England.
If Star Wars had begun without showing the ordinary world, the audience might assume, for instance, that Luke Skywalker had always been a powerful Jedi, a superman who is able to easily rescue his friends and defeat the mighty Jabba the Hutt.
Instead, we meet Luke, a whiny teenager, full of dreams, who has to be rescued three times by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seeing him in the ordinary world makes it easy for the audience to identify with this kid. We see his everyday life, we learn details about our hero’s true nature, capabilities and outlook on life.
WRITING EXERCISE 1
What is one overriding theme of your novel? What one idea do you hit, over and over again, as you write? Is it love, honesty, greed? Now express in one word each of the themes you find in your manuscript. Then lengthen those words into short sentences.
The Ordinary World is where themes are stated. The single, romantic idea of Nicholas Sparks’ novel, The Notebook, is “Love conquers all.” John Grisham’s thriller, The Firm, and The Great Gatsby are morality tales: “Money is the root of all evil.” The theme of Star Wars is: “Good triumphs over evil.”
STEP 2. Call To Adventure
Princess Leia and Darth Vader aside, there is no adventure in Step 1. The adventure begins when the hero hears the call to action. The call comes in Step 2 when R2D2 projects Leia’s hologram to Luke: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
The call to adventure is a direct threat to the hero’s safety, his family, or the peace of the community in which he lives. The empire has been taken over by an evil force; the princess has been captured; she must be rescued.
The hero may want someone else to answer the call to action. Luke wanted Ben Kenobi to respond, but the call is repeated several times, and the hero eventually decides he must answer.
It may be as simple as a phone call or a conversation, or as dramatic as a hologram on an android, but the call to adventure ultimately challenges the Hero’s Ordinary World and presents a quest.
The archetype who issues the call is a herald. In the Breakfast at Tiffany’s short story, the herald is a jewelry store in the early 1940s. Holly Golightly, whom Truman Capote described as “a pleasure woman,” arrives at her favorite destination early in the morning, before the store opens. With a paper cup of coffee and a Danish in each hand, Holly is dressed like a socialite in a black evening gown, diamond tiara and oversized sunglasses.
The call isn’t fully explained, but later in the film, the audience realizes Holly has already answered the call. She has become her version of a Manhattan socialite.
The writer doesn’t have to fully explain the call, but the herald must appear early in Act 1, preferably in the first or second chapter. That’s when the audience begins wondering where this story is heading. They need to feel chapter 1 is moving toward a satisfying story. The call is not just a call to adventure, it’s a call to the audience to listen to your story.
The audience finally understands Holly’s motivation in Act 2 after her husband, played by Buddy Ebsen, calls for Lula Mae Barnes, played by Audrey Hepburn.
Doc: There’s something I got to tell you. Couple weeks ago, I got a letter from Fred. He’s getting out of the Army in February. So see, you got to come back. Your place is with us.
Holly’s brother, Fred, was described as “simple.” The Army has taken care of him, but in four months, he’s coming back to Doc’s place. Fred is Doc’s brother-in-law, so Fred is not Doc’s responsibility. Fred is Lula Mae’s responsibility. That’s why Doc issues the call to action to Lula Mae, who is the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Audrey Hepburn’s character wants to stay in Manhattan. She resists the call. She can’t go back to Tulip, Texas and live with a horse doctor. “I’m not that person anymore, Doc. Please understand.” She lives in a Special World now. She’s grown. Although she loves her brother more than anyone, she can’t return to the Ordinary World. Every hero resists the call, but after he’s lived in the Special World, he resists returning to the Ordinary World.
There are three calls in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tiffany’s itself asks Holly to stay in Manhattan, which she considers the only place to live. The second comes from Doc Golightly, and asks her to leave New York. A third call comes near the end, from Paul Varjak, who pleads with Holly to realize that people in love need each other and belong to each other.
Ray Kinsella’s call to build a baseball park in his cornfield came from inside his head. No one heard the call but Ray.
James Earl Jones’ voice: “If you build it, he will come.”
Who spoke? Who was Ray’s herald? The call isn’t fully explained. Ray didn’t know he was supposed to build a ballpark in his cornfield until Act 3. When he did understand, a grown man finally resolved his daddy issues: Ray saw his dad as a teenager, playing baseball. And building that ballpark in a cornfield saved Ray’s farm. Ray learned that in the denouement, which comes in Step 12.
WRITING EXERCISE 2
I dropped out of high school four times, and I got kicked out twice. Each time, I went back because of my mother’s call. I finished college because she repeated the call so often. I got a master’s degree because she pressed me. I became a writer and stayed in the newspaper business because she kept calling me to do that.
Who was your herald? What was your call to action? How many times was that call repeated? Now think about your your hero or another character in your story. Use this personal information in your story.
STEP 3. Refusal Of The Call
At this stage, the hero must overcome his fear. He will have second thoughts or deep personal doubts. Is he capable to rising to the challenge? The Hero refuses the call each time he feels doubt.
It’s up to the writer to force the hero to answer the call. Make things go wrong. Stormtroopers killed Luke’s aunt and uncle. The Empire was searching for him. The bank was repossessing Ray’s Kinsella’s farm. A tornado swept Dorothy Gale into the Land of Oz.
He’s a reluctant hero. We’re all reluctant to face danger, so our heroes are reluctant.
When Harry Met Sally, she rejected him twice before she finally liked him. When we hear stories like that about our family and friends, we shake our heads and smile. We enjoy that reluctance. It makes us assume our heroes were fated to act.
In Act 1, Luke told his uncle and aunt that he wanted to leave Tattoine. He wanted to be a pilot. But when Obi-Wan offered, Luke was reluctant:
BEN: You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.
LUKE: (laughing) Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan. I’ve got to go home. It’s late, I’m in for it as it is.
Now, put yourself in the Hero’s shoes: the Call is folly, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous, it’s life threatening. In romance, it means giving up independence. Luke refuses the call. Why? He’s scared. His uncle told him not to. And this “Force” sounds a little hokey.
When writers create a herald who issues a call, they write a hero who refuses the call. One reason why: that’s how writers fill up a two-hour movie or a 300-page novel: heralds to issue several calls, heroes refuse the call several times. And, of course, the drama and the tension and the suspense build with each call and each refusal.
The hero and the audience are swept into the adventure. And that’s how we willingly suspend our disbelief. We’re right there, stranded on Mars with Mark Whatley. We’re right there, watching Harry meet Sally. We’re right there, with Ray Kinsella. We also hear, “If you build it, he will come.” He resists. We resist. He accepts. We accept. The Hero dreads leaving everything he knows. The audience feels the dread, feels the pain, and realizes the Hero has skin in the game. Do you want to leave your safe life, warp across a galaxy far far away, and fight the evil Darth Vader?
That why the audience feels the hero cower from the call. But in spite of his fear, the Hero leaps. That’s what makes him heroic. And when the hero finally answers, the audience feels heroic at the exact moment the hero feels heroic.
So, yes, force your hero to answer the call. In “How to Start a Novel Right: 5 Great Tips,” Writer’s Digest Editor Jessica Strawser advises: “Create a Doorway of No Return for your protagonist before the 1/5 mark of your book.”
These things are timed to make your story move along? Yes. In a 300-page book, 20 percent is page 60. And since the first act is usually the first 20-30 percent, that’s before the first act ends.
WRITING EXERCISE 3
In your story, who is the herald? How does your hero refuse the call? Why does the hero refuse? What is your hero afraid of? Write a scene in which your hero hears the call, and then refuses.
STEP 4. Meeting The Mentor
Step 4 is the turning point. The Hero needs guidance. Luckily – and the writer creates this luck – the hero meets a mentor who gives him what he needs. What does Obi-Wan give Luke? A light saber. And he starts teaching Luke the ways of the Force.
What does the Good Witch Glinda give Dorothy? What does James Earl Jones give Ray Kinsella?
Who are Harry and Sally’s mentors? Harry had a male friend, and Sally had a female friend. What do friends – our mentors – give people who are falling into a relationship? Insight into dilemmas, wise advice, practical training. The mentor provides whatever the hero needs, and that self-confidence dispels the hero’s doubts and fears, gives him strength and courage, and the hero begins his quest.
Or maybe the mentor gives bad advice. Or maybe the mentor lies. Or maybe the good mentor is really a bad mentor, like Sonny in The Godfather. Like Obi-Wan in Star Wars IV.
LUKE: My father … was a navigator on a spice freighter.
BEN: That’s what your uncle told you. (truth)
LUKE: You fought in the Clone Wars?
BEN: Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father. (Ben goes to a chest and finds a light sabre.) I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough (lie), but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic crusade like your father did (half-truth).
There is a least one mentor for every Hero: Jack Colton guides Joan Wilder through the jungle in Romancing the Stone. Jack Dawson shows Young Rose how to survive the sinking of the Titanic. Mr. Miagi shows the Karate Kid how to fight. False mentors also add to the story: Rose’s mother sells her into marriage slavery, Cal Hockley is a brutal fiancé.
John Kreese was an uber-ruthless sensei in Karate Kid.
When the Karate Kid is afraid, the good sensei, Mr. Miyagi reassures:
Daniel: “You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?’
Miyagi: “Always scare. Miyagi hate fighting.”
Daniel: “Karate’s fighting. You train to fight.”
Miyagi: “Why you train?”
Daniel: “So I won’t have to fight.”
Miyagi: “Miyagi have hope for you.”
Mentors don’t have to be human: Toto’s instincts guide Dorothy out of Oz. Dora and Marlin find Nemo. For the Hero’s inner journey, the mentor may be an unspoken code, a notion of honor, or the hero’s conscience, which the hero may not want to hear. Pinocchio squashes Jiminy Cricket to shut him up.
Some stories are built around mentors who are heroes: Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poet’s Society. Some mentors are heroic themselves: Yoda, Odin, Mr. Miyagi.
Wilbur the pig has a dozen mentors: Charlotte the spider, Templeton the rat, Ike the horse, Samuel the sheep, Mother Goose, Golly, two cows.
Multiple mentors have specialized functions: M informs 007, Q equips, Felix Leiter facilitates solutions. Miss Moneypenny – wait – exactly what does she do for Bond?
Tom Hanks was a good but immoral anti-mentor in A League of Their Own.
Walter Harvey: “You kind of let me down on that San Antonio job.”
Jimmy Dugan: “I, uh, yeah, I freely admit, sir, I had no right to sell off the team’s equipment like that. That won’t happen again.”
Walter: “Let me be blunt. Are you still a fall-down drunk?”
Jimmy: “Well, that is blunt. Ahem. No sir, I’ve, uh, quit drinking.”
Walter: “You’ve seen the error of your ways?”
Jimmy: “No, I just can’t afford it.”
Jimmy Dugan has questionable abilities, but he still led the heroines, the Rockford Peaches. When Evelyn cries.
Jimmy: “Are you crying? Are you crying? Are you crying! There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”
A writer can twist the plot with anti-mentors. Mentors may be masked tricksters who heroes in a life of crime. Sen. Palpatine was evil in Star Wars I, II and III. Palpatine was also Darth Sidious, who turned Anakin Skywalker from a hero into the villain of Star Wars, Darth Vader.
WRITING EXERCISE 4
Think about someone who taught you. Write an anecdote about that mentor. My mother, for instance, knew my father took my oldest brother out on the town. My father was with another woman. They didn’t come home that night. My mother didn’t rest until she made my brother tell her the whole story. That’s when she left my dad for good in California, and we moved back to Oklahoma.
Spend seven minutes writing an anecdote about this.
Are you starting to get the idea that you can use these writing exercises as scenes in your book? Good. Be utilitarian about your writing. This is how I wrote my first novel.
For more writing tips, read Steps 5-8 in Hero’s Journey 2, and Steps 9-12 in Hero’s Journey 3.