What is the Hero's Journey? How to Structure Your Novel in 12 Steps
From Star Wars to Toy Story to Divergent, the hero’s journey is a classic story structure used in many beloved tales. But what is the “hero’s journey” in fiction, and how can you use it to structure your novel? Read on to find out how to structure your story in 12 steps!
What is the hero’s journey?
The hero’s journey (or heroine's journey) is a popular narrative framework used to structure the plot and the character arc of the hero in many stories, and can be traced back to early mythology. At its most basic, the hero’s journey is the story of a protagonist going on an adventure, learning lessons, winning a victory with their new skills or knowledge, and returning home transformed.
This monomyth framework is commonly associated with American writer Joseph Campbell, who popularized it with his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Much like the three-act structure, there are three acts in the hero’s journey:
The departure: the hero leaves the “ordinary world” (Act 1).
The initiation: the hero enters the “special world” (Act 2).
The return: the hero returns to the “ordinary world” (Act 3).
Within these three acts Campbell lays out 17 steps, or story beats. Many writers have tweaked and modified these beats over the years, including most notably screenwriter Christopher Vogler, who outlined twelve steps of the hero’s journey in his book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. This is the version of the heroic journey we’ll be looking at in this post. We’ll also use examples from the popular young adult dystopian novel Divergent by Veronica Roth as we discuss each beat.
How to structure your novel using the hero’s journey
Act 1: The departure
Ordinary World: This is where you’ll introduce the reader to your hero and their world. We should see what their day-to-day life looks like and what challenges they’re dealing with before they leave their comfort zone.
In Divergent, Beatrice Prior lives in the Abnegation faction with her family. They spend their time trying to be selfless and help others.
Call to Adventure: This beat is the inciting incident that launches your hero on their journey. Something major must happen to your hero that disrupts their day-to-day life and forces them to leave their ordinary world.
During her aptitude test, Beatrice learns she’s divergent, which leads her to consider leaving the Abnegation faction.
Refusal of the Call: Your hero may hesitate or flat-out refuse the call to adventure. They may be afraid and/or unwilling to leave their ordinary world and step into the unknown special world.
However, not every story will include this beat. Sometimes, a story's hero who will accept the call without hesitation. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Katniss willingly accepts the call to adventure in order to save her sister’s life when her name is called during the reaping.
In Divergent, Beatrice struggles with the idea of switching factions, not wanting to leave her family.
Meeting the Mentor: At this point in the story, your hero will be introduced to their mentor. This is someone who will aid the hero, and help them gain the skills, tools, and confidence they need to face the trials and challenges that lie ahead as they move forward on their journey.
Tori, the woman who performed the aptitude test on Beatrice and informed her of her divergence, becomes a mentor figure to her in the beginning. Once Beatrice crosses the threshold, Four will become her main mentor.
Crossing the First Threshold: This is the point of no return. The last step in Act 1 before your hero leaves behind the familiar, and enters the special world in Act 2. We should see your hero’s commitment to journey into this new world and face the challenges ahead.
At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice decides to join the Dauntless faction and renames herself Tris.
Act 2: The initiation
Tests, Allies, Enemies: this is the beginning of Act 2, where your hero, having crossed the threshold, is now in the special world. Your hero will put to use the tools, skills, and wisdom they’ve learned from their mentor in Act 1 as they navigate this new world. The hero meets new allies that will help them learn the theme as they continue on their journey, and their enemies will put them to the test to get the hero to waver or doubt their abilities to overcome the main conflict of the story.
Throughout her training at Dauntless, there are trials and tests Tris has to go through in order to complete initiation into the Dauntless faction. Tris must also keep her divergence a secret during this time. Tris makes new friends in Dauntless and also enemies, including the leader of the Erudite faction, Jeanine Matthews, who suspects Tris may be divergent.
Approach the Innermost Cave: the stakes and tension are raised again as your hero approaches the innermost cave. The innermost cave is the most dangerous place in this special world. This can be an external place–like the villain’s lair or an approaching battle–or it can be an internal place, such as the hero’s own mental barriers. Remember, your hero is just approaching the cave. They haven’t entered it yet. This beat is all about the preparation for what’s coming.
Four (her mentor and friend/love interest) helps Tris to prepare and improve her physical and mental skills so she can successfully complete the initiation without revealing her divergence.
The Ordeal: this is where your hero will face their biggest challenge yet. It’s a crucial moment in the story where your hero must confront their greatest fears. It will lead to a transformation from death to rebirth for your hero— the hero must grow and gain the strength and/or wisdom necessary to complete the rest of their journey.
This moment, as Vogler says, will “inform every decision that the hero makes from this point forward.”
Tris must complete initiation by making it through her fear landscape.
The Reward: your hero achieves their goal and can claim their reward for overcoming the ordeal. The “reward” may be a significant object, more knowledge or insight, new skills/abilities, or something else, but there will be unforeseen consequences for attaining the reward. Regardless, it’ll be something important that’ll help your hero as they move closer to the climax.
Tris successfully completes the initiation without revealing her divergence, and she is able to make the #1 ranking among the new Dauntless members.
Act 3: The return
The Road Back: This is where your hero enters Act 3. Your hero has gone through their transformation and gained the reward; now it’s time for them to head back to the ordinary world with all the knowledge of what they’ve learned. However, remember those unforeseen consequences? This is where your hero will encounter them and must face these new challenges head-on before they can go home.
When Jeanine uses a simulation to force the Dauntless to attack the Abnegation faction, Tris is forced to return home to defend her former faction.
The Resurrection: This is the climax of the story. The hero and antagonist must face off in one last battle. This is the “final exam” for your hero, as Vogler puts it. This is where the reader will find out if your hero has truly learned the lessons/theme of the story. It’s also another moment of death and rebirth, completing the transformation your hero began earlier in the story.
After losing those close to her, including both of her parents and her friend Will, Tris faces Jeanine in her final battle. Under the influence of a mind-control serum, Jeanine uses Four to attack Tris. She battles with Four, but eventually is able to break him free from the serum. Together, they’re able to end the stimulation and stop the Dauntless attacks on Abnegation. Tris has learned to accept her divergence as part of who she is, and realizes she could never have stopped Jeanine without it.
Return with the Elixir: Your hero gained new skills and insight, made new friends and enemies, and overcame many challenges that have transformed them into a new person than the one we met at the beginning of the story. Armed with the lessons they’ve learned (the “elixir”), they’ll return home to the ordinary world with the ability to transform it or inspire hope to those they’ve left behind.
Along with her brother and Four, Tris takes the hard drive that held the simulation data and they leave, heading for the Amity compound. Since this is a series, the fight is far from over, but Tris now has the confidence and strength to continue on her journey.
You’re ready to write your own hero's journey!
Remember, this is not a strict formula you have to stick to perfectly. The hero’s journey structure is simply meant to be a guide that you can tweak and make adjustments to as needed. Now that you know the beats involved in this structure, you can use it to craft your own epic hero’s journey!