The Hero’s Journey: The 12 Steps of Mythic Structure

The Hero’s Journey plot structure is a common template for writing a compelling story. It also has a built-in character arc for the hero or heroine. Whether you write detailed outlines before getting into any prose, or you think writing is best done without an outline, the Hero’s Journey can help. Many writers fall somewhere in between, keeping in mind the broad strokes of a plot structure like the Hero’s Journey as they write. 

Now, before you roll up your sleeves and get started with plotting your brand new idea, make sure it's viable to become a bestseller. Take just a few minutes to use book idea validation – without it, your book risks obscurity after it's published. If you have already written your book with a structure like the Hero's Journey and are looking to increase your sales, read how to make your book #1 on Amazon so you don't miss out on new readers.

One thing’s for sure: learning the twelve steps of the Hero’s Journey can only help your writing. This is why I recommend Plottr as an excellent tool to strengthen your writing. They have the Hero’s Journey and other well-known story archetypes to choose from so you can find one that best fits your particular story. 

More on Plottr later. For now, let’s go on an adventure through the Hero’s Journey!

In this article, you will learn:
  1. The origins of the Hero’s Journey
  2. The 12 Steps of the Journey
  3. Examples of the Hero’s Journey
  4. How to incorporate this story structure into your writing
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What is the Hero’s Journey?

graphic depiction of the hero's journey

Popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the Hero’s Journey is a story structure that has been used to tell exciting and captivating stories for centuries. Campbell, a literature professor, found that this was a common mythic structure. It’s widely known by the moniker the Hero’s Journey, but this name didn’t come around until well after Campbell’s 1949 book.

Campbell’s name for it was the monomyth. 

Other scholars and storytellers have made tweaks to Campbell’s original monomyth structure, which has seventeen steps instead of the twelve I’ll be discussing today. The version of the Hero’s Journey widely used by screenwriters, authors, and playwrights today was popularized by screenwriter and producer Christopher Vogler.

You can apply this story structure to mythology, films, books, and even short stories.

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The Hero’s Journey: An Overview

There are three overall stages to the Hero’s Journey, each with individual story beats. These are 1) Departure, 2) Initiation, and 3) Return.

  • Departure
    • The Ordinary World
    • The Call to Adventure
    • Refusing the Call to Adventure
    • Meeting the Mentor
    • Crossing the Threshold
  • Initiation
    • Test, Allies, and Enemies
    • Approach to the Inmost Cave
    • The Ordeal
    • The Reward
  • Return
    • The Road Back
    • Resurrection
    • Return With the Elixir

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The Twelve Stages of the Hero’s Journey

Each of the twelve steps has its own story beats that happen. As we finish each stage, we’ll reflect on each story beat with an example from a famous movie. 

1. The Ordinary World

The first step in the Hero’s Journey is your chance to familiarize the reader with the known world in which your story happens. This means giving the reader what they need to know to make sense of the world (otherwise known as exposition). If your story takes place in a reality much like our own, you won’t have a lot to do. But if magic and mythical beasts are normal, or it’s far into the future and interstellar travel is possible, you’ll have a bit more work to do here.  If you're having trouble picking which type of world is best for your book, research popular keywords in your genre to reveal settings that readers find interesting.

While you introduce the world, you’ll want to introduce the main character(s) as well. And in doing so, it’s important to give the reader a reason to like him, her, or them. While the protagonist is in their normal, ordinary world, they should want something more or different. And this want or need should dovetail nicely with the primary conflict of the story. 

  • Introduce the world and the character in an interesting way. Readers will give you some leeway at the beginning of the book, but if it reads like a textbook, you’ll lose them pretty quickly!
  • Give the character personality and dimension. Needs, wants, flaws, and characteristics don’t all have to come out right away, but there should be enough for the reader to want to follow the hero through the story. 

Tip: This first step should take the first 10-12% of the story. 

2. The Call to Adventure

Step two, the call to adventure, is also called the inciting incident. This is something disruptive that pulls the hero out of their ordinary world and toward a journey that will ultimately change their life . . . if they survive. 

This call propels the rest of the story forward, so it should be exciting enough for the reader to want to continue with the story. This will change from genre to genre, so it’s important to know the tropes of whatever genre you’re writing in.  On Amazon, there are thousands of genre categories to choose from, so research potential category options to better understand your market.

  • Most heroes will resist this initial call to action. The stakes should be very real and clear to the reader at this point. In many stories, the stakes will be life or death.
  • Remember that your story needs to grow in intensity until it peaks at the climax. So the call to action should be dramatic, but things will get worse for the protagonist from here.

Tip: The Call To Adventure should happen around the 12% mark. 

3. Refusing the Call to Adventure

Not every protagonist will refuse the call. Some may be ready to go. But if you pay attention to some of your favorite stories, you’ll likely see that most heroes ‌resist initially until ‌they have no choice. 

Something should happen to make a refusing hero realize that they have no choice but to take on the challenge presented to them. For every refusal, some incident or information should come out that will raise the stakes and make the hero realize they must face the challenge. The hero ventures forth at the end of this section.

  • It’s good to have the character refuse the call for a reason that ties in with the need or want established in the first step of the Hero’s Journey. 
  • Give them a good reason to refuse — and an even better reason to finally heed the call to adventure. 

Tip: The refusal section starts around the 15% mark of the story. 

4. Meeting the Mentor

At this point in the story, the protagonist has responded to the call to adventure. But their initial unease is still there. They don’t yet have the skills, items, or knowledge to succeed against such a challenge. This is where the mentor comes in. 

The mentor helps the protagonist gain the confidence needed to continue on the journey. This is usually done in a multifaceted manner, with both physical and mental help. Much of the time, the mentor provides tough love, kicking the protagonist’s butt into action, so to speak. While mentors are often people, they can also take the form of information, like a map, a magic scepter, or any other number of things that help the hero along. 

  • Make it clear that, without the mentor, the protagonist would likely fall flat were they to continue on unaided. 
  • The hero’s time with the mentor should ultimately result in a revelation, giving the hero exactly what they need (or at least what they think they need) to face the antagonist or challenge. 

Tip: Have this section start around the 20% mark of the story.

5. Crossing the Threshold

Step five of the Hero’s Journey is often called the point of no return. While the protagonist has learned from the mentor and gained confidence, this story beat forces them to engage fully with the challenge. Usually, this dramatic turning point is orchestrated by the antagonist, giving both the reader and the protagonist an idea of how powerful the villain really is.

One common tactic is to have the mentor killed in this section. Whatever you choose to do, make it pivotal and have it reinforce the central theme and conflict of the story. This is also the end of the Departure section, otherwise known as the first act. 

  • Until this point, the hero has had one foot in their ordinary world. Now, there’s no choice but to go forward into unknown territory, otherwise called the special world. 
  • The hero’s reaction to this pivotal story beat should be in line with what the reader knows about them. They need to work for any major changes that come about in this section. 

Tip: Crossing the Threshold usually starts around the 25% mark. 

6. Test, Allies, and Enemies

This section marks the beginning of the second act. Building on everything that has come before, the protagonist should be challenged, putting their new abilities and knowledge to the test. It will become clear that the hero still needs help to resolve the main conflict of the story. This is where allies come into play. By teaming up with allies, the hero should continue to grow, playing off the other characters and working to overcome the tests or setbacks in the Special World. 

Enemies are those that put the tests in their place, working actively against the hero and allies. The reader should learn to care about the allies, which ‌means making them multifaceted characters. By the time this section is done, not all allies will have made it. Some may have even betrayed the hero. Likewise, enemies can also transform in this section, turning into allies. 

  • While the allies may want the same thing as the hero, they may have conflicting views on how to get it. Everyone in agreement all the time makes for a boring story. 
  • The hero’s abilities should be in doubt — both by the hero and the reader. 

Tip: This section occurs around the 30% mark. 

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The approach to the inmost cave section gives the characters (and reader) a chance to reflect on the challenges of the previous section. Remember that the stakes and tension need to continue rising, so the previous section should have been the hardest challenge yet. The hero and allies are beaten and bruised — maybe one or more has died along the way — but the protagonist is still alive. The journey continues. 

The group is closer to the goal — and to the place or time of ultimate danger. They’re regrouping and gathering their wits as they prepare to face the antagonist or some of the villain’s formidable forces.

  • This is a good place for the characters to formulate a plan of attack, clarifying the price of failure and the prize for success. 
  • At this point, the hero has redoubled his effort and believes he is ready to face the challenge, despite his setbacks. The ordinary world is now far behind and impossible to get back to. The only way out is through. 

Tip: This section happens around the 40% mark. 

8. The Ordeal

The ordeal is the biggest test yet and a transformative event that affects how the hero goes forward on their journey. This confrontation has the highest stakes so far, and it’s part of the central conflict. It brings the hero to their darkest point yet, and results in a metamorphosis of sorts that allows them to push through to the other side. 

Campbell spoke of the ordeal in terms of death and rebirth for the protagonist. The hero uses all they have learned up to this point to push through the ordeal. A character close to the hero is often killed in this section, whether it be the mentor, a close ally, or a loved one. However, it’s not always a death. It could involve facing fears, going up against the biggest foe, or breaking through some seemingly insurmountable mental barrier. Whatever form the ordeal takes, the hero is broken down and comes out the other side stronger than before

  • This section is a long one, taking nearly a fifth of the story. It should be dramatic, compelling, and speak directly to the heart of both the external and internal conflicts of the story.
  • Don’t be afraid to make things hard on your characters in this section. Even though the reader knows the hero will prevail, they should be left wondering in this section. 

Tip: The Ordeal takes place from around the 50% mark. 

9. The Reward

Also called seizing the sword, this is the section in which the hero gets whatever they were searching for during the story. They’ve made it through the ordeal, and this is the reward. It can be an object, clarity, knowledge, or new skills/abilities. Whatever the reward is, it needs to be important in defeating the antagonist at the coming climax

After the action and emotion of the ordeal, this section is a place for the reader and characters to regroup and catch their breath again. It can be a good place for a celebration of sorts, something to show for the sacrifices made so far. The hero may even reflect on all it took to get here. 

  • It should be clear to the reader how the reward will help the hero to finish the journey.
  • This is a major milestone in the journey and should be treated as such. It also marks the end of act two.  

Tip: The Reward section takes place around the 70% mark of the story. 

10. The Road Back

Reward firmly in hand, the hero starts the journey back to the ordinary world. But every action has consequences, and those of claiming the reward block the hero’s road back. It becomes clear that things aren’t so simple, and the hero’s tribulations aren’t yet over. 

The unforeseen consequences of claiming the reward make the hero realize they’re in more danger than ever before, and they must face the antagonist head-on before returning to the ordinary world. The hero prepares for the ultimate battle — the climax. 

  • It should be clear to the reader why the hero must face the antagonist once and for all. There should be no choice, given who the hero has become and the stakes they now face. 
  • This is a good place to re-establish the central conflict of the story and make clear the results of failure. 

Tip: This section happens around the 75% mark. 

11. Resurrection

This is the climax of the story — the ultimate showdown between hero and villain. The tension and the stakes are higher than they’ve been throughout the story. If the hero fails, the world as they know it will be forever changed for the worst. The hero uses all they have learned on the journey to defeat the antagonist. 

The hero comes out of the confrontation changed, transformed into a true hero. This should be a dramatic transformation, completing the resurrection started earlier in the story. 

  • Like every other challenge, the hero needs to earn this victory by sacrificing something for it. In some stories, the hero may even sacrifice him or herself.
  • By vanquishing the antagonist, the hero should find the strength or gain the knowledge to address their internal conflict in a satisfactory manner. 

Tip: This section happens around the 85% mark.  

12. Return With the Elixir

The last section of the story details the hero’s return from the special world to the ordinary world. Sometimes called the magic flight, the hero now has changed for the better. Show what new skills, items, knowledge, or understanding of the world the hero brings with them (the elixir). This “elixir” can often be used to help those the hero left behind in the ordinary world. 

In most stories, the hero will return to celebration. They’ve risked it all, saved lives, and learned important lessons. The people in the ordinary world are happy to have them back. The hero may decide to settle back into this world to use their newfound abilities. Or they may find they’ve outgrown it and have a taste for adventure.

  • Re-establish the hero’s internal conflict and show how solving it has changed their view and life, completing the character arc
  • If you’re writing a series, provide a hook for the next story here by hinting at another conflict the hero will need to deal with. 

Tip: This section happens around the 95% mark and finishes out the story! 

Examples of the Hero’s Journey from Famous Works

In George Lucas's Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, we can see the Hero's Journey in action. We also see it in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hunger Games. Let’s take a look now.

Star Wars: A New Hope

  1. Luke Skywalker — an archetypal hero — in his Ordinary World, living with his aunt and uncle, hoping for adventure. 
  2. Luke’s Call to Adventure comes when he activates a hidden message from Princess Leia that R2D2 is carrying for Obi-Wan Kenobi. 
  3. Luke initially Refuses the Call — until he returns home to discover his aunt and uncle have been killed by Imperial forces.
  4. While Luke has already met his Mentor (Obi-Wan), the active mentoring really starts after Luke's home has been destroyed and the only family he's ever known killed.
  5. When Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids step into the dangerous Mos Eisley Spaceport, it signifies the beginning of Luke's heroic journey and the Crossing of the Threshold. 
  6. Luke and Obi-Wan hire a couple of Allies, Han Solo and Chewbacca, to transport them off the planet. Once on the Millennium Falcon, Luke's Tests begin. 
  7. The Approach to the Inmost Cave happens when the Death Star captures the Falcon in a tractor beam and pulls them in. 
  8. The Ordeal happens while Obi-Wan goes off to try and disengage the tractor beam. Luke, Han, and the others rescue Princess Leia. Obi-Wan confronts Darth Vader and sacrifices himself so the others can get away. 
  9. With the Rewards (the Death Star plans and the princess), Luke thinks he should be able to defeat the Empire. And while Obi-Wan's death weighs on him, he can see success ahead.
  10. The Road Back is interrupted as the Falcon is attacked. They have no choice but to go to the Rebel base to deliver the Death Star plans, even though they’re being tracked.
  11. As the Rebels are attacking the Death Star, Obi-Wan's voice speaks to Luke, telling him to use the Force. Luke does, using all that he's learned and finally “sacrificing” his old self, embracing the Force and “Resurrecting” as a true hero. He fires and blows up the Death Star.  
  12. Luke Returns to the Rebel base triumphant. Both he and Han Solo receive medals and accolades for delivering the (temporary) blow to the evil Empire.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

  1. We get to see Frodo’s idyllic Ordinary World in the Shire. The idea of adventure is attractive to him, but not overly so.  
  2. Frodo’s Call to Adventure begins after Bilbo disappears, leaving behind the Ring, which Gandalf entrusts to young Frodo. 
  3. Frodo Refuses the Call not just once, but repeatedly throughout the story. He feels he is not the one to be entrusted with such a job of carrying and disposing of the Ring. 
  4. Gandalf acts as Frodo’s Mentor, instructing him on what he must do to protect the Ring and, in so doing, protecting the Shire. 
  5. Frodo and Sam quite literally Cross the Threshold as they leave the Shire after splitting from Gandalf. 
  6. Frodo and Sam run into Allies Merry and Pippin on their way toward Bree. They are also Tested by Enemies as they’re pursued by the Nazgûl. These tests continue until the group gets to Rivendell. 
  7. The Approach to the Inmost Cave is the group’s approach to the Mines of Moria — literal caves. 
  8. The Ordeal happens inside the Mines of Moria as the group is attacked by orcs and then Balrog, which Gandalf fights off, falling down into the depths and presumed dead. 
  9. The Reward is sparse in The Fellowship of the Rings. Gandalf is gone, and the group escapes with their lives. 
  10. The Road Back isn’t signified in this story by a turn back to the Ordinary World. Instead, it’s Frodo’s stay in Lothlórien, where he sees the stakes of his failure in a vision. 
  11. The Resurrection is the climax of the story, where the Uruk-hai catch up with the group and Boromir betrays Frodo, trying to take the ring from him. Frodo realizes he must travel alone to Mordor. 
  12. The Return with the Elixir portion is Sam’s refusal to let Frodo journey alone. Frodo pulls him into the boat and they cross the river together. Meanwhile, the rest of the Fellowship are determined to save Merry and Pippin. To be continued . . . 

The Hunger Games

  1. We see Katniss Everdeen living in her Ordinary World (District 12) with her mother and sister. It’s a bleak, depressing world, but it’s her Ordinary World nonetheless.
  2. After Prim, Katniss’s sister is called for Tribute, Katniss volunteers in her stead. This is the Call to Adventure. 
  3. This is one example of a story with no real Refusal of the Call. She may not want to take part in the Hunger Games, but she makes the decision and sticks with it to save her sister. 
  4. Katniss meets Haymitch, her Mentor. Though a drunk, he guides her on the politics and gives her tips on surviving the Games. 
  5. Katniss Crosses the Threshold when she’s put on the train to the capital, leaving her Ordinary World behind.
  6. The Tests, Enemies, and Allies section starts when she has to navigate the preparation for the Games. She meets Rue and has Peeta as an ally, as well. The Careers are clearly enemies to contend with later. 
  7. Katniss Approaches the Inmost Cave when the Hunger Games begin. 
  8. The Ordeal is plain to see as the Games commence, and Katniss struggles to stay alive amid the chaos. 
  9. The Reward comes when only Katniss and Peeta are left alive in the arena. They don’t have to fight, thanks to a rule change; they can both claim victory. 
  10. It looks good for Katniss and Peeta until the Capital changes the rules again, putting an obstacle in the path of the Road Back. Suddenly, they’re forced to decide which of them gets to live. 
  11. The Resurrection portion of the story plays out as Katniss and Peeta threaten to kill themselves, leaving no winner and possibly sowing the seeds of revolution. The Capital changes the rules again, allowing both of them to claim victory. 
  12. Katniss gets to live, Returning from the Games as a hero. One who just may be able to make some real change to her Ordinary World.  

Bonus Option: Use the Hero's Journey in a Series

Let's say you want to think big. Like a 12 book series big. One little fun way that I use the Hero's Journey is to use each of the 12 steps to represent an entire book as a whole. You could also condense this into 6 books, 3 books, etc.

For example, the original Star Wars trilogy does a fantastic job of fitting the hero's journey not only into the first movie (A New Hope) but also into the trilogy as a whole. The first movie could easily represent the first four steps of the hero's journey from a macro-perspective (as well as covering all 12 within its self-contained plot), with The Empire Strikes Back covering steps 5-8, and Return of the Jedi covering steps 9-12.

Seriously though, the OG Star Wars trilogy is a masterclass in plotting, you guys.

In other words, the Hero's Journey doesn't have to be used just for a single novel, it can be a great way to progress your character from a more zoomed out perspective through an entire series.

What Stories Work With the Hero’s Journey?

Now that you know what to look for, think about some of your favorite stories. See if you can see the beats of the Hero's Journey in them. From Harry Potter and Toy Story to the Lion King and The Hunger Games, you'll find evidence of this story structure.

Its uses aren't just for adventure stories, though. With a little tweaking, a sweet romance story could also follow this template pretty closely. The point of the Hero’s Journey plot template isn’t to lock you into a formula that you can’t deviate from. Instead, it’s a tool that can guide you along. When you know the tropes of your genre, you can marry them with the major beats of the Hero’s Journey to come up with a novel readers will love. Remember, however, that writing an incredible novel is only part of the battle to find loyal readers- it's also important to have a strong marketing strategy so people can actually discover your book, as outlined in my free e-book on how to become an Amazon bestseller.

To make story beats easier, I recommend giving Plottr a try. It’s a great storytelling tool for writers that can help keep you on track using structures like the Hero’s Journey, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, the Three Act Structure, and more. 

Check Out Plottr Here

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