The Hero's Journey

What is the Hero’s Journey?If you’re asking this question, it’s probably because a mentor or fellow writer nudged you to check it out. No surprise there. The Hero’s Journey is an extremely popular and frequently discussed story structure.Why?For one thing, every step of the Hero’s Journey serves to further both the protagonist’s internal journey (what they learn and how they change) and their external journey (what they actually do).Some writers are plot-driven and have to work a little harder to build a compelling inner life for their characters. Others love going deep on character but have to make a conscious effort to make sure something actually happens in the story. (That’s me. I’m “others.”)The Hero’s Journey can help lopsided writers like us keep everything in balance. Another reason writers love this story structure is because it’s so classic. The more you learn about it, the more you recognize it in almost every book you read and every movie you watch.So let’s dive in, shall we? We’ll cover:

  • How this story structure came to be
  • The steps of the Hero’s Journey
  • Examples of the Hero’s Journey in practice
  • How to decide if the Hero’s Journey is the right structure for your novel or short story

Here we go.

Cover of the book Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

What are the Origins of the Hero’s Journey?

Well, it’s complicated.The Hero’s Journey, as we know it today, was first explained by Joseph Campbell in his 1948 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.But Campbell didn’t invent this structure. Rather, he observed it. All mythological narratives, Campbell said, were built around the same story structure. He called this structure the “monomyth” or the “Hero’s Journey.”Campbell nutshelled the concept of the Hero’s Journey like 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.”

But he didn’t stop there. Campbell laid out a 17-step story structure detailing all the classic elements of a hero’s adventure. This super-specific blueprint helped clarify what it takes to write a story that resonates. But the structure also veered heavily toward the mythological and fantastical, with plot points like “Supernatural Aid.”Because of this, there have been many adaptations of this structure to guide writers of all genres. The most famous adaptation is the 12-step journey shared by screenwriter Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers (1992).If a fellow writer is encouraging you to plot your novel based on the Hero’s Journey, Vogler’s version is probably what they’re talking about. And that’s the one we’re covering here.

What are the 12 Steps in the Hero’s Journey?

Vogler’s take on the Hero’s Journey involves twelve major story beats distributed across three acts. It looks like this:

Circle diagram showing all twelve steps of the Hero's Journey.

Why is it in a circle?Because the hero leaves their Ordinary World only to return in the end. That’s a defining feature of the Hero’s Journey. The protagonist always comes back to share the benefits of their victory.Now to answer your question:What is the Hero’s Journey? What actually happens?

Act One: The Departure

A dirt trail winding between the trees in a forest with low, golden sunlight coming between the trees.

1. The Ordinary World

This is where we get to know the protagonist and understand what “normal” is to them. We also get a glimpse of the skills, beliefs, and priorities that guide our hero’s day-to-day life before the adventure changes them. As a writer, you have a few great opportunities here. One is to set up a world that is very different from the one your hero is about to enter. This is a strong plot-and-conflict move.From a character standpoint, this is your chance to help the reader see themselves in your protagonist. For example, I personally cannot relate to the experience of being a teenage girl forced to kill for the entertainment of others.But I can get there if I meet Katniss Everdeen when she’s hunting with her best friend to provide for the family she values deeply. I’ve got a friend. I’d do anything for my family. I get her whole deal now.

2. The Call of Adventure

This is where the hero is forced out of their comfort zone. It could be that the protagonist has made an intentional step towards adventure, like Katniss volunteering as tribute. Or they are summoned, like when Harry Potter is called to his first year at Hogwarts. The Call of Adventure can even be accidental.The important thing is that this moment clarifies your hero’s goal, sets the stakes high, and establishes a challenge that ultimately cannot be ignored…...even though your protagonist will try to ignore it.

3. Refusal of the Call

Your hero responds to the challenge with a “No thanks!” This can be a direct refusal or it can just be a feeling of resistance, like Jonas’ apprehension as he approaches the Ceremony of Twelve in The Giver.

4. Meeting the Mentor

Here your hero meets the person who will prepare them for the adventure.The mentor relationship can take many forms. This character might literally train your character in the skills needed to get through their adventure victoriously. Or the mentor might simply provide wisdom, motivation, tough love, or a hot new look if you’re Cinderella.Either way, this character provides whatever your hero needs to stop ignoring the Call and finally Cross the Threshold.

Act Two: The Initiation

A young witch stirs a potion against a black background.

5. Crossing the First Threshold

Your protagonist is in it now. They’re ready. They’re committed. And they are charging beyond the world they know into a reality full of challenges they do not understand.This beat launches the central conflict of your story and plunges the protagonist into the challenges that will define their character arc. Pro tip for holding your readers attention: make it clear that there is no turning back. The Hunger Games have begun. The arena is sealed. This is happening.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

In terms of page count, this is the longest of all twelve beats. In step six, your hero learns and adapts to the rules of their new world. They learn from both the friends and the enemies they pick up along the way. They also face unfamiliar challenges.This is where you pay off the promise of the premise. If you told your reader they were going to get a hobbit battling and befriending magical creatures, this is where you come through.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

Now the hero is getting super close to reaching their goal. But first, they have to go through the Inmost Cave. So what is the Inmost Cave?It’s the most treacherous place in your protag’s new reality. This could be a physical space, like the Chamber of Secrets. Or it could be a mental space or experience, like when Starr testifies before a grand jury in The Hate U Give.It’s important to note that step seven does not actually take place in the Inmost Cave. This is merely the approach. In other words, build that tension.

8. The Ordeal

Okay, now we’re in the Inmost Cave, and your hero is up against the biggest, most soul-defining challenge of their life. They are about to confront their greatest fear.In this step, you show your reader what rock bottom is for your character. Against all odds, the hero overcomes. And they will never be the same again.

9. Reward

Because of all that heroism in the Ordeal, your protagonist now has the reward they sought. Things are looking up. They are feeling safer and looking forward to the future again.But hold on to your hat; there will be a consequence for the hero getting what they want.

Act Three: The Return

Close-up of a gray horse's face with an unseen rider on its back.

10. The Road Back

Your victorious hero is journeying back toward the top of the circle, back toward their Ordinary World. But the road home is longer than they remembered, and there are more obstacles than they anticipated.These obstacles are the consequence of the victory.For example, Katniss manages to get out of the arena 1) alive and 2) without having to kill Peeta, but the stunt she pulled to make it happen looked like an act of rebellion to the Capitol. To protect herself and her family, she now has to act super in love with Peeta.

11. Resurrection

This is the final test for your hero… one last challenge they must face before they can return home.This last challenge is the one that proves they’ve learned the lesson of the Ordeal. This is Harry’s sacrifice near the end of Deathly Hallows. It’s Lara Jean writing to Peter at the end of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It’s transformation put into action.

12. Return with the Elixir

The elixir is whatever it is your hero has won.It may not be the goal they sought when the story began. Many of the best stories involve a protagonist who discovers that what they actually needed was not what they thought they needed.Either way, your hero returns victorious, and we understand that their world will now be different because they’ve been tested and won.

Cover of the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Examples of the Hero’s Journey in Action

Now let’s see how this all plays out in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (We’re talking about the book here, so the slippers are going to be silver.)

1. The Ordinary World

Dorothy is an orphan living a quiet, little life on her aunt and uncle’s farm in Kansas. Her best friend is a dog. (No judgment; dogs rock.)

A tornado touches down in a rural town as lightning strikes nearby.

2. Call to Adventure

A cyclone sweeps up Dorothy’s home and drops it onto the Wicked Witch of the East in the colorful Land of Oz. This event frees the local Munchkins from slavery at the witch’s hands, and they celebrate Dorothy as a sorceress and savior.

3. Refusal of the Call

Dorothy denies any heroism or deliberate murder. She just wants to go home to Kansas.

4. Meeting the Mentor

An old woman at the scene reveals herself to be the Good Witch of the North. Dorothy learns she can only get home by traveling to the Emerald City to get help from the Wizard. The Good Witch hooks Dorothy up with a magic kiss for protection and the charmed silver slippers off the Witch of the East’s feet.

5. Crossing the First Threshold

Dorothy and Toto set off on the Yellow Brick Road.

A sunlit road in the forest.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

Along her journey, Dorothy makes friends with the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Woodsman. Together, they battle strange creatures, navigate ditches, and face a field of deadly poppies before reaching the Emerald City.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The Wizard tells Dorothy he’ll only help her if she’ll kill the Wicked Witch of the West. This means Dorothy must deliberately move towards danger, venturing out again on a dangerous road to find the Witch.

8. Ordeal

The Witch orders her Winged Monkeys to bring Dorothy to her. Dorothy is now up against her arch nemesis and manages to melt the Witch by throwing water on her in a rage.

9. Reward

Dorothy now has every reason to expect help from the Wizard. She is also the proud, new owner of the Witch’s Golden Cap, which gives her control over the Winged Monkeys.

Close-up of the underside and basket of a red, orange, and yellow hot air balloon.

10. The Road Back

Dorothy’s journey home becomes longer when the Wizard turns out to be a balloonist from Nebraska who has no actual power. Now her only option is to seek the help of Glinda the Good Witch.

11. Resurrection

Dorothy and her friends hit the road yet again, but with new confidence and skills to confront the challenges they encounter. Also, they now have Winged Monkeys at their command. Dorothy succeeds in finding Glinda who tells her she just has to click her heels together to get home.That’s it. That’s all she ever had to do.

12. Return with the Elixir

Dorothy and Toto are back at the farm with a new appreciation for home.

Close-up of a fountain pen writing on a sheet of notebook paper.

Pros & Cons for Using the Hero’s Journey Story Structure

One of the biggest pros of the Hero’s Journey story structure is that it helps you balance the internal and external stories.And—fun fact—you can really lean into this pro when you use Dabble’s plot grid to design your story structure. For each scene of action, you can keep track of the character’s internal arc, like this:

A screenshot of the Dabble plot grid showing how to plot The Wizard of Oz using the Hero's Journey.

A potential con of using the Hero’s Journey is that it is a more detailed and rigid structure compared to something like a classic Three-Act Structure. It also takes longer to ramp up to the action, unlike the Fichtean Curve.That said, the monomyth is flexible. You can adapt it to meet the needs of your own project or use existing variations like Steve Kaplan’s Comic Hero’s Journey or Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The biggest con of using the Hero’s Journey would be if it simply wasn’t right for your process or story. If this structure speaks to you, give it a shot! If not, explore our breakdown of other story structures to find the plotting method you’ll love.

Is the Hero’s Journey Right for Your Novel?

Story structures exist to help us find the rhythm of a compelling story. They help us make sure the character evolves and the narrative flows. But obeying them step-by-step is not mandatory.If you think of the Hero’s Journey or any story structure like a road map for your book, think of it as Google maps.You’re free to avoid highways and toll roads. You can reroute when the road you’re on stops flowing. You can mute the voice that keeps saying, “Return to the route. Return to the route.”It’s okay if Campbell’s monomyth doesn’t work for you. There is still value in understanding it, because when you understand why it’s an effective storytelling method, you’re better equipped to experiment effectively.Want to leap right into the action? Go ahead and get all Fichtean! But because you’ve bothered to learn the Hero’s Journey, you can get Fichtean with the awareness that you might need to help your readers relate to this adventurer in extraordinary circumstances.Mix and match. Cut and paste. Live your best writerly life.And if you want to try your hand at the Dabble writing tool and plot grid (which works for any story structure), you can start your free 14-day trial here.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.