Would you like a proven way of telling better stories, ones that readers remember long after they put your work down?
Well, you don’t need to sell your soul to do it either. Instead, use the Hero’s Journey to master the art of storytelling.
It’s a narrative pattern storytellers behind popular dramas, stories, myths, legends and even religious rituals use.
In the 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, scholar Joseph writes about the Hero’s Journey:
“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society.”
“The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”
Essentially, the hero (it could be you or your protagonist) of any story goes on a journey and comes back a changed person.
Star Wars is one of the most popular stories of the modern era, but did you know George Lucas guided his story for the first film around using the twelves stages of the Hero’s Journey?
Let’s dive into this storytelling technique.
Stage 1: The Ordinary World
Here, the reader or viewer meets an uneasy, ordinary person going about his or her daily life, and sympathises with the unlikely hero.
In Star Wars, we meet Luke living a bored and isolated life on the backwater desert planet of Tatooine. He is an ordinary man with ordinary problems.
Stage 2: The Call to Adventure
There is a dramatic incident that calls the hero on a dangerous path.
In Star Wars, Luke cleans an old droid called R2D2 and accidentally plays a help message from Princess Leia.
So, he seeks out an old hermit Obi-Wan Kenboi to help him understand what this message means. His world is about to change.
Stage 3: Refusal of the Call
The hero catches a glimpse of a new unknown world. He becomes reluctant and afraid to embrace this call to adventure.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke about the age-long struggle between the evil Empire and the Rebels. Then, he says he will bring Luke to Alderaan and train him in the ways of the Force.
Stage 4: Meeting with the Mentor
The hero meets a seasoned traveller of the world and receives training and equipment from him or her.
In Star Wars, Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi. He offers Luke his father’s old light-sabre and promises to train him in the mysterious ways of the Force.
Stage 5: Crossing the Threshold
This moment comes at the end of the first act of the story. Here, the hero finally leaves his or her ordinary world.
In Star Wars, Luke returns home to find his his aunt and uncle are dead. Having nowhere to go, he accepts Obi-Wan’s call to adventure and goes on a quest to rescue Princess Leia.
Stage 6: Test Allies and Enemies
Here, the hero is tested by his enemies and recruits some friends who can help him.
In Star Wars, Luke and Obi-Wan recruit a reluctant Han Solo and Chewbacca. Then, they battle against the Empire’s stormtroopers.
Stage 7: Approach
Now, the hero and his or her allies prepare to do battle against the antagonists of the story.
In Star Wars, Luke and his new allies travel to the planet of Alderaan so Luke can train in the ways of the Force and prepare to rescue Princess Leia.
Stage 8: The Ordeal
Here, the hero confronts death or a traumatic experience.
In Star Wars, this is the moment where Darth Vadar and Obi-Wan Kenobi attack each other with light-sabres inside the Death Star. Luke looks on helplessly while Vadar strikes down and kills his mentor.
Stage 9: The Reward
The hero, after facing and then escaping certain death, takes possession of a treasure.
In Star Wars, Luke rescues Princess Leia from Darth Vadar with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca. He joins the Rebels on their hidden base on Yavin 4 and is accepted as an X-Wing fighter pilot.
Stage 10: The Road Back
Typically, there is a chase whereby the hero is driven to complete his adventure and bring his or her treasure home.
After several attempts, Luke and his friends escape the Death Star on the Millennium Falcon and travel to the Rebels’ based on Yavin 4.
There, they regroup and plan an attack against Vadar’s forces and the Death Star.
Stage 11: The Resurrection
Here, the hero is tested one last time and must make a sacrifice before he or she can defeat the primary antagonist.
Luke attempts to destroy the Death Star and is almost shot down and killed by Darth Vadar who is flying a TIE Fighter.
All looks lost for Luke… until his old mentor appears in a vision, tells Luke to turn off the sensors of his X-Wing and “Use the Force.”
Stage 12: Return With the Elixir
The hero returns home or continues with his journey, having embraced his identity and carrying some element of the treasure.
Luke uses the Force to destroy the Death Star and returns to the Rebels a hero. He will continue to fight the Empire using the Force on his side.
What the Hero’s Journey Means For Writers
I like the Hero’s Journey, not just because I enjoy superhero films or Star Wars, but because it’s a narrative device writers can use to tell more powerful stories.
Listen to what George Lucas said about the Hero’s Journey:
“Here is a lifetime of scholarship, a life of work that is distilled down to a few books that I can read in a few months that enable me to move forward with what I am trying to do and give me focus to my work.”
“It was a great feat and very important. It’s possible that if I had not run across him I would still be writing Star Wars today.”
He’s not the only successful creative person to use Hero’s Journey to tell better stories.
The filmmakers behind popular franchises from the Matrix to almost all the recent Marvel offerings tell their stories using variations of the Hero’s Journey, as do the writers of popular thriller stories.
So what does the Hero’s Journey storytelling technique mean for you?
Well you can…
Look for traces of the Hero’s Journey in popular works: Now that you’re aware of it, it’s easy (and fun) to find elements of this narrative device in books, films and stories.
Use the Hero’s Journey to find creative ideas: Once you understand how a popular story is put together, you can extract elements from this story and combine them with your own to come up with more creative ideas.
Use the Hero’s Journey to overcome writer’s block: It’s not a colour-by-numbers template that you must rigidly follow, but it will help you break your writing (or stories) into smaller, more approachable sections, like the opening, the middle or the ending.
Tell stories with the Hero’s Journey: Whether you write short-stories, novels or non-fiction works, storytelling is an art that demands practice. The good news is the Hero’s Journey offers a proven way of practising storytelling.
Remix this storytelling technique: George Lucas played with the order of the Hero’s Journey to tell his story in the first Star Wars film. There’s no reason why you can’t play around with it to tell your stories too.
Remember, the Hero’s Journey is just one way of mastering the art of storytelling. There are dozens more out there.
You just have to accept your call-to-adventure and find them.