The Hero’s Journey: Explained in 12 Steps

This article explains the hero’s journey, where it came from, and how it can help you tell better stories.

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 heroic journey that the storytellers behind popular dramas, stories, myths, legends, and even religious rituals often use it.

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What Is The Hero’s Journey?

The Hero’s Journey is a popular storytelling framework used in films like Star Wars, The Matrix, Toy Story, and the recent Marvel superhero films. Although it’s in vogue today, it’s a rather old form of story structure.

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’sJourney?

Let’s dive into this storytelling technique using examples from Star Wars and other popular films.

Stage 1. The Ordinary World

We meet our hero.

Here, the reader or viewer meets an uneasy, ordinary person going about their daily lives and sympathizes with the unlikely hero.

For example:

In Star Wars, we meet Luke living a bored and isolated life on Tatooine’s backwater desert planet. He is an ordinary man with ordinary problems.

Similarly, in Lord of the Rings, we meet Frodo and his friends living a care-free life in the Shire.

Stage 2. The Call To Adventure

The call to adventure

Our hero goes on an adventure.

A dramatic incident calls the hero on a dangerous path and leaves the known world behind. He may encounter and disbelieve fabulous forces.

For example:

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 Kenobi to help him understand what this message means. His world is about to change.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf visits Frodo Baggins and sends him on a mysterious adventure: to carry a magic ring to Rivendell.

In Toy Story, this is the moment Woody leaves Andy’s bedroom’s safety, albeit accidentally.

Stage 3. Refusal Of The Call

Our hero wants to turn back and go home.

The hero catches a glimpse of a new unknown world. An archetypal hero becomes reluctant and afraid to embrace this call to adventure.

For example:

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.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo travels to Rivendell, meets Elrond, and learns the ring must be destroyed. The council immediately begin fighting with each other over what to do next.

Stage 4. Meeting With The Mentor

Our hero meets a more knowledgeable teacher or guide.

The hero meets a seasoned traveler of the world and receives training and equipment from him or her.

For example:

In Star Wars, Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi. He offers Luke his father’s old light-saber and promises to train him in the mysterious ways of the Force.

In the recent Spiderman films, the hero meets Ironman and gains a special suit, which gives him new powers.

Stage 5. Crossing The First Threshold

Our hero leaves his or her old life behind.

This moment comes at the end of the first act of the story. Here, the hero finally leaves his or her ordinary world and enters the other or unknown world.

For example:

In Star Wars, Luke returns home to find 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.

In The Matrix, Neo accepts the red pill from his mentor Morpheus. He swallows the red pill and learns the truth about the ordinary world.

Stage 6. Test, Allies, And Enemies

Our hero assembles a crew.

Here, the hero is tested by his enemies and recruits some friends who can help him.

For example:

In Star Wars, Luke and Obi-Wan recruit a reluctant Han Solo and Chewbacca. Then, they battle against the Empire’s stormtroopers.

In almost any Marvel movie, our hero assembles side-kicks and friends who will help him or her.

Stage 7. Approach to The Inmost Cave

Our hero gets ready to do battle.

Now, the hero and his or her allies get ready to achieve their goal. They prepare to do battle against the antagonists of the story.

The inmost cave is a metaphor deployed by mythologist Joseph Campbell describing an imminent conflict.

For example:

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

Our hero faces their greatest challenge or ordeal yet.

In this pivotal moment of the story, the hero confronts death, his or her greatest fear, or a traumatic experience. It occurs in the innermost cave of the myth in question.

Also described by Campbell as entering “the belly of the whale,” it’s their biggest test so far. If they overcome this challenge, they will fundamentally change at a great cost. If they fail, all is lost.

For example:

In Star Wars, this is the moment where Darth Vadar and Obi-Wan Kenobi attack each other with light-sabers inside the Death Star. Luke looks on helplessly while Vadar strikes down and kills his mentor.

All is lost for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Later on, in the trilogy, Luke faces and defeats his father. All is won.

Stage 9. The Reward (Seizing the Sword)

Our hero, if successful, receives a prize.

The hero, after facing and escaping certain death, takes possession of a treasure. He achieves a decisive victory over his enemies.

For example:

In Star Wars, Luke saves Princess Leia and captures the plans for the Death Star. Now, the Rebels have what they need to defeat the Empire finally.

Or do they?

Stage 10. The Road Back

Our hero tries to return with this prize to their old life.

Typically, there is a chase whereby the hero is driven to complete his adventure and bring his or her treasure home.

For example:

In Star Wars, Luke rescues Princess Leia from Darth Vadar with Han Solo and Chewbacca’s help. He joins the Rebels on their hidden base on Yavin 4. There, he is accepted as an X-Wing fighter pilot.

There, they regroup and plan an attack against Vadar’s forces and the Death Star.

Stage 11. The Resurrection

Wait! Our hero has one final test, battle, or challenge.

Here, the hero is tested one last time and must make a sacrifice before he or she can defeat the primary antagonist.

For example:

Luke attempts to destroy the Death Star and is almost shot down and killed by Darth Vadar, 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.”

In the final Lord of the Rings film, this is the moment when Frodo is about to die before being rescued by the Eagles.

Stage 12. Return With The Elixir

Our hero returns home at last.

The hero returns home or continues with his journey, having embraced his identity and carrying some element of the treasure.

For example:

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.

In the first Matrix film, Neo defeats Smith and leaves the Matrix before an electromagnetic pulse destroys the Sentinels.

He then phones Smith and reveals he will show those trapped in Matrix “a world where anything is possible.”

In Lord of the Rings, Bilbo returns to the Shire with treasure and a new understanding of the ordinary world.

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 that a writer can 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.

From the Matrix to almost all the recent Marvel offerings, the filmmakers behind popular franchises 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 color-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 practicing storytelling.

Remix this storytelling technique: George Lucas played with the Hero’s Journey’s order 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 have to accept your call-to-adventure and find them.

The Hero’s Journey: The Final Word

The hero’s journey is a popular form of storytelling, particularly with today’s screenwriters. It also works well for novels and even non-fiction.

Work through these 12 steps the next time you outline a book or story. Understanding the rules and mythology of this framework and see where your plot takes you.

Hero’s Journey FAQs

Why is the hero’s journey important?

The hero’s journey demonstrates that change is possible for everyone. It shows us that an ordinary person can overcome great adversity and defeat their enemies or fears. With some help, they can affect the world in some way. It’s also important as it explains how popular stories and myths work.

What is the purpose of the hero’s journey?

The hero’s journey is a framework for crafting a compelling story. It charts the heroic journey of an ordinary person or main character to becoming a hero. It’s used in many popular mythical stories like Star Wars and Toy Story.

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.