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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

The Hero's Journey

Updated: 3 days ago

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In the writing world, it’s not uncommon for authors to use templates or guidelines to help them put their stories together. Everyone has their favorite method of writing and sometimes that includes using a template developed by someone else. If you’re thinking that using a preset format to help you write a book sounds like cheating, or like using a formula, think again.

A good comparison of what a template does for an author is to equate it to what a travel guidebook does for someone planning a vacation. Just like a travel guide helps the adventurer explore the possibilities of what they might want to see while they’re in that country or city, a story template helps a writer explore the possibilities of what could make their story work. A book about travel doesn’t tell you where to go, it tells you where you may want to go. A template doesn’t tell an author how to write, it offers ideas on how they may want to structure their book.

There are a lot of different story templates and plotting devices available. Save the Cat, by Blake Sander, which was originally written for writing screenplays, is one of them. Now there are multiple books available based on that original idea. In the past, I’ve used Save the Cat Writes a Novel, written by Jessica Brody, to help me put my ideas in order. Jessica takes Blake’s original idea but modifies it to fit into writing a novel rather than a screenplay. If you’re writing a Young Adult (YA) book, you can check out Save the Cat Writes a YA Novel, also by Jessica Brody.

Another popular writing system is the Snowflake Method, by Randy Ingermanson. This is a ten-step process that takes you from the first grain of an idea and helps you grow that idea into a full-fledged book. It starts with one sentence and helps you develop it into paragraphs and finally chapters, developing your characters and plot points along the way.

There are many other story templates, and if you’re interested in learning more about some of them, check out this website at Kindlepreneur (which by the way, is a great resource for authors who publish on Amazon). But the one I want to talk about is called The Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey was created by Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with A Thousand Faces, written in 1949. Much has already been written about Mr. Campbell and this book, so I will not delve into his background or get into the nitty-gritty details of the book. You can read about it on Wikipedia. George Lucas popularized Campbell's writing by stating that he used it to help him finish Star Wars.

In basic terms, The Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure that details a protagonist’s journey in which some catalyst occurs in his life which causes him to decide to leave his ordinary world behind for a new, often frightening and challenging one. Once there, he encounters obstacles, faces challenges, meets mentors and enemies, and usually reaches a goal and experiences some kind of personal growth. I use the pronoun he generically here, as, of course, the protagonist could be a he, she, they, or even an animal such as a cat, dog, horse, etc. The choice of protagonist is not what’s significant. The journey is what is important.

Campbell wrote his book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, by studying stories from around the world—across country barriers and language barriers. He traveled the globe to learn about the stories people told each other—the myths and tales that were spread from generation to generation. What he discovered was that many stories, especially folk stories, myths, and fairy tales, follow a very similar framework, regardless of where they were originally written. They followed the structure of a hero’s journey—someone who gets thrown from their ordinary life into a completely unfamiliar one and is forced to encounter trials and tribulations they never expected to face. He called this story structure “the one great story of mankind.” His book is interesting if you want to get into the details and really understand how he analyzed all the different stories and came up with his formula. But I found it was a bit like reading a textbook, which makes sense because it was used as one for years.

There is also a book titled, The Power of Myth, edited by Betty Sue Flowers, which is a transcript of an interview which took place in 1985 and 1986 at the George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch between Joe Campbell and Bill Moyers, who was an investigative journalist (among many other things like the White House Press Secretary under President Johnson). The interview was filmed and made into a six-part PBS series which you can watch on YouTube on Kino Lorber’s channel. You can probably find it on Amazon Prime as well or other streaming services. It’s not complete, as portions were edited out for timesaving, but if you don’t want to read the book, it’s worth checking out.

Many books have been written about The Hero’s Journey, and one of my favorites is The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. I like this book because it goes into a lot of detail about each step in The Hero’s Journey, provides examples, but is also an easy read. One of the most commonly used examples is, of course, the 1977 movie Star Wars. It’s a classic hero story and fits nicely into The Hero’s Journey template. I will not detail that here because it has already been written about many times. But if you want to learn more about it, just Google “Star Wars and The Hero’s Journey”, and jump down the rabbit hole.

Vogler describes how a lot of different films fit into The Hero’s Journey template, many of which are also novels, but he uses fairytales as examples as well—The Wizard of Oz (original film directed by Victor Fleming, book by L. Frank Baum), Dune (original film directed by David Lynch, book by Frank Herbert), and Psycho (original film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, book by Robert Bloch), just to name a few.

The Writer’s Journey also provides questions at the end of each chapter (each step in the hero’s journey) for you to consider. Some are about the examples he provided in the chapter to help you know if you understood what he was trying to get across. Others can be applied to your own writing to help you think about whether you have enough action, your goals for your characters are challenging enough, if there are enough surprises to keep you reader intrigued, etc., etc. I’ve found them helpful, especially if I’m stuck at a certain point. I can read the chapter that best aligns with the area of my book I’m struggling with and browse the questions to see if anything there nudges me.

Is using The Hero’s Journey template the best way to write a book? Absolutely not! But like other writing templates and tools, if you have a story in mind and have no idea where to start, or if you’re stuck with your story, plot, or characters, it might give you something to think about—a beginning way to structure your novel or some ideas about how to keep it going. Campbell’s study was never meant to be a tool to write books. It was one man’s observation and his opinions about how myths, folklore, and fairy tales everywhere seemed to have a common story structure. It is your job to take it, leave it, or pick it apart.

There are writers who plan everything and write pages and pages of character backgrounds, setting descriptions, outlines and summaries. Those people are called planners. Then there are others who say they just sit down and write. They’re called pantsers (they write by the seat of their pants.) Most people are somewhere in-between—they plan and outline, but not excessively. That’s me. If you’re one of those people who just sits down and writes, and everything comes out pretty much the way you wanted, I’m impressed (and a little jealous). I’ve tried that in the past, and I end up editing for months. OK, it’s not really editing, it’s re-writing!

I highly recommend at least putting together an outline for your book before you start writing. And if you think The Hero’s Journey template will help you, use it! Study it, analyze it, stick your story into it, and then break it apart, deconstruct it, and make it yours. There’s nothing wrong with using The Hero’s Journey or any other template. It’s not AI. It won’t write your book for you. And it’s not cheating. It’s using the tools that are available to help you finish your book.

Do you have a story you’ve been dying to write but don’t know where to begin? Try using a template to help you get started. The tool you use is not as important as simply getting your book written. So, pick one (or throw them all out the window), and sit down and write. The world is waiting for your book!

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