A Deep Dive Into the Hero’s Journey

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

The Hero’s Journey is everywhere in writing craft circles. Steven Pressfield and his editor Shawn Coyne use it. Donald Maass refers to it. It’s mentioned in the Writing Excuses and The Writing Files podcasts. DIY MFA instigator Gabriela Pereira talks about it and some of the character archetypes derived from it in her book and courses. Pick your favorite writing craft expert and chances are they’ve at least touched on The Hero’s Journey at some point in their body of writing advice.

The Hero’s Journey is also versatile. The stages of The Hero’s Journey can be shifted around and some are optional. If you prefer to outline, you can use The Hero’s Journey as part of that process. If you’re a discovery writer, The Hero’s Journey can be applied after you’ve completed your first draft as a way of troubleshooting.

In this column, I’ll use a model of modern story structure and line it up with Joseph Campbell’s 17 stage Monomyth[1] and Christopher Vogler’s 12 stage Hero’s Journey to analyze two familiar stories.

I’ll use K.M. Weiland’s 10 plot point model of story structure, which she summarizes in this NaNoWriMo prep post on her blog, Helping Writers Become Authors.

Note the differing numbers of stages to plot points (17, 12, and 10). They’re not going to line up exactly.

The stories I’ll use for this analysis are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (the novels).

Act I/Departure

The ordinary world (Vogler) / The hook

This stage is absent, but implied, in Campbell’s Call to Adventure (see next stage).

The reader needs some idea of the protagonist’s life before their adventure begins, the state they depart, but also that something isn’t right. We have to have some reason to care about the protagonist when everything goes to heck in a hand basket.

Bilbo’s normal world is one of quiet retirement and domestic contentment and it’s immediately disrupted by a knock on the door, heralding an unwanted breakfast party that tests Bilbo’s hospitality.

Katniss’s father is dead and her mother is still haunted by the loss. Katniss hunts to provide for her family. Katniss wakes up to discover that her sister Prim, with whom she shares a bed, has gone to sleep with their mother. It’s the day of the Reaping.

The call to adventure (Campbell and Vogler) / The inciting incident

What isn’t right in the normal world becomes apparent and the protagonist must make a choice.

Gandalf arrives and tells Bilbo he’s been recruited as the burglar for Thorin and his dwarves.

At the Reaping ceremony, Prim’s name is called as tribute to the Hunger Games.

Refusal of the call (Campbell and Vogler) – optional

In modern story structure, the refusal and meeting with the mentor are optional and, when present, are around the inciting incident. They are not plot points in and of themselves, but connect plot points to one another.

Bilbo protests that he isn’t a burglar and tries to evict the dwarves from his home.

Katniss doesn’t refuse. She volunteers to take Prim’s place.

Meeting with the mentor (Campbell and Vogler) – optional

In myth and legend, a god or demigod provides the hero with supernatural aid. In fantasy and science fiction, the mentor isn’t necessarily divine and often offers the hero more practical advice.

Gandalf is Bilbo’s mentor. It’s his influence that gives Bilbo the confidence to cross the threshold.

Haymitch is Katniss’s, but so is Cinna, though she doesn’t meet him until later. Both mentors offer Katniss strategies to help her survive the games.

Crossing the first threshold (Campbell and Vogler) / First plot point

This is the point of no return. Once this decision is made or event occurs, the only way is forward.

Bilbo reconsiders (perhaps due to his Tookish nature) and joins the dwarves.

Katniss agrees to Haymitch’s strategy of pretending she and Peeta are in love.

Act II/Initiation

The belly of the whale (Campbell) / First pinch point

Campbell situates this stage at the end of Act I/Departure, but it aligns with the first pinch point, so I’ve shifted it into Act II/Initiation. Derived from the Biblical story of Jonah, the belly of the whale is a moment of reflection. Having crossed the threshold, the protagonist sees just how high the stakes are. In the first pinch point, the antagonistic force makes itself felt.

Bilbo and the dwarves encounter the trolls. Gandalf saves them.

After the deadly fight at the cornucopia, Peeta appears to have allied with the careers. They chase Katniss up a tree where, with Rue’s help, she drops the tracker-jacker nest on them and escapes.

The road of trials (Campbell) / Tests, allies, enemies (Vogler) / Midpoint

This is the series of complications and setbacks that forms the bulk of Act II, culminating in the midpoint, where the protagonist learns or finds something important, stops reacting, and gets proactive.

When the dwarves are captured by the goblins, Bilbo escapes and finds a ring that turns him invisible. He out-riddles Gollum. Gandalf again saves the dwarves.

Katniss and Rue join forces and destroy the stockpile of supplies the careers are depending upon.

The meeting with the Goddess (Campbell) / Approach to the inmost cave (Vogler) – optional

This stage is not a plot point per se, but another bridging stage between midpoint and the second pinch point, which lead the hero to the third plot point.

The protagonist prepares to surrender everything, especially the thing they’ve been clinging to since the very first scene, the last piece of their old life they have to shed. The road of trials has been more failure than success and circumstances are teaching the protagonist a harsh lesson. The hero questions their core belief and may change it, or recommit to it, but evolves because of the decision.

Is it the ring that’s made Bilbo special, has he been special (Tookish) all along, or is he not special at all? Though Bilbo chooses to believe he’s not special, he discovers untapped resources that allow him to use the ring to prevail.

Katniss has proved she can survive, but not without help. How can she win the Hunger Games without killing her allies Rue and Peeta? Katniss is at the mercy of the games and the gamesmaster, Seneca Crane, but tries to save her friends against all hope.

Temptation (Campbell) / Second pinch point

The previous stage starts the protagonist on the path to their lowest point, but also to their key moment of self-discovery. On the way, the protagonist will be tempted to rely on old habits, or new, but external, powers. The second pinch point reasserts the antagonistic presence.

The dwarves are captured first by giant spiders and then by wood-elves. Bilbo escapes both times and rescues his friends because of his clever use of the ring.

Rue is killed in front of Katniss and she, in turn, kills the tribute who killed Rue.

Both characters are discovering their power/abilities.

Atonement with the father (Campbell) – optional

In this stage, the hero reconciles with their parent, family, or heritage.

Bilbo accepts his Tookish heritage and deceives Smaug into revealing its weakness by appealing to its vanity.

Katniss lays Rue—who reminds her of Prim—to rest with flowers, sings, and salutes Rue’s district, knowing that everything she does is being broadcast.

Apotheosis (Campbell) / Ordeal (Vogler) / Third plot point

Apotheosis is attaining the pinnacle of personal achievement. This is only possible when the protagonist faces their “all is lost” moment. Death, real or metaphorical, must be faced.

In Lake Town, Smaug attacks and the people think Bilbo and the dwarves have betrayed them, but Bilbo manages to send Smaug’s secret vulnerability to Bard by bird.

Crane announces a change in the rules: there can be two victors if they’re from the same district. Katniss finds Peeta, nearly dies fighting Clove to get him the medicine he needs, and fully embraces the romantic story they’ve been selling Panem to get further patron gifts. They can both survive.

The ultimate boon (Campbell) / Reward (Vogler)

This is the thing the protagonist finds in their darkest hour, the realization that propels them to the climactic moment, and the key to surviving it.

While Bard defeats Smaug, using Bilbo’s information, the dwarves entrench in the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo finds the Arkenstone and hides it.

On the way to their final confrontation with Cato at the cornucopia, Katniss finds one tribute who died because she ate poisonous berries.

Act III/Return

Refusal of the return (Campbell) – optional

The refusal of the return is another moment of reflection. Can I really do this? Should I?

Bilbo does not refuse to return as much as he is prevented from leaving the Lonely Mountain by Thorin.

Katniss does not want to face off against Cato, but Crane gives her no choice, drying up water and resources to force Katniss and Peeta into their final confrontation.

The magic flight (Campbell) / The road back (Vogler) – optional

Having obtained their boon/reward, the protagonist now attempts to return, but is prevented from doing so by one or more final obstacles. This can be a chase scene.

Bilbo continues to hide the Arkenstone as Thorin grows more suspicious.

Katniss and Peeta confront Cato, but then mutts (mutations) that look like they were created from the other dead tributes attack them all. Cato falls into the mutts and Katniss kills him out of mercy.

Rescue from without (Campbell) – optional

Sometimes, the protagonist can’t begin to return until they have been assisted by someone else.

Neither Bilbo nor Katniss are specifically helped at this stage in their stories (though they have received outside assistance throughout—luck and patron gifts).

Crossing the return threshold (Campbell) / Resurrection (Vogler) / Climax

Just as the protagonist suffered some form of death at the third plot point to attain the boon or reward that would enable them to succeed, so too must they demonstrate that they have changed (come back from the dead) and that they are now worthy of the climactic moment.

Elves and men approach the Lonely Mountain. Thorin refuses to give in to their demands for restitution, summoning his kin to fight. Bilbo tries to reason with him, but fails.

In the wake of the mutt attack, the rules are again changed and Katniss must fight Peeta to win the Hunger Games.

Master of two worlds (Campbell) / Return with the elixir (Vogler) / Climactic moment

The normal world and the world of adventure are actually one wider world that the protagonist earns the ability to cross at will (elixir).

Bilbo attempts to use the Arkenstone to negotiate but Thorin banishes Bilbo. Goblins and wargs approach. Gandalf and the giant eagles are on their way. The Battle of the Five Armies begins.

Katniss refuses to fight Peeta, and offers him some of the poisonous berries. They’ll die before they kill each other. Panicked, Crane changes the rules once more. There are two victors in this Hunger Games.

Freedom to live (Campbell) / Resolution

The protagonist has transformed thanks to the reward they’ve returned with. This stage is also called the denouement. The resolution is where you tie up loose ends, or set up the next book in the series.

Thorin, fatally wounded in the battle, reconciles with Bilbo before he dies. Bilbo was right after all. Bilbo brings the ring, the tale, and a portion of his share of the treasure, home.

Katniss has repeatedly defied the Capital in public. Though she and Peeta survived, the fight is definitely not over. Katniss reveals that her affection for Peeta was an act … but was it?

With the analysis and resource links in this column, you will be able to apply either Campbell’s Monomyth or Vogler’s Hero’s Journey to your work in progress, as an outlining aid, or as a way to structure your first, discovery draft. As we are in NaNo prep season I hope this column will give you the tools you need to succeed!

 

[1] Also see Harris Communications: Elaborating on the theme of transformation, which digs deeper into Campbell’s Monomyth and offers several excellent visualizations of the stages.


Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction MagazineOn Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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