Strengthen Your Writing By Studying the Hero’s Journey

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

The number of articles, posts, academic theses, and books about The Hero’s Journey and its variants attests to the model’s enduring usefulness to both writers and academics. It’s a way into story structure from an anthropological, sociological, and psychological angle that will help deepen your understanding of other structural models and enrich your work.

I was reacquainted with The Hero’s Journey this past May when I attended Story Masters in Toronto and met Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, in person (and, of course, asked him to sign my 2nd edition of his book). Vogler has been a student of The Hero’s Journey since his early days as a screenwriter, and brought his 40 years of study to bear in his day-long workshop.

Before we get to Vogler’s presentation, I want to review the history of The Hero’s Journey and the books that preceded The Writer’s Journey.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

I’d better start with the man who conceived of The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell, and the book he wrote about it way back in 1949: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell posited the existence of The Monomyth. To do this, he studied stories from ancient and classical cultures (Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian), several stories from The Bible, and stories from other cultures throughout the world including northern European, African, Indian, Asian, and Indigenous (Native) cultures.

Campbell identified the common elements he found in all of these stories and distilled them into a 17-step cycle he named The Monomyth. For the sake of brevity, I won’t break down all 17 steps for you now. There’s enough richness here that I’m going to unpack it in a second post on The Monomyth and its variants.

For now, I recommend that you take out Campbell’s book and read it (if you haven’t). It will be available in all college and university libraries and most public libraries. Campbell also did a series for PBS with Bill Moyers (filmed on George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch) which you can watch, and which spawned another book of the same name: The Power of Myth.

In short, Campbell gathered the steps of The Monomyth into three groups (three-act structure, anyone?): Departure (five steps), Initiation (six steps), and Return (six steps). Once you familiarize yourself with The Monomyth, you can locate, or at least approximate, any other structural model within that framework.

The reader is hooked on the story by the call to adventure. The first major plot point, or point of no return, is crossing the first threshold. You can even locate pinch points at which the antagonistic force makes itself felt (belly of the whale, temptation). It’s fascinating, from a storytelling perspective, how things work out so tidily.

After he details the 17 steps of The Monomyth in his book, Campbell explores what he calls The Cosmogonic Cycle, which is extremely helpful for world building considerations 🙂

Before I move on, I’ll reiterate my recommendation to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s essential reading for any writer.

The Heroine’s Journey

Maureen Murdock is a therapist, and she drew not only on myth, but on the experiences of her female clients to create a uniquely feminine version of The Monomyth. She called it The Heroine’s Journey, and published her book by the same title in 1990. She followed up with The Hero’s Daughter in 1994.

While Campbell included the stories of many heroines when he compiled what would become The Monomyth, his hero’s journey is androcentric and several stages of it are, frankly, Oedipal in nature. Since Murdock was also heavily influenced by Carl Jung, it’s unsurprising that The Heroine’s Journey is informed by the Oedipal Complex’s counterpart, the Electra Complex. Young women are at odds with their mothers, competing for the love of their fathers (as if parents aren’t capable of loving each other and their children—sheesh).

The Heroine’s Journey is a template for personal emotional healing rather than storytelling, but I think Murdock’s work is equally useful for the craft of writing. What else is a positive character arc than a healing journey?  The centerpiece of The Heroine’s Journey is the Sumerian goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld during which she dies and is restored to life. Other stops on the journey are healing the mother/daughter split, and finding the inner man with heart.

I appreciate Murdock’s psycho-social approach to The Monomyth and think her books have a lot to offer the student of human nature. Can any of us writerly types claim to be anything else?

Again, I’ll leave it to you scholarly bookworms to hunt down copies of Murdock’s books through your local public or academic libraries, should you be so inclined.

The Writer’s Journey

Though Christopher Vogler built his screenwriting career around The Monomyth, he didn’t publish The Writer’s Journey until 1998. He further distilled Campbell’s 17 steps into 12 and aligned them with Syd Field’s classic three-act screenwriting structure.

Like most screenwriting books, Vogler’s is a master class in story structure. In the book, each of the 12 steps of The Hero’s Journey is illustrated by the examination of a scene from a well-known film. In his in-person workshop, he showed us video clips.

Vogler’s knowledge of film is encyclopedic and he is a generous teacher. Here are a few gems from his Story Masters presentation:

The map is not the journey

Any model of structure is a starting point only. Try not to let your creativity be constrained by the The Hero’s Journey. It is a map, a set of guideposts. Counterintuitively, structure has the effect of freeing you to write with abandon. Knowing the destination ensures you’ll get there. How you get there is unique to each writer. No one else can tell your story.

Employ economy of language

Make every word count and make every word serve more than one purpose, if you can. Use symbolism and visual storytelling techniques to make the invisible (emotions, abstract concepts) visible. Economy of language is at the heart of the “show vs. tell” argument.

Employ dissonance

Reveal the power of an explosion by your protagonist focusing on the fall of a single ash. Conversely, have something innocuous, like President Snow’s white rose left in the ruins of District 12, trigger a breakdown, as it does for Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay.

The hero is propelled through the journey by two things: an external want and an internal need.

They should not be the same. In the case of a positive character arc, journey is all about recognizing and achieving the internal need, sometimes in spite of, or at the cost of, the external want. It’s the elixir with which the hero returns at the end of the journey.

Harmon’s Plot Embryo

Dan Harmon, creator of Community, has further simplified The Hero’s Journey to eight stages. He uses this plot embryo to write every episode. These crazy television writer types 😉

I first came across Harmon’s Plot Embryo courtesy of Rachael Stephen’s YouTube video. She links several useful resources in the show notes. I’ll let Rachael explain the plot embryo. She does it much better than I could.

Next time, I’m going to look at each version of The Hero’s Journey and show you how each lines up with modern story structure. Expect geekiness!

Select bibliography

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.
    Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
    Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Boston: Shambala, 1990.
    Murdock, Maureen. The Hero’s Daughter. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
    Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd ed. Studio City: Michael Weise Productions, 1998.

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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