Before I start this post I would like to acknowledged the tragedy that occurred in my country this past month. George Floyd, an innocent man, was murdered by a police officer while three other officers witnessed that murder and remained silent.
To remain silent, in the face of injustice, violence, and murder is to be complicit. I acknowledge that as a white man I have benefited from a centuries old system of privilege and abuse against black people, women, American Indians, immigrants, and many, many more.
This systemic abuse is what lead to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Treyvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and many more. Too many.
Whether I like it or not I’ve been complicit in this injustice. We can’t afford to be silent anymore. If you’re disturbed by the violence we’ve witnessed over, and over again please vote this November, hold your local governments accountable, peacefully protest, and listen. Hopefully, together we can bring positive change. And, together, we can heal.
In this post, we’ll go over the stages of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, also known as the Monomyth. We’ll talk about how to use it to structure your story. You’ll also find some guided questions for each section of the Hero’s Journey. These questions are designed to help guide your thinking during the writing process. Finally, we’ll go through an example of the Hero’s Journey from 1997’s Men In Black.
Down at the bottom, we’ll go over reasons you shouldn’t rely on the Monomyth. And we’ll talk about a few alternatives for you to consider if the Hero’s Journey isn’t right for your story.
But, before we do all that let’s answer the obvious question-
What is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey was first described by Joseph Campbell. Campbell was an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. He wrote about the Hero’s Journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. More than a guide, this book was a study on the fundamental structure of myths throughout history.
Through his study, Campbell identified seventeen stages that make up what he called the Monomyth or Hero’s Journey. We’ll go over these stages in the next section. Here’s how Campbell describes the Monomyth in his book:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Something important to note is that the Monomyth was not conceived as a tool for writers to develop a plot. Rather, Campbell identified it as a narrative pattern that was common in mythology.
George Lucas used Campbell’s Monomyth to structure his original Star Wars film. Thanks to Star Wars’ success, filmmakers have adopted the Hero’s Journey as a common plot structure in movies.
We see it in films like The Matrix, Spider-man, The Lion King, and many more. But, keep in mind, this is not the only way to structure a story. We’ll talk about some alternatives at the end of this post.
With that out of the way, let’s go over the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey, or Monomyth. We’ll use the original Men In Black film as an example (because why not?). And, we’ll look at some questions to help guide your thinking, as a writer, at each stage.
Quick note– The original Hero’s Journey is seventeen stages. But, Christopher Vogler, an executive working for Disney, condensed Campbell’s work. Vogler’s version has twelve stages, and it’s the version we’re talking about today. Vogler wrote a guide to use the Monomyth and I’ll link to it at the bottom.)
The 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey
The Ordinary World
This is where the hero’s story begins. We meet our hero in a down-to-earth, or humble setting. We establish the hero as an ordinary citizen in this world, not necessarily “special” in any way.
We get to know our hero at this stage of the story. We learn about the hero’s life, struggles, inner or outer demons. This an opportunity for readers to identify with the hero. A good idea since the story will be told from the hero’s perspective.
In Men In Black, we meet our hero, James, who will become Agent J, chasing someone down the streets of a large city. The story reveals some important details through the action of the plot. Let’s go over these details and how they’re shown through action.
Agent J’s job: He’s a cop. We know this because he’s chasing a criminal. He waves a badge and yells, “NYPD! Stop!”
The setting: The line “NYPD!” tells us that J is a New York City cop. The chase sequence also culminates on the roof of the Guggenheim Museum. Another clue to the setting.
J’s Personality: J is a dedicated cop. We know this because of his relentless pursuit of the suspect he’s chasing. J is also brave. He jumps off a bridge onto a moving bus. He also chases a man after witnessing him climb vertically, several stories, up a wall. This is an inhuman feat that would have most people noping out of there. J continues his pursuit, though.
- What is your story’s ordinary world setting?
- How is this ordinary world different from the special world that your hero will enter later in the story?
- What action in this story will reveal the setting?
- Describe your hero and their personality.
- What action in the story will reveal details about your hero?
The Call of Adventure
The Call of Adventure is an event in the story that forces the hero to take action. The hero will move out of their comfort zone, aka the ordinary world. Does this sound familiar? It should, because, in practice, The Call of Adventure is an Inciting Event.
The Call of Adventure can take many forms. It can mean a literal call like one character asking another to go with them on a journey or to help solve a problem. It can also be an event in the story that forces the character to act.
The Call of Adventure can include things like the arrival of a new character, a violent act of nature, or a traumatizing event. The Call can also be a series of events like what we see in our example from Men In Black.
The first Call of Adventure comes from the alien that Agent J chases to the roof of the Guggenheim. Before leaping from the roof, the alien says to J, “Your world’s going to end.” This pique’s the hero’s interest and hints at future conflict.
The second Call of Adventure comes after Agent K shows up to question J about the alien. K wipes J’s memory after the interaction, but he gives J a card with an address and a time. At this point, J has no idea what’s happened. All he knows is that K has asked him to show up at a specific place the next morning.
The final and most important Call comes after K has revealed the truth to J while the two sit on a park bench together. Agent K tells J that aliens exist. K reveals that there is a secret organization that controls alien activity on Earth. And the Call- Agent K wants J to come to work for this organization.
- What event (or events) happen to incite your character to act?
- How are these events disruptive to your character’s life?
- What aspects of your story’s special world will be revealed and how? (think action)
- What other characters will you introduce as part of this special world?
Refusal of the Call
This is an important stage in the Monomyth. It communicates with the audience the risks that come with Call to Adventure. Every Hero’s Journey should include risks to the main characters and a conflict. This is the stage where your hero contemplates those risks. They will be tempted to remain in the safety of the ordinary world.
In Men in Black, the Refusal of the Call is subtle. It consists of a single scene. Agent K offers J membership to the Men In Black. With that comes a life of secret knowledge and adventure. But, J will sever all ties to his former life. No one anywhere will ever know that J existed. Agent K tells J that he has until sunrise to make his decision.
J does not immediately say, “I’m in,” or “When’s our first mission.” Instead, he sits on the park bench all night contemplating his decision. In this scene, the audience understands that this is not an easy choice for him. Again, this is an excellent use of action to demonstrate a plot point.
It’s also important to note that J only asks K one question before he makes his decision, “is it worth it?” K responds that it is, but only, “if you’re strong enough.” This line of dialogue becomes one of two dramatic questions in the movie. Is J strong enough to be a man in black?
- What will your character have to sacrifice to answer the call of adventure?
- What fears does your character have about leaving the ordinary world?
- What risks or dangers await them in the special world?
Meeting the Mentor
At this point in the story, the hero is seeking wisdom after initially refusing the call of adventure. The mentor fulfills this need for your hero.
The mentor is usually a character who has been to the special world and knows how to navigate it. Mentor’s provides your hero with tools and resources to aid them in their journey. It’s important to note that the mentor doesn’t always have to be a character. The mentor could be a guide, map, or sacred texts.
If you’ve seen Men In Black then you can guess who acts as J’s mentor. Agent K, who recruited J, steps into the mentor role once J accepts the call to adventure.
Agent K gives J a tour of the MIB headquarters. He introduces him to key characters and explains to him how the special world of the MIB works. Agent K also gives J his signature weapon, the Noisy Cricket.
- Who is your hero’s mentor?
- How will your character find and encounter with their mentor?
- What tools and resources will your mentor provide?
- Why/how does your mentor know the special world?
Crossing the Threshold
This is the point where your hero finally crosses over from the ordinary world into the special one. At this point, there is no turning back for your hero.
Your hero may not cross into the special world on their own. Or, they may need a dramatic event that forces them to act.
At this point, you’ll want to establish the dramatic question of your story. This is the question will your reader wants to answer by the end of your story. A dramatic question is what will keep your audience reading.
Once J decides to commit to the MIB Agent K starts the process of deleting J’s identity. The filmmakers do a great job communicating the drastic nature of J’s decision. This is done through, again, action and an effective voice-over. J’s social security number is deleted, and his fingerprints are burned off. He dons a nondescript black suit, sunglasses, and a sick-ass Hamilton watch.
This scene is immediately followed by a threatening message sent by aliens called the Arquillians. They tell the MIB they will destroy the Earth unless J and K can deliver a galaxy. The only problem is no one knows what the galaxy is. So, we get our story question. Can J and K find and deliver the MacGuffin before the Earth is destroyed?
- What event will push your hero into the special world?
- Once they enter the special world, what keeps them from turning back?
- What is the dramatic question you will introduce?
- How will your hero’s life change once they’ve entered the special world?
Tests, Allies, Enemies
This is stage is exactly what it sounds like. Once they’ve entered the special world, your hero will be tested. They will learn the rules of this new world. Your hero’s mentor may have to further teach your hero.
The hero will also begin collecting allies. Characters whose goals align with those of your hero’s. People who will help your hero achieve their goal. These characters may even join your hero on their quest.
And this is also the point where your hero’s enemy will reveal themselves. Now, you’ve may have hinted at, or even introduced the villain in the earlier stages. But, this is where the audience discovers how much of a threat this villain is to your hero.
J and K arrive at the city morgue to investigate the body of a slain member of Arquillian royalty. While there, J encounters the villain of the film. He is lured into a standoff with Edgar. Edgar isn’t Edgar. He’s a 10 foot tall, alien cockroach wearing an “Edgar suit.”
J doesn’t know that yet, though.
Edgar has also taken a hostage. He threatens the life of Dr. Laurel Weaver who has discovered the truth about aliens living on Earth. Dr. Weaver becomes an ally of J’s as he continues his search for the Arquillian’s galaxy.
J is faced with a new test as well. Just before he dies, the Arquillian alien tells J that the galaxy is on Orion’s Belt. J must discover the meaning behind this cryptic message if he hopes to save Earth.
- Who is the villain of your story, and what is their goal?
- Who are your hero’s allies?
- How will your hero meet them? And, How do everyone’s goals align?
- How will your hero be tested? Through battle? A puzzle? An emotional trauma?
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The inmost cave is the path towards the central conflict of your story. In this section, your hero is preparing for battle. They may be regrouping with allies, going over important information, or taking a needed rest. This is also a part of the story where you may want to inject some humor.
The approach is also a moment for your audience to regroup. This is an important aspect of pacing. A fast-paced story can be very exciting for the audience, but at some point, the writer needs to tap the breaks.
This approach section gives your audience time to process the plot and consider the stakes of your conflict. This is also a good time to introduce a ticking clock, and it’s perfect for character development.
In Men, In Black the Approach the Inmost Cave involves an interview with a character called Frank the Pug. Frank is a Pug breed of dog. He’s an alien in disguise.
Frank knows important details about the conflict between the Arquillians and Edgar. This is one of the funnier scenes in an overall funny film.
Read more about alliteration here… jk.
Frank also gives J a vital clue to determine the location of the Arquillian’s galaxy. They also discover that the galaxy is an energy source and not an actual galaxy.
Finally, we have the arrival of the Arquillian battleship come to destroy Earth. They give the MIB a warning. If the galaxy is not returned in one hour the will fire on the planet. So, we have a literal ticking clock.
- Where and how will your hero slow down and regroup?
- What information or resources will they need to go into the final battle?
- How can you introduce some humor or character development into this section?
- What kind of “ticking clock” will you introduce to increase the stakes of your final act?
The Ordeal is about one thing, and that’s death. Your hero must go through a life-altering challenge. This will be a conflict where the hero faces their greatest fears.
It’s essential that your audience feels as if the hero is really in danger. Make the audience question whether the hero will make it out alive. But, your story’s stakes may not be life or death, such as in a comedy or romance.
In that case the death your character experiences will be symbolic. And, your audience will believe that there’s a chance the hero won’t achieve their goal.
Through the ordeal, your hero will experience death whether that be real or symbolic. With this death, the hero will be reborn with greater powers or insight. Overall, the ordeal should be the point in which your character hits rock bottom.
The Ordeal in Men In Black comes the moment when J and K confront Edgar at the site of the World’s Fair. In the confrontation with Edgar, K is eaten alive by Edgar. At this moment J is left alone to confront death. The audience is left to wonder if J can defeat Edgar on his own.
- What death will your hero confront?
- What does “rock bottom” mean for your character?
- How will your hero be changed on the other side of this death event?
Reward or Seizing the Sword
At this point in the story, your hero will earn some tangible treasure for all their trouble. This can be a physical treasure. In the context of the monomyth, this is often referred to as the elixir or sword.
However, the reward can be inwardly focused. Your hero might discover hidden knowledge or insight that helps them vanquish their foe. Or, your hero can find their confidence or some self-actualization. This reward, whatever it is, is the thing that they will take with them. It is what they earn from all their hard-fought struggles.
Once K is eaten J seems to be on his own with a massive alien cockroach. This is a pretty bad spot for the rookie agent. What’s worse is the Arquillian clock is still ticking. Edgar, the cockroach, is about to escape Earth, with the galaxy, sealing the planet’s fate.
All seems lost until J claims his reward. In this case, that reward comes in the form of an insight J has about Edgar. Being a giant cockroach, J realizes that Edgar may have a weakness for his Earth-bound counterparts. So, J kicks out a dumpster and starts to smash all the scurrying bugs under his foot.
J guesses correctly, and Edgar is momentarily distracted by J’s actions. Edgar climbs down from his ship to confront J. Agent K, who is still alive in Edgar’s stomach, can activate a gun, and blow Edgar in two. J’s reward is the knowledge that he is no longer a rookie, and he is strong enough for this job. J also captures a physical treasure. After Edgar has exploded, J finds the galaxy which Edgar had swallowed earlier in the film. In this scene, both dramatic questions are answered. The MIB can save the world. And, J is strong enough for the MIB.
- What reward will your hero win?
- A physical treasure, hidden knowledge, inner wisdom, or all of the above?
The Road Back
At this point, your hero has had some success in their quest and is close to returning to the ordinary world. Your hero has experienced a change from their time in the special world. This change might make your hero’s return difficult. Similar to when your hero crossed the threshold, your hero may need an event that forces them to return.
The road back must be a dramatic turning point that heightens stakes and changes the direction of your story. This event will also re-establish the dramatic question of your story. This act may present a final challenge for your hero before they can return home.
In Men In Black, the road backstage gets a little tricky. The film establishes that when J crosses the threshold he is not able to go back to the ordinary world. His entire identity is erased. Having J go back to his life as a detective would also undo his character growth and leave the audience feeling cheated. Luckily, the filmmakers work around this by having K return to the ordinary world rather than J.
After Edgar is defeated, K tells J that he is retiring from the MIB and that J will step in as K’s replacement. The movie establishes early that agents can retire, but only after having their memory wiped. So, K asks J to wipe his memory so that he can return to a normal life. Once again, J has to grapple with the question of whether he is strong enough for this job. Can he bring himself to wipe K’s memory and lose his mentor forever? Can he fill K’s shoes as an MIB agent?
- How will your hero have to recommit to their journey?
- What event will push your hero through their final test?
- What final test will your hero face before they return to the ordinary world?
This is the final act of your story. The hero will have one last glorious encounter with the forces that are set against them. This is the culminating event for your hero. Everything that has happened to your hero has prepared them for this moment.
This can also be thought of as a rebirth for your hero. A moment when they shed all the things that have held them back throughout the story. The resurrection is when your hero applies all the things they’ve learned through their journey.
The final moment can be a physical battle, or again, it can be metaphorical. This is also a moment when allies return to lend a last-minute hand. But, as with any ending of a story, you need to make sure your hero is the one who saves the day.
So, here’s where things start to get a little clumsy. There are a couple of moments that could be a resurrection for our hero J. It could be the moment he faces off with Edgar. This is right before Edgar is killed. But, it’s K that pulls the trigger and kills Edgar. Based on our explanation J needs to be the one who saves the day. Maybe by stalling for time J is the one responsible for saving the day? It’s hard to say what the filmmakers’ intention was here.
The second moment that could represent a resurrection for J might be when he wipes K’s memory. It is the final dramatic hurdle that J faces before he can become a true Man in Black. But, this moment doesn’t resolve the conflict of the film.
Notice that the Hero’s Journey framework isn’t always followed to the letter by all storytellers. We’ll get back to this point at the end of the article.
- What final challenge will your hero face?
- How will your hero use the skills they’ve used to overcome their last challenge?
- How will your hero’s allies help save the day?
Return with the Elixir
The ending of your story. Your hero returns to the ordinary world, but this time they carry with them the rewards earned during their journey. They may share these rewards with others who inhabit the ordinary world. But most important, is that you show that your hero has changed for the better.
The elixir represents whatever your hero gained on their journey. Remember, the elixir can be an actual physical reward like a treasure. But, the elixir can also be a metaphorical prize like knowledge or a feeling of fulfillment. This is a moment where your hero will return some sort of balance to the ordinary world.
Be sure to show that the journey has had a permanent effect on your hero.
In the final scene of the movie, we see that J has taken on a mentor role for Dr. Weaver, an MIB recruit now. He has physically changed- his clothes are more representative of his personality. This physical transformation is meant to show that J has fully embraced his new life and journey. No longer a rookie, J has stepped into his mentor, K’s, role.
- How will you show that your character has changed from their journey?
- What reward will they bring back to the ordinary world?
- In what way will they change the ordinary world when they return?
Should I Use the Hero’s Journey for My Story?
This is a question you should ask yourself before embarking on your journey. The Monomyth works well as a framework. This is pretty obvious when you realize how many films have used it as a plotting device.
But there’s a downside to the popularity of the Monomyth. And that’s that audiences are very familiar with the beats of this kind of story. Sure, they may not be able to describe each of the twelve sections in detail. But, audiences know, intuitively, what is going to happen in these stories. At the very least, audiences, or readers, know how these stories are going to end.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If your story is exciting, well-paced, and the stakes are high, people aren’t going to mind some predictability. But, if you want to shock your readers-
(And if you’re interested in how to shock readers with a plot twist, click here.)
this might not be the best story structure. And, despite how popular it is, the hero’s journey ain’t the only game in town when it comes to story structure. And, you can always take artistic liberty with the Hero’s Journey. The fact that audiences are expecting certain beats means you have an opportunity to subvert expectations.
You can skip parts of the hero’s journey if they don’t fit your plot. With my example, Men In Black it was difficult to fit the story neatly into the hero’s journey framework. This is because aspects of the movie, like the fact that it’s a buddy comedy, don’t always jive with a hero’s journey. Agent K has an important character arch, and so he ends up killing the villain rather than J. But, K’s arch isn’t at all a hero’s journey.
The point is, don’t feel locked in by any single structure. Allow yourself some freedom to tell your story. If there’s no purpose to a resurrection stage in your story then skip it! No one is going to deduct your points.
With that said, here are a few resources on the Hero’s Journey, and some alternate plot structures you’ll want to check out!
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Further Reading on Plot Structure and the Hero’s Journey
If you’d like to learn more about the Hero’s Journey, or Monomyth, why not go straight to the source? The Hero With 1000 Faces is a collection of work written by Joseph Campbell. His version of the hero’s journey has 17 stages. This is less of a writing manual and more of an exploration of the evolution of myth and storytelling through the ages.
The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker, is another academic study of storytelling by Christopher Booker. Booker identifies seven basic plots that all stories fit into. They are:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
The Snowflake Method is a teaching tool designed by Randy Ingermanson that will take you through a step-by-step process of writing a novel. The Snowflake Method boils down the novel-writing process six-step process. You will start with a single sentence and with each step you build on that sentence until you have a full-fledged novel! If you’re love processes then pick up a copy of this book today.
In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Hollywood consultant, Christopher Vogler teaches writers how to use the Hero’s Journey to write riveting stories.