On our last journey through the world of writing, we discussed the importance of dialogue. This time, we’ll be talking about plot, but not just plot in general. We will be talking about a specific plot format that is often hailed as the one true method of making the perfect story. Today, we will be talking about The Hero’s Journey.
The History of The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is a narrative theory created by Joseph Campbell that he called the Monomyth. The term Monomyth is self-descriptive; ‘mono’ meaning one and ‘myth’ attributing it to the concept of cultural myths. Indeed, the original idea of the Monomyth is that all time-tested cultural stories follow a specific plot structure in which the main character, or ‘hero’, undergoes a ‘journey’ that causes a fundamental change to that person in some aspect. Joseph Campbell developed this theory in the 1970s after noticing narrative similarities in multiple different culturally significant stories. This observation of tendency was then extrapolated and labeled as a plot format for modern stories like Star Wars: A New Hope. Today, it is regarded as a hallmark of modern writing and is often treated as the one true formula for the perfect story by amateur writing coaches.
The Monomyth in Detail
Of course, the concept of the Monomyth is far more detailed than the brief description I gave earlier. The Hero’s Journey is in fact made up of multiple steps, each with their own fanciful names and descriptions for writers to follow.
The Ordinary World
This stage is also called the stasis by modern professionals and academics. This is the beginning position of the main character and most often mirrors the real world in which the story was created.
Call to Adventure
This is a point in the story in which an issue is raised that will eventually be tackled by the main character.
Refusal of the Call
This is when the main character displays some reluctance to confront the issue raised. This can amount from anything between mild protest to outright refusal.
Meeting the Mentor
At this stage, the main character comes across an entity or parcel of information that is the primary force in developing the resolve to begin their adventure.
Crossing the Threshold
You know the scene from The Fellowship of the Ring when Samwise monologues about being the farthest from the Shire he’s ever been? That is essentially this stage, when the main character makes their first move into unfamiliar territory in order to confront the issue raised.
Trials, Allies, and Enemies
It is in this stage when the originally unfamiliar environment is made clearer. What the main character must do, who they can trust and who they can’t are established in this stage.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
This is the stage in which the main character is entering the most dangerous yet most crucial part of their adventure. In this stage the goals of the main character first appear attainable.
Here is when the main character is confronted with an obstacle that threatens or removes their resolve to accomplish their goal. This could be the death of someone close or a negative revelation.
This is when the main character is given the critical element needed to resolve the issue raised. This is either done via their own actions or as a reward for overcoming the supreme ordeal.
The Road Back
This is essentially the inverse of the threshold stage, when the main character begins the journey home.
The main character has accomplished what they’ve set out to do or regained the will to go on.
Return with the Elixir
The main character is back and better than ever, solving the problem and ending the journey with a new status quo.
My Issue with the Hero’s Journey
I have no qualms with the framework this plot format provides. Instead, it is the confidence with which many non-professionals claim it to be the best way to create a story that irks me. First, the Monomyth is extremely plastic, in that just about anything could fit into one of the stages. The Mentor is almost never a literal mentor, nor is the Resurrection usually an actual resurrection. Every stage is highly metaphorical and thus whether something checks one of the boxes is completely up to interpretation. Second, there are a plethora of plot archetypes that differ from the monomyth but can make for an equally memorable story such as mysteries and tragedies. The Monomyth is an extraordinary frame of analysis, but nothing is “the best”.
I hope you enjoyed my latest rant, and that you’ll return for the next!