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A Beginner's Guide to the Hero's Journey in Fiction | A Professional Book Editor's Advice

A Beginner's Guide to the Hero's Journey in Fiction

Professional book editor in the UK offers a beginner's guide to the Hero's Journey in Fiction!

Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. These aren't just stories. They're cultural touchstones. Love them or hate them, everybody knows what they are. When someone says, “Use the Force, Luke,” or “There's no place like home,” we know exactly what they mean without needing further explanation.

Many of us remember the first time we ever experienced these stories. Whether we first consumed them directly from the pages of a first-edition novel or saw the movies as children, there’s just something special about them. They’re not just good, or fun, they’re pieces of our popular culture.

As young writers, we tend toward a lovable arrogance. We don't just want to write a good story, we want to write something that sparkles; something that lasts.

We admire the people who created our favourite childhood fiction: George Lucas, Frank Baum, J. K. Rowling. These authors have achieved a kind of immortality that non-creatives don't seek.

But what do they know that we don't know? How did they make something so remarkable? What is it about these stories that feels so unique, yet so familiar? More importantly, how can we recreate this feeling in our own fiction?

Arguably, there are many different elements to a great story, but there’s one thing all of these examples have in common. They share a structure that’s come to be known as The Hero's Journey.

First coined by literary critic, Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Hero's Journey is a three-act structure that many of the tales in Western civilization use.

When a story is simultaneously unique and familiar, The Hero’s Journey is often why. The great thing about this writing structure is that it’s so customizable. Once you know the pieces and how they all fit together, you can add whatever characters and details speak to you.

The Hero's Journey transcends genre and setting. You can use it in novels, short stories, screen plays, video games, or whatever else brings you joy. Go crazy! Maybe soon, your name will be listed alongside those immortals who have changed our culture one story at a time.

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Act 1

1. Ordinary World

Our hero is a regular person, just like the rest of us. How do we know this? The first place we encounter them is in their ordinary world, doing ordinary things.

For example, Frodo is throwing a birthday party. Luke is working on a water farm. Harry is living with his aunt and uncle.

It doesn't matter whether the “Ordinary World” is in the Shire, Tatooine, or Little Whinging, what’s important is establishing the status quo and showing that the hero is very much a part of it.

Of course, there's always something a little peculiar going on. Frodo is throwing the party for his very, very old uncle who seems to have a mysterious ring. Harry can talk to snakes. There may be a tiny hint that our hero is not what they seem.

But for the most part, they fit in pretty well with their simple, idyllic surroundings.

2. Call to Adventure

If Bilbo had stayed in his comfy hobbit hole in the Shire, The Hobbit wouldn't be very interesting, would it?

The “Call to Adventure” is when something happens that discomfits the hero enough to take action. Whatever that something may be, a couple of things are undeniable.

First, the “Something” is definitely referring to our hero. There’s nobody else who can undertake this task.

Second, if they don’t do something about this, their life will change in unacceptable ways. If our hero wants to save/preserve/protect their way of life, they, and only they, need to do something about this newly-arisen problem.

3. Refusal of the Call

Not everybody is comfortable abandoning all they have ever known and heading off into the wilds.

The “Refusal of the Call” is when our hero remembers that they are just an ordinary person and decides not to make any changes to their life. They commonly refuse because of fear, but there can be other reasons (such as Uncle Vernon throwing Harry's invitation to Hogwarts in the bin.)

But as we mentioned before, the status quo is no longer able to be preserved without definitive action. Nothing good will come from this stubborn passivity.

4. Meeting the Mentor

Our hero has come to a crossroads. They can't move forward, and they can't stay where they are. This is the point where their mentor appears.

Whether the mentor comes bearing advice, kindness, or a magical amulet, they will provide our hero something they need in order to succeed in their upcoming task.

Think Obi Wan Kenobi and the Lightsaber. True, the first thing Luke does with it is point it at his face, but he will undeniably need it by the end of the trilogy to deal with Darth Vader. Hopefully, by the time he needs to use his weapon to fight, his mentor will have taught him the proper way to handle it.

5. Crossing the Threshold

It’s finally time for our young hero to see the world they will save.

This is the part of the movie where the tornado lifts Dorothy into the sky and spins her away to Oz. She will now open her front door and see her new home in brilliant Technicolor. Far from black-and-white Kansas, we will take our first look into this new land.

In some cases, there might be a threshold guardian. This would be a person or creature our hero must win their way past to reach their destination.

For example, they might need to literally win their way onto a spaceship by cheating at cards or riddle their way past a Sphinx.

Either way, wonders await on the other side.

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Act 2 (Special World)

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

This is where the meat of the story happens.

Is there a romance plot? If so, the reader meets the beloved here.

Brave friends, terrifying foes? Step six is where our intrepid hero has to figure out where they’re going and with whom they’re fighting. This is the place where the training montage fits.

By the time this section ends, our hero knows themselves and what they’re capable of. They know who their friends are and where their enemies live. They’re getting ready for the big fight.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The Inmost Cave can be either literal or metaphorical. It's basically the end of the hero's training, or their final test before stuff gets real.

The Inmost Cave is a dark, frightening place that will bring our hero to their knees and make them face the pieces of themselves that are still too weak or unworthy to defeat the looming evil. It’s also (sometimes) the place where the mentor dies, because if the hero comes back out, they have to do it alone.

For example, it’s where Frodo meets Shelob, and where Dumbledore takes his final poison.

The story is never so dark as it is in the cave, but when the hero comes out again, they’re ready for whatever comes their way.

8. The Supreme Ordeal

The Supreme Ordeal is the big boss fight. This is the point where the hero finally has to face the evil that's been stretching shadowy tendrils across the land.

It might be a literal fight with a literal sword, but it could also be a fight with the hero’s own inner demons.

A few interesting things to remember about the Supreme Ordeal is that it’s the point when our hero realises the villain is just a negative photograph of themselves. The villain is family (“You killed my father!” “No! I am your father!”) or they’ve joined to the hero by magic.

Either way, this isn’t a straight-forward fight. The two are opposite sides of the same coin. The hero realises that in order to defeat the villain, they, too, must die.

This is a harrowing trial. The hero must use everything they have learned and everything they have become to win.

9. Resurrection

The resurrection is the climax of the story. Our hero has given absolutely everything they have.

They might be clinging to life, or they might actually die and need to be brought back. They realise that the real enemy isn’t the villain, or even themselves - the real enemy is Death.

If they want to finish their quest, and if they want to change their society and save their family, they have to survive, no matter what.

So they get up and keep fighting, no matter how close to death they become.

The hero emerges from this final fight changed. They are now in their perfect, crystalline form, pared down of extra flesh and emotional baggage. They are complete. They are ready to save the world.

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Act 3 (The Journey Home)

10. Reward (Seizing the Sword)

After all our hero has been through, they have earned something pretty special.

It might be an object of great importance, a royal title, or untold riches. There have even been stories where it was the love of a good prince or princess and the societal acceptance that they were previously lacking.

Most of the time, it’s something that will help them save or defend the idyllic homeland for which they are now longing.

11. The Road Back

The Road Back, or the Denouement, is like crossing the threshold, but in reverse. The hero is going back home.

Maybe they don’t feel as if they belong there anymore, but go back they shall. They are different than they were before.

The threshold guardian recognises them now as someone worthy of passing by without being troubled.

The decision to return to a normal life or choose to a life of duty to a higher calling often occurs in this section.

12. Return with the Elixir

Step twelve is the best one of all, because this is where we finally get our happy ending!

The hero returns the save the homeland, receive the accolades of their people, and punish their detractors (if they’re into that sort of thing.) They take the medicine home to their baby sister, hugs Auntie Em, and prepares for their long, fulfilling future with their new spouse and apple-cheeked babies by their side.

The best part about this wonderful ending is that the hero is deeply grateful for it, because they had to fight for it. They never take anything for granted again. They are perfected, and they deserve a perfect future.

Final Words

The best thing about the Hero's Journey is that it is so elastic. If it doesn't work for the story you’re trying to tell, by all means, feel free to change it.

There are many famous stories that pick and choose which elements of the structure to use, change the order in which the steps occur, or even add more steps.

Your creative voice is the star. The structure exists to serve your story. You can still make amazing fiction if you break all the rules. Honestly, some might argue that the very best fiction breaks all the rules. But you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.

If you’re the type who needs a little more direction to stay out of muddled plot territory, The Hero's Journey could be the answer for you.

Consider this your very own “Call to Adventure” and head off into the special worlds you’ll create. Who knows? Maybe someday you will become an immortal author along with the rest.



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Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!

With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!


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