How to Use The Heroes Journey to Structure Your Book
While many writers are happy to meander into their books without really knowing what they’re getting themselves into, most professional writers always have an outline or at least a path (aka a structure) to guide them. While we won’t get into the pantsers vs plotters debate today, we can tell you that choosing and acknowledging a predetermined structure as you write is a great way to give your book a solid foundation. What you choose to do with that structure is up to you; you can outline your book with it beforehand, use it to determine the plot points you need to hit as you pants your book, or even subvert it. It’s important to note that readers – and writers, for that matter – have an innate sense of story structure. Readers will say the pacing felt off if the structure they were expecting isn’t there, so giving your book the skeleton of a well-loved structure is a great way to ensure your book is an enjoyable ride, and one of these is The Hero’s Journey.
What is The Hero’s Journey?
The hero’s journey is a story structure that can be found in thousands of popular fantasy and science fiction books, as well as most of the classic tales that have endured the test of time. Simply, a hero is called to adventure in a world full of wonder, they face numerous challenges and temptations and win both their inner and outer battles, and return to the world from which they started changed for the better.
Does The Hero’s Journey Adhere to a 3-Act Structure?
Yes, The Hero’s Journey is based on the classic 3 act structure, and you’ll see a lot of similarities in the structure outline below.
How to Use the Hero’s Journey to Structure Your Book
To use the Hero’s Journey for your book, you simply need to hit the plot points defined in the outline below at approximately the right times. It’s important to remember that how you interpret and use these plot points are completely up to you – that’s why we have so many famous stories that use this structure but aren’t actually similar. (Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz both follow this structure, but Luke and Dorothy’s worlds and stories are very different.)
Act 1 (0-25%)
Establish the Ordinary World – this is a plot point you’ll find in every story, even if it’s only for the first paragraph before things change for the character. In The Hobbit we see Bilbo’s life and how happy he is in his ordinary world, in Star Wars (IIIV) after grabbing the audience’s attention with a scene in which Laia is captured by Darth Vadar, we see Luke in his mundane life with his aunt and uncle.
Call to Adventure – shortly after this our hero gets the call to adventure (about the 5-15% mark through the book). For Bilbo, this was Gandalf turning up to literally ask him to go on an adventure. For Luke, it was finding Laia’s message in C3PO when he’s trying to fix the robot.
Refusal – the hero always says no, at least at first. This can be a flat out refusal, like Bilbo, or just a reluctance to leave the world they know and love.
Meeting with the Mentor – next, they meet their mentor for this journey. Sometimes there are multiple mentors throughout a story, but there will be a key mentor figure who tells them the information that will spur them to make the decision to embark on their adventure.
25% Mark, End of Act 1, Crossing the Threshold – they make the decision and leave their current worldviews behind.
Act 2 (25-75%)
Tests, Allies, Enemies – now we’ve entered the “difficult middle”, and it’s up to you to come across allies, enemies, and complete the try-fail cycle as they go on their adventure from the 25-40% mark.
Approach to the Inmost Cave – this may be an actual location that is incredibly dangerous or an inner conflict that the hero has been avoiding until now. They may need time to plan and reflect before they take the jump, as they’re about to hit the midpoint, which will be another turning point in which they will no longer be able to turn back.
- Ordeal – the midpoint, or Ordeal, is your first chance to put your hero up to a major test. This can be a huge set piece or a seriously difficult inner conflict – or both. The hero needs to fail in some way; if they succeed in their goal, they should lose someone or something dear to them, and if they fail they should be hit hard by it so they can rise from the ashes.
(Act 2 50-75%)
Reward – after they’ve dealt with the chaos of the midpoint they’ll receive a “reward” that will help them succeed in the final stages of the book (this can be physical or emotional).
The Road Back – this is the third major plot point and the point in which the hero must choose between the thing they want and the thing they need. Sometimes, they can get both, but they shouldn’t know they can – they need to choose a higher cause.
Act 3 (75-100%)
Resurrection – this is the climax and the final showdown. They will likely come close to death, or death will be otherwise represented, so they may rise up again for the final time, having defeated evil. The reader should be on the edge of their seat wondering how they can possibly win until the moment they do.
Return with the Elixir – this is the resolution where the hero will get their final reward and return home.
Using these 12 points for your structure will not make your story the same as others that use this structure; it simply provides the framework or skeleton upon which you can build your story with solid pacing and a predetermined journey. If you want to see how the Hero’s Journey is applied in more detail, this article by Masterclass does so with Star Wars and The Matrix.