The Hero’s Journey is one of the most common and well trusted story structures. First devised by Joseph Campbell and then adapted by Christopher Vogler into the twelve stages we commonly see today, the Hero’s Journey is visible in stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Lion King.
Learning story structures such as the hero’s journey is one of the most effective ways to expand and solidify your understanding of how structure works and how stories for movie scripts are shaped. Keep in mind that if you are using the Hero’s Journey you don’t have to follow it beat by beat, or follow it perfectly step by step. It’s better to give your story room to breathe and stray from the path a little bit, than try to force your story to fit a structure.
Like many story structures, the Hero’s Journey is a three-act structure, with the first act taking up the first 25%, the second act taking up the middle 50%, and the final act taking up the final 25% of the story. In the first stage of the Hero’s Journey is the ordinary world, so first the story opens on the protagonists everyday life.
Many times the protagonist is a young orphan boy in a farm but it’s okay to branch out here. The hero seems like an ordinary person. However, like most movie protagonists, at the start of a story there is something missing from the hero’s life, even if they’re not fully aware that something is missing. Their life might be in a point of stagnation. They might have this kind of unrest or longing. Even if they are overall pretty content with their lives, something is missing.
They don’t really know what that is. They might not even know that something is missing but the audience can tell that the character really needs some sort of change.
Stage 2 is the Call to Adventure. In most other story structures this would be referred to as the Inciting Incident. Basically this is what jump starts the plot. It’s an interruption in the status quo of the character’s life. The hero is beckoned into the storyline because of this change. They don’t really know what’s going on yet, which leads into Stage 3, called The Refusal.
The hero is just a lonely orphan farm boy or some similar type of person. In the movie ‘Arrival’, Amy Adams is a cool linguist professor already but she’s just living her life comfortably, without any aliens, so she refuses the call. That’s probably a wise choice, because who wants to get wrapped up in all of that crazy stuff?
The heroes don’t think they have the skills necessary to complete the task. They doubt themselves. They’re thinking ‘I’m just an ordinary person’, so they refuse the call. However, sometimes refusing the call causes even more problems for them.
Stage 4 is when The Mentor appears. Think Obi-Wan. The he mentor quells the hero’s worries, providing them with the wisdom, knowledge and information they need to meet the challenge. The influence of The Mentor is finally able to draw the hero out of the ordinary world and into the world of the story. This marks the end of Act 1.
Act 2 is the Special World act, where the protagonist leaves their ordinary world and enters the world of the story. This can be a literal crossing into a new world, leaving up a home planet and into a fantasy world, or it could be more metaphorical, but generally, in fantasy or sci-fi we do experience a change in setting.
Stage 5 in the Hero’s Journey is crossing the threshold. This is often a bit of a ceremonious occasion, as the character leaves the world they’ve always known, everything that’s comfortable and familiar, and ventures into the unknown to begin their journey. This marks the journey really beginning. This is when Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts, or some other seemingly monumental change in the world that really marks the beginning of the main story.
Stage 6 is the time of Tests, Allies and Enemies, so this is often a bit of a longer beat in the story that takes up a few scenes or chapters. It’s a bit longer. It’s not just a single moment in the story, like when they’re crossing the threshold beat. This is a stage in the story where the hero is confronted with a bunch of obstacles and conflicts.
Along the way they makes friends, learns who they can trust, who they can’t trust and acquires new skills. Basically, it’s a bunch of escalating conflicts that are all related to the main conflicts, each one testing the hero, providing the hero with new skills, new tools and new knowledge. Each one is basically just preparing the hero for that main epic battle that’s going to happen at the end.
It’s important to consider with this beat, that these little conflicts are the things that are later on going to allow the hero to complete their actual goal. Without all of these little trials, they face they’re not going to have the skills necessary to win the final battle.
Stage 7 – approach to the Innermost Cave. This is when a hero really starts to near the greatest danger. There’s kind of another threshold here, where the hero has to take this leap into the unknown again. Similarly to the crossing over into the journey stage, and just like in the refusal of the call, the hero might briefly doubt themselves. It’s kind of a brief lull in action for the hero to think and it really just escalates the tension.
Stage 8 – The Ordeal. This is the most extreme and dangerous tests the hero has faced so far. Often times, at this stage the hero is faced with something internal, like their greatest fear or their greatest weakness that they have to overcome. Mistakes are often life or death matters, but because of all the trials the hero has faced so far, the hero is able to overcome and survive in the end.
Stage 9 – The Reward. Having survived the ordeal, the hero earns the reward. Sometimes it’s a physical object. Sometimes it’s just crucial knowledge, but it’s often the thing that they set out to find in the beginning. This marks the end of Act 2 and puts us into the final act of the story, which is the return to the ordinary world,
Stage 10 is called The Road Back, which is just as dangerous as the journey there but the hero has new skills and tools so it doesn’t need to take up as much space in the plot. It’s just one beat rather than the majority of the story. The struggle now is making it home safely and the hero often has to make a sacrifice. They have to realize that they have to put their life on the line for a greater purpose – something large.
Stage 11 – The Resurrection. This is the moment of highest tension in the story, that in most storage structures would be referred to as the climax. This is when the hero faces the greatest danger they face throughout the entire story. Stakes are life and death but not just for them. The fate of humanity or the entire world is on the line here. There’s a lot of weight on their triumph.
The hero does succeed in the end, but they often emerge having been reborn in some way. This is often a sort of spiritual rebirth but sometimes it’s quite literal, where the hero is literally resurrected. Basically, the hero emerges from this battle changed, enlightened or resurrected in some way, often with some newfound wisdom or knowledge.
Stage 12 – Return with the elixir. The hero now returns to the world that we saw them in at the beginning of the plot, and they’ve brought with them some sort of healing. Sometimes it’s literal healing for their land, sometimes it’s just knowledge or wisdom.
Now that they’ve survived the journey, the hero can return to their ordinary life but more content than ever before. It’s quite evident the hero has been changed.