The Hero’s Journey gets a pretty bad rap for producing rote and formulaic stories, but it can still be an incredibly powerful tool for creating compelling fiction. The key is understanding the why of each of the journey’s elements. Why do we need to establish an Ordinary World? Why does the hero need to Refuse the Call? What’s the purpose of a Black Moment, and how does it increase the impact of the eventual resolution?
If you’re new to the concept of The Hero’s Journey, or need a quick refresher, I actually don’t recommend going back to Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which first popularized the idea of The Hero’s Journey (or monomyth), because it can be overwhelming, and he breaks it down pretty far into points that can feel somewhat arbitrary. Instead, check out this more general rundown.
Even looking at the general overview I just linked, the elements of The Hero’s Journey can still feel arbitrary and vague, leading to a myriad of questions in workshops and writer’s forums… do I really need a Mentor? Does he have to be old and have a Alec Guinness beard? Does the Resurrection need to be literally coming back from the dead?
The reason these questions come up so often is the same reason The Hero’s Journey is often dismissed as a sure path to an unoriginal story. We tend to follow the “recipe” without necessarily understanding why the ingredients are necessary, or what they do.
This might work for baking, but it produces ineffective fiction.
In the next couple of posts, I’m going to go into each of The Hero’s Journey’s steps that I linked above, and break down why these elements are effective in fiction–and have therefore been used since stories were first told–and how you can incorporate them into your writing without feeling confined.
Once you understand the reason behind these elements, you’ll understand how a six-year-old actually can be a Mentor, and how that one thing that happens in the second half of your book actually acts as a very effective metaphorical Resurrection.
Before We Begin
First, please understand that no single one of these elements is absolutely essential to writing a good story, but once you understand their dramatic impact, you’ll probably want to include them in some form or another–which brings me to:
Second, there’s no one way to include the elements of The Hero’s Journey into your stories. It’s only when the elements are taken very literally that they begin to feel limiting and formulaic, but it’s the dramatic effect that we’re after, rather than a single specific cause.
Third, there are some types of fiction that are incompatible with The Hero’s Journey in its entirety–vignette, conceptual, or experimental fiction, for instance. Some horror and tragedy, as well as any fiction that doesn’t make use of a Change Character may only be able to take bits and pieces from The Hero’s Journey. Regardless of what you’re writing, however, an understanding of The Hero’s Journey will most likely help you increase the dramatic impact of your fiction.
We’ll jump right into Step 1, The Ordinary World, and I’ll link the rest of the entries here as they’re posted.