The Hero’s Journey – A Quick and Dirty Rundown

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This post is designed to be a cliff-note-friendly, brush-up on how to get your hero moving regardless of whether they battle an adulterous husband or a father who wants to rule the universe in a galaxy far, far away. If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction, you should be intimately familiar with this tried and true story-planning method. However, writers of other genres need not click away.

Both Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces and, more succinctly, Christopher Vogler’s Twelve Stage Hero’s Journey have already built a tidy map for you to follow. Yet, those are two intense tomes and you clearly want to write a novel. I mean, why else would you be googling how to write a hero’s journey? Below, I have presented you with the basics summarized into a loose, three-act outline. If you want more, I would suggest a deeper examination of the previously mentioned texts.

Act 1: The Hero (willingly or unwillingly) leaves the coziness of his/her known world.

Think of this as setting the stage for your reader. You give a rundown of what’s ‘normal’ for your hero and then give them an impetus to leave their cozy little world. A challenge, a tragedy, or some other life-altering incident will all serve to unnerve your hero. Most of us hate change, your hero is no different. They should be a whiny baby about this new discomfort and resist the call. This is where an outside force comes in, possibly a mentor, who will show your hero a doorway to something else.

Act 2: The Hero is chucked into the deep end of the pool–and they can’t swim.

This is where your hero starts questing. It’s also the meat and potatoes of act two. In this section of the journey, three is a common magical number–three quests, three trials, three tests. Figure out what works and go with one of those, better yet, go with three! Allies and enemies need to be present here to help aid your hero with their own self-discovery. Allies will bring out the best in your main character, enemies–the worst.

Your hero will also need to face up to their inner-most fears and doubts. There is a lot of talk about going into caves in both Campbell and Vogler. If you saw Empire Strikes Back, then you’ve witnessed a very literal interpretation of this concept. Luke physically walks into a cave and battles with whom he thinks is Darth Vader. He then beheads the caped villain only to discover his own face behind the mask. Deep end of the pool, people. Deep.

This act should end with a reward for your travel-worn hero. It could be anything, but you really should give them a cookie for all the crap you’ve put them through, then let them have a moment of rest. However, don’t give them too much time to do their little happy dance, the culminating battle looms in the next and final act. Dun, dun, dun …

Act 3: The Hero returns with new-found swag and one loose end to either cut or tie.

At this point, your hero is all shiny and new, and also battle-worn and less naive. They need to go back home with their head held high. Think of this as a reverse journey of act one. However, the road home should not be paved with rose petals and donuts. No, not for our hero. They need one more final test to see if they are stronger than when they left.

This test should also carry the heaviest weight. In this challenge, the hero’s fate isn’t the only thing at stake. Other characters, that the reader has come to know and love, should be dangling from a cliff. This is where your hero needs to step up, then step up further to prove that their cause goes beyond the finite boundaries of their own life.

Twists should be untwisted in this act. For example, the ally we thought was an ally is not an ally but an evil villain. Gasp! The person who we thought was lost, is not, indeed lost! All your cards need to be laid out for the reader to see. And, most importantly, what did your hero learn? What did we learn? This is your moment to enlighten us with your message. You know, something like, don’t join the Dark Side, because, as it turns out, they don’t actually have cookies or donuts. And, that, dear friends, is a lesson well-learned.


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About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

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