One of the main reasons the hero’s journey works so well for writers is because it contains some of the key elements that will help you to create a story full of tension and reader engagement. On the outside, through action, the journey gives you these:
- A concrete goal the main character is aiming for, whether it’s saving the world, the princess or their own life
- An inciting incident – the call to adventure has to be so strong that even after a refusal, the main character MUST act and move forward
- The other world – the main character crosses the threshold into a world they have never encountered before, giving you plenty of room to test them out
- You are able to include strong, intriguing secondary characters such as the Mentor to enhance your story
- You must create a strong “villain” or antagonist to make the journey arduous and exciting enough
- The “grail’ must be important enough for the main character to risk everything
But more than this, you also have the capacity and know-how to create the character’s internal journey that develops alongside the external one. As the main character battles their way through every obstacle and test, fights the antagonist and wins the grail, so they inevitably grow and learn what they need to become a true hero. This growth and change happens internally – hence the internal journey.
Why the internal journey is vital
A hero on a vital, life-changing internal journey is one with whom your reader will identify and totally engage. At the point on the journey when things couldn’t possibly be any worse (the approach to the innermost cave on Vogler’s diagram), the hero is about to give up or give in. But this is the point at which they truly show what they’re made of – they find an inner strength and determination they didn’t know they had, and they pick themselves up for that final battle.
The other vital stage on the internal journey is the final test. The hero might have the grail in hand, but have they learned what they really need in order to change forever? That final test might come with the final battle or just after it, or it might be on the road home. But it seals the change for the reader, makes it credible and real. And deeply satisfying.
Yes, there are dangers in using this structure. Your story might not be a HJ! Not every story is. You might, initially, try to stick too closely to it and end up with something predictable or trite. It’s not a formula – it’s a tool.
If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, as a starting point. It’s in its 3rd edition and full of examples. I’m really only giving you the basics here. (Also grammarians will point out that using “they” with “main character” is not correct but just for today, I’m going with it for simplicity.)
Here is a website that explains the HJ in more detail: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm
And Christopher Vogler’s blog: http://chrisvogler.wordpress.com/
Here is my diagram that aligns the hero’s journey with the three acts. As you will see, they are similar, but remember that the turning points in the three acts play a more crucial role, and journey elements are less obvious.
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