Understanding the Hero's Journey: A Crash Course for Filmmakers
Over the past 10 years, as we’ve worked to build a powerful and repeatable storytelling process for filmmakers, we’ve studied pretty much everything under the sun even vaguely related to story.
In fact, Muse is really the culmination of many different storytelling philosophies, mixed in with a healthy dose of psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience for good measure.
But this post isn’t about Muse. Instead, it’s about one of the most enduring and prolific story structures of all time. I’m talking, of course, about the Hero’s Journey.
You’ve no doubt heard of the Hero’s Journey, and I’m 100% certain you’ve seen its principles at work in many of your favorite films. From Casablanca to Star Wars, from Lion King to Lord of the Rings, the Hero’s Journey is everywhere.
And it’s not just used in films either. You can find elements of the Hero’s Journey at play in just about every type of storytelling media imaginable, from books to plays to video games and beyond.
So this post will break down the basics of what you need to know to start putting the Hero’s Journey to use in your own stories.
Lastly, if you really want to supercharge your knowledge of this framework, you should check out our cool Hero’s Journey ebook, which has even more depth on these storytelling principles, along with beautifully illustrated story examples.
To get it, just enter your email address below and you’ll be able to download it right away!
Where Did the Hero’s Journey Come From?
In his seminal 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell lifted the veil on what he called the “monomyth.”
After an illustrious career studying mythology across different cultures and time periods, Campbell discovered something fascinating.
Without fail, the vast majority of myths followed the same basic story patterns. They had the same overarching structure, contained the same types of characters, and had the same universal themes.
Basically, humans from every corner of the earth had been using these basic story elements to communicate with each other for thousands of years.
Campbell then put the pieces together, gave them names, and solidified everything into a neat and cohesive structure. And just like that, the Hero’s Journey was born.
Why On Earth Is It So Powerful?
Story structures on their own aren’t particularly powerful or useful. For instance, just stringing together a series of plot points in the right order has little inherent value.
Where storytelling becomes incredibly powerful, though, is when it connects to us on a deeper, more fundamental level. Luckily, the Hero’s Journey has built-in mechanisms for creating those types of connections.
There’s something about it that appeals to the deep-seeded psychological patterns and tendencies that all (or at least most) humans have.
In essence, it taps into our innate human desire to become better versions of ourselves. It gives us a sense that real, meaningful transformation is possible. It shows us that we can become stronger, overcome our inner and outer obstacles, and win the day.
Plus, as an added bonus, the various character archetypes and themes and inner struggles of the journey can be understood and felt across cultures. It's a truly universal storytelling technique because it ties into so many fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.
And that’s what makes the Hero’s Journey such an invaluable tool for storytellers. It’s not just a useful template for crafting stories that enthrall a wide range of audiences, but it helps storytellers connect with them on a deeper, more emotional level.
So um... How Does It Work?
Alright, so let’s get into the fun stuff and discuss how this actually works.
The Hero’s Journey is broken down into 12 distinct phases, and each serves a purpose in moving the story forward and connecting us not just with the hero, but with the overarching themes.
Here’s the breakdown of the 12 phases:
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
We’re introduced to the Hero in the Ordinary World. In this stage, we’re just getting to know him, seeing first hand the people and places that fill his life, and what he cares about. But ideally, we’ll get much more.
Think of this kind of like a first date. But not a cheesy one with lots of awkward silences and superficial questions and answers. One filled with fascinating and relatable insights about who this person really is.
Since we’re going to experience the Journey from the Hero’s perspective, it’s important that this stage is used to help us identify with him as deeply as possible.
2. CALL TO ADVENTURE
Once we’re established in the Ordinary World, something powerful needs to happen to start the Hero on his journey. Otherwise, he’ll continue living just as he always has.
The Call to Adventure can be anything. It can be an external event or an internal realization of some kind. It can be the introduction of a new character, or the disappearance of an important object. Maybe it’s just an unexpected text message or piece of mail.
Whatever it is, it needs to throw the Ordinary World out of balance, be high stakes enough that the Hero must take action, and, if you really want to up your storytelling game, tap into Hero’s fears and anxieties.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL
At first, the Hero will refuse the Call to Action. He may even balk at the prospect of taking a journey of any kind. After all, the Ordinary World is a comfortable place for him.
He’ll try to rationalize all the reasons he shouldn’t embark on this journey, but in truth, it’s almost always fear that’s holding him back. Accepting the call would threaten his established identity. It would mean embracing an uncertain future.
However, at a certain point, he simply must accept the call. He has no other choice.
4. MEETING THE MENTOR
Even though the Hero is ready to embark on his journey, he likely doesn’t know where to start. Before heading off into the unknown, he needs the right information, tools, and mindsets so that he can be prepared for whatever comes his way.
And that’s where the Mentor comes in.
The Mentor is most often a person who can impart their hard-earned wisdom and experiences to the Hero to better prepare him for his own journey.
However, the Mentor can also be something as simple as a map, a clue, or the discovery of information that will give the Hero confidence to begin the journey. In the digital age, the Mentor stage could be fulfilled with a nice google search montage (preferably set to Eye of the Tiger).
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
This is the point of no return. Once our Hero crosses this (usually symbolic) line, he’s fully committed to the journey ahead, no matter what it has in store.
Often though, the Hero is still reluctant to enter in the Special World of their journey. It might even take another event (something that amplifies the stakes of the story) to get them moving. Or maybe the Mentor gives them a good swift kick in the rear.
Upon crossing the threshold, the Hero is now in the Special World, where there are new rules, new values, new people. The journey has officially begun.
6. TESTS, ALLIES, & ENEMIES
Now that our Hero has officially entered the Special World, the real fun begins.
This is where he starts testing his courage and abilities by overcoming obstacles. It’s where he begins to encounter Allies (people who help him through a challenge or join him on his journey), as well as Enemies.
7. APPROACHING THE INNERMOST CAVE
After getting acquainted with the Special World and making it through a series of early tests, our Hero is ready to approach the Innermost Cave.
Think of this as the place (either physical or mental) where the central conflict of the journey takes place. Everything that’s happened so far has been building to a climactic encounter in the Innermost Cave.
But before an approach can be made, the Hero must prepare. He must steel himself before facing his fears head on.
8. THE ORDEAL
At last our Hero is in the heart of the conflict, facing his fears and taking action despite them.
However, in this stage, his Enemies are stronger than he is. He’s on the verge of death, either in a real or metaphorical sense, and the audience should feel at its lowest point. There must be a sense that all hope is lost.
But from death, our Hero is reborn, stronger than before and ready to continue his Journey. He slays the dragon, wins the day, and overcomes his greatest fear.
9. THE HERO SEIZES THE REWARD
After his trials and tribulations, our Hero has earned a reward.
Rewards come in many forms. In the old myths, it was often something tangible like an elixir or magical sword. But it can also be intangible — greater wisdom and insight, a renewed sense of courage, deeper connection with the world or oneself. The possibilities for rewards are endless.
All that matters is that it’s something the Hero has wanted and needed all along, something that was missing from his life in the Ordinary World.
10. THE ROAD BACK
The Hero must now complete his journey and make his way back to the Ordinary World. It won’t be smooth sailing, though. It almost never is.
Just like Crossing the Threshold into the Special World and journeying to the Innermost Cave, the Road Back is paved with additional conflict. Think about it. Some of the greatest chase scenes in movie history come after the Hero takes their reward and flees the Special World as fast as they can.
The Hero has made his way back into the Ordinary World. Now it’s time for one final battle.
This is his final test. It’s all about asking: has our Hero really become stronger and more courageous through his journey, or was it all a fluke?
By making it through one last encounter (maybe even one that puts our Hero on the edge of death again), he shows that he’s grown immensely from his journey. Not only that, but the knowledge he’s picked up along the way is just as applicable in the Ordinary World.
And indeed, once he’s overcome the final obstacle in the Ordinary World, our Hero proves he really has been transformed by the journey.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
Our Hero returns to the Ordinary World with the spoils of his journey, otherwise known as the Elixir.
Again, the Elixir can be something tangible like an item of value, but more often than not, it’s something deep within the soul of our Hero. He’s stronger now. He’s beaten his demons. He’s followed through on something important, and has grown as a result.
Life returns to normal for our Hero. But it’s an even better sense of normal than the one he started with. As a result of his journey, he’s created a better version of himself and a better life.
All is right in the world. That is, until a new Call to Action arrives and the cycle begins again.
Will my stories feel “stale” if I use Hero’s Journey?
This is far and away one of the largest objections people have to using the Hero’s Journey in their own work.
Though the Hero’s Journey can and has been used as a plug and play formula, we’d almost always recommend viewing it more as a flexible set of guidelines.
If you follow the structure too rigidly, you definitely run the risk of telling a story that feels obvious and stilted and maybe a little bit trite. Most everybody, regardless of whether they know it or not, is familiar with the Hero’s Journey. It’s practically in our DNA at this point.
So as storytellers, it’s in our best interest to dress it up a little and use it subtly, maybe expanding on some of the stages and shuffling them around a bit. And definitely feel free to play around with character archetypes and keep audiences on their toes.
Where the Hero’s Journey still shines, regardless of how you use it, is in giving us a framework for a compelling and relatable inner journey for our main character. The plot points and supporting characters and structure are still important, but it’s the Hero’s inner journey towards overcoming fear that makes the story ultimately resonate.
If you can get that part right, you’re on the right track.