Thursday, May 30, 2013

Notes on Plot: The Hero's Journey

The fabulous thing about teaching is what you learn.  Last Saturday, I taught a workshop on plot for Storystudio.  In preparation, I created a presentation where I used John Green's Fault in Our Stars to map the Hero's Journey.  If you aren't familiar with this concept, it's a framework, which supposes that every good story has a similar structure.

Spoiler Alert!

In Fault in Our Stars the main character begins her story in what, for her, is an Ordinary World.  Hazel has cancer, she's sixteen and she's dying and she's been fighting cancer for years now. Hazel doesn't want to hurt too many people when she dies so she foregoes close relationships with everyone but her parents.  An average evening for Hazel is a night in watching America's Top Models with her mom.

The next step in every Hero's Journey is the Call to Action.  The call to action draws the main character our of their comfort zone and starts the journey towards some kind of transformation.  For Hazel, it's the presence of a new (and very cute) boy at her peer support group.

Now Hazel is poised for The Refusal of the Call.  The refusal illustrates the main character's reluctance to Cross the Threshold (often the next step.)  For Hazel, her reluctance comes from a wish to protect the rest of the world from experiencing too much loss when she dies.  In fact, she calls herself a "grenade" that will explode and injure anyone who cares about her.

Sometimes, between the call and the cross, the main character Meets the Mentor.  In Fault in Our Stars, one might make the argument that the writer Hazel Grace admires is a sort of anti-mentor.  He's rather the opposite of wise or guiding but his presence is something Hazel collides against oer and over along her journey.  It's ultimately this character that provides Green with a device for the ending.

The meat of any story revolves around the Tests, Allies and Enemies.  Writers often employ the rule of three when constructing the challenges their characters face.  So the first challenge is often something  less intense than the third will be.  This ratchet's up the tension for the reader.  For Hazel, her three challenges include:

1. A health setback
2. She meets the mentor and he's a complete disappointment
3. Her boyfriend's cancer returns

The Abyss is when our hero has hit rock bottom and, the reader wonders how they can ever recover.  For Hazel, this is when her boyfriend dies.

Last, the main character must travel The Road Back.  Now Hazel must recover from the abyss.  She does this by seeking out her boyfriends las message to her...which he cleverly left with the mentor.

So when I originally began studying The Hero's Journey, it frustrated me to think that every story could be reduced to the same structure.

Now, I really like the way that The Hero's Journey can help me assemble the scenes in my novels to make sure that all of the elements are present and in the right order.  Have you used The Hero's Journey?  Has it helped you in constructing plot?


  1. Never used it before, but it isn't my first time hearing of it. Sounds interseting indeed

  2. What a fabulous post. I have a feeling this is one I might have to come back to a few times to remind myself. I've never tackled a story by thinking about it in terms of the Hero's Journey, but now I'm going to give it a try.

  3. Hi,
    Because I so enjoy your posts, especially the amazing poems during the A-Z challenge, I nominated you for the WordPress Family Award. I know you're not a WP site, but it's for anyone who supports others in the blogosphere and I think you do that with your writing. Pick it up at my site if you'd like to accept it. Meanwhile, thank you for what you do.