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Day 15: The Hero’s Journey

Yesterday, we began our exploration of plot with a look at one rather classical structure presented by K.M. Weiland. Today, we dive deeper into plotting with an in-depth consideration of the Hero’s Journey.

The stages of the Hero’s Journey detailed here are those articulated by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey. Vogler based his stages from those defined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s profound gift was to describe something archetypal: that is, a universal pattern that resides at an unconscious level. The Hero’s Journey satisfies us because it taps into something primal. It resonates with familiarity because it maps to a template of the human experience of transformation.

There are twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey as conceived by Vogler and these unfold within the three-act structure. We will explore each in detail.

ACT I: Separation

  1. Ordinary World

Here the hero is in his natural setting. This describes his life before the events of the story are set into motion. Think Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. Since stories are about the transformation of the character, this presents the character in that primal state before change. The Ordinary World introduces a compelling opening image; raises the dramatic question(s) of the story; presents the hero’s inner and outer problems, including the hero’s flaw, lack, or wound; establishes what is at stake; and outlines the theme or premise of the story.

Key question: How is your hero incomplete?

  1. Call to Adventure (Inciting incident)

The Call to Adventure brings in the new energy that will be the catalyst of change. We often see the appearance of an archetypal character, the Herald, who announces the call. The following are often present in this phase: reconnaissance, where a villain explores a territory to plunder, signaling a warning of the conflict to come; disorientation and discomfort for the hero; a loss for the hero; a situation where the hero has run out of options.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s Call to Adventure begins with her decision to run away after Toto has escaped from the evil Miss Gulch.

Key questions: Where in the story is your Call to Adventure? Is it ideally positioned within your story? Who delivers the call?

  1. Refusal of the Call

The call is so momentous and fraught with risk that the hero often hesitates. The hero’s reluctance helps to establish how significant the undertaking is, and, by extension, how great a catalyst for growth it will be. The hesitation might also signal the specific ways in which the hero will need to transform in order to meet the challenge. This phase may be characterized by avoidance; excuses; conflicting choices; Threshold Guardians who create further obstacles to the call and may question the hero’s competence; and the Law of the Secret Door which Vogler describes a temptation too great for the hero’s curiosity to resist. The secret door arises when the hero is forbidden a specific action: you can go anywhere in the house except through the secret door. Now we know exactly where the hero is heading. Alternately, the Refusal of the Call may manifest as a hero who willingly accepts the challenge, in which case another character will make the dangers of the undertaking clear.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy encounters a Threshold Guardian in Professor Marvel. He convinces her to turn back, refusing the Call temporarily. As the forces of change begin to swirl, Dorothy takes refuge from the storm in an empty house. From there she is swept toward her adventure.

Key questions: Why and how does your hero Refuse the Call? What is she afraid of?

  1. Meeting with the Mentor

In the Meeting with the Mentor, the hero encounters a character who gives him something required for the journey. This may be the gift of insight, awakening the hero to some inner quality that he already possesses. The Mentor is such a well-known archetype that it is easy to fall into clichés with this character, Vogler cautions. Keep your Mentor fresh and unexpected by rebelling against convention. One means of doing this is misdirection where you play against expectations. Another common trope found in this phase is a conflict between the Mentor and hero.

Mentors abound in the Wizard of Oz including the Good Witch Glinda, and Dorothy’s traveling companions.

For consideration: When thinking about the archetypal roles in story, don’t necessarily restrict to a simple one role per character paradigm. Which of your characters takes on Mentor attributes?

Act II A: Descent

  1. Crossing the First Threshold

The Crossing of the First Threshold signifies the moment when everything changes: the hero crosses over into the Special World of Act II and steps into the adventure that will irrevocably change him. This phase demonstrates the hero’s agency: he takes concrete action. Again, Threshold Guardians may appear that pose challenges to the hero.

This is the part of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy must follow the Yellow Brick Road.

What is the leap of faith that your hero must take to Cross the First Threshold?

  1. Tests, Allies, Enemies

Joseph Campbell characterized the Special World as “a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.” The Special World should present a stark contrast from the Ordinary World that the hero has left behind. Here there are new rules that must be learned. The hero encounters a series of challenges that test her mettle and prepare her for the Ordeal ahead. Allies, including the Mentor and Sidekick, may assist the hero on her quest. Enemies may be an active or shadowy presence. A common type of enemy to emerge here is the Rival.

In Dorothy’s journey, during this phase, she proves her worthiness by activating special skills in each of her companions. Together, they pass through many tests as they navigate the Yellow Brick Road.

Key questions: What tests does your hero encounter? How does she make allies? Who are her enemies?

  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The hero’s journey leads him inexorably toward the center of the Special World where he will encounter the Ordeal. The Approach is the final grounds of preparation for that pivotal conflict. Here we may see courtship, and inevitably we’ll see obstacles and yet more Threshold Guardians, warnings and perhaps more thresholds and even more Special Worlds (think the Emerald City). Campbell characterized this stage as being “in the belly of the whale.” From a psychological point of view, it is a point of disintegration so that the hero can reintegrate at a higher level of consciousness.

For Dorothy and her friends, a point of no exit occurs when they are trapped by the witch’s guards. As Vogler describes it, “No matter how heroes try to escape their fate, sooner or later the exits are closed and the life-and-death issue must be faced.”

Key questions: What special preparations does you hero undergo? What inner conflicts does he confront?

Act II B: Initiation

  1. The Ordeal (Midpoint, Death, and Rebirth)

This is a pivotal moment in your story, the point at which the hero confronts “death” itself. The tension in this part of the story revolves around survival. The hero is brought to the brink of death so that she can be reborn. Psychologically, she reintegrates by overcoming this central Ordeal. Vogler is careful to point out that this is a moment of crisis, not climax. The Climax will occur a bit later on the journey. This is, however, often the central point of the story and it occurs at the story’s midpoint.

In the Wizard of Oz, the pivotal Ordeal scene occurs when the Wicked Witch has captured Dorothy and her companions and threatens to kill the Scarecrow.  In the act of saving the Scarecrow by dowsing him with water, Dorothy inadvertently kills the Witch. “I’m melting! Melting!” The Witch screams as she withers away in spectacular fashion.

Key questions: What is your Ordeal? How is the antagonist a Shadow of the hero? What is your hero’s greatest fear?

  1. Reward

Now comes an upbeat moment when the hero has the opportunity to savor the Reward that he has earned. This is a moment of rest and integration for the hero and for the reader too. The Reward may come in the form of insight or knowledge, an object that has been acquired, or reconciliation. Themes in this section include celebration, seizing the sword or stealing the elixir, initiation, self-realization or epiphany.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy takes the Witch’s broom and then seeks her Reward from the Wizard, but at first, he balks at paying. The Wizard does bestow external recognition on the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, but he is unable to help Dorothy with her elusive quest for home.

What is it that your hero takes possession of after he faces death? What is the consequence of this phase of the story?

Act III: Return

  1. The Road Back

Now we enter the final act of the story. The story’s energy rises up again at this point. This is the point where the hero resolves to return to the Ordinary World bringing her elixir back to save the world. Common elements that appear in this phase are retaliation, chase, the escape of the villain, and setbacks.

For Dorothy, the road back becomes complicated when the Wizard’s efforts to get her home by hot air balloon are thwarted by Toto. Toto’s behaviors are often pivotal in the story. His actions take on more agency if we come to view him as an expression of Dorothy’s instinctual nature. She is still in pursuit of her goal of Home but has intuited that the Wizard’s solution is not the way.

Key question: What is the Road Back in your story?

  1. Resurrection (Climax)

Now comes the most dangerous encounter with death. A cleansing or purification may take place in this final Ordeal. Here we experience the Climax of the story. This is where the hero has the opportunity to integrate all that he has learned in service of his quest. Themes include a physical ordeal, the hero displaying agency, showdowns, death and rebirth, catharsis, sacrifice.

For Dorothy, Resurrection comes when the Good Witch reveals that Dorothy possessed the key to the return all along. Significantly, Glinda explains that she didn’t tell Dorothy earlier because “She wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.”

Key questions: What final ordeal of death and rebirth does your hero experience? What aspect of your hero is Resurrected?

  1. Return with the Elixir (Denouement)

Having survived the Climatic Ordeal, the hero can now take the elixir back with her to save the Ordinary World. In this way, her transformed self is reintegrated into her former life, or, alternatively, the hero continues the journey. This stage is also known as the denouement which means untying in French. You could think of this as being a releasing or untangling of the tension and conflict that held the story together. The phase may end with the achievement of perfection, the classic “happily ever after” ending, or it may conclude with an open ending or surprise. This section is about restoring the order of things, hence reward and punishment is a common theme here.

For Dorothy, the story is wrapped up with goodbyes and acknowledgment of the gifts she achieved with her companions: the integration of love, courage, and common sense. Dorothy then returns to the Ordinary World of the farm by chanting the mantra, “There’s no place like home.” Her vow never to leave home again is a metaphorical embrace of her own soul, the ultimate personal integration.

Key questions: What is the Elixir your hero brings back from the experience? How does it save or restore the Ordinary World?


Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Stuart Voytilla, Myth and the Movies

Frank L. Baum (novel) and Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay), The Wizard of Oz

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Here are links to all of the other articles in the series:


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