The Monomyth: Its Continued Importance as a Storytelling Structure

If you’re writing a narrative, it may be time to look again at a storytelling structure that can help you make it to the finish line. The monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, was laid out by Joseph Campbell. Its most successful application has been to Star Wars, but it has been widely used to create narratives. Its true benefit is in its flexibility; every stage of the journey does not have to be present in a story, but most stages are.

The Monomyth

The monomyth is where a hero sets out on an adventure, faces a crisis, and returns victorious. Introduced in Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, it was simplified further by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. His book is an excellent guide to applying the monomyth to your writing. Based largely on Mythology, the monomyth breaks down common story elements that last. These are the stories that make the core of western storytelling. 

At its core, the monomyth has 3 parts:

  • The Separation: the hero sets out a journey, seeking adventure.
  • The Initiation: the hero arrives and faces a crisis. This is often a descent into the underworld.
  • The Return: the hero has finished what they set out to do and has obtained treasure, love, or knowledge, but now must get home.

These 3 parts are further broken down into 12 stages.

The Stages of the Monomyth

The stages of the monomyth are: 

  1. The Ordinary World: This is the original world of the hero, which “suffers from a symbolic deficiency.” the hero is lacking something, or something is taken from them. 
  2. The Call to Adventure : The hero is given a challenge, problem, or adventure. Often it appears as a blunder, or chance. This stage establishes the goal of the hero. 
  3. The Refusal of the Call: The (often) reluctant hero has to be set along the correct path. They must weigh the consequences and be excited by a stronger motivation to proceed further.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: The hero encounters a wise figure who prepares them for the journey. This figure (or item, such as a book) gives advice, guidance, or an item, but cannot go with the hero. 
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The hero has committed to their task and enters the special world. Often they are met by a threshold guardian. 
  6. Tests, Allies, & Enemies: In the special world, the hero learns the new rules by meeting people and obtaining new information. There is often a “local watering hole” component. This is where the true characteristics of the hero are revealed. 
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave:Now our hero, and often their allies, have come to the edge of the dangerous place where the “object of the quest” is hidden. This stage is often the land of the dead. 
  8. The Supreme Ordeal: The hero faces danger, often a life-or-death moment that is either physical or psychological. 
  9. Reward or Seizing the Sword: After surviving, our hero takes possession of the object, typically a treasure, weapon, knowledge, token, or reconciliation. 
  10. The Road Back: The hero must now deal with the consequences of their actions. They may be pursued by remaining forces. They now face the decision to return to the ordinary world. 
  11. The Resurrection: One final test is required for the purification and rebirth of the hero. Alternatively, it may be a miraculous transformation, or a new perspective on the world. 
  12. Return with the Elixir: The triumphant hero returns to the ordinary world bearing the elixir. Common elixirs are treasure, love, freedom, wisdom, or knowledge. A defeated hero is doomed to repeat the lesson. 

Many writers have found this framework to be beneficial in their narrative writing process. It absolutely makes the editing process easier, in my opinion, as you can chart out your story and see exactly what is missing from it. It also allows you to see what stages are already present as well as their order in your piece, which can be an important component of flow. 

Savannah Gilbo has an excellent post on outlining your novel with the monomyth including a free planning worksheet!