One of the hardest yet most crucial things to deduce for one’s prose is how to structure the plot. Whereas each individual genre has its own form of structure–a thriller is structured differently than a drama, and both are structured differently than a comedy–, all genres tend to follow The Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a 12-step process commonly seen in Hollywood movies, memoirs, and even (gasp!) religious tomes. If you have absolutely no clue how to start your prose, take your main character, and have them follow this arc.
- The Ordinary World – What does the Hero do before he has any inkling about his quest? What is his life like? Where is his safe place? What does he love? What does he hate? This is your chance to introduce us to our Hero and show us why we should like him and root for him!
- A Call To Adventure – Our Hero’s adventure begins when he receives a call-to-action of some sort, such as a direct threat to his safety, his family, his way of life, or his community. It can be as simple as a phone call or as dramatic as an explosion, and it must ultimately disrupt the tranquility of life as our Hero knew it and present a challenge or quest to undertake.
- Refusal Of The Call – “Why do I have to do it?!” Our Hero may absolutely refuse to join the quest. Other times, he may want to join the quest but hold himself back due to his own fears. Seeing as our own responses would be similar, this also humanizes your Hero further and gives us another reason to empathize with him.
- Meeting The Mentor – What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You see a mentor! A friend, a family member, a teacher, or just the wise old person in town. The mentor is crucial, as he provides our Hero with the tool (whether physical, mental, or magical) needed to pursue the quest at long last.
- Crossing The Threshold – Our Hero finally leaves the world he is familiar with in order to travel into a land unknown. It can mean leaving home for the first time or facing a fear. The most important thing that you can do as a writer in this stage is to signify the Hero’s commitment to his journey, and why that commitment has finally occurred.
- Tests, Allies, And Enemies – The Hero is no longer in his safe space! This means being bombarded by a series of challenges that test him in a variety of ways. Whether these are physical hurdles, mental breakdowns, or an army of enemies trying to kill him, the Hero must overcome each challenge in order to reach his ultimate goal. In this stage, it is crucial for the Hero to discover who is an Ally and who is an Enemy. This is where plot twists can occur 🙂 Each challenge prepares our Hero for the next challenge that occurs and gives us a deeper look inside of our Hero.
- Approaching The Innermost Cave – The innermost cave can represent many things in our Hero’s journey, such as an actual location in which lies a terrible danger or an internal conflict that our Hero has avoided dealing with until now. Some of the doubts and fears that arose in step #3 often now come back to hurt our Hero, and our Hero will need time to collect his thoughts, plan a new course of action, and get back on track. Again…empathy opportunities!
- The Supreme Ordeal – This is the tip of the iceberg. The endgame. The big bad wolf. Everything in our Hero’s journey has led up to this, and the Hero must conquer this Supreme Ordeal in order to survive and continue life as it once was. Our Hero must draw on everything that he’s learned up until this point in order to come out on top. When we talk about life and death…this is it.
- The Reward – After the Supreme Ordeal is defeated, our Hero becomes transformed. He emerges from battle as a stronger person. He also often receives a reward for his hard work and sacrifice. Again, this reward may be either physical or mental. However, the celebration must be short, as our Hero needs to prepare for the journey back home.
- The Road Back Home – This is called the fake-out. Our Hero’s anticipation of danger is replaced by the anticipation of acclaim and victory. But, nothing is ever that easy, is it? One last challenge faces our Hero on his journey home, and this often leads to a moment where the Hero must choose between his own personal objective and that of a Higher Cause.
- Resurrection – Okay, so that spiel in #8…I lied. I lied a lot, and I am not sorry. The Resurrection is where our Hero has his final and most dangerous encounter with death, demise, or some other scary word that starts with the letter D. The outcome reaches beyond the Hero himself, as the consequences for his failure will affect everyone he holds dear. Unless you are writing a tragedy, our Hero prevails and emerges from the battle cleansed and reborn.
- A Return With The Elixir – Our Hero returns home a changed man. His final reward can be either figurative, metaphorical, or both. It represents change, success, and proof of the journey completed. The return home also signals the need for resolution for the story’s other key players. Our Hero’s doubters will be ostracized, his enemies will be punished, and his allies will be rewarded. If a sequel is anticipated, the stage is set for our Hero to now become an available mentor.
While reading through this, I’m sure you thought of several tales that follow this structure. It exists for a reason…because it works!
However, it does not have to be followed to a T. Many plots will skip over a step here or there, or they will reorder some for the benefit of their own narrative. Do what feels right for your manuscript, but keep this nearby as a guide whenever you get stuck.