The Hero’s Journey Outline

Some writers have an innate understanding of story structure. They don’t need to outline plots before plunging in. I’m not one of them. My favorite part of writing is NOT writing — I love to research, jot notes, create side projects, digress. Taking that approach in the past has sometimes led to good stuff, so I never considered it a waste of time. But it’s also led to dead ends or half-realized premises that were flawed from the start because I lacked a strong through line or clear-cut heroes and villains.

When I wrote my first screenplay years and years ago, I didn’t know what three-act structure was. Yet it was there in my script, since I had seen so many movies that it was ingrained my subconscious. Eventually, I learned more about crafting stories through screenwriting books and workshops. The book I recommend to all writers and screenwriters these days is Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat!” because it incorporates elements from Syd Field’s three-act structure and Chris Vogler’s equally important Hero’s Journey outline. Sadly, Blake passed away a couple of years ago just when his “beat” approach was becoming a part of the Hollywood vernacular.

Blake’s outline is great for writing scripts. But I like the Hero’s Journey because it’s a little broader and allows the writer more latitude in the early stages of finding your story. Often we start out wanting to write about a particular idea or character, only to later realize the story is really about something else that has more significance or power. The outlining exercise can help you identify potential problems up front before you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in a draft that doesn’t really work… don’t throw it out though! There may be stuff in there you will want to use or revise for another project. Right now I’m reading Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat,” in which he dissects the musicals he’s written or collaborated on. You’d be surprised at how many songs that are now considered classics were the result of tossing out earlier songs and rewriting them from scratch. But some of the rejected melodies or lyrics would resurface in later songs or other musicals.

Anyhow, back to the Hero’s Journey. I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Vogler when he was one of the judges in the Maui Writer’s Conference screenwriting contest way back in 2000. One of my scripts was a finalist so I flew over from Oahu and got to attend his seminar on classic story-telling paradigms. His book, “The Writer’s Journey,” is based on Joseph Campbell’s 392-page work, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” I have read the Campbell book, and recommend you read Vogler’s book instead, unless you really, really want to delve into arcane mythology and folklore on an academic level.

Below is the basic outline that Chris discusses in his book and talks. You can apply it to most good movies or books. Ask yourself if your story fits most of these steps or “beats” — if not, is it because you lack a well-defined hero and villain? More precisely, are their goals and your main conflict clearly apparent? Subtext is great, but drama/comedy/tragedy are all about surface conflict and emotions that draw us into the internal conflicts of the characters.

SET UP ORDINARY WORLD – Make audience identify with characters. Establish want versus need. The “wish” must be clear. In cutting the symbolic cord (separation from parents) must also contrast the ordinary world with Special World to come…

CALL TO ADVENTURE – Hero drawn or forced into life changing situation by some kind of catalyst or event.

REFUSING THE CALL – Hero initially turns away from call or reluctant to get involved — identify what hero fears most. Hero will have to overcome that fear to accomplish goal.

MEETING THE MENTOR – Hero seeks or given advice from voice of wisdom and experience that will help guide him.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD – Descent into the Special World.

TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES – Initiation into new life.

ORDEAL – Hero dies literally or symbolically.

REWARD – Hero reborn.



RETURN WITH ELIXIR – Cycle completed.


Want to see an example of how the above factors into a book or script sale? Take a look at this description of a movie deal for an adaptation of an upcoming novel due out soon…

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
Writer: Kenneth Oppel (author)

Logline: Young Victor Frankenstein attempts to save his twin brother, Konrad, who falls gravely ill. Victor seeks out a mysterious old alchemist who sends Victor and his best friend Elizabeth on a dangerous quest to find three rare ingredients needed to create the Elixir of Life, a fabled serum that will give the drinker perpetual health. Along the way there are betrayals and a love triangle between Victor, Elizabeth and Konrad.

Classic Hero’s Journey outline. No idea if the book or movie will be any good, but all the elements that publishers and producers look for are contained in that short paragraph. Simple? Yes. But not easy to do.

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