The Hero’s Journey – From Myth to Modern

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about plotting recently. Oh not that kind of plotting. What kind of a woman do you think I am? Oh, yeah, that’s right. I kill people in my spare time. On paper, on paper. Let’s not get excited.

Back to my story. The above paragraph is an example of how my mind really works. It’s like a pinball machine with great flipper bumpers. Thoughts and images carom everywhere. Sometimes it can be distracting. Especially when I’m trying to nail down a murder. On paper, on paper.

Over time, I’ve trained my pantser instincts to accept a certain amount of plotting. Not much, mostly just a listing of highpoints for the overall book and then again for each chapter, but it works for me and keeps me closer to on course. What that means for me is three drafts instead of seven. This is a good thing. I’ve tried doing a full outline, but I got bored. It’s impossible to make a story exciting if it bores you. I knew too much. I knew what was going to happen and I knew why, I knew when, and I knew who. BORING! I need the danger and the risk that not knowing where the story is going next gives me. I love the kick of adrenalin when I paint myself into a corner. The what ifs kick in and both my and the story juices flow.

All of that is well and good. But there’s another problem we pantsers face. We can fall so much in love with our stories that we forget there is a story, and story goals, and certain events that must take place to move the story along. That’s where the Hero’s Journey comes in. I don’t use it for a plotting device, although I do usually read the outlines over before I write each book and again at end of the first quarter and at the end of two thirds. Why? That’s where things have to happen in a story. If they don’t the pacing feels “off” and readers feel dissatisfied.

The Hero’s Journey is based on the book by Joseph Campbell and has been adapted by numerous writing teachers ever since. The core is the same, eleven categories. The ordinary world, the call to action, the refusal of the call (and a good place to meet a mentor), the first threshold, the test where we solidify the allies and the enemies, the approach to the innermost cave, the ordeal, the reward, the road back, the ultimate test, and the return with the elixir.  All of these events happen in an orderly progression.

The terminology makes it clear that the story events have their roots in mythology. I would suggest re-reading the Iliad or the Odyssey and tracing the progression to make the myth connection, but the same sign posts hold true in Gone with the Wind, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Agatha Christie, PD James and every other successful work of popular fiction. The stages of the Hero’s Journey define ancient and modern fiction. It doesn’t pay to noodle with them. Just accept them.

I use them in a different way. Although I may (or may not) review them at the start of a book, I always complete the various templates and signposts at the end of the first draft. I want to know where my plot holes are, if I’ve covered all the essentials. It’s easy to miss something in the heat of the moment. That’s the curse of a pantser.

I’m not ready to make the commitment to plotter, but I am willing to reverse engineer into a plotter. My second draft is all about filling in the holes the Hero’s Journey uncovers.

What about you? Do you plot or pants? Readers, do these eleven categories feel familiar and comfortable to you?

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Author: kaitcarson

I write mysteries set in South Florida. The Hayden Kent series is set in the Florida Keys. Hayden is a SCUBA diving paralegal who keeps finding bodies. Underwater, no one can hear you scream! Catherine Swope is a Miami Realtor with a penchant for finding bodies in the darndest places. I live in an airpark in Fort Denaud, FL with my husband, six cats and three birds. And oh yes, a Piper Cherokee 6 in the hangar!

16 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey – From Myth to Modern”

  1. Kait, like you I started out a complete pantster. And, like you, I got so in love with my characters and the world that I forgot about a key piece – the story. That book wandered all over the place! Now, I’m kind of like you again – a reverse plotter. I through a bunch of ideas in Scapple, see how they might connect, and start writing. Still no guarantee that something totally unexpected won’t happen, but at least I have some semblance of map.

  2. You used the word Carom! Love it. Pantser here, but definitely learning the value of a high-level, very general outline. I was working on a short story this weekend, and had totally lost track of where I was going–but I had the outline, and was able to say, “Oh! Right, that makes sense.” Phew!

  3. Love the image of the pinball mind! Yeah, that’s me, too. So revisiting The Hero’s Journey is a very timely reminder. Thanks for that! I aspire to being a reverse plotter and control all that caroming.

  4. “The above paragraph is an example of how my mind really works. It’s like a pinball machine with great flipper bumpers.” I laughed out loud. Anyway, I plot the whole thing but give myself the freedom to go off track. It gives me comfort first thing in the morning to have a plan. I do reference back to the Campbell archetypes and hero story line but over-reliance is likely to result in someone’s criticism that it all feels too cardboard.

  5. Great post!

    When I first begin to noodle on an idea, I’m a pantser. I sit down and create an SOC (stream of consciousness) concept of the story. I ask questions (actually write them), answer them, fall down one rabbit hole after another and claw my way out. Just like your pinball mind. It’s how I figure out if an idea is a blogpost or a novel, or something in between.

    From there I have to determine my plot points and structure some kind of a scene list to reach them. I generally only structure one section at a time. Another writer once called herself a “tracker”, and I think that’s pretty descriptive of my process.

    I have a question: When you write, do you write clear through to the end or do you go back and edit as you move forward, creating multiple drafts? I would love to get down to three drafts. Wow.

  6. Mary, what is Scapple? I am always so open to new plotting ideas that don’t make me actually plot. You know what I mean. It sounds enticing.

    Just because everyone reading knows I bounce all over, Peg, sounds like your process is very similar to mine, plot points and lists (sometimes most of them make it to the book. I like the tracker description. I sit and write from beginning to end, I will jump around if I realized I missed something that had to happen–I write in Scrivener so when that happens, I will go back to scenes and chapters needed, rough in what’s missing, and mark it with an inline note. Then it’s on to the finish. The second draft is often a major pull apart and the third is a polish. Then it goes to the editors…

    Hi Pamela – isn’t it great to have a little something to keep you on the straight and narrow. I often find the same thing happening.

    Keenan, I so wish I could plot everything and make it work for me. I keep trying to find work arounds. I think the writing life is like our WIPs. It’s a work in process!

  7. And some more thoughts I thought the above was getting kind of long. Sue, The Hero’s Journey has gotten me out of a lot of tight squeezes that I didn’t know I was in until the second draft!

    Keenan, I know what you mean about over-reliance. I think that’s why I use it after the first draft. I want the texture it can bring to a story, but I want the freedom to create the story first.

  8. Wonderful post, Kait! I learned about plot structure from James Scott Bell’s book (sounds like a spin off of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) and found it incredibly helpful. I’m a combo plotter-pantser; I need to know the big things/thresholds that happen in the story and when they occur, and then, similar to you, I sort of fill in the rest. But I also feel like my process evolves a little bit with each book I write, so we’ll how the next one goes! Maybe someday I’ll get down to 3 drafts like you, which is very impressive! 🙂

  9. This is an interesting post. As a reader, I am fascinated by the journey that writers take getting from the start to the finish of a book. The journey for a reader is very different. Thanks for sharing your travel.

  10. Thanks Sam! It’s a process that works, for me, and that’s what it’s all about. Each of us finds our own process.

    Kate, thank you! Yes the Bell book and system is very similar to the Campbell one. I’ve used it at times too. I agree, my process changes with every book. I’m not sure I’ll ever find that 100% sweet spot. It might ruin the fun.

    3 no 7 – as a reader, I agree. I love to know how writers get from start to finish. Oftentimes the question in my mind is “why (how) did they do that?” For a reader though, I think the most important part is that it be seamless.

  11. Kait, Scapple is from the folks who make Scrivener. You get a “board” where you can put ideas. If the ideas connect, you can draw lines between them. Then you can drag the notes in Scapple into Scrivener to create scenes (I haven’t done that because my ideas are generally bigger than scenes). I like it because it helps me visualize the connections. And if an idea doesn’t connect to anything, chances are it should be tossed.

  12. I am a definite plotter. I write the same way I take vacations. If I’m going from LA to NYC, I want to know what time I’m leaving, what town I’ll be in at lunchtime, what city I’ll bed down for the night. But it’s not strict … I don’t know whether I’ll have pizza, burgers, or bouillabaise for lunch. I get to decide if I’ll be camping that night or staying in the revolving penthouse at the Ritz. and I get to detour to the interesting roadside attractions. Most important for my story and my vacation is WHY I’m going to my destination. What do I hope to find there? And how much fun can I have along the way!

  13. I’m an obsessive outliner. In fact, I should buy stock in 3M, the manufacturer of Sticky notes as they are my favorite plotting tool. I usually have 2-3 plot lines going at once, which have to all converge in the end. But there is always a pantser moment about 2/3rds of the way, when the convergence needs a Campbell-esque shake-up. That is why we are all writing, isn’t it? To grab the challenge of a good story and shake it until it sings.

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