The Hero’s Journey is a classic formula used to tell a story or epic tale of personal transformation. This ultimate Hero’s Journey writing guide will define and explore all quintessential elements of the Hero’s Journey—character archetypes, themes, symbolism, the three act structure, as well as 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey. The end of this guide puts all of the guidance into action by providing a downloadable plot template, tips for writing the Hero’s Journey, and writing prompts to get the creative juices flowing.
For quick reference, check out the table of contents at the side of this article.
What is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a classic, formulaic plot structure that allows a writer to tell a story that focuses on the personal transformation and psychological development of a protagonist, through their overcoming great adversity to complete a quest.
In the process of self-discovery, the Hero’s Journey is typically cyclical; it begins and ends in the same place. After the epic quest or adventure has been completed by overcoming adversity and conflict—both physical and mental—the hero arrives where they once began, changed in some way by the necessity of personal transformation to rise and meet the ultimate conflict or ordeal of the quest.
Although the story structure of the Hero’s Journey can have different variations, it typically follows 12 steps, which are grouped into three acts. The Hero’s Journey has a long history of conversation around the form and its uses, with notable contributors including mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by the theories of psychologist Carl Jung, as well as the screenwriter Christopher Vogler, who later revised the steps of the Hero’s Journey.
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth framework is the traditional framework of the Hero’s Journey. Campbell developed it through analysis of myths, folktales, and religious stories. It generally follows three acts in a cyclical, rather than a linear, way: a hero embarks on a journey, faces a crisis, and then returns home, transformed and victorious.
Campbell’s ideation of the monomyth in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces was influenced by Carl Jung’s perspective of psychology and models of self-transformation, where the Hero’s Journey is a path of transformation to a higher self, psychological healing, and spiritual growth.
While Campbell’s original take on the monomyth included 17 steps within the three acts, Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer’s Journey, refined those 17 steps into 12 stages, which is the common formula for the modern structure referenced today for the Hero’s Journey.
Hero’s Journey diagram: acts, steps, and stages
Why is the Hero’s Journey so popular?
The structure of the Hero’s Journey resonates with many, as it’s a form that explores the concept of personal transformation and growth through both physical and mental trials and tribulations. In some sense, every individual experiences rites of passage, the search for home and the true authentic self, and that’s mirrored in a protagonist’s journey of overcoming obstacles while seeking to fulfill a goal.
Additionally, the Hero’s Journey typically includes archetypes that represent commonly shared symbols and aspects of the human psyche—the trickster, the mother, the child, etc. These archetypes play a role in creating a story that—while fictitious—the reader can recognize given similar dynamics in their own relationships, experiences, and the world around them. Archetypes allow the writer to use these “metaphorical truths”—a playful deceiver, a maternal bond, a person of innocence and purity—to deeply and empathetically connect with the reader through symbolism.
Hero’s Journey character archetypes
Archetypes are literary devices used to create a character based on a set of qualities—ones that are easily identifiable by a reader and easy to empathize with and understand, as these qualities and traits are common to the human experience. Familiar and well-understood character archetypes include “the innocent father figure,” “the wise one,” and “the ruler.”
It should be noted that character archetypes are not stereotypes. While stereotypes are oversimplifications of demographics or personality traits, an archetype is a symbol of a universal type of character that can be recognized either in one’s self or in others in real life.
The following archetypes are commonly used in a Hero’s Journey:
The hero is typically the protagonist or principal-point-of-view-character within a story. The hero transforms—internally, externally, and sometimes both—while on their journey as they experience tests and trials and are aided or hindered by the other archetypes they encounter. In general, the hero must rise to the challenge and at some point make an act of sacrifice for the ultimate greater good.
Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Some can be downright unheroic to begin with. Anti-heroes are notably flawed characters that must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off more like a villain.
Carol Pearson explored and grouped hero archetypes into six main categories in her book The Hero Within. These hero archetypes may ultimately define a hero, or may represent the qualities of the hero at different stages of their journey, and the gift they earn through transformation:
|Orphan||Survive difficulty||How they suffered and survived||Resilience|
|Wanderer||Find the authentic self||How they escape the ordinary world and find their own way||Independence|
|Warrior||Prove their worth||How they rise to the task to achieve the goal||Courage|
|Altruist||Show generosity||How they sacrace and/or give to others||Compassion|
|Innocent||Seeking happiness||Finding the “promise” land||Faith|
|Magician||Self transformation||How they change the world||Power|
The mentor often possesses divine wisdom or direct experience with the special world, and has faith in the hero. They often give the hero a gift, which is usually something important for the quest: either a weapon to destroy a monster, or a talisman to enlighten the hero. The mentor may also directly aid the hero, or present challenges to them that force internal or external growth.
Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not. They deliver the call to adventure. The herald is a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. Existing in the form of a person or an event, or sometimes just as information, they shift the hero’s balance and change their world.
The Threshold Guardian
This archetype guards the threshold—the moments or places in the story where the hero must make the true commitment of the journey and embark on their quest to achieve their destiny. Threshold guardians spice up the story by providing obstacles the hero must overcome, but they’re usually not the main antagonist.
The role of the threshold guardian is to help round out the hero along their journey. The threshold guardian will test the hero’s determination and commitment and will drive the hero to the next stage of their journey, assisting the development of the hero’s character arc within the plot. The threshold guardian can be a friend who doesn’t believe in the hero’s quest, or a foe that makes the hero question themselves, their desires, or motives in an attempt to deter the hero from their journey. Ultimately, the role of the threshold guardian is to test the hero’s resolve on their quest.
The Shape Shifter
The shape shifter adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. They can seem to be one thing, but in fact be something else.. They bring doubt and suspense to the story and test the hero’s ability to discern their path. The shape shifter may be a lover, friend, ally, or enemy that somehow reveals their true self from the hero’s preconceived notion. This often causes the hero internal turmoil, or creates additional challenges and tests to overcome.
The shadow is the “monster under the bed,” and could be repressed feelings, deep trauma, or festering guilt. These all possess the dark energy of the shadow. It is the dark force of the unexpressed, unrealized, rejected, feared aspects of the hero and is often, but not necessarily, represented by the main antagonist or villain.
However, other characters may take the form of the shadow at different stages of the story as “foil characters” that contrast against the hero. They might also represent what could happen to the hero should they fail to learn, transform, and grow to complete their quest. At times, a hero may even succumb to the shadow, from which they will need to make sacrifices to be redeemed to continue on their overall quest.
The trickster is the jester or fool of the story that not only provides comic relief, but may also act as a commentator as the events of the plot unfold. Tricksters are typically witty, clever, spontaneous, and sometimes even ridiculous. The trickster within a story can bring a light-hearted element to a challenge, or find a clever way to overcome an obstacle.
Hero’s Journey themes and symbols
Alongside character archetypes, there are also archetypes for settings, situations, and symbolic items that can offer meaning to the world within the story, and that can be used to establish a thematic meaning for the reader to interpret.
Archetypes of themes, symbols, and situations represent shared patterns of human existence. This familiarity can provide the reader insight into the deeper meaning of a story without the writer needing to explicitly tell them. There are a great number of archetypes and symbols that can be used to reinforce a theme. Some that are common to the Hero’s Journey include:
Light vs. dark and the battle of good vs. evil.
Death, rebirth, and transformation in the cycle of life.
Nature vs. technology, and the evolution of humankind.
Rags to riches or vice versa, as commentary on the material world and social status.
Wisdom vs. knowledge and innocence vs. experience, in the understanding of intuition and learned experience.
Gardens may represent the taming of nature, or living in harmony with nature.
Forests may represent reconnection with nature or wildness, and the fear of the unknown.
Cities or small towns may represent humanity at its best or at its worst. A small town may offer comfort and rest, while simultaneously offering judgment, while a city may represent danger while simultaneously championing diversity of ideas, beings, and cultures.
Water and fire within a landscape may represent danger, change, purification, and cleansing.
Items of the past self. These items are generally tokens from home that remind the hero of where they came from and who or what they’re fighting for.
Gifts to the hero. These items may be given to the hero from another character, commonly a mentor, ally, or even a minor character. These items are typically hero talismans, and may or may not be magical, but will aid the hero on their journey.
Found items. These items are typically found along the journey and represent some sort of growth or change within the hero. After all, the hero would never have found the item, had they not left the ordinary world. These items may immediately seem unimportant, but often carry great significance.
Earned rewards. These items are generally earned by overcoming a test or trial, and often represent growth, or give aid in future trials, tests, and conflicts.
The three act structure of the Hero’s Journey
The structure of the Hero’s Journey, including all 12 steps, can be grouped into three categories, or acts, that encompass each phase of the journey. These acts follow the arc of the plot, as well as the hero’s arc, along the journey—the beginning, the initiation and transformation, and the return home.
Act One: Departure (Steps 1–5)
The first act introduces the hero within the ordinary world, as they are—original and untransformed. The first act will typically include the first five steps of the Hero’s Journey.
This section allows the writer to set the stage with characterization and details that show who the hero is before their metamorphosis—what is the environment of the ordinary world? What’s important to the hero? Why do they first refuse the call, and then, why do they ultimately accept and embark on the journey to meet with the conflict?
This stage introduces the first major plot point of the story, the conflict the hero sets out to resolve, and provides the opportunity for characterization for the hero as well as their companions.
The end of the first act generally occurs when the hero has fully committed to the journey and crossed the threshold of the ordinary world—where there is no turning back.
Act Two: Initiation (Steps 6–9)
The second act marks the beginning of the hero’s true initiation into the extraordinary world—they have crossed the threshold, and through this commitment, have undergone their first transformation.
The second act is generally the longest of the three, and includes steps six through nine.
This act introduces most of the characters that will be pivotal to the plot, including friends, enemies, and allies. It offers the rising action and other minor plot points related to the overarching conflict.
During this act, the hero will overcome various trials, grow and transform, and be introduced to subplots—the additional and unforeseen complexity of the conflict.
This act generally ends when the hero has risen to the challenge to overcome the ordeal and receives their reward. At the end of this act, it’s common for the theme and moral of the story to be fully unveiled.
Act Three: Return (Steps 10–12)
The third act typically includes steps 10–12, generally beginning with the road back—the point in the story where the hero must recommit to the journey and use all of the growth, transformation, gifts and tools acquired along the journey to bring closure to the final conflict.
From this event, the hero will also be resurrected, by dying either literally or metaphorically, and then beginning anew as a self-actualized being, equipped with internal knowledge about themselves, external knowledge about the world, and experience.
At the end of the third act, the hero returns home to the ordinary world, bringing back the gifts they earned on their journey. In the final passages, the hero is shown transformed, and both the hero and their perception of the ordinary world is compared with what they once were.
The 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey
The following guide outlines the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey and represents a framework and guiding principles for the creation of a Hero’s Journey story. You don’t necessarily need to follow the explicit cadence of these steps as we’ll list them, but they should act as checkpoints to the overall story.
We’ll also use Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a literary example for each of the steps of the Hero’s Journey. The Hobbit does an exemplary job not only of following the Hero’s Journey, but it’s also an example of how checkpoints can exist in more than one place in a story, or how they may deviate from the typical 12-step process of the Hero’s Journey.
1. The Ordinary World
The ordinary world in the Hero’s Journey introduces the hero in their first appearance in the story. An introduction to the ordinary world shows the reader the hero’s backstory—who the hero is, where they come from, their world view, culture, and so on. This offers the reader a chance to relate to the character in their untransformed form.
As the story and character arc develop, the reader is brought along the journey of transformation. By starting at the beginning, a reader has a basic understanding of what drives the hero, helping them understand why the hero makes the choices they do, and allows the reader to sympathize or empathize with the hero.
It should be noted that, in general, the ordinary world shows the protagonist in their comfort zone, with their worldview being limited to the perspective of the ordinary world in which they live.
Characters in the ordinary world may or may not be fully comfortable or satisfied, but they don’t have a point of reference to compare—they have yet to leave the ordinary world to gain the knowledge to do so.
The Hobbit begins with the introduction of Bilbo in the Shire as a respectable and well-to-do member of the community. His ordinary world is utopian and comfortable. Yet, even within a world that is largely uninterested in the concerns of the world outside of the Shire, the reader is provided a backstory: that even though Bilbo buys into the comforts and normalcy of the Shire, he still yearns for adventure—something his neighbors frown upon. This ordinary world of the Shire is disrupted with the introduction of Gandalf—“the mentor”—who is somewhat uncomfortably invited to tea. Upon their first meeting, Bilbo rejects Gandalf’s initial “call to adventure.”
2. Call to Adventure
The call to adventure in the Hero’s Journey is the initial internal conflict that the protagonist hero faces, that drives them to the true conflict that they must overcome. The true conflict must be resolved through the events of the journey, and that drives the personal transformation of the hero.
The call to action occurs within the ordinary world of the character and represents another opportunity for the writer to build on the characterization of the untransformed hero protagonist by detailing how they respond to the initial call. Are they hesitant, eager, excited, refusing, or willing to take a risk?
Bilbo’s call to adventure takes place at tea as the dwarves leisurely enter Bilbo’s home, followed by Gandalf, who identifies Bilbo as the group’s missing element—the burglar, and the lucky 14th member.
In Bilbo’s home, Bilbo and his ordinary world is emphasized by his discomfort with his rambunctious and careless guests. Yet as the dwarves sing stories of old adventures, caverns, and lineages, which introduce and foreshadow the conflict to come, a yearning for adventure is stirred in Bilbo. Though he still clings to his ordinary world and his life in the Shire, he’s conflicted. Should he leave the shire and experience the world, or stay in his comfortable home? Bilbo continues to refuse the call, but with mixed feelings.
3. Refusal of the Call
The refusal of the call in the Hero’s Journey showcases a “clinging” to one’s original self or world view. The initial refusal of the call represents a fear of change, as well as a resistance to the internal transformation that will occur after the adventure has begun.
The refusal reveals the risks that the protagonist faces if they were to answer the call, and shows what they’ll leave behind in the ordinary world once they accept.
This stage provides the writer the opportunity to continue to refine the characterization of the hero. The refusal of the call creates tension in the story, and should show the personal reasons why the hero is refusing—inner conflict, fear of change, hesitation, insecurity, etc.
These are all emotions a reader can relate to, and in presenting them through the hero, the writer deepens the reader’s relationship with the hero, helping the reader sympathize with the hero’s internal plight as well as the external conflict of taking the first step of transformation.
Bilbo first refuses the call in his first encounter with Gandalf, and in his reaction to the dwarves during tea. Even though Bilbo’s “Tookish” tendencies make him yearn for adventure, he goes to bed that night still refusing the call. The next morning, as Bilbo awakes to an empty and almost fully clean hobbit home, he feels a slight disappointment for not joining the party, but quickly soothes his concerns by enjoying the comfort of his home—i.e. the ordinary world. Bilbo’s self-talk explores his hesitation to disembark from the ordinary world—questioning why a hobbit would become mixed up in the adventures of others, and choosing not to meet the dwarves at the designated location.
Gandalf returns and causes such a fluster that Bilbo hurriedly leaves to join the dwarven party, forgetting his hanky and hat—small tokens that symbolize the comforts of the Shire, and what Bilbo is leaving behind: the ordinary world.
4. Meeting the Mentor
Meeting the mentor in the Hero’s Journey is the stage that provides the hero protagonist with a guide, relationship, and/or informational asset that has experience outside the ordinary world. The mentor within the hero’s story provides confidence, guidance, advice, wisdom, training, insight, and even tools, items, or magical gifts that the hero will use along the journey and in overcoming the ultimate conflict.
The relationship between the hero and the mentor creates an emotional and empathetic connection between the characters in the story– one that may be highly relatable to the reader who has ever looked up to someone: a parent, instructor, or master of a particular skill.
The mentor often represents someone who has attempted to overcome, or actually has overcome, an obstacle, and encourages the hero to pursue their calling, regardless of the hero’s weaknesses or insecurities. The mentor may also explicitly point out the hero’s weaknesses, forcing them to reckon with and accept them, which is the first step to personal transformation and on the journey to overcoming an obstacle.
Note that not all mentors need to be a character. They can also be objects or knowledge that has been instilled in the hero somehow—cultural ethics, spiritual guidance, training of a particular skill, a map, book, diary, or object that illuminates the path forward, etc. In essence, the mentor character or object has a role in offering the protagonist outside help and guidance along the Hero’s Journey, and plays a key role in the protagonist’s transition from normalcy to heroism.
The mentor figure also offers the writer the opportunity to present the reader with additional information by expanding upon the story, plot, or backstory in unique ways. They do this by giving the hero information that would otherwise be difficult for the writer to convey naturally.
The mentor may accompany the hero throughout most of the story, or they may only periodically be included to facilitate changes and transformation within the hero.
The mentor, Gandalf, is introduced almost immediately in the story, showing how Tolkein used this checkpoint, but not necessarily in the step-by-step order we’re describing. Gandalf is shown to be the mentor, firstly through his arrival from—and wisdom of—the outside world; and secondly, through his selection of Bilbo for the dwarven party by identifying the unique characteristics Bilbo has that are essential to overcoming the challenges in the journey. Gandalf doesn’t accompany Bilbo and the company through all of the trials and tribulations of the plot, but he does play a key role in offering guidance and assistance, and saves the group in times of dire peril.
5. Crossing the Threshold
Crossing the threshold in the Hero’s Journey structure is the first true step in the hero’s personal quest toward self-transformation. Crossing the threshold means that the character has committed to the journey, and has stepped outside of the ordinary world in the pursuit of their goal, and typically marks the conclusion of the first act.
The threshold to be crossed lies between the ordinary world and the special world, and marks the point of the story where the hero fully commits to the journey and eventually, their ultimate transformation. It’s a crucial stage in the Hero’s Journey, as the hero wouldn’t be able to grow and transform by staying in the ordinary world where they’re comfortable and their world view can’t change.
The threshold isn’t necessarily a specific place within the world of the story—though a place can symbolize the threshold, for example a border, gateway, or crossroads that separate what is safe and “known” from what is not known and potentially dangerous. It can also be a moment or experience that causes the hero to recognize that the comforts and routine of their world no longer apply—like the loss of someone or something close to the hero, for example. The purpose of the threshold is to take the hero out of their element and force the hero, and the reader, to adapt from the known to the unknown.
This moment is crucial to the story’s tension.. It marks the first true shift in the character arc, as the hero has committed to the journey, and the adventure has truly begun. The threshold commonly forces the hero into a situation where there’s no turning back. After crossing it, the hero is fully initiated, and the stakes are raised to where the hero faces the chance to succeed or fail for the first time.
In general, some form of action must take place where the hero must assume responsibility, and their resolve is hardened to following through with the journey and confronting whatever may lay ahead. This action and moment of choice for the hero builds sympathy and empathy with the reader, who has likely experienced some form of crossroads in their own life where they made a choice and assumed empowerment for the direction their life is taking, and without being able to return to the innocence of their original world view.
The threshold moment in The Hobbit occurs when the party experiences true danger as a group for the first time. Bilbo, voted as scout by the party and eager to prove his burglar abilities, sneaks upon a lone fire in the forest where he finds three large trolls. Rather than turn back empty-handed—as he initially wants to—Bilbo chooses to prove himself, plucking up the courage to pickpocket the trolls–but is caught in the process. The dwarves are also captured and fortunately, Gandalf, the mentor, comes to save the party.
Bilbo’s character arc is solidified in this threshold moment. He experiences his first transformation when he casts aside fear and seeks to prove himself as a burglar, and as an official member of the party. This moment also provides further characterization of the party as a whole, proving the loyalty of the group in seeking out their captured member.
Gandalf’s position as the mentor is also firmly established as he returns to ultimately save all of the members of the party from being eaten by trolls. The chapter ends with Bilbo taking ownership of his first hero talisman—the sword that will accompany him through the rest of the adventure.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Once the hero has crossed the threshold, they must now encounter tests, make allies, and inevitably confront enemies. All these elements will force the hero to learn the new ways of the special world and how it differs from the hero’s ordinary world—i.e. how the rules have changed, the conditions of the special world vs. the ordinary world, and the various beings and places within it.
All these elements spark stages of transformation within the hero—learning who they can trust and who they can’t, learning new skills, seeking training from the mentor, and overcoming challenges that force and drive them to grow and transform.
The hero may both succeed and fail at various points of this stage, which will test their commitment to the journey. The writer can create tension by making it clear that the hero may or may not succeed at the critical moment of crisis.
Also of importance is the concept of both internal and external conflict, as presented with tests, enemies, and allies.
External conflicts are issues that the character must face and overcome within the plot—e.g. the enemy has a sword drawn and the hero must fight to survive.
Internal conflicts occur inside the hero. For example, the hero has reached safety, but their ally is in peril; will they step outside their comfort zone and rise to the occasion and save their friend? or will they return home to their old life and the safety of the ordinary world?
Tests are conflicts and threats that the hero must face before they reach the true conflict, or ordeal, of the story. These tests set the stage and prime the hero to meet and achieve the ultimate goal. They provide the writer the opportunity to further the character development of the hero through their actions, inactions, and reactions to what they encounter. The various challenges they face will teach them lessons, as well as keep the story compelling and the reader engaged.
Allies represent the characters that offer support to the protagonist along the journey. Some allies may be introduced from the start of the story, while others may be earned and gained along the journey. Secondary characters and allies provide additional character development for the hero—the writer crafts interactions, events, and relationships that further show who the hero is at heart, what they believe in, and what they’re willing to fight for. The role of the allies is to bring hope, inspiration, and further drive the hero to do what needs to be done.
Enemies represent a foil to the allies. While allies can bring hope and inspiration, enemies will provide challenges, conflicts, tests, and challenges to the hope of the hero’s success. While both allies and enemies may instigate transformative growth, enemies do so in a way that fosters conflict and struggle.
Characterization of enemies can also enhance the character development of the hero with how they interact and the lessons learned through those interactions. Is the hero easily duped, forgiving, empathetic, merciful? Do they hold a grudge and seek revenge? Who is the hero now that they have been harmed, faced an enemy, and lost pieces of their innocent ordinary worldview? To answer that, the hero is still transforming and gestating with every lesson, test, and enemy faced along the way.
As the plot of The Hobbit carries on, Bilbo encounters many tests, allies, and enemies that all drive complexity in the story. A few select examples include:
Tests: One major test that Bilbo faces occurs within the dark and damp cave hidden in the goblin town. All alone, Bilbo must pluck up the wit and courage to outriddle a creature named Gollum. In doing so, Bilbo discovers the secret power of a golden ring (another hero talisman) that will aid him and the party through the rest of the journey.
Allies: The elves encountered after Bilbo “crosses the threshold” are presented as allies in the story. They offer gifts of food, a safe place to rest, and insight and guidance that allows the party to continue on their journey. While the party doesn’t dwell long with the elves, the elves also provide further character development for the party at large: the serious dwarf personalities are juxtaposed against the playful elvish ones, and the elves offer valuable historical insight with backstory to the weapons the party gathered from the troll encounter.
Enemies: Goblins are a recurring enemy within the story that the hero and party must continue to face, fight, and run from. The goblins present consistent challenges that force Bilbo to face fear and learn and adapt, not only to survive but to save his friends.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The approach to the inmost cave of the Hero’s Journey is the tense quiet before the storm; it’s the part of the story right before the hero faces the major challenge, and it can be positioned in a few different ways. By now, the hero has—successfully, or unsuccessfully—overcome obstacles, setbacks, and tests, gained and lost allies and enemies, and has transformed in some way from the original protagonist first introduced in the ordinary world.
The moment when the hero approaches the inmost cave can be a moment of reflection, reorganization, and rekindling of morale. It presents an opportunity for the main characters of the story to come together in a moment of empathy for losses along the journey; a moment of planning and plotting next steps; an opportunity for the mentor to teach a final lesson to the hero; or a moment for the hero to sit quietly and reflect upon surmounting the challenge they have been journeying toward for the length of their adventure.
The “cave” may or may not be a physical place where the ultimate ordeal and conflict will occur. The approach represents the momentary period where the hero assumes their final preparation for the overall challenge that must be overcome. It’s a time for the hero and their allies, as well as the reader, to pause and reflect on the events of the story that have already occurred, and to consider the internal and external growth and transformation of the hero.
Having gained physical and/or emotional strength and fortitude through their trials and tests, learned more rules about the special world, found and lost allies and friends, is the hero prepared to face danger and their ultimate foe? Reflection, tension, and anticipation are the key elements of crafting the approach to the cave.
The approach to the cave in The Hobbit occurs as the party approaches and enters the tunnel of the Lonely Mountain. The tunnel is the access point to the ultimate goal—Thorin’s familial treasure, as well as the ultimate test, the formidable dragon Smaug. During this part of the story, the party must hide, plot, and plan their approach to the final conflict. It’s at this time that Bilbo realizes he must go alone to scout out and face the dragon.
8. The Ordeal
The ordeal is the foreshadowed conflict that the hero must face, and represents the midpoint of the story. While the ordeal is the ultimate conflict that the hero knows they must overcome, it’s a false climax to the complete story—there’s still much ground to cover in the journey, and the hero will still be tested after completing this, the greatest challenge. In writing the ordeal phase of the Hero’s Journey, the writer should craft this as if it actually were the climax to the tale, even though it isn’t.
The first act, and the beginning of the second act, have built up to the ordeal with characterization and the transformation of the hero through their overcoming tests and trials. This growth—both internal and external—has all occurred to set the hero up to handle this major ordeal.
As the ordeal commences, the hero is typically faced with fresh challenges to make the ordeal even more difficult than they previously conceived. This may include additional setbacks for the hero, the hero’s realization that they were misinformed about the gravity of the situation, or additional conflicts that make the ordeal seem insurmountable.
These setbacks cause the hero to confront their greatest fears, and build tension for both the hero and the reader, as they both question if the hero will ultimately succeed or fail. In an epic fantasy tale, this may mean a life or death moment for the hero, or experiencing death through the loss of an important ally or the mentor. In a romance, it may be the moment of crisis where a relationship ends or a partner reveals their dark side or true self, causing the hero great strife.
This is the rock-bottom moment for the hero, where they lose hope, courage, and faith. At this point, even though the hero has already crossed the threshold, this part of the story shows how the hero has changed in such a way that they can never return to their original self: even if they return to the ordinary world, they’ll never be the same; their perception of the world has been modified forever.
Choosing to endure against all odds and costs to face the ordeal represents the loss of the hero’s original self from the ordinary world, and a huge internal transformation occurs within the hero as they must rise and continue forth to complete their journey and do what they set out to do from the beginning.
The ordeal may also be positioned as an introduction to the greater villain through a trial with a shadow villain, where the hero realizes that the greatest conflict is unveiled as something else, still yet to come. In these instances, the hero may fail, or barely succeed, but must learn a crucial lesson and be metaphorically resurrected through their failure to rise again and overcome the greater challenge.
Bilbo must now face his ultimate challenge: burgle the treasure from the dragon. This is the challenge that was set forth from the beginning, as it’s his purpose as the party’s 14th member, the burglar, anointed by Gandalf, the mentor. Additional conflicts arise as Bilbo realizes that he must face the dragon alone, and in doing so, must rely on all of the skills and gifts in the form of talismans and tokens he has gained throughout the adventure.
During the ordeal, Bilbo uses the courage he has gained by surmounting the story’s previous trials; he’s bolstered by his loyalty to the group and relies upon the skills and tools he has earned in previous trials. Much as he outwitted Gollum in the cave, Bilbo now uses his wit as well as his magical ring to defeat Smaug in a game of riddles, which ultimately leads Smaug out of the lair so that Bilbo can complete what he was set out to do—steal the treasure.
The reward of the Hero’s Journey is a moment of triumph, celebration, change, or a gift of some sort that is bestowed on or taken by the hero for overcoming the conflict they were set to face at the journey’s beginning. This is a moment of reflection for both the reader and the hero, to take a breath to contemplate and acknowledge the growth, development, and transformation that has occurred so far.
The reward is the boon that the hero is gifted, granted, or steals, that will be crucial to facing the true climax of the story that is yet to come. The reward may be a physical object, special knowledge, or reconciliation of some sort, but it’s always a thing that allows for some form of celebration or replenishment, or provides the drive to succeed before the journey continues.
Note that the reward may not always be overtly positive—it may also be a double-edged sword that could harm them physically or spiritually. This type of reward typically triggers yet another internal transformation within the hero, one that grants them the knowledge and personal drive to complete the journey and face their remaining challenges.
From the reward, the hero is no longer externally driven to complete the journey, but has evolved to take on the onus of doing so.
Examples of rewards may include:
A weapon, elixir, or object that will be necessary to complete the quest.
Special knowledge, or a personal transformation to use against a foe.
An eye-opening experience that provides deep insight and fundamentally changes the hero and their position within the story and world.
Reconciliation with another character, or with themselves.
No matter what the reward is, the hero should experience some emotional or spiritual revelation and a semblance of inner peace or personal resolve to continue the journey. Even if the reward is not overtly positive, the hero and the reader deserve a moment of celebration for facing the great challenge they set out to overcome.
Bilbo defeats the dragon at a battle of wits and riddles, and now receives his reward. He keeps the gifts he has earned, both the dagger and the gold ring. He is also granted his slice of the treasure, and the Lonely Mountain is returned to Thorin. The party at large is rewarded for completing the quest and challenge they set out to do.
However, Tolkien writes the reward to be more complex than it first appears. The party remains trapped and hungry within the Mountain as events unfold outside of it. Laketown has been attacked by Smaug, and the defenders will want compensation for the damage to their homes and for their having to kill the dragon. Bilbo discovers, and then hides, the Arkenstone (a symbolic double edged reward) to protect it from Thorin’s selfishness and greed.
10. The Road Back
The road back in the Hero’s Journey is the beginning of the third act, and represents a turning point within the story. The hero must recommit to the journey, alongside the new stakes and challenges that have arisen from the completion of the original goal.
The road back presents roadblocks—new and unforeseen challenges to the hero that they must now face on their journey back to the ordinary world. The trials aren’t over yet, and the stakes are raised just enough to keep the story compelling before the final and ultimate conflict—the hero’s resurrection– is revealed in the middle of the third act.
The hero has overcome their greatest challenge in the Ordeal and they aren’t the same character they were when they started. This stage of the story often sees the hero making a choice, or reflecting on their transformed state compared to their state at the start of the journey.
The writer’s purpose in the third act is not to eclipse the upcoming and final conflict, but to up the stakes and show the true risk of the final climax, and to reflect on what it will take for the hero to ultimately prevail. The road back should offer a glimmer of hope—the light at the end of the tunnel—and should let the reader know the dramatic finale is about to arrive.
What was once a journey to steal treasure and slay a dragon has developed new complications. Our hero, Bilbo, must now use all of the powers granted in his personal transformation, as well as the gifts and rewards he earned on the quest, to complete the final stages of the journey.
This is the crisis moment of The Hobbit; the armies of Laketown are prepared for battle to claim their reward for killing Smaug; the fearless leader of their party, Thorin, has lost reason and succumbed to greed; and Bilbo makes a crucial choice based his personal growth: he gives the Arkenstone to the king as a bargaining chip for peace. Bilbo also briefly reconnects with the mentor, Gandalf, who warns him of the unpleasant times ahead, but comforts Bilbo by saying that things may yet turn out for the best. Bilbo then loyally returns to his friends, the party of dwarves, to stand alongside them in the final battle.
The resurrection stage of the Hero’s Journey is the final climax of the story, and the meat of the third act. By now the hero has experienced internal and external transformation and a loss of innocence. They’re fully rooted in the special world, know its rules, and have made choices that underline this new understanding.
The hero must now overcome the final crisis. In an epic fantasy tale, this may be the final battle of light versus darkness, good versus evil. In a thriller, the hero might ultimately face their own morality as they approach the killer. In a drama or romance, the final and pivotal encounter in a relationship occurs and the hero puts their morality ahead of their immediate desires.
The stakes are the highest they’ve ever been, and the hero must often choose to make a sacrifice. The sacrifice may occur as a metaphoric or symbolic death of the self in some way; letting go of a relationship, title, or mental/emotional image of the self that a hero once used as a critical aspect of their identity, or perhaps even a metaphoric physical death—getting knocked out or incapacitated, losing a limb, etc.
Through whatever the great sacrifice is, be it loss or a metaphoric death, the hero will experience a form of resurrection, purification, or internal cleansing that is their final internal transformation.
In this stage, the hero’s character arc comes to an end, and balance is restored to the world. The theme of the story is fully fleshed out and the hero, having reached some form of self-actualization, is forever changed. Both the reader and the hero experience catharsis—the relief, insight, peace, closure, and purging of fear that had once held the hero back from their final transformation.
All the armies have gathered, and the final battle takes place. Just before the battle commences, Bilbo tells Thorin that it was he who gave the Arkenstone to the city of men and offers to sacrifice his reward of gold for taking the stone. Gandalf, the mentor, arrives, standing beside Bilbo and his decision. Bilbo is shunned by Thorin and is asked to leave the party for his betrayal.
Bilbo experiences a symbolic death when he’s knocked out by a cast stone. Upon awakening, Bilbo is brought to a dying Thorin, who forgives him of his betrayal, and acknowledges that Bilbo’s actions were truly the right thing to do. The theme of the story is fully unveiled: that bravery and courage comes in all sizes and forms, and that greed and gold are less worthy than a life rich in experiences and relationships.
12. Return with the Elixir
The elixir in the Hero’s Journey is the final reward the hero brings with them on their return to the ordinary world. It’s a reward hard earned through the various relationships, tests, and growth the hero has experienced along their journey. The “elixir” can be a magical potion, treasure, or object, but it can also be intangible—love, wisdom, knowledge, or experience.
Now that the hero has experienced their final transformation, they bring their new self and their reward back to the ordinary world. The return is key to the circular nature of the Hero’s Journey. It offers a resolution to both the reader and the hero, and a comparison of their growth from when the journey began.
Without the return, the story would have a linear nature, a beginning and an end. In bringing the self-actualized hero home to the ordinary world, the character arc is completed, and the changes they’ve undergone through the journey are solidified. They’ve overcome the unknown, and though they’re returning to the ordinary world, they can no longer resume their old life, given their new insight and experiences in the special world.
The small yet mighty hero Bilbo is accompanied on his journey home by his mentor Gandalf, as well as the allies he gathered along his journey. He returns with many rewards—his dagger, his golden ring, and his 1/14th split of the treasure—yet his greatest rewards are his experience, and the relationships with the friends and allies he has made along the way. Upon entering the Shire Bilbo sings a song of adventure, and the mentor Gandalf remarks, “My dear Bilbo! Something is the matter with you, you are not the hobbit you were.”
The final pages of The Hobbit explore Bilbo’s new self in the Shire, and how the community now sees him as a changed hobbit—no longer quite as respectable as he once was, with odd guests who visit from time to time. Bilbo also composes his story “There and Back Again,” a tale of his experiences, underlining his greatest reward—stepping outside of the Shire and into the unknown, then returning home, a changed hobbit.
Books that follow the Hero’s Journey
One of the best ways to become familiar with the plot structure of the Hero’s Journey is to read stories and books that successfully use it to tell a powerful tale.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.
The Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.
The Odyssey by Homer.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Writing tips for the Hero’s Journey
Writing a Hero’s Journey story often requires planning beforehand to organize the plot, structure, and events of the story. Here are some tips to help you do that:
Use a template or note cards to organize and store your ideas. This can assist in ensuring that you tie up any loose ends in the plot, and that the cadence of your story is already outlined before you begin writing.
Use word count goals for writing different sections of your story. This can help you keep pace while you plan and write the first draft. You can always revise, edit, and add in detail at later stages of development, but getting the ideas written without bogging them down with details can assist in preparing your outline, and may perhaps provide additional inspiration and guidance along the way.
Lean into creativity and be flexible with the 12 steps. They don’t need to occur in the exact order we’ve listed above, but that ordering can offer great checkpoint moments for your story.
Invest in characterization and ensure that your characters are balanced with credible strengths and weaknesses. A perfect, pure hero has no room to grow. A one-dimensional villain who relies on the trope of “pure evil” without any motivations for their actions is boring and predictable.
Ensure tension and urgency is woven into the story. An epic tale to the grocery store for baby formula may still be fraught with danger, and the price of failure is a hungry child. Without urgency, tension, and risk, a Hero’s Journey will fall flat.
Be hard on your characters. Give them deep conflicts that truly test their nature, and their mental, physical, and spiritual selves. An easy journey isn’t a memorable one.
Have a balance of scenes that play on both positive and negative emotions and outcomes for the hero to create a compelling plot line that continues to engage your reader. A story that’s relentlessly positive doesn’t provide a pathway for the hero to transform. Likewise, a story that’s nothing but doom, strife, and turmoil, without a light at the end of the tunnel or an opportunity for growth, can make a story feel stagnant and unengaging.
Reward your characters and your reader. Personal transformation and the road to the authentic self may be grueling, but there’s peace or joy at the end of the tunnel. Even if your character doesn’t fully saved the world, they—and the reader—should be rewarded with catharsis, a new perspective, or personal insight at the end of the tale.
Prompts and practices to help you write your own Hero’s Journey
Use the downloadable template listed below for the following exercises:
Read a book or watch a movie that follows the Hero’s Journey. Use the template to fill in when each step occurs or is completed. Make note of themes and symbols, character arcs, the main plot, and the subplots that drive complexity in the story.
When writing, use a timer set to 2–5 minutes per section to facilitate bursts of creativity. Brainstorm ideas for cadence, plot, and characters within the story. The outline you create can always be modified, but the timer ensures you can get ideas on paper without a commitment; you’re simply jotting down ideas as quickly as you can.
Use the template below to generate outlines based on the following prompts.
A woman’s estranged mother has died. A friend of the mother arrives at the woman’s home to tell her that her mother has left all her belongings to her daughter, and hands her a letter. The letter details the mother’s life, and the daughter must visit certain places and people to find her mother’s house and all the belongings in it—learning more about her mother’s life, and herself, along the way.
The last tree on earth has fallen, and technology can no longer sustain human life on Earth. An engineer, having long ago received alien radio signals from a tower in their backyard, has dedicated their life to building a spaceship in their garage. The time has come to launch, and the engineer must select a group of allies to bring with them to the stars, on a search for a new life, a new home, and “the others” out there in the universe.
A detective is given a new case: to find a much-talked-about murderer. The twist is, the murderer has sent a letter to the detective agency, quietly outing a homicidal politician who is up for re-election and is a major financial contributor to the police. In the letter, the murderer states that if the politician doesn’t come clean about their crimes, the murderer will kill the politician on the night of the election. The detective must solve the case before the election, and come to terms with their own feelings of justice and morality.
Hero’s Journey template
In the following boxes name the character and indicate the characteristics that define them.
|Character name and physical description||Characteristics, arc, and purpose in the story|
Symbols, Theme, and Setting
In the following boxes, include symbols, themes, and settings, making note of archetype, purpose, and value to the story and plot.
|Items and talismans:|
Acts and 12 Steps
For each act, provide a brief description of the act, and what will occur; 3-5 sentences maximum.
In the boxes for the 12 steps, write a short description of what occurs in the plot for each respective step.
For each step consider:
What’s the goal, and what’s at stake?
How does the hero act or react?
How do these thoughts, actions, and reactions translate into how the hero feels?
What does the hero fear? What do they lose? What do they gain?
What do the hero’s decisions mean for the other characters?
How has the situation changed for the better, or how is it made worse?
What is surprising, or inevitable?
How does this event foster growth in the hero—internally or externally?
How does the antagonist react to the hero’s actions?
When does the hero fail/succeed?
What does the hero gain?
Does the hero realize the reality/gravity of the situation?
How is the hero transformed?
The ordinary world:
Call to adventure:
Refusal of the call:
Meeting the mentor:
Crossing the threshold:
Tests, allies, and enemies:
Approach to the inmost cave:
The road back:
Return with the elixir: