Nano writing tips: plotting the hero journey

What do Star Wars, The Hobbit and The Wizard of Oz have in common? Two words – ‘hero journey’.

One of L Frank Baum’s Oz book covers. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

Structure is everything for a story – it will make or break it. And when it comes to classic structure – especially for a fantasy story – it’s hard to go past the  hero journey. It’s a classic – classic characters, a compelling plot structure and a well defined character arc that has long stood the test of time. It pops up more often than we might think in films and literature  –  and the best version I’ve seen was Star Wars, as in the original 1977 film. Also Wizard of Oz, which is the same story at this level. So is The HobbitReally. They are very different tales of themselves – which shows us how it’s possible to be original and still meet expected structure.

The hero journey, with its need to have the hero enter the ‘other world’,  is effectively a form of modern mythology.Tolkien knew about it; and the structure was quantified in the mid-twentieth century by Joseph Campbell, who George Lucas consulted for the original Star Wars as he developed it in the early 1970s. The hero journey is a three-act structure with about a dozen discrete steps. They go – generally – like this, though the precise order within the acts sometimes differs.

Act 1
We are introduced to the hero (Dorothy/Luke/Bilbo) in the normal world (Kansas/Tatooine/The Shire)
The hero is introduced to a mentor (Glinda/Obi Wan Kenobi/Gandalf)
Something happens to dislodge the hero from the normal world. They cannot resist it (the tornado/stormtroopers destroy Luke’s family/Bilbo’s party)
The hero leaves the normal world for the adventure (a twister drops Dorothy’s house on the wicked witch in Oz/Luke leaves Tattooine/Bilbo leaves Hobbiton)

Act 2
In the new world, the hero meets friends, who have their own needs (Tin Man/C3Po/the dwarves)
The hero is tested by various adventures and events during their journey (adventures in Oz/Death Star/Misty Mountains, Mirkwood)
They meet challenges and approach their goal; but meet an unexpected hurdle (they have to face the Wicked Witch/escape from the Death Star/stuck outside Erebor)

Act 3
The hero rallies their friends and/or allies (Dorothy meets the Winkies/Luke meets the rebel alliance/Bilbo discovers how to open the secret door with help from the raven)
The hero is able to achieve their goal because they have grown, as a character (battle with the Wicked Witch/attack on the Death Star and its destruction/Bilbo discovers Smaug’s weakness)
They receive their reward; and return to the normal world, changed for the better (Dorothy learns she has always had the power to return home/Luke realises he has control of The Force/Battle of Five Armies – Bilbo returns with treasure)

There are many variations on the specifics of the hero journey – and, as these stories show us, it’s perfectly possible to be original and still use that structure. But all ‘hero journey’ tales encompass these main features – including the way the character develops. At the beginning, the hero is unable to achieve their goal; by the end of it, thanks to their adventures, they can. This is a classic character arc, very important to novel writing. The three-act structure is important, too – it is dramatic, it’s compelling. And writers looking for ways to structure their novel cannot go too far wrong if they use it.

More nano-tips next week – but before then, posts on Hemingway and authenticity; and a stroll down the Sydney Writers’ Walk.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

16 thoughts on “Nano writing tips: plotting the hero journey

  1. That was an awesome breakdown of three excellent stories, and I never would have thought to label them this way. It is true to some extent that great minds think alike. Can’t wait to see the rest of your NaNo tips; it is that time of year again!


  2. I agree with this absolutely. How ingenious!

    Those that deviate from this winning formulae should not be surprised if things don’t go well. For example, I really dislike films or books where there isn’t a ‘happy ending’. It removes the ‘feel good factor’. The above formulae has a winning ‘happy ending’. Imagination can come up with wonderful stories and leave the reader open to the ‘will it end well’ if properly penned, but the main thing is to ensure that the ending does end well. I think that we can all recall a book or film that we didn’t like because people died or things failed. Who wants to feel sad at the end of a book or film? Great stuff, love the breakdown of the formulae. Excellent.


    1. Thanks – yes, there’s no doubt that this particular formula is THE structure in many ways. Largely, I think, because it addresses wishes; it shows us how people can grow, and be rewarded for doing so – always a goal in real life, yet in the hero journey, usually presented in ways that abstract the real world and make it entertaining.


  3. It’s my intention to participate in NaNoWriMo this year so I’m taking this month to prepare for it. I particularly admire your blog posts on writing because they are so concise, rather like your writing style.

    In my preparation for NaNoWriMo, I want to be be able to “see” the three act structure in the story before I sit down to write it– know the beginning, middle, end–as I write through each act. each act may change but I’m thinking I need an initial baseline.That’s where I am with it now but I have the rest of October to to work on this so I really appreciate you addressing the issue.

    As always, thanks, Matthew.


    1. Hi – thank you! Sounds a very sensible approach and good luck for NaNoWriMo. I’ve got a series of posts coming up over the next few weeks, but I’m always happy to answer questions on this blog (other readers, also take note) – so if you have a particular query you’d like to put, please don’t hesitate. Happy to assist.


    1. I hadn’t seen that particular version of it – but it’s definitely a good rendition of the concept. What fascinates me is how many of the stories that endure – that we inevitably consider great literature -follow that pattern.


  4. Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    Ever wanted to write a story and have a great hero in mine?

    This post has some great tips for how to bring it all together.
    Now get to work, and write something!


Comments are closed.