For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Hero's Journey - On Story Structure

The Hero's Journey is not an invention but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.'
Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey

In the past few posts I've discussed the themes and motifs that are prevalent in mythic stories. This time I want to discuss something even more fundamental, though inextricably linked - mythic structure. As mythologist, Joseph Campbell asserted, stories wear countless costumes yet there is a fundamental commonality between them. Over time the costumes of stories have changed and certainly in western culture, stories are presented in a more complicated way than they once were. Frequent jumping between scenes and characters, and the juggling of time elements in plots presupposes a sophisticated audience with highly developed decoding skills. However, according to Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey, the fundamental structure of stories hasn't changed. Though sometimes more difficult to identify, there is still a three-fold structure in story, as well as the basic components of change and conflict. No matter then, how sophisticated our storytelling has become there remains a basic structure to storytelling that can be traced right back to the earliest stories - and by implication, to blueprints of humanity's common psychology.

Although the terms they use are different, many analysts of story refer to a three-part structure: beginning, middle and end; set-up, confrontation, resolution; and Tristan Todorov's, status quo, change, new status quo. Jung's theory of the process of individuation; ego, soul, self, mirrors in many ways the basic structure of narrative, as does anthropologist, Mercea Eliade's map of shamanic journeying; middle world, underworld, upper world.. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified three major stages within the structure of stories - Separation, Initiation and Return - 'separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return'. Campbell linked these stages closely to the world of spirit and ritual, while Vogler labelled them Preparation, Journey, Return, recognising the potential for these stages to include a broader and more contemporary range of stories.

According to Vogler, most narratives mirror the heroic journey, in that the protagonist is forced out or willingly leaves their ordinary world and must undergo a series of adventures in order to attain a new status. The second stage of the journey involves accepting change, stepping into the abyss with no idea what lies ahead. Risks are taken and if successful there is a reward of some kind. The third stage involves returning to the ordinary world understanding and integrating the reward and using it as is appropriate. A new status quo is reached and the hero has changed in some way. I'll look more closely at Vogler's and Campbell's story stages in a later post.

The plot of Flight, is a linear one, the time line covering the space of a few weeks. There is a clear three-fold structure within the novel. In the beginning Fern has trapped herself in the attic and in so doing, separated herself from the world. The middle is an initiation of sorts, with Fern forced to undergo a journey and to confront her demons. The end is a resolution or a return but it is not circular. Fern is a different person than she was at the beginning and she will never return to the physical or psychological space that she left in order to undertake her journey. Instead she returns to the potential of a life well lived.

However, the structure in Flight is not as simple as the linear unfolding of the outer plot would suggest. The story reaches back across lifetimes and there are layers of themes and patterns that motivate both the plot and the characters. Information is fed into the story in the form of flashbacks and musings that explain Fern's early life and provide motivation for her actions as well as triggers for her development. There are also visions and dreams which are triggered mainly from past life memories and provide a building undercurrent of tension, as well as providing flashes of insight to guide Fern in her journey to release herself from the past and learn how to live again.

There are few stories in which change does not occur. If a character ends in the same physical or psychological situation in which they began it is usually: an existential story which shows a protagonist tossed about by fate, endlessly repeating negative patterns and unable to take control of their destiny; or a comedy (often a satire) in which the protagonist is revealed as a buffoon or a trickster, living outside the rules of society and thus making them visible; or a tragedy, which occurs when a character refuses to accept their call to adventure, is not strong enough to survive the journey, or chooses not to return and share their rewards with others. According to Campbell, 'tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible'. These genres usefully reveal the dangers of becoming stuck caught consciously or unconsciously in negative patterns, just as a fly is caught in a spider's web.

Within the three part structure of story there is inevitably a theory of progress towards a goal, but this is not a closure or end itself, rather it is only one of an endless series of journeys in a perpetual evolutionary process. In the novel, Fern progresses towards a goal, or more accurately, towards a number of goals. Fern is seeking her father, seeking to hunt the hunter and survive. That is the external story, the plot. But she is also seeking to heal herself, to find her place and to live well. These are inner goals, relating to her own development. At the beginning she is unaware of her inner goals, knowing only that she is unwell and that things cannot continue as they have been. It is only through the outer journey that she is able to understand and achieve her inner goals.

At the end, Fern has finished an adventure but is about to start another, the adventure of childbirth and of living within a loving relationship. But eventually the wheel of fortune will turn once again and reluctantly or not, in the sequel to Flight, Fern will undertake another adventure. The universal theme of death and resurrection, of the natural ever-changing cycles of life, does not allow for stagnation. As Carol Pearson writes in Awakening The Heroes Within, 'as soon as we return from one journey and enter a new phase of our lives, we are immediately propelled into a new sort of journey; the pattern is not linear or circular but spiral'. The ability to accept and adapt to change is fundamental to all evolutionary processes, and thus this theme not only appears in the content of stories and myths throughout history and across cultures, but is written into their very structure. And this structure provides a map for each of us as we seek to understand who we truly are. As Vogler wrote, 'I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more: a set of principles for living. I came to believe that the Hero's Journey is nothing less than a handbook for life, a complete instruction manual in the art of being human.'

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:


  1. Enjoyed reading your perspective of the hero's journey model. I do use this as a guide when writing. Of course, there are times when deviation is appropriate, but overall, I think it's a great place to begin. ~ Peggy

  2. Thanks Peggy. I agree, it's not (or shouldn't be) a formula, but is certainly a useful guide.

  3. I liked this post so much I tweeted about it. Thank You!

  4. this is an outstanding perspective- I read through once, and I feel like reading through it again

  5. Thanks Rosie. This was a great post. I'll definitely come back to it.

  6. Thanks for sharing this interesting and educative information. I think many writers will find your contribution very helpful, I have equally learnt something from it.
    Accounts Software For Small Business