The Monomyth and “Hero’s Journey”

The Monomyth is a 17-step guide for creating a story, separated into three acts. It was first defined as such by Joseph Campbell, and later refined into the 12-step Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. However, this formula was not something created by Joseph Campbell or any other individual. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that Campbell discovered stories from across human history tended to follow the structure of what he defined as the “Monomyth.” Most epic tales which engender awe and wonder in humans across time and space have followed closely this timeless structure. From the stories of Osiris to Prometheus; to Jesus and Buddha, the Monomyth is an integral part of Humanity and the tales we tell to inspire one another.

The Monomyth described by an infographic.

The Monomyth or the simplified Hero’s Journey can be a useful tool for aspiring and accomplished writers alike. Whether you are wondering where to start, or are stuck on where to go next, the formula has guided writers for millennia. We will go over each of the steps to the Monomyth and explain what they all entail briefly. While we do, something important to remember is that the Monomyth is not a hard requirement for making a good story. In fact, sticking to such a method so strictly can make our stories homogenous and less interesting as a result. Instead, the Monomyth should be taken as a guide to thinking about good stories, something which motivates and inspires us to come up with unique plotlines and characters of our own.

The 17 Steps of the Monomyth
  • The Departure
    • The Call to Adventure
    • Refusal of the Call
    • Supernatural Aid
    • The Crossing of the First Threshold
    • Belly of the Whale
  • The Initiation
    • The Road of Trials
    • The Meeting with the Goddess
    • Woman as the Temptress
    • Atonement with the Father
    • Apotheosis
    • The Ultimate Boon
  • The Return
    • Refusal of the Return
    • The Magic Flight
    • Rescue from Without
    • The Crossing of the Return Threshold
    • Master of the Two Worlds
    • Freedom to Live

The Call to Adventure: the hero starts the story off in a normal and mundane place where something beckons them to start their journey.

Refusal of the Call: for one reason or another – be it fear, duty, or uncertainty – the hero initially refuses to heed the call to adventure.

Supernatural Aid: the hero receives some kind of aid which is outside the boundaries of what they would consider to be “normal,” whether it be a person to guide them; a weapon to use; or some kind of knowledge/power.

The Crossing of the First Threshold: the hero sets out on their adventure in earnest, leaving the mundane world of their beginning for a new and dangerous setting.

Belly of the Whale: the hero is separated forever from the world of their beginning, either because it has been destroyed or forever changed; they have undergone some metamorphosis or permanent change themselves; or because duty demands they keep pressing forward.

The Road of Trials: the hero undergoes a series of tests, some of which they fail; and which change them from the normal, mundane individual they were in their humble beginnings into the hero they are meant to be.

The Meeting with the Goddess: the hero experiences some kind of all-encompassing, unconditional power which is akin to that of a mother’s love.

Woman as the Temptress: the hero is tempted to abandon the journey for some material gain.

Atonement with the Father: the hero must confront the object of power which holds influence over their life, which is often represented by an estranged father who must be reconciled with.

Apotheosis: the hero conquers their fears and is reborn. This may be represented by a spiritual rebirth, or the hero may physically die and be reborn in a new form.

The Ultimate Boon: the hero accomplishes their goal or receives that which they embarked upon their journey to receive. This conveys great power, wisdom, or ability upon them which they can use to further shape the world.

Refusal of the Return: after having found enlightenment, the hero may hesitate to return the world where they came from in order to impart new wisdom onto others, desiring to isolate themselves or stay in the new world.

The Magic Flight: the hero must escape with the ultimate boon, pursued by danger and threats which seek to stop them from bringing enlightenment to the world from whence they came.

Rescue from Without: the hero receives assistance in returning to the everyday world to bring the boon to others.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold: the hero returns to the world of their everyday life with their boon and shares their new wisdom, knowledge, and enlightenment with others of their world.

Master of the Two Worlds: the hero achieves balance between the spiritual and material world.

Freedom to Live: the hero is free from regret and worry. They have learned how to “live in the moment,” without concerning themselves of the past or future.

Applying the Monomyth

As mentioned, one should caution against sticking too stringently to the Monomyth when crafting a narrative. Indeed, if you analyze any great epic which follows the Monomyth and possesses all of its elements, you will notice that much else happens in the story which exists outside the 17 prescribed steps. This is because all great epics are said to possess these elements, but they are not directly molded by them. For example, the original Star Wars trilogy and the story of Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi is often reviewed as an example of the Monomyth or Hero’s Journey. However, much happens in the story which is not part of the 17 steps, even though all of the 17 steps are included. The story shows what is happening with other characters and events when Luke Skywalker is not on screen, and there are many instances which flesh out Luke’s story which do not neatly fit into any of the specific steps of the Monomyth. This is because his story is its own, unique story.

Luke Skywalker
The original story of Luke Skywalker is often cited as a contemporary example of the Monomyth or “Hero’s Journey.”

And your story needs to be unique too. All our stories do, because all our stories are unique in real life. If every story followed a standardized formula, using the 17-step Monomyth as a “fill-in-the-blank” format for a 17-point plotline, every story would be exactly the same. There would be no variety in storytelling. No unique and compelling narratives which reinvent ideas and make us think of old concepts in new ways we never considered before. Part of what makes great stories so great is their uniqueness from stories which came before. As such, I would recommend keeping the Monomyth in mind when outlining a story, but not sticking to it strictly. Instead, one can review their story outline after it has a beginning, middle, and end. You can compare the finished outline to the Monomyth to ensure all the elements are present without limiting yourself by copying the Monomyth into an outline directly.

Have you ever heard of the Monomyth? What are your thoughts on the elements described in it? Also, how would you propose using the Monomyth as a tool to write great stories without falling into the trap of using it as a standardized method which could stifle creativity and uniqueness?

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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