The hero’s journey pops up in virtually every story ever told. So it’s important to get at least a basic familiarity with the major steps. I’ve compiled a list of blogs I’ve written on the topic.
The first thing established in the hero’s journey is the ordinary world. Sometimes called the slice of life, this sets up what the day to day life of the hero looks like before he or she receives their call to adventure. The call to adventure is the moment when everything changes. The known becomes unknown, and whether the hero accepts the call or not, this is the point where they enter the extraordinary world.
The hero then embarks on the road of trials, where their skills will manifest in surprising ways and they’ll slowly build confidence in their emerging abilities until they meet with utter failure at the moment they needed success most. Typically there’s a death here and we enter the darkest part of the journey, the belly of the whale.
This moment is what separates heroes from villains. See, a good bad guy had their own journey. But when they reached their low point, they didn’t find humility and a new determination to succeed. They missed the transformation into a hero. When all the skills, lessons, and red herrings along the way come together to matter in a big way. The journey ends with the road back, often fraught with its own perils to show just how much the hero has changed and how far they’ve come.
There are seventeen steps to the hero’s journey. I’ve only covered a handful, but there are tons of great resources out there for aspiring writers. Here’s a few of my favorites.
Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. This is THE source book about the hero’s journey. If you really want to learn all the intricacies of the journey, start here.
The Hero’s Journey in Game of Thrones: Jon Snow breaks down Snow’s journey. You can pretty much type in hero’s journey in insert any movie, book, show here and get the steps broken down. But this blog had some great visual resources as well.
The Writer’s Journey breaks down the steps and includes guidelines for writers to adapt the hero’s journey into novel form.
It’s important to note that the hero’s journey has other potential steps. There are seventeen identified stages in the hero’s journey, and some stories have every single one of them. Others only have the major touch stones. And most stories shuffle the order.
Disney and most YA novels have shortened and combined many of the stages. For example, the road of trials and the temptation are often merged and the belly of the whale is often moved around to serve the plot.
In most simplified hero’s journeys, Transformation occurs right on the heels of the Belly of the Whale. This is when the newly humbled hero embraces their flaws and transforms them into strengths. It’s the moment when Goku turns super-duper seyan. When Sailor Moon unlocks her latest, greatest power, when Joy embraces Sadness and returns to her quest with a renewed sense of vigor, when Hercules literally turns into a god. Simba returns to pride rock transformed into an adult lion that embraces his responsibilities.
My favorite example of this is in Wreck it Ralph when it circles right back to his affirmation. He went through the Belly of the Beast when he wrecked Vanelope’s car. He’s given his medal and finds it to be meaningless. It’s an impressive low point. He starts the road back when he realizes King Candy has deceived him, but he lacks what it would truly take to defeat the big bad until this heart breaking scene, when he comes to terms with who he is and fully accepts himself. Only then, once he’s transformed, can his character arc and the big bad be defeated.
This is without a doubt the most powerful moment in the hero cycle. Also called the dark night of the soul or “the sad part,” this is where the hero, previous victorious over the trials and at a peak in confidence gets slammed down into reality, most often by a combination of a show of strength from the big bad and a crippling character flaw that can no longer be ignored. They sink into the darkness, confront it, and emerge stronger. It is the moment a hero becomes a hero. See, the bad guys go through a hero cycle to, somewhere in their backstory. And their belly of the whale moment is one they never overcame. They sank and kept on sinking. Example: The ending of Episode 3 of Star Wars was Anakin’s belly of the whale. Had he confronted his flaws, embraced them as strengths, and emerged, humble, but stronger, it would have been an entirely different universe.
The most powerful example of this for heroes I’ve seen in a long time is in Inside Out when Joy ends up in the memory dump.
I’ve already talked about how amazing this scene was at length, so I’ll shut up about it now. But there are a lot of other great examples. In Lilo and Stitch it’s the “I’m Lost” moment, in The Croods it’s the Cave Scene, In Finding Nemo, the Belly of the Whale moment happens in a whale.
Actually, let’s talk about Pixar in general. Remember how I said the villain is a would be hero who failed their darkest night of the soul? Pixar often plays with this idea by making, not deeply empathetic villains, but delayed heroes. Marlin goes through a belly of the whale moment when he loses his wife and all the other eggs. Arguably the entire movie from the end of the opening montage on is him crawling out of the abyss and becoming stronger for it. Ditto for Carl in Up. They still get a full hero’s journey once they receive their second call to adventure, but what we witness in the first few minutes of those movies is where their first journey ended abruptly in a pit of despair, leaving them unfinished as characters. It’s a brilliant writing trick that Pixar executed flawlessly.