How to Outline Your Novel with the Hero’s Journey

In today’s post, I’m going to show you how to use the Hero’s Journey to map out your novel.

If you aren’t familiar with the Hero’s Journey, it’s a popular story structure template that subdivides the beginning, middle, and end of a story into 12 stages. Each of these stages has a specific purpose and serves a particular function within your over-arching, global story.

Wait, wait, wait—are you really going to tell me to use a formula to write my book!? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of creative writing? I hear this a lot—and my answer is always no. Knowing how to structure your story does not make your story formulaic.

Think of story structure as an easy to follow blueprint that will help you write a story that works. It helps you determine the order in which the events of your plot should happen and, maybe even more importantly, the timing of when they should happen. Combine this with a character who needs to change—and does change—and you’ve got a story worth telling.

 

The Hero’s Outer vs. Inner Journey

The Hero’s Journey is a model for both plot and character development–as the Hero traverses the world, they’ll undergo inner and outer transformation at each stage of the journey.

The outer journey follows the external plot line and includes all of the obstacles that the hero faces during her quest to reach her goal. It’s all about what your character wants; the tangible goal. Moving through the outer journey is all about overcoming obstacles that prevent them from getting this tangible thing.

The inner journey is all about the hero’s emotional development–his journey to get what he really needs. He learns and grows because of the obstacles he faces on the outer journey. While the hero undergoes all sorts of adventures and challenges on his outer journey, he also has to undergo some sort of inner turmoil as well. In other words, it’s the emotional path your character needs to navigate so they can grow and change.

For your story to be successful, your character must travel both simultaneously. This creates the conflict and tension that will move your story forward and keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at how to outline your novel with the Hero’s Journey. For my example, I’ll be using a plan of 80,000 words. Feel free to use whatever target word count you’re comfortable with as you work through each step.

 

Step 1: Divide Your Target Word Count into 3 Acts

The first thing we need to do is break down our total target word count into three sections—or acts. In general:

  • Act 1 “Departure” represents about 25% of the total word count
  • Act 2 “Descent” and Initiation” represents about 50% of the total word count
  • Act 3 “Return” represents about 25% of the word count

So, that means we can break down our 80,000-target word count like this:

  • Act 1 “Departure” (80,000 x .25) = about 20,000 words
  • Act 2 “Descent” and “Initiation” (80,000 x .50) = about 40,000 words
  • Act 3 “Return” (80,000 x .25) = about 20,000 words

 

Step 2: Divide Each Act into a Target Number of Scenes

Now that you know approximately how many words will make up each act, you can divide each section into a target number of scenes.

If you don’t know how many words per scene you write on average, use a target word count of 1,500 words per scene. I always recommend writing scenes between 1,000 and 2,000 words with the sweet spot being around 1,500 words. A 1,500-word scene is long enough to convey what’s happening and short enough to hold your reader’s attention and make them want to continue reading.

So, here’s how we can break down each act into a target number of scenes:

  • Act 1 “Departure” (20,000 words / 1,500-word scenes) = about 14 scenes
  • Act 2 “Descent” and Initiation” (40,000 words / 1,500-word scenes) = about 28 scenes
  • Act 3 “Return” (20,000 words / 1,500-word scenes) = about 14 scenes

Based on the math, our target scene count is 56 scenes. You’ll probably notice I rounded up the number of scenes for each act—that’s totally okay! I’m showing you how to make a plan for your novel—it’s not something you have to follow to a tee.

 

Step 3: Figure Out Where Each Stage of the Hero’s Journey Goes

Now that you know how many scenes go in each act, you can start to figure out where each of the 12 stages of the hero’s journey will go. (Note: The below percentages represent the approximate location of each of the 12 stages.)

  1. The Ordinary World – 0% to 12%
  2. The Call to Adventure – 12%
  3. The Refusal of the Call – 12% to 25%
  4. Meeting with the Mentor – 12% to 25%
  5. Crossing the First Threshold – 25%
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies – 25% to 50%
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave – 50%
  8. The Ordeal – 50% to 75%
  9. The Reward – 75% to 80%
  10. The Road Back – 80% to 90%
  11. The Resurrection – 90% to 99%
  12. Return with the Elixir – 99% to 100%

For those of you who are “math-challenged,” (don’t worry—I am, too!) you can either take your total word count or your total number of scenes and multiply it by the percentage listed above.

So, for example, the Call to Adventure occurs around the 12% mark of a story, so you’d take the total number of scenes and multiply that by .12 (56 scenes x .12 = the Call to Adventure occurs around the 7th scene). You can also do this with your total word count (80,000 words x .12 = the Call to Adventure occurs around 10,000 words). Personally, I prefer using the number of scenes, but you can do whatever you want.

Now, let’s take a look at what our 56 scenes look like in each act, broken out by each of the 12 stages on the hero’s journey:

Each white box represents a single scene. You’ll notice some stages only require one or two scenes while others require more than a few. This is something that really confused me at first, but once I broke it out visually, it made a lot more sense. You can download a copy of this Hero’s Journey scene map here. As mentioned, this scene map should only be used as a guideline and can be adjusted based on the needs of your story. 

One thing I want to explain is the general placement of The Ordeal stage. A lot of resources out there say that The Ordeal should occur around the Midpoint of the story. In Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Way: Mythic Structure for Writers, he says that the placement of The Ordeal depends on the needs of the story and the tastes of the storyteller. Basically, there are two options:

Option #1. The Ordeal occurs near the Midpoint. In that case, you’ll still need a turning point at the end of Act 2 (where the Second Plot Point typically occurs at the 75% mark).

Option #2. The Ordeal occurs near the end of Act 2 (at the 75% mark where the Second Plot Point typically occurs). In that case, you’ll still need some kind of trigger point in the middle of the story to push your protagonist from a reactive state to a proactive state.

Regardless of where it’s placed, every story needs to have a moment that conveys The Ordeal’s sense of death and rebirth–whether it’s in the middle of the story or near the end of Act 2.

 

Step 4: What Happens in Each Stage?

So, now that you have the approximate location of the stages figured out, you can start brainstorming what each stage will look like in your story. As you read through the description of each stage below, write down any ideas you have on the downloadable worksheet or in your notebook.

Act 1 / Departure

The hero leaves the ordinary world to pursue some kind of adventure.

1. The Ordinary World – The reader meets the hero in his or her every day, relatively safe, life. The hero is usually introduced sympathetically so that the audience can identify with his or her current situation, worldview, and problem. This section usually includes some kind of Hook–or something to pique the reader’s interest and get them to read past the first few pages.

2. The Call to Adventure – Something happens that upsets the balance of the hero’s life and presents a challenge or call to adventure. This is the Inciting Incident of the story, and it can either be causal (a result of an active choice made by your character) or coincidental (something unexpected, random, or accidental happens).

3. The Refusal of the Call – Sometimes the hero experiences hesitation in answering the call to adventure or he or she outright refuses. In this case, some other influence–a change in circumstances, a further offense against the natural order of things, or some encouragement from a mentor–is needed to get the hero past their initial reluctance and fear.

4. Meeting with the Mentor – When the hero needs a kick in the pants to get going on his or her adventure, the Mentor comes in to help. The Mentor’s job is to prepare the hero for the unknown. Sometimes this includes training the hero, giving him or her equipment, knowledge, or advice that will help him or her on the journey. The Mentor sometimes accompanies the hero on part of the journey, but can only go so far before the hero must venture out alone.

5. Crossing the First Threshold – At this point, the hero should be fully committed to the adventure ahead. He or she will leave the ordinary world and enter into the extraordinary world full of unfamiliar rules and values. Also called the First Plot Point, this moment marks the end of the beginning (Act 1) and brings us into the middle (Act 2) of the story.

 

Act 2 / Descent and Initiation

The hero ventures into an unfamiliar world where he or she makes friends and enemies and encounters various trials and challenges.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies – Once the hero enters the extraordinary world, he or she will make friends and enemies, encounter various trials and challenges, and begin to learn the rules of this new and unfamiliar place. This is a key time for character development because we get to see how the hero and his or her companions react under the stresses of being in a new and different place. This series of tests and complications are what form the bulk of Act 2, culminating in the midpoint, where the protagonist learns or finds out something important, pushing them from a reactive state to a proactive state.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave – The hero approaches the most dangerous place in the extraordinary world where something he or she wants is hidden (the object of the quest). The approach phase covers all the preparations for entering this fearful place including gathering his or her team, their supplies, weapons, and tools, etc.

8. The Ordeal – Once the hero enters this dangerous place, he or she will face challenge after challenge until finally, they come into a confrontation with the antagonist or their greatest fear. The hero must draw upon all of his or her skills and experiences gathered during the “approach” phase in order to overcome the most difficult challenge yet. Only through some form of death and rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) can the hero transform into a new version of themselves who is capable of defeating the antagonist. Usually, this death and rebirth grants the hero a greater power or the insight necessary to fulfill his or her destiny or to reach the end of the journey. The Ordeal can occur around the Midpoint of the story or closer to the end of Act 2 depending on the needs of the story and the tastes of the storyteller.

9. Reward – If the hero successfully overcomes his or her Ordeal, he or she can finally take possession of the Reward. The Reward can come in many forms–it can be an object of great importance or power, a secret, greater knowledge or insight, or even reconciliation with a loved one or an ally. Whatever the Reward is, it propels the hero to the climactic moment and gives him or her the key to surviving it.

 

Act 3 / Return

The hero returns to the ordinary world a changed man or woman.

10. The Road Back – The hero is driven to complete the adventure by either returning to the ordinary world or continuing to another destination. The road back signifies the shift into Act 3 where the hero must deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces in The Ordeal. Often this stage includes a chase scene to reinforce the danger and urgency of the mission.

11. Resurrection – At the Climax of the story, the hero must have his final and most dangerous encounter with death. This final battle with the antagonist has higher stakes and is more difficult than anything he or she has faced before. The purpose of this final test is to see if the hero has really learned the lessons of the journey and if they have transformed into a new person with new insights and capabilities.

12. Return with the Elixir – The hero returns home a changed man or woman. They will have grown as a person, learned many things, made new friends and enemies, faced many terrible dangers, and even death, but now look forward to a new phase in life. Their return may bring fresh hope to those left behind, a direct solution to the town’s problems, or perhaps a new perspective for everyone to consider.

 

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it—my method for outlining a story using the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey! 

If this structure resonates with you, I recommend purchasing the book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell—both of which go into way more detail than I can do here. 

And if this doesn’t resonate with you—that’s okay too! There’s no “right” way to plot out a novel. Check out these other popular plotting methods to find one that works for you:

For self-study, I encourage you to map out the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey in one of your favorite books or movies. Or for a book or movie that’s most like the story you want to write. Doing this will help you see the stages of the Hero’s Journey in action, giving you a better understanding of how you can use this structure in your own stories!

👉 Let's discuss in the comments: What are your thoughts on the Hero’s Journey? Have you ever used the Hero’s Journey to plot out your novel? Did this article help you gain a better understanding of story structure? 

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