The Hero’s Journey is a basic outline for story development. A writer who has a good understanding of this pattern can use it with great effect to enhance their story. Your story doesn’t have to hit every plot point in the Hero’s journey, but incorporating one or more of its elements can make your story resonate more powerfully with your audience.
In the basic pattern, the hero begins the story living in the every-day world, and has an experience of some sort that disrupts their life or alters the way they view the world. This experience puts the hero upon a threshold where they must choose to stay in their safe little world or venture forth into the unknown. This stage of the Hero's Journey is known as Departure.
Let’s look at an example: Star Wars episode 4. Everyone is familiar with the story. Luke is living on Tattooine with his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. One day the Jawas come to his farm and his Uncle buys two droids that happen to be part of the rebellion against the empire. One of them has a message for Obi-wan Kenobi, an old hermit that Luke happens to know. Luke pays Obi-wan a visit and soon finds himself facing a choice. He may remain on Tattooine for the rest of his life with his uncle and aunt, or he can leave his home and venture forth among the stars.
This story pattern pops up all over science fiction and fantasy. The Hunger Games, Avatar, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, etc., are all examples of the Hero’s Journey. Writers use this pattern because it works; however, after the American public has watched this sort of thing for the hundredth time, they all start to sound a little formulaic.
Your job as a writer is to keep it fresh.
Let’s go over some ways that you might not expect this pattern to appear. Suppose you’re writing a romance. Your main character has been dating the same kinds of men over and over, and one day (for whatever reason) she has to move or take a trip and meets a very different kind of man. Somehow he’s made her see a side of life that she’s never experienced before, but if she wants to enter into a relationship with him there’s some kind of risk. He’s the dangerous sort. Entering into this relationship represents a departure into the unknown. Naturally, she’s reluctant to do so. Meanwhile, events in her life are changing and this chance that she has right now will pass away forever. What is she going to do?
See the pattern? Let’s look at another.
The hero doesn’t always have to be given a choice. Mix it up. Suppose our country is at war, and a young man receives a notice from the government that he is being drafted. Suddenly his whole life, his dreams, his career is out the window. He shows up for boot camp, makes friends, learns to shoot a gun, and gets shipped off to Vietnam. The hero has to use his training to survive some horrible events, and by the end of the movie he’s proven himself a hero. This is the basic plot of Full Metal Jacket.
Maybe the hero is looking for temporary escape from his life. Suppose he’s in the middle of a mid-life crisis, when he and all his friends decide to get away from the big city for a few weeks and participate in a real-life cattle drive. They spend a little time training at a ranch where they learning to ride a horse and some basics of working with cattle. Then they leave on the cattle drive and pass through all kinds of challenges. Eventually they deliver the cattle to the ranch in Colorado and return to their normal lives. This is the movie, City Slickers.
All of these stories feature a departure into the unknown. The story has an event that compels the hero to leave their everyday life and venture into a new environment. There is always risk involved. The experiences in the new environment change the hero, and in many stories the hero returns home and lives happily ever after.
You can learn more about the Hero’s Journey by reading the book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. It is fairly academic in places, and gets a little dry and esoteric from time to time. If you’d like something a little more down to earth, you can read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler uses examples from modern-day stories to teach the same concepts. What is most significant in Vogler’s book is how there are many different ways you can apply this story pattern, making your story resonate more powerfully with your audience yet still keep things fresh.