The Hero's Journey
The author Joseph Campbell studied myths in many cultures and described common elements of the stories in his 1949 book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The title refers to a similar protagonist who recurred in story after story, following the same path to success, The Hero's Journey. We might say that it was the author of the story who followed a path to success, because thousands of stories, from crime novels to courtroom dramas to romances to adverture tales, follow the same formula.
George Lucas announced that he based Star Wars on the Hero's Journey. If you know the steps, you can spot The Hero's Journey in Disney films like The Lion King, in classics like The Wizard of
Oz, in Shrek, The Hobbit, The Verdict (courtroom drama starring Paul Newman), and countless other wonderful stories.
Stages of the Hero's Journey
There are twelve steps to the hero’s journey, although you can find condensed versions. Sometimes the list of steps appears to apply only to fantasies (because Campbell's original wording mentioned swords and elixirs.) I'll illustrate their universality by citing where each step appears in a modern courtroom drama move, Fractured, with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling.
1. Ordinary World: We see the hero before the journey starts. Luke Skywalker is living on a desolate planet with his aunt and uncle. Ryan Gosling is an assistant DA who wants out of the low-paid, public servant life and into the big leagues of glamorous defense attorneys.
2. Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with something that makes him begin his adventure. This might be a problem or a challenge he needs to overcome. Luke meets R2D2 who plays a distress call from a princess. Gosling meets Hopkins, who is being arraigned for attempted murder of his wife.
3. Refusal of the Call: The hero attempts to refuse the adventure because he is afraid. Luke doesn't want to leave his uncle and become a Jedi knight. Gosling doesn't want any more cases. He's leaving.
4. Meeting with the Mentor: The hero encounters someone who can give him advice and ready him for the journey ahead. Luke meets Obi-Wan. Gosling talks with his boss and is goaded into taking one last case.
5. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero leaves his ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure. Luke discovers that his aunt and uncle have been killed by the bad guys, and joins Obi-Wan. Gosling is bested by Hopkins in a preliminary trial of wits, sees that the case has weak points, but wants to win.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The hero learns the rules of his new world. During this time, he endures tests of strength of will, meets friends, and comes face to face with foes. Luke teams up with Han Solo and adventures begin. Gosling teams up with the cops and tries to build a case against Hopkins.
7. Approach: Setbacks occur, sometimes causing the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas. Luke is saved in the cantina by Obi-Wan's magic; race through asteroids. Gosling loses his chance at the new firm, loses new romantic interest, Hopkins beats the charge because of a major, shocking revelation.
8. Ordeal: The hero experiences a major hurdle or obstacle, such as a life or death crisis. Luke almost dies in the compactor. Gosling can't stop Hopkins from pulling the plug on his comatose wife.
9. Reward: After surviving death, the hero earns his reward or accomplishes his goal. Luke survives, and the team escapes. Gosling discovers key evidence.
10. The Road Back: The hero begins his journey back to his ordinary life. Luke joins the rebel force and prepares to attack the Death Star. Gosling figures out how to nail Hopkins.
11. Resurrection: The hero faces a final test where everything is at stake and he must use everything he has learned. Luke is flying along the Death Star corridor, the good guys' last chance to win. Gosling confronts Hopkins in Hopkins' house.
12. Return with Elixir: The hero brings his knowledge or the "elixir" back to the ordinary world, where he applies it to help all who remain there. Princess Leah is safe. The team members are saluted. Luke has learned to trust the force. Gosling learns that the greater good lies in staying as a prosecutor.
See if the Hero's Journey will work for your plot. (There is no stigma attached to following a "formula".) If you follow it, calling on your creativity to make your work original, you will be well on your way to having a plot that will engage your readers.