“The hero's journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance (of consciousness) shows brightly. What I think is that a good life is one hero’s journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss.”
— Joseph Campbell
Why Do We Tell Stories?
Storytelling is one of humankind’s greatest tools. Since long before the beginning of our recorded history, humans have told each other stories in an effort to make sense of the world and their own places in it. Narratology, or the study of storytelling, posits that narrative structures are determined by human perception. How to tell your story starts with understanding the underlying patterns and feeling the rhythm.
Humans learn everything about the world around them through a process of pattern recognition, and the cyclical, rising, and falling rhythm of cause and effect that makes up our most common story structures appears to be hardwired into us. Stories that follow these common patterns are considered “more satisfying” because we can more readily understand them. They adhere to our perceptions of reality.
We can sense when the pattern is broken when a story “doesn’t add up.”
In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell first discussed his theory of comparative mythology that suggested a unifying structure that exists within the vast majority of myths from around the globe. This structure, what Campbell called “the monomyth,” is a pattern of archetypal scenarios common in mythology, the very stories humans once told to explain everything from why elephants have trunks to the “whys” of Creation itself.
The monomyth, according to Campbell, was the most basic storytelling structure present from humanity’s earliest attempts to explain themselves. This is the method of describing the perception of reality that our ancestors found the most satisfying.
The Steps of The Journey
The monomyth describes an archetypal hero’s journey into an unknown world, their descent into darkness, and their return as a changed person capable of changing the world. This work was later amended by Maureen Murdock, a student of Campbell’s, who developed “the heroine’s journey,” incorporating feminine archetypes. Their combined structure looks like this:
1 - Separation
- The Ordinary World - What is the situation? Who are the characters and what sort of world are they living in?
- Call to Adventure / The Disillusionment - The protagonist realizes that something needs to change. Often, change is forced upon them.
- Refusing of the Call / Bargaining Without Knowing – The response to massive change, naturally, is to resist, to cling to what is known.
- Meeting the Mentor / Identification with the Father - Having refused the call, the protagonist will receive advice, guidance, or maybe a firm shove into action from a trusted mentor.
- Crossing the First Threshold - The protagonist leaves the known world behind.
- Walking the Road of Trials - The protagonist’s will to change is challenged, but they are supported by new allies.
- Approaching the Innermost Cave / The Illusion of Success – The protagonist gets a clear view of the challenges ahead.
- Meeting the Shadow Self / Meeting the Goddess – The protagonist recognizes their own shortcomings.
- The Ordeal & The Reward – The protagonist faces those challenges, both internal and external and emerges victorious.
2b - Ascent
- Crossing the Second Threshold / The Gate of Judgment – Success comes with new challenges.
- Rescue – A turn of luck changes the status quo.
- The Dark Night of the Soul / Healing the rift with Mother – The protagonist sheds their self-doubt.
3 - Unification
- Crossing the Third Threshold – The protagonist experiences an epiphany.
- Catharsis / Re-integrating the masculine and feminine – They act upon that epiphany.
- Resurrection – The protagonist emerges renewed.
- Incorporation – The protagonist remakes the old status quo in their new image.
- The Fourth Threshold – A new adventure awaits for this renewed protagonist.
Both Campbell and Murdock have been studied by great storytellers - from George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick and the Wachowskis, to Richard Adams and J.K. Rowling, to Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan - all of whom recognized the value of this codified structure, which practically serves as a map of humanity’s most primal pattern of understanding. This structure is paramount in understanding how to tell your story.
Your Life’s Journey
When I first added guided explorations of the Hero’s Journey to my writers’ coaching programs, my intent was to help my clients who were writing autobiographical pieces to understand their story in its most archetypal form. In seeing their personal story through this archetypal remove, the writer can more easily identify story beats that are missing or out of place, often the root cause of a story’s failure to resonate and “ring true.”
Through my work with clients, helping them tell their personal stories in prose or screenplay form, I have seen the benefit of reflecting on one’s past with the aid of these formulated structures. Recognizing our own patterns of behavior, the cyclical nature of life, and the web of cause and effect within our relationships – that’s what any self-study or analysis should entail.
Looking at our own lives, or even specific events or periods in our lives, and utilizing story structure to help discover those patterns and cycles and webs, can lead to a better understanding of ourselves, understanding where we are on our life’s journey and where we intend to go from here.
How to Tell Your Story
Want to try an exercise? Let’s think about today. What is happening in your life right now? Many things, of course, but let’s focus on one event in your life that deserves your attention. Ask yourself and spend some time writing about the following questions:
- How did this incident change your status quo?
- What was your former status quo as opposed to now?
- What conditions were present then that allowed the incident to take place?
- What immediate impact will the incident cause in turn?
Now that you’ve defined those few links in a chain of cause and effect, take a moment to reflect on the steps of the monomyth. Where might this sequence of events fit in that pattern?
You are the hero of your own story. Where are you on your journey? Do you find yourself walking the road of trials? Are you experiencing a dark night of the soul?
Defining the events of your life with these seemingly arbitrary terms will allow you to recognize patterns that may have otherwise remained unobserved, rhythms that may have remained unfelt. This process can help you better grasp how to tell your story in a way that is authentic and impactful.
Discover Your Personal Mythology
No matter what your level of expertise as a writer, I believe that a deeper understanding of story structure leads to a deeper understanding of both story and self. The discovery of your personal mythology can also catalyze your process of self-development in surprising ways. You have a story to tell. I’m here to help.