The Hero’s Journey: A Primer For Freelance Writers To Tell Better Stories

From The Write Life:

When you know how to tell stories and how to hold attention, it can make you a better freelance writer.

The Hero’s Journey is a great storytelling framework that should be a part of your writing arsenal so you can master the art of writing for an audience. While you will not always use this framework, there are elements of it you can sprinkle into your writing to make it even stronger.

It is one thing just to write for clients and churn out good, high-quality content, but knowing what holds the attention of readers and inspires them to stay hooked on every word will keep your career alive for a long time.

In this article, we will be diving into what The Hero’s Journey is, the basics you need to know, how you can use it in your overall writing, and a brief primer on some other storytelling frameworks you can use if you want to break outside of this method.

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Why Does Storytelling Matter?

Storytelling is an essential part of human communication and connection. No matter how much SEO and other marketing tools out there continue to take presence, the heart of good writing will always revolve around stories we read and share.

Storytelling allows us to convey complex ideas, emotions, and experiences in a relatable and engaging manner, making information more accessible and memorable.

Through stories, we can empathize with characters, share wisdom, pass down traditions, and inspire change, fostering a sense of unity and understanding among individuals and communities.

Depending on the type of writing you do, you can also use it to create fascinating ads, compelling blog posts, and shareable social media posts.

There are few downsides to learning the basics of storytelling so you can bring it into your writing. It is often something you will have to practice on your own so you can improve your skills in this area. It can also help to read fascinating and famous stories that use various methods so you can understand how they work.

Why Should Freelance Writers Know How To Tell Stories?

It is no secret that making it as a freelance writer is not always a walk in the park. When you are a freelance writer, you are battling thousands of other writers out there for a chance to make it.

While there is an abundance of work to be passed around, there is still something to be said for having tools at your disposal to make you a better freelance writers than other writers out there.

One of those tools is being able to tell stories that captivate and holds readers attention. One of the great storytelling frameworks is The Hero’s Journey. While you might not be able to tell the whole journey in everything you write, the summary you mainly need to know is that everyone loves a hero’s victory story.

That could even translate to you telling the story of a local business in your area and the business owner’s challenges as they had to get their business growing.

The Hero’s Journey is simply a framework for you to use to be able to tell a captivating story, and it is one we have used all throughout history to tell important stories over and over.

What Is The Hero’s Journey?

The Hero’s Journey is a narrative framework and storytelling pattern that was popularized by Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology and comparative religion, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces which was originally published in 1949.

Campbell’s work explored common themes and structures in myths, legends, and religious stories from various cultures around the world.

What Are The Steps In The Hero’s Journey?

If you want the detailed version of this journey, you will want to read his book that is mentioned above. It is a much longer approach and analyzation of each of the steps along the path.

Here is the short summary of The Hero’s Journey path:

  • The Ordinary World: The hero begins in a familiar and ordinary environment, which may be mundane or even oppressive.
  • Call to Adventure: Something disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and presents a challenge or opportunity. This is the initial call to action that sets the hero on a new path.
  • Refusal of the Call: The hero may initially resist the call to adventure, often due to fear, doubt, or a sense of inadequacy.
  • Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor or guide who provides advice, training, or supernatural assistance to help them on their journey.
  • Crossing the Threshold: The hero decides to leave the ordinary world and enters a new, unknown, and often dangerous realm.
  • Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces a series of trials, meets allies and enemies, and undergoes personal growth and transformation.
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero approaches a central challenge, often a symbol of their ultimate goal or the villain they must confront.
  • Ordeal: The hero faces a major obstacle or battle, which is a critical and often life-threatening test.
  • Reward (Seizing the Sword): After overcoming the ordeal, the hero reaps a reward, which may be a physical object, knowledge, or personal growth.
  • The Road Back: The hero begins the journey back to the ordinary world, often facing new challenges or pursuing the final confrontation with the antagonist.
  • Resurrection: The hero faces a final, often life-or-death, ordeal that represents the climax of the story. This can involve a confrontation with the main antagonist.
  • Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world with the knowledge, experience, or object gained during the journey, which can bring transformation and positive change to their life or community.

Examples of The Hero’s Journey

We will not spend too much time diving into these stories and explaining what they are about, because that could be a whole article in and of itself. However, here are a few stories that embody The Hero’s Journey storytelling formula:

  • The Lord Of The Rings
  • Harry Potter
  • The Lion King
  • The Matrix
  • The Odyssey

Link to the rest at The Write Life

5 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey: A Primer For Freelance Writers To Tell Better Stories”

  1. Middlebrows love Joseph Campbell because having his books on their coffee table makes them feel smart.

    • I’m, umm, not that accepting of Campbell’s claptrap. He had a moderately-acceptable grasp of literary theory and analysis (as it existed in the 1930s when he began formulating his theory)… for a dilletante anthropologist; and he had a moderately-acceptable grasp of cross-cultural anthropological analysis (as it existed in the 1930s when he began formulating his theory)… for a dilletante literary scholar.

      Campbell’s work is based upon incomplete inclusion of translated summaries by Northwest Europeans (primarily 19th-century versions) that were themselves incomplete, and entered into during the heyday of the “grand theory” meme. It should surprise exactly no one that in this context, his analysis pretending to the same thing — and had the same flaws. For example, where it exists at all, Campbell’s discussion of the Shah-Nahmeh is laughably inept, culturally insensitive, and ignorant of the simultaneous theocratic, propagandistic, and literary nature of the work. (And in that, the Shah-Nahmeh is little different from any other “officialized” mythological/religious-doctrine text — which is a description, not an evaluation of “merit” or “justification” or “morality” any more than is a description of how official, state Roman mythology was altered from its Greek forbearers for disparate Reasons.)

      So I object to the premise of the OP. I’m no anthropologist, but I have much more than “dilletantish” familiarity with the literary theory and analysis of the twentieth century (including, but not limited to, the contrast between the 1930s and the 1950s) — so I know enough to know how much I don’t know. Would that Campbell had too.

  2. It’s easy to criticize someone who developed his worldview at a time when the world was much different than it is now.

    Campbell was the product of a much different world and much different understandings and values that predominate in the contemporary world. Whether Campbell’s world is better or worse than today’s world and whether Campbell’s observations are more or less insightful are questions about which reasonable minds can differ.

    In the world of 2123, a great many of today’s opinions, tastes and beliefs will seem shallow and incorrect.

    Joseph Campbell was born in 1904, a few months after the Wright Brothers had their first successful flight. He graduated from Columbia in 1925. During the Depression, he lived in a shack in Woodstock, New York.

    He obtained a position as a Professor at Sarah Lawrence during the latter part of the Depression and thereafter lived with his wife in a two-room apartment in Greenwich Village for almost 50 years.

    George Lucas stated, following the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, that its story was shaped, in part, by ideas described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of Campbell’s. Creators of The Matrix and the Indiana Jones series of movies also credited Cambell’s works as an important influence on the creation and structure of the worlds depicted in their motion pictures.

    Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down, acknowledges a debt to Campbell’s work and specifically to the concept of the monomyth. Adams used Campbell’s writings as the basis for several of the epigraphs he wrote to begin each chapter.

    Campbell and his writing were the subjects of several extensive PBS series created by Bill Moyers.

    • True enough, PG. The real problem with Campbell is that neither he nor his publicists listened to the contemporary, specific criticisms of his works — especially from either the literary-studies people or from non-US academics. Had all of these criticisms been made in the 1980s, that would have been one thing; they began within a couple years of publication of The Hero…, though. They were not, however, in places likely to be found by the nonacademic Cultural Establishment.

    • Correct. That said, I’ve never seen a criticism of it that actually explained where he went wrong; only asserting that he was, so I tend to hit the snooze button on being concerned about it.

      Is the Hero’s Journey a powerful and useful narrative structure? Yes. This is obvious, if one studies narrative structures. Is it the only structure? No. And this, too, is obvious, if one studies narrative structures. I agree with another writer that the big problem with the Hero’s Journey is that too many people tried to make it do too much. It’s not the only structure, but it suits a certain type of story. If your story involves someone trying to protect-and-save something or someone of value, then you’ll want this journey in your quiver.

      I like how Kim Hudson says it’s a journey about doing, whereas other journeys are about being. It’s a journey where you leave the safety of “the Shire” — a safe, nurturing environment — and test the bounds of mortality against nigh-immortal foes, without Mama’s bosom to fall back on. Other journeys are about life inside that village, when the village is less nurturing — Something is Rotten in Denmark. I mentioned Hudson in a previous comment (a long one, sorry).

      HwatF generates a lot of plot bunnies, if one thinks about what the book is actually saying, rather than just treating the steps as a checklist. For example: Refusing the Call for real*** can be an origin story for a villain, and Campbell cites King Minos-of-the-Minotaur as an example of this. Minos wants to keep the sacred bull he’s meant to sacrifice to Poseidon, because he thinks the bull will bring an economic advantage. The Minotaur is his punishment.

      Think also of those companies Felix points out sometimes, who want to enshrine their present advantages into law and prevent rivals from getting the better of them. The Refusal of the Call is specifically about such motivations, and actual refusal is supposed to result in stagnation, death, and tragedy. In fiction the Call might also be represented as a hero urging a villain to redeem himself, like Harry Potter does to Voldemort in “Deathly Hallows.” If the villain refuses …

      The Hero’s Journey is usually a coming of age journey, although, again, it can come into play anytime one anytime a character has to save others against a mortal threat. Joan Wilder (“Romancing the Stone”) and Frodo are both in their 30s when they begin their respective adventures.

      Anyway, I enjoyed the series at the link, because it generates plot bunnies for series / sagas. If you begin a series with a Hero’s Journey, what happens next? Other arcs are Queen and King, Crone and Mage (none of these arcs require you to be male or female). There are “resting” arcs in between those as well.

      Another resource for delving into archetypes is “King, Warrior, Magician, Lover” by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, who place the Hero as a juvenile archetype, and those others as mature masculine archetypes a male Hero might arc into. I like their insight that a given archetype is more of a triangle, with the main archetype at the apex, and two shadow sides at the other angles. So, Hero is at the top of the triangle. At one bottom corner is the passive Coward shadow-archetype. At the opposite bottom angle angle is the aggressive Bully shadow-archetype.

      Anyway, there’s so much to play with, in the realm of archetypes.

      *** An actual hero is not supposed to Refuse the Call, because that ends the adventure before it starts (duh). If you read Christopher Vogler’s take in “The Writer’s Journey,” he points out that at that particular beat you may want another character to at least list reasons why the hero should refuse, so that readers grasp what’s at stake. Like when Steve tells Wonder Woman why they can’t rescue the villagers on the other side of No Man’s Land:

      “Because no one can cross that land!”

      Alternatively, have an Aunt Beru & Uncle Owen become red shirts here. Same point.

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