That last post was getting really long, so I decided to break up my plotting lessons a bit to make them more digestible. Today, we continue the grand discussion on how to plot your novel with a discussion of the Hero Cycle, or, as I also like to call it, the way to plot a best seller. No, this isn’t some get-rich-quick formula, but an astounding number of stories follow this format, so much so that a scholar named Joseph Campbell identified and simplified it for us. It seems to rove around in our subconscious as a culture, which makes it particularly easy for our readers to identify with. If you find this lesson interesting, definitely look up more about Campbell, he’s written several amazing books about tropes and archetypes that fuel our subconscious.
Some of you may already by familiar with the cycle, though there are a few different version. If you think you remember something about it from school, go ahead and see which of the steps you remember on the chart below:
1? 2? Get all 12? Well color me impressed if you remembered any of it, I always have to go look up a few of them. Want to know what the ones you couldn’t remember are? Here you go:
See! You remembered more than you thought you did. Now, what do all these steps mean?
- Ordinary World – This is the everyday, the normal world, the status quo. Wherever the character was and whatever they were doing before the story begins.
- Call to Adventure – This is the inciting incident: death, attack, imminent threat, something is going to change the normal, if the character is willing to take it on.
- Refusal of the Call – Normally in these stories, the character, even if they’re excited for the opportunity, is sure there has been a huge mistake in asking them to take on the adventure. They’re not worthy, they’re not ready, or maybe they’re just feeling really lazy. But they start by saying no, before they say yes. If they just said no, this would be a very short story…
- Meeting the Mentor – There is always somebody who can give advice, whether it’s an aged wizard, a teacher, a friend, a computer simulation, there is usually a figure who knows a bit more about what is going on than the character and can guide them through the difficulties.
- Crossing the Threshold – Here’s where things get weird. Up until this point, the character has been safely in their old world, but things are now new. Sometimes that’s taking off in a spaceship, landing on a new planet, going through a mirror, or sometimes as simple as going through a doorway into a new classroom. It marks the transition from the known to the unknown. Frequently steps 4 and 5 are reversed, as in Harry Potter. He crosses into the wizarding world before he meets Albus Dumbledore, his main mentor in the series.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – Just like with rising action, the bulk of your story probably happens here. Making friends, making enemies, learning and testing new skills, and in general preparing for the ultimate confrontation.
- Approach – This is the ramp up to the climactic encounter. Sometimes a series of challenges, sometimes a long dark hallway, just something that gives the readers a hint that the big bad is coming.
- Ordeal, Death, & Rebirth – Here’s the money shot, what the rest of the story has been working up to. Big fight/confrontation/climax, whatever it is that your character has been going after, here’s where it happens. Sometimes they’re facing an enemy, sometimes they’re facing themselves, sometimes they’re facing the environment. But here is where their old self dies, and their new self takes its place. That can mean they literally have a near-death, or death experience and get brought back, but sometimes it means they have a revelation and chose to make themselves different/better/more evil. Think about Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He’s confronted with the horror of his own death and in that moment his old life dies and he is reborn a more giving man.
- Seize the Prize – Pretty self explanatory. Loot the room. This may be a magic sword, or self-confidence, or a new found purpose and strength, or even just the safety of a removed threat, but here’s the prize the characters have been working towards.
- The Road Back – Your characters have to leave the place of encounter, which can be as simple as walking over to a group of friends, a month long journey home, or the simple act of letting go of the rage and anger that led them to the confrontation. Not everything in this cycle has to be literal and physical. Mental and emotional journeys are just as important.
- Resurrection – Here’s where your characters get back to their friends and they were all, “We were sure you were dead!” Sometimes they literally think the character was eaten, and sometimes they just can’t believe the character didn’t get beat up by the bully they went to confront. Feels good to be loved.
- Return and Reward – Here’s the very end of the story. They’re home (whether a new home or their old home, either works), they’re out of combat, wounds on the mend, or, maybe, the character is drifting in heaven and looking back and wondering precisely when they forgot to duck, but they are done with this cycle and can reflect on the rewards reaped from the story, whether physical, mental, or moral. Of course, the nice thing about the cycle is that when you get to this point, and the character is basking in their new normal, they are primed and ready to go for another cycle. Feel free to drop in some foreshadowing!
These twelve steps make for a pretty tidy storyline, don’t you think? The important thing to remember about the cycle is that this is an approximate summary of hundreds of stories, so your story might not fit in exactly. It’s more like guidelines than law, if you know what I’m saying. Keeping that in mind, how do you think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone fits on this cycle? Here’s a blank worksheet to help, image below, pdf here.
Think you can identify most of the correlating steps? Excellent! Here’s what I came up with. Yours don’t have to match mine, but if you got stuck on a step, see what I thought about it:
See, stories don’t have to fit exactly to still be similar enough to the cycle for it to apply. The fun part is, all the Harry Potter books follow the cycle in at least a cursory manner, but the whole SERIES overall fits the cycle almost perfectly. Quite the adventure.
So are you ready to start expanding your cursory plot roller coaster? Your mission, if you chose to accept it, is to start trying to map out your story in relation to the hero cycle. You’ll find that all kinds of stories will fit, from realist literary fiction, through to the strangest science fiction, it’s not just for fantasy stories. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below!
Next, we talk about the importance of an outline! Until then, happy writing!