The monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, is a narrative template identified by Joseph Campbell, outlining a common pattern of adventure and transformation that heroes in mythology undergo, typically involving a call to adventure, trials, a climactic confrontation, and a return transformed.
Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a seminal work in mythology and comparative religion, first published in 1949.
In this book, Campbell explores the theory that myths around the world share a fundamental structure, which he calls the “monomyth.”
The monomyth, or the “hero’s journey,” is a narrative pattern that Campbell argues is universal across cultures and eras.
In other words, a story structure and the organizing backbone of a story’s plot determine what happens in the story and when.
The Three Stages of the Hero’s Journey Monomyth
The hero’s journey reflects a common template for storytelling that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, faces a crisis, wins a decisive victory, and then returns home, changed or transformed:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”– Joseph Campbell, in The Hero’s Journey.
Campbell’s hero’s journey consists of several stages (or acts), which can be summarized as follows:
Stage 1: The Departure Act.
- The Call to Adventure: The hero is invited to leave their ordinary world and embark on a quest.
- Refusal of the Call: Initially, the hero may hesitate to take on the challenge.
- Supernatural Aid: The hero receives assistance from a mentor or helper, often with magical properties.
- Crossing the First Threshold: The hero commits to the journey and enters the unknown realm.
- Belly of the Whale: The hero faces the first major challenge or obstacle, which often represents a point of no return.
Stage 2: The Initiation Act.
As the journey unfolds, the hero undergoes trials and tribulations that test and shape them. These include:
- The Road of Trials: The hero must undergo tests, tasks, or ordeals.
- Meeting with the Goddess: An encounter that represents the hero’s experience of unconditional love or acceptance.
- Woman as Temptress: The hero faces temptations that could lead them astray.
- Atonement with the Father: The hero must confront the ultimate power in their life, often a father figure or authority.
- Apotheosis: The hero reaches a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion, and bliss.
- The Ultimate Boon: The hero achieves the quest’s goal, which is often a significant achievement or realization.
Stage 3: The Return Act.
Finally, the hero returns to the ordinary world:
- Refusal of the Return: Having found bliss or enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return.
- The Magic Flight: The hero may need to escape with the boon, often pursued by dark forces.
- Rescue from Without: The hero may need outside help to return to the everyday world.
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold: The hero must retain the wisdom gained on the quest and integrate it into human life.
- Master of Two Worlds: The hero balances the material and spiritual worlds.
- Freedom to Live: The hero is freed from the fear of death, which radiates to the rest of his life.
Campbell’s work has significantly impacted the fields of literature and film, influencing countless writers and filmmakers.
Famous examples of the monomyth in movies
Perhaps the most famous example of the hero’s journey in modern storytelling is George Lucas’s “Star Wars” saga, which was directly inspired by Campbell’s monomyth.
Read more on Star Wars and the Hollywood story arc in this illustrated guide.
“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” continues to be a touchstone for those interested in the commonalities of human storytelling, the structure of myths, and the psychological underpinnings of narrative.
Other screenwriters have taken Joseph Campbell’s model and recreated it to be more palatable for writers who write in all genres, simplifying the structure to fewer beats in some variations or stepping it out even further into more beats in others.
You can apply any of the various story structure models we share in the “How to Write a Script That Works” article and still follow the Hollywood storytelling model outlined above.