Mapping the Hero’s Journey

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

June 10, 2014

Tips for Writers“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
~ Joseph Campbell

It’s appropriate to begin a discussion on the hero’s journey by quoting the man we now equate with modern understanding of mythology. Joseph Campbell theorized: “all myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities (Joseph Campbell Foundation).”

As a writer, I’m a mythmaker. My private dreams are the stories I want to tell, but I believe that if I can map my story to public mythology, those stories will resonate with readers. I believe that the hero’s journey (coupled with quality writing) is the difference between a mediocre book and a best-seller.

At its most basic explanation, the hero’s journey is a pattern of public dreams that Campbell recognized in myths across multiple cultures. In “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” he writes:

“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.”

In 2011, I attended a retreat at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in LaCrosse, WI called, “Awakening the Soul of the Writer.” While the hero’s journey sounds perfect for fantasy or paranormal genres, what that retreat taught me is that we are all everyday heroes. The workshop leaders revealed at the end of our five day retreat that they intentionally led us on the hero’s journey. It was transformative.

The hero’s journey fits any genre, even memoir. But I struggled with matching up the cycle to my progressing novel, “Miracle of Ducks.” Every chart I could find was an arc, linear or a circle. This is the one I studied at the retreat (note that the graph is popular online and cited as public domain):

From Awakening the Soul of the Writer

While it helped me understand how to shape my story, it didn’t help me understand my story’s shape on the page–or 400 of them. Then, in 2012 I quit my career, downsized my possessions and moved in with my eldest daughter and her husband. I was going to finish that novel and live where it was set in Bayfield, WI. As it happened, another writer’s workshop was offered on Madeline Island, across the bay from where I was writing. That’s where I met Mary Carroll Moore and her storyboard.

While trying to make sense of the “W”  storyboard that Moore implements to develop a book, I realized that it was a navigable map to the hero’s journey. In fact, Moore teaches in her workshops and book, “Your Book Starts Here,” that the most successful books and films are those that use the ancient three act structure. Furthermore, the three act structure can be adapted to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

Bingo! This was the storyboard for me!

So, keeping that diagram in mind up above, let’s look at my storyboard in its bare-bones stage:

6-Anchors Located on the W

Moore says that you can use poster board or even tape together multiple (6) pages as I did on Madeline Island:

1-Creating the Story Board at MISA

The idea is to map your book according to three acts and the most significant scenes. We’ll discuss the three act arc more thoroughly in a few weeks. The most significant scenes correlate to the hero’s journey. They are represented on my permanent board as five circles or on my temporary board as blue sticky notes (there are two sticky notes to each circle which represents inner story and outer story which we’ll address with the three act arc).

Each circle, in order from left top, to bottom left, to middle, to right bottom to right top represents the hero’s journey:

  1. The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world. Therefore we need to see the ordinary world, there hero’s attachment to it and thus her refusal to accept the call. We also meet the character who will be the hero’s mentor or a supernatural aid.
  2. The test: here’s where you (as writer) develop conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies. It’s the beginning of the hero’s transformation.
  3. The cave: this is the crisis, the hero’s darkest hour where she falls into the abyss of her most extreme ordeal. It’s a place where it feels like the hero has met her end, but is reborn. Her own power or will to live is revealed and she crawls out of the cave.
  4. The transformation: having survived, the hero is changed and begins the journey home. There are rewards and resurrection as the story heads toward resolution.
  5. The return: the hero returns to her ordinary world, but is changed. We now see her with the gift or the elixir which is her knowledge of how she’s changed.

Do you better see the map on the W versus the circle? It gets even clearer as we then write scene by scene and place those scenes on the board. And that, will be for next week: Writing a Novel Scene by Scene. Here’s my significant scenes from “Miracle of Ducks”:

7-Key Scenes in Place

A closeup of the opening scene:

8-First Anchor is the Opening Scene

As a writer, you are on the hero’s journey. Let me leave you with this final thought from Campbell:

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss,
you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you,
and the life you ought to be living
is the one you are living.
When you can see that,
you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss,
and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open
where you didn’t know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss,
doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

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  1. lorilschafer

    Wonderful article, Charli. Really breaks down the hero’s journey into a manageable and thoroughly comprehensible format. I look forward to the rest of the series, and to learning more about your WIP.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Lori! It helped me to understand how to manage an entire book–or an entire journey. Once I got into revision, though I was stymied. I had an editor give my manuscript an assessment and her criticisms fit neatly into the storyboard so I could see where it was working and where I needed to fix the “W.” So I learned two things–one, an editorial assessment early in the process is a must and two, the storyboard works for revision, too.

  2. TanGental

    Thank you Charli. Always stimulating. If only my hero would stick to the script and not go off at a tangent.

    • Charli Mills

      Ha, ha! Hero’s tend to do that but hopefully next week I’ll show you why that’s okay and how you can whip your hero into compliance. 🙂 You have such clever tangents, I’m sure your hero will benefit.

  3. Lisa Reiter

    Ahh! Like a cold compress on a burning wound! Thank you. I think this hero’s journey works very well with my memoir and I am so looking forward to following these posts, Charli!
    I’m relieved to see my intuition with the first half of my manuscript is perhaps even ‘text book’ and follows 1-3 quite nicely with some sequencing an editor can help me with (my darkest hour went on a while and was perhaps at the start!) and I sort of knew 4 and 5 were what I should be attempting but have been floundering around without the clarity of labelling what I’m trying to do and so it’s ‘fluffy’ writing at the moment.
    I’m 6 chapters into “Your Book Starts Here” – It’s such a good read in every sense isn’t it!.
    I love the context here too with quotes from Joseph Campbell. I really believe what my Irish grandmother used to say “You get whet you give out” which parallels for me following your bliss and being true to yourself and others. As he says “you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you.” Glad to meet you hun, I’m sure you’re opening a door for me here – thank you.
    Lisa x

    • Charli Mills

      That’s how I felt, too after “Awakening the Soul of the Writer.” Then finding a storyboard that mapped the journey was exciting. Since then it’s been application and adaptation.

      It’s good that you’ve been listening to your intuition and can recognize the key scenes that mark the hero’s journey in your memoir. Having my editor point out places in my novel that weren’t working was so helpful for my own clarity. Then taking those criticisms and applying them to the storyboard made me feel confident that those points could easily be fixed. The board is like a frame, yet it’s very flexible, too which is why I said it’s good you wrote your woods as trees! The next step will be easy-peasy for you!

      You are burning through that book! It’s very helpful and like I said, I feel I learned more in five days from Mary Carroll Moore than I did in four years of college. But then again, I got to take cool Medieval lit classes in college!

      Keep following your bliss (the Irish must be on to something). So glad to meet you, too and discover a tribe of writers behind the open door! It’s certainly opened more for me!

  4. Teagan Kearney

    Really enjoyed the clarity of your explanation, Charli. Working out how to implement all the knowledge that’s out there about writing can sometimes be confusing when we try to apply it to our own work.
    Best advice I recieved from a tutor helped me understand that the external conflict was only half the story – protagonists (whether ourselves as in memoire, or fictional) must have an internal conflict as well.

    • Charli Mills

      Yes, I understand how confusing all the information can be to process, especially when you try applying it to your work. I haven’t discovered anything new, but I figured out how to make some techniques work. I feel like I’m now reverse engineering to figure what I did! And I totally agree with the external and internal conflict. I’ll be addressing that too, as inner/outer story and how to map both on the W.

    • Charli Mills

      And a big one in return! That really struck home; a gift indeed. Thank you!

  5. Annecdotist

    Great post, Charli, still waiting for my brain to tell me something more specific and profound. I do have some issues with these proposed universal structures, although I can see the sense in looking at our work through that frame. Will have to test it out on my WIPs. Looking forward to following this with you.

    • Charli Mills

      Maybe it will click with the actual scene writing and how the storyboard helps guide the structure without interfering with the initial writing (that should focus on writing). I’ll look forward to any future profundities. I would be interested in your thoughts on about proposed universal structures. It might help me in what I’m crafting next week because I don’t want the structure to overshadow the writing.


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