Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 2


Last week was the overview.  This week we start attacking the various parts.  A small note on the approach I’ll be taking — this is a blog, not a 500 page non-fiction book.  My purpose with this series of posts is to give you a basic understanding of the monomyth.  If this stuff interests you, I highly recommend reading some of the books out there on the subject.  There you’ll find entire chapters devoted to each step, each archetype, and a whole lot more.  However, while this is just a basic primer, feel free to ask questions about some of the deeper aspects of these steps and I’ll do my best to answer.

Okay.  Let’s jump in.  These first three are fairly straightforward.

1. Ordinary World

This is the world as the Hero knows it.  This is often (but not always) the calm before the storm.  This is the part of the book (most often the beginning) where we establish the foundation of a story.  Why start with the ordinary world?  Many, many reasons.  Many, many of them have been discussed in other posts.  But a biggie, as far as the monomyth is concerned, is that it gives the Hero, and thus the reader, something to contrast with.

Oz is a magical place.  If the Wizard of Oz began with Dorothy waking up in Oz, the story could have worked just fine.  After all, the Ordinary World she came from is our own.  No need to explain it.  However, by giving the reader a taste of the Ordinary World, Oz seems that much stranger and more magical.  Also, it puts in the reader’s mind the specific world Dorothy came from (a farm life as opposed to being, for example, Donald Trump’s daughter), so when she longs to go home, the reader has a picture of exactly what she longs for.

The stranger the Ordinary World, the more important it is to establish.  LOTR begins with a lengthy section leading up to and including Bilbo’s birthday party.  All of this creates the world of the Shire and the world of Middle Earth, so that the reader knows what is at stake for Frodo, and what he has given up, by taking on his quest.

This is not to say that setting up the Ordinary World has to be a calm, peaceful description of wonders and beauty.  The book I’m currently shopping around (titled, at the moment, The Way of the Black Beast) takes place in a post-apocalyptic world brought on by an abuse of magic.  It opens with the Hero confronting an assassin.  It’s a tense, violent scene that takes place in a dangerous, destroyed world.  BUT that’s the Ordinary World she lives in.  That’s the world that needs to be established.

2. Call to Adventure

This is, quite simply, the catalyst for the story.  Dorothy is swept away by a tornado.  Frodo is given a ring.  A mysterious letter arrives for Sherlock Holmes.  The Vamp Council has called in Jane Yellowrock to offer her a job.  The Diamond Empire has declared all theaters “houses of rebellion,” and thus actor Will Hawthorne is suddenly a rebel.

Without this step, your Hero will just wander aimlessly from place to place, living out her life with its ups and downs and some cool stuff might happen or perhaps not.  The Call focuses the story.  It says to the reader, this is what the story is going to be about.  There may be other things that happen, but in the end, this is the direction we are going in.

3. Refusal of the Call

Can you guess what happens here?  That’s right.  The Hero turns down the quest.  After receiving a secret message from Princess Lea, Obi-Wan tells Luke Skywalker that his father was a Jedi, the rebellion needs him, and let’s go off on a great adventure.  And good ol’ Luke says . . . No way!  I’d love to help but I’ve got a moisture farm to run.  In fact, oftentimes, a Hero needs to be forced into answering the Call.  In Star Wars, Luke’s Aunt and Uncle are killed, freeing him from familial duties and enflaming his hatred for the Empire, so that he’ll go with Obi-Wan.  Dorothy is forced to accept her Call because if she doesn’t, she won’t get home — she’s stuck in Oz.  That’s not to say there isn’t a choice made.  It’s just that events work in such a way as to yank out the heroic qualities of our hero when the hero would rather just sleep in on a Saturday.

As I’ve said before, not every step is going to appear in every tale.  And though I’m numbering these steps, they won’t always appear in this order.  Oftentimes, for example, the Ordinary World isn’t shown until step 2.  Think of Star Wars.  It opens (after the prologue crawl) with the Empire attacking Princess Lea’s ship.  We even meet the villain, Darth Vader, before any of our heroes.  But this type of opening gives us something to latch onto while we plunge into the calmer, lengthy Ordinary World section that follows.  If we get tired of whiny Luke (and, man, does he whine a lot), Uncle Owen, and droids wandering the desert, in the back of our minds, we know that Vader is out there and laser blasting excitement is just around the corner.

Anyway, now that we’ve established the world, introduced the conflict, and forced the Hero to get moving, next time we’ll explore the first steps of adventure.


28 comments to Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 2

  • Great stuff, Stuart. You mentioned that here are some books that explore this in greater depth; can you give us a few titles?

  • Ed — Well, the two biggies are Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. There are others but I’ve not read them. These are the two I can recommend for certain. Perhaps some of readers might be able to throw out a few titles.

  • Monique

    I work at a small university and as an employee benefit we can take one free class a semester. The class I’m taking this semester is called Ancient & Contemporary Myth. A major focus of the class will involve using the monomyth structure to analyze modern stories (mostly movies) in comparison to very old, traditional myths. Next week we’re watching Star Trek: First Contact and reading Beowulf; one of the possible writing assignments is to compare the Goddess-Temptress figures in each. The syllabus reading/watching list for the semester really has me fired up.

  • Monique — That’s awesome! Vogler’s book grew out of a seven-page memo he wrote for studios to give to their screenwriters (Vogler is often called in as a script doctor). As a result of that memo, Hollywood went nuts for the Hero’s Journey and consciously started using it everywhere they could. The results, as you would expect, run the full range from brilliant to horrid, but it does make studying the structure in film rather easy, since it’s everywhere (apparently in Star Trek: First Contact, too).

    I find it more exciting, though, to discover the monomyth in places it wasn’t consciously done. I think it speaks more to our collective experience that we use this structure and these archetypes over and over, that these specific things must mean a lot to us as human beings. Whoa. Got a little carried away there. Maybe I’ll save those thoughts for the concluding part of this series.

  • Stuart,
    Great post. I bought HWTF a long time ago, but have been avoiding it because I didn’t want to write a story based on the monomyth. Guess what, my first novel hits nearly every stage. I suppose I might read it now anyway, since its discussed often and referred to even more.

    i think some aspect of the ordinary world needs to come into play, even if not at the start of the story. In my new book, you get a glimpse of the ordinary world just before everything changes. I jump back to it a few chapters in to establish what my MC wants to return to. His story is similar to Dorothy’s in that sense and without seeing what he wants to return to, the reader would lose that depth.

    The refusal of the call comes naturally from a need for conflict. If the character wants peace and quiet and the ordinary world, they’re not going to want to accept the call to adventure. I wonder how this applies in a dystopian world, when the characcter wants things to change. Does the ordinary world try to hold them back from acting?

    Do you mind if I explain how this stuff relates to the three act theory or James Scott Bells doorways of no return?


  • Thanks for talking about the Monomyth! It is something that writers need to be aware of and understand since it is soooo important in all aspects of creative writing.

  • Stuart> Great post! I have to admit, though, I’m pretty tired of the “hero refuses” thing. Especially when it doesn’t make sense to me as a reader. Harry Potter, for example, didn’t refuse (though someone tried to do so for him, which I suppose counts, but gave a different kind of tension.) The “I’ve got a chance to go to some fantastic world, but I think I’ll stay here and do my homework” just makes me crazy. I think it is easier to have a weaker refusal in kid’s literature–kids don’t have, say, a family that depends on them for survival, most of the time. Beowulf, for example does NOT have a moment of hesitation. In fact, he wants to go and kill Grendel. I’m not arguing that this part doesn’t exist, or that it shouldn’t. I guess I’m just saying I get annoyed when it is done badly. 🙂 Of course, I use it, as one of my characters spends a whole lot of time in the book trying not to do what she’s called to do. That’s the main internal conflict–the BBUs are the main external conflict.

    I’ve also known some academics who took serious issue with Cambpell. I think they argued that his claims of “universality” were a bit stretched. That is, not all stories in all cultures followed that path, and he was pretty western-centric. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t incredibly useful for studying and writing western stories, though.

  • NGD — Knowledge of ones craft does not stifle ones art. It merely offers more tools to use in an artwork’s creation. So, learn this stuff. Even if you reject it, at least you’ll have an awareness of the concept and know what it is you are rejecting. As for how this all relates to a 3-act structure — I plan to talk about that at the end of this series, since we need to understand the various stages first. If you can’t wait, go right ahead and talk about it.

    Mark — Ditto.

    pea — Yup. As I wrote before (and will, no doubt, write again), understanding the monomyth structure is most helpful AFTER you’ve written you’re tale. If you try to force parts of the monomyth into your story, it comes out forced. So, yes, you’re right. The Refusal of the Call is often done wrong because the character created would never refuse. As much as I pick on Luke Skywalker for being whiny, it’s that aspect of him that makes his refusal somewhat believable. Conan the Barbarian, however, rarely refuses anything — action, adventure, beer, women, beer, more women, etc. It’s all in understanding the character.

  • I love Conan the Barbarian. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Do you happen to have any tips for applying this stuff to a story with more than one protagonist? (I have three.) Is it something that should be applied to each character separately to define their own arcs in the story? The ordinary world is not quite the same for each character, of course. The call-to-action may or may not be the same thing or event for each. But one doesn’t want a story that starts too slowly, or is over-laden with flash-backs. I can see why you recommend this as a tool for looking back over a story to see where there are gaps or something needs something. I know my current draft definitely has these gaps, but figuring out how to address them is challenging.

  • Lance Barron

    Very useful, Stuart. Doesn’t the hero have to be a free agent; or, at least, become a free agent like Luke does after his aunt and uncle are killed? If the hero is in service to someone or to some organization and gets the call through the chain of command, is it the same thing? Thanks.

  • Hepseba — As you wrote, this a tool for looking back. But like all tools, it won’t fix everything. You can’t use a hammer to saw wood. You obviously feel there are gaps in your story, and if the monomyth helps you identify them, then great. If it helps you solve them, even better! But if it’s not helping, then ditch it. Specifically toward your 3-protag problem — I think you are correct that you don’t want the tale to become flashback central. My initial question is: Do you really have 3 protagonists, or do you have just one who has two very close sidekicks? Though Ron and Hermione are very close to being protagonists, really only Harry Potter is the star of the book. So, while you have three vital characters, who is the keystone that holds them all together? If, in the end of your exploration, you decide that you really have three protagonists, then it’s a matter of priorities and economies. Priorities: Whose full story is the most important to this particular tale? Holmes and Watson are both protagonists, but Watson yields most of the stories to Holmes (but not 100%. We do learn plenty about Watson’s life, too). Economies: How can you make the most of a single flashback? The Hardy Boys are both the protagonists, but since they are brothers, many events can happen to both of them at the same time (including flashbacks).

    Lance — The Hero takes many, many forms. There are those that are Hero through and through and there are the reluctant heroes. There are the loners and those in a group. There’s even the anti-hero. So, no, the hero doesn’t have to be a free agent. If the writer can pull off a tale of hero just following orders, then great. Actually, the film Saving Private Ryan comes to mind. Tom Hanks’ character doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t care about Ryan, and has no interest in being a hero. But orders are orders and he’s in the military. Is it the same thing? Yes. Because even though the call is coming via orders from a chain of command, how the hero deals with it (in Hanks’ case with grim determination) makes him the hero.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well, my three protagonists interact almost not at all, following three separate story threads. But I think you’re right in that the main fix will be in finding the balance between who’s more center stage for this story or for different sections of the story. Sometimes I’m afraid to talk about my story, because I’m afraid outside consensus will be that I’ve just set it up all wrong and it can’t be good, but I’ve got my reasons and I want to keep trying at it. Thanks for your comments.

  • Spot on, Stuart. I think this slightly abbreviated approach is in some ways better than the book length treatments which labor the idea and make you invest in its details so that it starts to feel like a science which you deviate from at your peril. This is much better. Cheers.

  • This is great stuff, Stuart. I have a question, having just completed our short story adventure — how does the monomyth translate to short fiction? Does it take on the same form only briefer? Is it modified somehow? Does it not pertain at all?

  • Hepseba — There’s nothing wrong with keeping the story to yourself until it’s done. I almost never talk about what I’m writing until I finish the rough draft because somehow when I say the unfinished idea out loud, it just sounds stupid. But when it’s finished, well then I see it as a whole completed thing and I understand it better. Unfortunately for you and I, if you want a multi-book deal, you’re going to have to supply the publisher with a synopsis before you write the story.

    AJ — Thanks. I, um, have nothing else to say here. Just thanks!

    David — I’ve never really thought about it in short story terms. I don’t think it really applies — at least in terms of the mythic story structure. I can see how the various character archetypes might play a hand. Hmmm…I’ll have to think about this one. Anybody else have two cents to help out?

  • David> My thought on this (for the penny or two they’re worth) is that in a short story, I’d guess that the monomyth structure is there in the character, but not in the story. That is, you’re writing about a priate, maybe years ago he didn’t want to be a pirate, but he became one, and was the horror of the high seas. Now, the story you’re writing is retirement, so we don’t see all of that, but we might know it, or at least have a glimpse of it, as we get to the element of the monomyth that occurs in the short story (if the story uses that structure). This is just one idea about how it might go, of course. I’m sure there are others, and I’m sure lots of short stories don’t use it at all.

  • Late to the party again. Thanks for this Stuart.

    With the exception of the Roge Mage first novel, my heros are seldom reluctant. That series seems to follow the monomyth very closely, though I never studied the structure. I need to read up on the monomyth, though more to see how I can avoid using it in full, than to use it more closely.

  • PS — Put those books in the recommended reading section, why doncha!

  • Faith — Yeah, I don’t care for the reluctant hero much. It doesn’t suit our genre very well. Not that it can’t be used, but Fantasy seems to call for heroes of action.

  • Thomas Covenant – the ultimate reluctant, and incredibly annoying, hero.

  • Sarah

    Oooh. I just love these discussions. I generally agree that the refusal of call can be really, really annoying. But for the sake of argument I’ll suggest that it can be narratively and emotionally satisfying if the refusal is based on the hero accepting another, equally compelling call – basically saying “that’s not my job. I have a different duty.” If the alternate call is compelling enough rather than being boring/whining/irresponsible it adds tension. “Save the world? No thanks, I have bridge on Friday,” makes the hero a jerk and a boring one at that. But if the hero is saying, for instance “I can’t save you from drowning because I have to pull my child out of a burning building first,” then the refusal ups the tension and complexifies the conflict rather than simply delaying the inevitable adventure. Can anyone think of a book that actually does this? (Full disclosure, my WIP does this, but I don’t want to use it as an example. )

  • widdershins — I’ve never read the Covenant series. I’ve considered it several times, but I keep running into people whose taste I respect that don’t like the series.

    Sarah — That’s certainly an interesting way to handle it that could work really well. In fact, that’s what it always comes down to. It’s not that the Refusal stage is bad or even overused — it’s that it is often done poorly. The reader senses that this is just a cheap ploy for false conflict instead of something that really matters to the character and the story. So, if you want to have your MC refuse one call for another, that’s cool, but make sure there are ramifications (emotional, plotwise, or both) later in the story.

  • Pea said: one of my characters spends a whole lot of time in the book trying not to do what she’s called to do.

    This was exactly what I was going to bring up—but Stuart, I *think* what I’ve taken away from this post and discussion is that such a thing can work. In the meantime, other parts of the journey rear their heads.

    My other question for you: can the arc of the Hero’s Journey extend over a few books, like a trilogy? My whole “refusal of the call” sticking point becomes a running theme/source of conflict. My character got away from an unpleasant situation and doesn’t need to go back to it, so her “ordinary world” is feeling her version of safe and normal after having survived an ordeal. The way I have things now, she continues to refuse the call straight through to the end of the first book. Things happen over the three-book arc for her to change her mind, just not in the first one.

    The reason I ask is because when I pitched this in October to a Tor editor, I was told that my character does need to accept the call by the end of the first book. (I’m paraphrasing in terms of this post, but I won’t bog you down with details.) I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and while I originally stood my ground because I was thinking in terms of the entire arc, now I’m wondering if she can accept the call, but on her own terms, and not those of anyone trying to impose it upon her.

  • Laura — You’re talking about two different things here. If you’re asking can you extend the arc over a few books, the answer is Yes. As long as you keep the reader interested, you can use, discard, and manipulate the monomyth any way you want. Remember — this is not a set of hard rules, but merely observations of the patterns people tend to use when writing. The next part, regarding the Tor editor, is an entirely different matter. The editor was speaking from a commercial standpoint. So, in that editor’s opinion (probably), either you were not succeeding in postponing the acceptance of the call in a way that would capture the reader or that editor feels such postponing (no matter how good a writer you are) is not commercially viable. So, the suggestion was made to use it at the end of Book 1.

    Does that help or just confuse things worse?

  • No, it makes perfect sense. They start to become entangled. I *did* have it worked out that she sticks by her decision to refuse, saying, “I don’t want to accept this call, but I want to do something to help, so I’m going to do this other thing over here.” Sort of along the lines of what Sarah was saying.

    Regarding the editor, the commercial standpoint was precisely the argument, and an understandable one. And while I’ll change it if I have to, what it comes down to is a small rewrite of the ending. So I’ll just get back to work on finishing the edits and finding an agent, first.

    But thank you for the other answer – the “journey over multiple books” was definitely something I was wondering about.

  • Young_Writer

    I started my story in Illinios, and at the end of the first chapter she is transported to anotehr realm. I couldn’t help but think of another reason to start in an ordinary world. If the transition is creative, the reader will remember it. Everyone knows how Dorothy got to Oz, right?

  • YW — Sorry it’s taken so long to reply. I was having log-in issues. Anyway, yes, everyone remembers Dorothy’s tornado. And we remember it because it was made to be memorable. It was a big event. So, making the transition creative (as you put it) is another way to utilize the monomyth structure without making it boring or rote.