Whether readers/viewers know it or not, there is an unconscious expectation novels/films will fit a particular narrative structure. There are a number of narrative structures, and while you don’t need to rigidly follow every step, per say, it is important to understand these structures and why they work.
Vogler’s revision of the Hero’s Journey is the most well-known and will be the main example I use in the following article.
The Hero’s Journey follows a 3 Act structure (later, we will arbitrarily break this down into a page count measurement using the same rules for a 90 minute film script), and includes 12 stages:
1. Ordinary World
Here we introduce the protagonist (and others), the story world, and life in general before the story starts. This is a vivid contrast to the new world we are about to enter.
Example, Harry Potter lives with the Dursleys in a cupboard under the stairs. Bilbo and Frodo live in the Shire. Katniss struggles to live in District 12.
2. Call to Adventure (aka. Inciting Incident)
The Protagonist/Hero is present with a problem, challenge or adventure they must choose to take. Once presented with the Call to Adventure the hero will no longer be content staying in the Ordinary World.
Example, Harry receives his letter to Hogwarts and there is a new world of possibility for him, much preferable to life with the Dursleys. Katniss volunteers as tribute to save her sister Prim – this is a dangerous journey.
If this were a 90 minute film, the Inciting Incident would generally happen around the 10 minute mark.
3. Refusal of the Call (the Reluctant Hero)
The hero will either fear this new challenge or express some reluctance. This is a fear of the unknown. Maybe the new challenge confronts the Hero’s ideals. Alternatively, the Hero is eager to embark on this journey, but is met with hostility or others try to warn the Hero away.
Example, the Dursleys forbid Harry to go to Hogwarts. Alternatively, the idea of an adventure is not appealing to home loving Bilbo Baggins.
4. Meeting the Mentor (wise old woman/man)
Not all stories include this, or it may come sooner/later in the piece; in a lot of fantasy stories, the mentor is the one who triggers the Call to Adventure in the first place. The mentor will prepare and motivate the Hero. They may give advice or train the Hero with a special weapon or new knowledge. However, the mentor can only go so far along the journey. Eventually, the hero must go on alone.
Examples, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Obi Wan Kenobi – both experience some form of death, forcing the Hero to step up to the plate as leader.
5. Crossing the First Threshold (First Act Turn)
The Hero fully commits to enter the Special World. He agrees to deal with the consequences of dealing with this new challenge. This decision symbolises the Hero’s first step to fulfilling their inner want/desire (more of this when we discuss Protagonists).
Examples, Bilbo and Frodo leaving the Shire; Harry going to Hogwarts; Charlie entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; Shrek going to rescue Fiona.
If this were a 90 minute film, then the First Act Turn would generally come at the 30 minute mark.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
The Hero meets new people and learns the rules of the Special World. Allows for character development as we see the Hero & co. react under stress. During this time, the Hero will be failing character tests (again, this will come up when we look at Protagonists).
Generally, this can stretch on for a little while – but not too long. Make sure to keep the plot running.
Examples, Harry making friends with Gryffindors and enemies with Slytherins, Quidditch, the Midnight Duel, the third floor corridor, classes in general. Katniss and Peeta train for the Hunger Game, make allies with Rue, come to understand the Political and Media influence of the Capitol.
7. Approach to Inmost Cave (Turning Point)
The Inmost Cave may be a literal location or inner conflict the Hero has been avoiding. He must face his doubts and fears that surfaced during the Call to Adventure. The Turning Point causes a dramatic change in the Hero, and form this point on they begin to pass their character tests.
Examples, Harry, Ron and Hermione get past Fluffy (the threshold guardian); Rue’s death and Katniss’s grief (this is followed by Katniss nursing Peeta back to health in a literal cave).
This is the halfway point of your story (in a 90 minute film, this is the 45 minute mark).
8. The Ordeal (Black Moment)
This may be a dangerous physical test or a deep inner crisis the Hero must succeed in order to save himself of the world. Only through some form of death can the Hero be reborn.
Examples, in a romance story this may be the point where the Hero loses their love interest and the relationship is at its lowest point; Harry confronts Quirrell/Voldemort.
9. Reward – Seizing the Sword (Climax)
After defeating the enemy and overcoming personal challenges, the Hero is ultimately transformed. He emerges stronger and with a prize – an object, secret, insight or reconciliation with a loved one.
Examples, Harry has prevented Voldemort obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone, thus saving both the Wizarding and Muggle world; Katniss and Peeta win the Hunger Games.
10. The Road Back
A reverse echo of the Call to Adventure. The consequences of confronting the dark forces in the Ordeal. This is usually the point for chase scenes from a vengeful force disturbed by seizing the sword. The Hero realises it is time to return to the Ordinary World. Dangers, temptations and tests ahead.
Examples, Katniss has cheated the Capitol and is now in danger – she must also deal with her feelings for Gale and Peeta.
Second life-and-death moment. Death and darkness get in one last show before finally being defeated. Test to prove the Hero has learned his lesson from the Ordeal. Hero is finally fulfilled.
Examples, Katniss is aware the Capitol is corrupt and a revolution is brewing; Harry wakes up in hospital wing with Dumbledore – he has been exposed to real danger, making him a stronger individual for when Voldemort eventually returns.
12. Return with the Elixir
The Hero returns home to the Ordinary world a changed man, bringing the Elixir (treasure, lesson, love interest), from the Special world.
Examples, Harry returns to the muggle world with a new perspective; Shrek returns to his swamp with a wife and good friends; Katniss returns to District 12 able to financially provide for her family.
*Obviously, if you are working with a trilogy or series, the third act can become a little bit undefined as these major dramatic moments are reserved for the final closure.