The Hero’s Journey: How to Tell Better Stories

Why do some stories grab our attention from the start and hold it until the end? Why do some people know how to captivate an audience with their storytelling? What makes certain stories resonate and stick with us while others bore us to death?

As it turns out, many of the timeless stories we love — be it a fairy tale, favorite film, or an ancient myth — follow similar patterns. People don’t get tired of this story structure. In fact, it seems to be baked into the human psyche, almost as if it’s part of our DNA.

Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature who popularized the idea of the “monomyth,” also known as the hero’s journey. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes a common pattern that emerges in everything from Bible stories and tribal legends to modern literature and blockbuster movies.

“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

That’s about as simple as Campbell gets. His book on this subject is a meaty read to say the least (Confession: I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and didn’t finish). However, the idea is easy to grasp and easy to apply in your own storytelling.

Why would you want to be a better storyteller?

Stories are powerful. Stories are a big part of what make us human. A good story can change peoples minds. An amazing story could change the world.

But let’s start with everyday life …

Being a better storyteller makes you more interesting. Want to have something to say at the next dinner party you attend that’s worth listening to? Want to make a good impression on your first date? Want your kids to think you’re cool? Learn to tell good stories.

Being a better storyteller makes you better at your job. Want to nail that interview for your dream role? Want to be able to convince people you have good ideas? Want to be a stronger leader? Want more sales? Storytelling is a tool you can use to help you achieve your goals. According to Paul Smith, author of several books on this topic, companies like Kimberly Clark, 3M and P&G make an effort to teach storytelling skills to their executives.

Being a better storyteller makes you a better person. To understand stories is to understand what drives us as humans. It helps us understand human emotions and develop empathy.

Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has written about and researched how stories impact our brains. He says stories help us relate to each other — even complete strangers — very quickly, because stories break down barriers and increase our understanding of each other.

“The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.”

Paul Zak, Ph.D.

Simplifying the hero’s journey

There’s a variety of different versions opinions, and diagrams of Joseph Campbells’ hero’s journey. Some of them get quite complex and confusing.

Campbells original version from 1949 (example below) has 17 stages including “Belly of the Whale,” “Meeting with the Goddess,” “Atonement with the Father,” and “Apostasis.” (It’s okay. I’m not sure what that last one means either.)

Thankfully, a more relatable and approachable storytelling genius has developed a version of the hero’s journey that’s a little easier to follow.

Dan Harmon, the creator of shows and movies such as Community, Monster House, and Rick and Morty, uses what he calls “the story circle” as he writes scripts. Instead of 17 steps, Harmon cuts it down to just eight.

  1. You: There’s a main character living in comfort zone.
  2. Need: But, they have a desire or need they must fulfill, creating tension and discomfort.
  3. Go: So, they leave the comfort zone of home behind and set out on a journey
  4. Search: They’re looking for fulfillment, answers, or treasure of some kind, and along the way, they make friends and enemies, face challenges, and endure twists and turns.
  5. Find: Finally, they discover what they’ve been looking for.
  6. Take: They’re going to get it, but they’ll have to fight a battle or pay a price. No pain, no gain.
  7. Return: After emerging victorious (and maybe a bit beat up) the hero returns to the start.
  8. Changed: But, something is different. They’ve learned a hard lesson, changed as a person, or the world they live in transformed as a result of the journey.

Watch Dan Harmon explain his story circle approach

Tension is a key part of all these steps and an important aspect of storytelling. Creating tension is how you keep your audience’s attention. You need to keep them wondering, “How’s he gonna get out of this one? What’s going to happen next?”

Another good piece of advice on storytelling I heard from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They told NYU students the words “and then” should never connect the steps of a story. Instead, it should be “therefore” or “but.”

Therefore: Means you’re driving the narrative. The next thing is happening because of what just happened.

But: Indicates a twist or complication in the plot that your characters will have to overcome.

If you’re writing a short story, novel, or screenplay — considering the hero’s journey is solid advice.

You can use this concept in everyday storytelling, too …

  • Make up better bedtime stories for the kids
  • Tell a better story about how you met your significant other
  • Find a better way to articulate how you or someone else overcame an obstacle in life
  • Write better case studies that put your customers in the role of the hero
  • Create better content for your blog
  • Use stories to teach better lessons and drive home points to students or employees
  • Tell better stories that encourage people to support worthy causes

There are some critics of the hero’s journey approach to storytelling. Some say it’s too formulaic, unoriginal, or overly masculine. And there are certainly other ways to structure a good story. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, famously outlined several common story shapes.

However, there has to be a reason that so many of the stories we love follow this structure. Still don’t believe that most of your favorites are based on the monomyth? Watch the video below to see for yourself and dive deeper into the the hero’s journey as well as Harmon’s story circle.

Storytelling and The Creative Mission

Storytelling is one of my favorite creative skills, and it’s one that directly relates to so many artistic activities as well as everyday life.

At some point, we would love to have storytelling workshops, groups, and events for people to hone their storytelling skills and simply share stories.

What if …

  • We held classes for screenplay, short story, and novel writing?
  • There were support groups of peers who regularly got together to brainstorm and work on their stories together?
  • We worked together to tell stories that bring attention to worthy causes, sway public opinion toward the greater good, and make a difference in our community?
  • We had storytelling open mic nights where people of all ages could get in front of an audience and tell a story?

That’s all part of the vision of The Creative Mission, and we want you to be involved. So, tell us what you think!

Categories: Storytelling

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