Editing Tips Part 3: The Hero’s Journey

For many writers, when trying to assess if their story “works” yet or is ready for the next stage of editing, they find themselves in a balancing act of developmental editing. On one side, there’s the plot’s progression; on the other, there’s the development and journey of one’s main character. While you can use Freytag’s Pyramid to assess plot progression—as discussed in Editing Tips Part 2: Story Structure—there’s also a chart you can utilize to see how your character is impacted by the events in the book. Whether you’re writing fiction or memoir, the Hero’s Journey is a helpful tool for writers who want to outline the beginning, middle, and end of their character’s experience from chapter to chapter.

Most famously posited by Joseph Campbell in his novel The Hero with a Thousand Faces (later adapted into twelve stages by Christopher Vogler), the Hero’s Journey refers to the “journey” of an individual from their known world—their everyday life, so to speak—and into the unknown, facing a challenge or crisis, and then returning home or making a new home for themselves in a place where they feel they truly belong. It’s important to note that a Hero’s Journey is impacted by the plot, but it is not the plot. In other words, the plot of a book can be charted using Freytag’s Pyramid—it’s the events of the story. Comparatively, the Hero’s Journey is how those events impact the character; it’s the character’s reactions, growth, and decisions in light of the events of the plot. Throughout this journey, the character will experience multiple developmental stages, emotions, and thought processes.

To explain Hero’s Journey in comparison to Freytag’s Pyramid using a modern, common example, is a summary of Disney’s Moana (2016).

First, let’s summarize the plot of Moana using Freytag’s Pyramid terminology.

In Moana, the title character is first introduced when she is just a toddler and she is already drawn to the ocean. As a teen, Moana learns that her island is suffering, which she believes is due to the truth behind the legend of Maui, a demigod who stole the heart of the mother island, the goddess Te Fiti, cursing the world to a slow death. Additionally, Moana learns that her people were once ocean explorers—wayfinders—but her father, the chief, has forbidden anyone to go beyond the reef that surrounds the island, believing the ocean to be far too dangerous. All of this is the Exposition.

Eventually, teenage Moana is given a mission (the Inciting Incident of the story) by her dying grandmother—to find Maui, cross the sea, and restore the Heart of Te Fiti. Once Moana leaves her home island, the Rising Action of the story begins as she ventures across the ocean, finds Maui, and together they sail toward Te Fiti, where they must face and defeat the fire demon Te Kā, who bars their way. However, at the Climax of the film, Moana realizes that Te Kā is, in fact, Te Fiti; the injustice of having her heart stolen turned her from a benevolent being into a fiery, dangerous one. At the moment of Resolution, Moana returns Te Kā’s heart to her, transforming Te Kā back into Te Fiti, thereby saving the world. Soon thereafter, Moana returns to her home island, victorious. At the Conclusion of the film, Moana leads her village back to sea, returning her people to their true identity as wayfinders.

Throughout these events, Moana is tested—both her skills as a self-taught sailor and her mettle. These tests are what influence her character development, also known as her Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is composed of twelve stages, though those stages are altered and formed to fit the narrative being told. The first stage is Ordinary World, showing the origin or starting place for the hero. The hero is then presented with the Call to Adventure. In the beginning, the hero usually resists this call in the Refusal stage. A push toward their destiny is given when they Meet the Mentor, and when the character accepts the call, they Cross the Threshold, officially beginning their quest.  There may be more than one “Mentor” in a story, but typically a helper of some sort is found that either briefly aids the character at the beginning or stays with the character throughout the Journey. Along the way, the character faces challenges and temptations in the Tests, Allies, Enemies stage on their way to the Approach to the Inmost Cave (also simply called Approach), which is at the cusp of the climax. This culminates in a moment of despair/emotional abyss referred to as the Ordeal: Death and Rebirth or “dark night of the soul” (coinciding with the plot Climax), during which the helper from the beginning often reappears in some form (ex., literally, or in a dream, or the character remembers something the helper once said, etc.). With the reappearance of the helper, the main character has a revelation about themselves/their place in the world, leading them to be transformed from who they were at the beginning of their Journey into a new, truer version of themselves. This allows them to overcome the Ordeal and transition to the Reward: Seizing the Sword. From this transformation point, the hero begins The Road Back and the Journey comes to a quick end; often, in a stage called Resurrection, the character will atone somehow, either for going on their quest and leaving someone behind, or for “sins” committed throughout the Journey. Metaphorically (although, in cases of fantasy, sometimes literally), the character will receive a gift from a “goddess,” one which empowers them to finish their quest and return home in the Return with Elixir stage (generally considered the last stage. Upon the character’s return, they might receive another Call to Adventure; this may be merely hinted at, in the form of the audience having a brief, vague insight into what the character’s life will be like now that the Journey has reached its end, or perhaps in the form of foreshadowing, setting up a sequel.

Applied to Moana, the Hero’s Journey looks like this:

At the beginning of Moana’s Hero’s Journey, Ordinary World is shown in her everyday life as she grows up and learns her role as future chiefess. One could say that her original Call to Adventure was the ocean beckoning her from the time she was little, and that her resistance to that call was her Refusal. As a teenager, she talks to her grandmother (her first Mentor), who tells Moana that she was, in fact, given the Heart of Te Fiti as a child—a gift given to her by the ocean. While this conversation is an event, plottable on Freytag’s Pyramid as the Inciting Incident, the impact of this event is Moana’s real  Call to Adventure—it’s the event that leads her to follow the call of the ocean. As her dying grandmother tells her to go on that adventure, Moana’s metaphorical Threshold is crossed; despite her father’s decree that no one should go beyond the reef, she decides to go anyway. As the Rising Action of the plot unfolds, her transformational Tests, Allies, Enemies stage begins, internally starting the evolution of her identity from an obedient daughter and chiefess-in-training to finding her true self, whomever that may be.  In this stage, she goes through trials to find and unite with Maui, who is her “helper” throughout the rest of the story and an essential companion to be able to restore Te Fiti’s heart. In Maui, Moana finds a Mentor as he helps her hone her skills as a sailor (thereby connecting her with her true destiny, since her people were known as way-finders before the ocean was declared too treacherous for travel).

However, their journey is not without challenges, all of which further test Moana. For example, Moana must help Maui retrieve his fishhook. During their time with the giant crab Tamatoa, Moana shows her cunning and ability to deceive a foe under pressure. After the hook is retrieved, she must remind Maui who he is and encourage him to try again with the fishhook’s powers—this helps hone her skills as a village leader. Furthermore, even once the hook is retrieved, Maui must re-learn how to use it so that he can help Moana defeat Te Kā and restore Te Fiti’s heart. Nonetheless, when they reach Te Kā in the Approach stage, the fire demon defeats Maui, who abandons Moana. Feeling like she has failed and being abandoned brings her to the Ordeal: Death and Rebirth. This tempts Moana to quit, believing she isn’t who is meant to save the world, despite what her grandmother said. This temptation to quit—despite overcoming so many challenges—is important for Moana’s development because it allows the audience to see her truest vulnerability, fostering connection with the character (who among us hasn’t considered giving up at least once or twice?).

In the deepest moments of Moana’s despair/Ordeal (her emotional death “in the abyss”), she’s visited by the spirit of her beloved grandmother, who asks simply, “Moana, do you know who you are?” This question prompts Moana to start listing off how she’s always been identified, but also where she comes from, “descended from voyagers.” She realizes that the quest she has been given isn’t merely something the world has asked of her (tied in with the Resurrection stage)—it’s also something she’s asked of herself. For her entire life, she’s been called to the ocean, but unless she helps save the world and restore Te Fiti’s heart, there won’t be an ocean for much longer. She realizes that, before she left her home island, she was willing to deny herself what she wanted to be obedient; now, however, she knows she’s meant to be a voyager like her ancestors, and in order for her to be that person, she has to try again to restore Te Fiti’s heart. Fully transformed by a Rebirth into her truest self, Moana returns to face off with Te Kā once more, prepared both for the battle itself and the test of her mettle. As the end to her Ordeal stage, she succeeds (plottable as the Resolution), helped by the return of Maui, enabling the literal goddess of Te Fiti to gift the world with life again. Although The Road Back is skipped over, her success acts as both the Reward, which refers to Moana’s newfound confidence, knowledge for wayfinding, and surety of path; and the Return with Elixir, which is the healing of the world and preservation of her island and people.

When Moana returns to her island, she jokes, “I may have gone a little ways past the reef” to her father, who admits it was the right thing for her to do—both personally and for her people. With this, she’s admitting she isn’t who her father wanted her to be, which is both the father-to-daughter apology she needed to accept who she’s meant to be and an affirmation from her father that who she needs to be for herself is also the person the world needs.

With Te Fiti’s Heart restored, the oceans are now safe to travel—to help her people rediscover who they are as wayfinders. This is the lasting gift of the goddess. And by returning to her island and bringing her people back to the sea, Moana is able to return her people to their true kingdom—the sea.

At the Conclusion, Moana is called to a new adventure; with her father, Gramma Tala’s spiritual guidance, and Maui’s company, she sets out with her people to way-find as they are meant to do.

When it comes to your writing, whether that’s fiction or memoir, using the Hero’s Journey can be an excellent tool to guide your character’s evolution as you write or to see what may be “missing” from your completed draft, or even for plotting out your story before you start writing.

As a memoir writer, one of the biggest challenges I face is finding the exact narrative I’m trying to tell, because life rarely follows one storyline at a time, and when writing a memoir of surviving and healing from abuse, there’s a lot of crossover. However, by using Freytag’s Pyramid to note exact events (plot) and then by simply asking myself, “What started all of this?” I can typically identify a moment—a Call to Adventure, or healing—in which my life started to change, which is usually what begins a new story and Journey to tell. Furthermore, by applying the Hero’s Journey to see how those events impacted me, I can more easily identify where each of my life’s stories begin and end, all before giving way to a new story—another “Call to Adventure,” so to speak. And, as an editor, this is a challenge I’ve seen many other writers face, too. It’s a common challenge, so if it’s one you’re facing (no matter your genre), know that you aren’t alone in it.

As the entire editing team at Josha will attest, developmental editing can be an arduous process. Our hope is that with the tools and tips in this series, you’ll be better equipped to face the task…and with a new peace of mind.

Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about booksstories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.

Editing Tips Part 3:
The Hero’s Journey

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