Thursday, November 12, 2009

Storytelling in 12 Easy Steps

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I’ve read untold articles on what writers need to accomplish to move from the ranks of the unpublished and into that select stratosphere of publication. Though you need to learn a great deal to succeed, no amount of work will bear fruit if you do not master the art of storyteller. In fiction, your workmanship is for naught if you can’t spin that proverbial yarn.

With that said, I thought today's post would focus on how to develop that skill. How is it one insures their novel is written in such a fashion as to appeal to their readers regardless the audience? The answer, as is so often the case, is simple, though the application is difficult.

When someone wishes to write a novel, there is a time-proven formula to telling a story. This blueprint is known as The Hero’s Journey. In fact, it is the framework around which most any novel can be built and is comprised of twelve events your hero must face. This storytelling technique has been around since before the time of mythology and will last until men stop telling stories. Once you’ve learned this technique, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of storytelling and I recommend all new writers follow this outline.

Many will tell you some of these “rules” can be introduced at varying points in your novel or even ignored. The truth? They’re right. However, as an aspiring author, stick to what works. As you gain confidence and knowledge, then do your experimenting.

The Hero’s Journey is defined by different authorities in different ways. They’ll incorporate additional steps, different terminology, whatever. But if studied, most of them will filter down to the following twelve steps your hero must traverse to create a good story:

1. Ordinary Life
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting the Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Enemies, Allies and Tests
7. Point of No Return
8. Supreme Ordeal
9. Reward
10. Journey Home
11. Resurrection
12. Return Home

I may go into each one of these steps in more detail, but for now they are somewhat self-explanatory. In general, if the hero in your story finds himself involved in these twelve situations, your story will be well-defined and should appeal to almost any reader. (Please note I said your story will be well-defined. Having it well-written is another entire series of blog posts.)

To get started, think about one of your favorite movies. Now follow the storyline and see if the primary character is placed generally in the situations listed above. I'll bet you will. Once you can identify the steps of The Hero's Journey in a movie, you'll begin to understand how to apply it to your novel writing.

Star Wars is always a good example for any aspiring writer. Think of the first of the six episodes where Luke's parents are killed. Remember it? If you recall the beginning of the story, Luke is working the farm but asks permission to strike out on his own. This scene is Luke’s Ordinary Life which is step one of The Hero’s Journey.

Step two? Luke Skywalker finds the message from Princess Leia embedded in R2D2 and gets all excited. This is his Call to Adventure. Did he accept his call? Of course not. Had he, Mr. Lucas would’ve missed step three, the Refusal of the Call.

Considering step three in The Hero’s Journey, let’s look at Luke’s reaction to Obi Wan’s entreaty that the young man become a Jedi. The boy found a dozen excuses why he could not do as his future mentor suggested. His excuses included such things as his uncle Owen, the coming harvest and, well, I don’t remember what else, but you understand. This scene was the third step in Luke’s immersion into The Hero’s Journey, his Refusal of the Call.

Now I could step you through each aspect of The Hero’s Journey, but it’s getting late and I don’t care to right now. (So there!) However, as you follow the first Star Wars movie, you’ll see the storyline follows The Hero’s Journey quite well. And, (here’s your sign), if Mr. Lucas can use this formula for storytelling, so can you.

Of course, Star Wars is within the genre of Science Fiction, but to show how The Hero’s Journey works with all novel genres, I’ve taken five minutes and outlined a romance for you. I’ll give this story the working title “The Disillusionment of Mindy.” Ready?

The Ordinary World

Joe and Mindy are in love, married with two children, living in a home in the suburbs of Richmond, VA. The children are Mike, twelve, and Mary fourteen. Mike loves baseball and Mary is just finding out about boys. Joe is a stockbroker and Mindy spends her time raising the children. She’s the president of the PTA and is as content with life as she has ever been.

The Call to Adventure

At a PTA meeting Mindy overhears two women talking about Joe. They suddenly quiet when Mindy approaches and act embarrassed at her arrival. They walk away without saying much to her, but they glance at Mindy from over their shoulders and whisper to each other as they depart. Mindy is surprised by their actions but thinks little else of it.

Refusal of the Call

Joe, usually home around 7 PM, starts to call every now and again saying he must work late. This has never happened before but Mindy ignores her intuition which tells her something is wrong in her life.

Mentor (often termed The Wise Old Man or Woman)

As Joe’s late returns increase and after another odd encounter with friends, Mindy speaks with her best friend, Margaret, about her concerns. Margaret tells her not to worry until Joe comes home late and the first thing he does in take a shower - a sure sign of infidelity.

Crossing the Threshold (often known as the Point of No Return)

The next night Joe comes home and takes a shower as soon as he enters the house.

Tests, Allies and Enemies

Mindy and Margaret talk to their friends when watching Mike playing baseball and then again at the following PTA meeting but most know nothing. Those who seem to be in the know won’t talk. Mindy hires a detective to follow Joe. He takes photos of Joe’s nefarious liaisons and passes them to Mindy.

Point of No Return, (aka Approach to the Innermost Cave)

Mindy is distraught but refuses to believe her marriage cannot be saved. She confronts Joe with the photos and he admits everything, saying he still loves Mindy and was swayed by a young woman who threw herself at him. He promises never to see the woman again. Though suspicious of his pledge, Mindy accepts him at his word and they work at patching the holes in their marriage.

The Supreme Ordeal

Things are fine for a time, but soon, Joe is again coming home from work late.

Reward (often termed Seizing the Sword)

When Joe returns home, Mindy confronts Joe about his continued infidelity. He denies everything until she produces new photos she had taken of him and yet another woman. Mindy forces Joe to leave.

The Road Back

Mindy and Joe go through a trying divorce. She gets the children and the house, and the money, and the furniture and he gets the clothes on his back. (They live in Virginia, you remember.)


Mindy must now learn to live without a husband and is forced to find work. She is now faced with raising her children on her own. She finds her new life difficult, but she and her children do survive, though without much of their earlier wealth.

Return with the Elixir

Mindy meets a guy at work who sweeps her off her feet and they live happily ever after.

The End.

There ya go, a full story outline in five minutes using The Hero’s Journey.

By employing The Hero’s Journey, your story will have plot, adventure and the time-tested avenue to effective storytelling. From here you fill in the details and, voila, you’re an novelist!

Depending on the response I receive to this post, I’ll move forward with a more detailed explanation or not.

In the mean time, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze


  1. Nice post! My fear of using this time tested approach is that I won't write well enough to rise above the cliche. As a place to start, though, the hero's journey cannot be beat.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan, for taking the time to comment.

    As to rising above, you only need one personality trait to succeed - the unyielding determination to succeed.

    With that, you will rise above.

    Best of luck and let me know if I can be of further assistance.


  3. Calling the Hero's Journey training wheels for the writer doesn't do them justice. There deep myth here. Thanks, Patrick.

  4. Thanks, Steve, for commenting.

    I think you and I came at this from different angles, but then again, writing is subjective, is it not?

    Thanks again, Steve.


  5. Just a correction suggestion: it was George Lucas, not Speilberg.

  6. Dear Anonymous,

    You're absolutely correct. My apologies for the error.


  7. Please elaborate . . .

  8. I am familiar with this kind of outline, (and thanks for the 5-minute example!) However, I would love to hear more.

  9. Dear Anonymous,

    Is this a second "Anonymous" or the same as the first?

    In either case, elaborate on what? How The Hero's Journey works or on Speilberg vs. Lucas?

    If Lucas, sorry, I don't see how that might help aspiring writers. If The Hero's Journey, please stay tuned.

    Thanks for the comment.


  10. Dear Laurie,

    Love your avatar. I'm old enough to have bought those things for my daughters? (Humm... or was it for myself?) What are they called?

    Can you give me a bit more of an idea of what it it you'd like to see? May I assume you mean the entire Hero's Journey laid out in more detail?

    Thank you for commenting.