A Hero’s Journey Checklist

The hero has a mission. Only they can accomplish it.

Does that sound familiar? That’s an oversimplification of the hero’s journey. Whether you were aware of it or not, you’ve read or watched countless interpretations of it.

The hero’s journey is a common plot structure, especially in fantasy, science fiction, and thriller genres. It’s common because it of its familiarity. Who doesn’t tire of a hero setting out on a quest and facing conflicts along the way?

What makes each successful hero’s journey plot successful are the details of the story teller. As you plot your hero’s story, make sure that you hit all the high points of this structure, and add a lot of unique detail, so that your story engages your readers. 

Wait, won’t having specific plot points take away from the creativity?

Plot points are mile markers, guiding readers along the story. Experienced story tellers use plot points as a blueprint but allow their own tastes and style to make their story one-of-a-kind.

When you start, know where your hero will end up.

Does your hero have a one-way ticket? If your hero sets off on a journey, never to return, then much of the change in the journey is how the hero accommodates to a new environment. They will have to learn new skills, develop strengths, grow up, and overcome their own insecurities to survive. 

Or does your hero have a round trip ticket?  In stories like The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland, The Odyssey, the hero leaves, but then comes back. Much of the change in the journey is who they have become inwardly.

Both endings should force your protagonist, your hero, to deal with their past, conquer fears, recruit allies to help, and come up with creative strategies while they are on the journey. Inner change is just as important as outer change. 

What does this look like in the beginning?

This means that your reader meets your hero and sees them in action doing something in which they are very skilled. The opening scenes and inciting incident should demonstrate their strengths. Additionally, in the beginning the overarching conflict is introduced, antagonists may be recognized ( but not necessarily explained) and an understanding of the stakes are presented to the reader.  There also needs to be a lack of satisfaction of life. Things need to get better somehow. Your reader will should understand that your hero is the one who potentially has the answers. 

  • Introduce hero to reader in the status quo
  • Demonstrate their strengths
  • Mention overarching conflict and desires
  • Mention antagonists
  • Inciting incident sparks action

Next? The Call to action!

Next there is an interruption: a call to action. Your protagonist sees what needs to be done and reconciles the cost to it. Maybe they deliberate on it , maybe not. But at this point in the story, they are given a choice: go or no. 

Naturally, your protagonist steps up and out. This is the acceptance of the call, even if the protagonist doesn’t understand every requirement. 

At this point in the story, a force appears to help your protagonist move forward. Perhaps it’s supernatural, like Dorothy’s red shoes, but your protagonist receives help from another powerful source. This help has to be wielded carefully.

  • Protagonist understands big challenge
  • Deliberates over options
  • Recruits help
  • Make a decision

Next, your hero begins their journey.

Sometimes they literally go through a threshold, a door, or a gate beyond what they have considered the status quo. Once they cross this line, they understand the commitment. So does your reader. Hopefully you’ve gotten your readers so excited that they’re thrilled to follow along and see what happens. 

  • Hero goes through a literal or figurative threshold
  • Reacts to the permanence of this situation
  • May regret the decision

Now act one is over and act two begins! Now what?

Your hero experiences a new world! Perhaps they are in awe of all the changes culturally, geographically, or physically. Consider having them interact positively or negatively with a native, get pulled over by law enforcement, or find themselves wrapped up in a cultural misunderstanding. 

Next? Put them in real danger! This section is sometimes called “the belly of the whale.” This dark turn can challenge your protagonist, but also allow for him to make new allies and rethink his overall purpose. It’s in this section that the reader really sees what the hero is made of. Put them in situations where all of the allies (and the reader too) question the true intentions and motives of the protagonist. This is a good place for the antagonist to turn up the heat. 

  • Hero responds to novelty of setting
  • Faces minor conflict that requires them to learn new behaviors
  • Reveals deeper character through more escalating conflict
  • Reacts to actions by the antagonist
  • Revisits the purpose of the mission

What’s next?

This is just about the middle point of the story, so your hero needs to face a death — figurative or literal. He loses his way completely, the dream dies altogether, Gandalf falls in after the Balroc, whatever you have happen, it utterly guts the hero. They will have to recover somehow, find their literal or figurative feet, and decide how to press on. 

  • Hero faces unexpected death
  • Endures unprecedented negative emotions
  • Contemplates turning back

Now, The Innermost Cave.

At this point in the story, the hero evaluates, perhaps for the first time, all that they have been through, the costs they’ve paid so far, and a reckoning of if it is worth it to go forward. It could be in this moment, a great idea is formed and the hero is “reborn” into a new strength. 

  • Hero rehashes everything they’ve experienced
  • Reevaluates necessity of the mission
  • Faces unprecedented despair
  • Resolves to continue with fresh ideas or perspective

Then? A battle!

With this new vigor, your heart faces a showdown with the antagonist. They are victorious, or even if they aren’t completely victorious, they have a satisfying gain. (The friends they made along the way??) There could be a reunion, a restoration, or a redemption that wraps up the quest nicely and it feels like the end . . .

  • Protagonist faces antagonist with fresh strength
  • Conflict finishes decisively
  • Protagonist seemingly comes to end of quest

Next? Trouble on the way home!

Something isn’t right and your hero has to reconcile something they hadn’t seen yet, or a secret is revealed, or a plausible twist gets thrown in. Don’t neglect this moment for your hero — the best stories don’t end predictably. Think of a way that your hero’s final journey home is messed up by something surprising. Your readers will love it. 

In this last scene, your hero may be unprepared, but relies on the lessons learned previously. With high stakes, this can be the most intense scene in the whole book. Make sure that the defeat of the antagonist is complete and the consequences of your hero’s victory is permanent and plausible. 

  • Twist is revealed
  • Protagonist responds and uses previously learned skills
  • Protagonist defeats all enemies thoroughly
  • Conclusions are permanent

Last part? The hero finally makes it home.

Perhaps this home is far different from the home they left in the beginning of the book, perhaps only your hero is the one that changed. This change should be radical, and your reader should understand that the journey the hero just took was worth it for the change. 

The hero’s journey story structure is one of the oldest and well-loved of all time. Use this checklist to ensure your hero’s story is loved by your readers.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.