Explaining the Hero’s Journey

A Deep Dive into Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

Since its publication in 1949, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces has been a hugely influential work in the field of comparative mythology and storytelling. It explores the common patterns found in myths and legends across diverse cultures throughout history. And, most importantly, it introduces the concept of the “monomyth,” or the Hero’s Journey, a narrative structure that Campbell argues transcends cultural boundaries and forms the basis of many of the most compelling and foundational stories ever created. 

The Hero With A Thousand Faces provides a comprehensive cross-cultural framework for understanding what makes a story a story. Its impact, particularly that of the monomyth, has shaped the way we perceive and create stories in literature, film, and beyond. In fact, after reading this article, you may find it difficult not to see the monomyth coloring stories all around you. 

But why is the Hero’s Journey so important for storytelling? Anyone can write a story. But writing something that captures the attention of readers means knowing how to craft it in a way that will tug on their emotions and stay with them long after reading. The Hero’s Journey is one of the most important structures and tools we have for creating compelling stories. In this edition of Facts of Fiction, you’ll learn what it is, how to use it, and what narrative structures lie beyond. 

The Hero’s Journey Demystified

The Hero’s Journey encapsulates a common narrative archetype, or story template, often used in storytelling, particularly from a Western perspective. In it, a hero first departs (or separates) by going on adventure, is initiated into a new world, and then returns home. 

In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, for example, Gandalf calls upon Bilbo to join the dwarves of Thorin’s Company on a quest. Thus, Bilbo leaves his peaceful hobbit hole and finds himself on an adventure where he learns and struggles a great deal. Throughout the story, Bilbo gains a new level of maturity, competence, and wisdom—the skills he needs to secure his own kind of victory in ultimately leading to victories against the dragon Smaug, and at the Battle of Five Armies. Bilbo then returns to Bag End with some treasure and more stories, ultimately setting up for the beginning of Lord of the Rings in which Frodo also follows the call to adventure—once again led by Gandalf. 

We see here the “nuclear unit” of the monomyth in its full form: separation, initiation, and return. 

Separation

The first stage of the monomyth, also called the “departure,” has five stages wherein the hero: 

  1. Receives the vocation to their journey, signifying that destiny—in the form of the “herald”—has summoned them. This may appear in the form of a problem or threat, or as a person, such as Gandalf in The Hobbit
  2. Refuses the vocation, thus seeing for themselves the banality of their normal life. Campbell notes that “the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest.” In stories that take on the full Hero’s Journey, the hero always ultimately accepts the call. 
  3. Receives unsuspected assistance from a supernatural force, usually a protective figure—often a little old crone or old man—who provides the adventurer with tools against the forces the hero is about to face. 
  4. Crosses the first threshold, officially departing on their heroic journey.
  5. Enters the realm of the night, also known as the belly of the whale.  Here, the hero faces the first of their trials and enters into the unknown. In fairytales, for example, this may be an ogre guarding a bridge that the hero must outwit, bribe, or use the tools granted by the supernatural aid to defeat.  

Initiation

The second stage of the monomyth details the trials and victories of initiation. Our hero must overcome great challenges to fully come into themself as a hero and a person. In this stage, the hero: 

  1. Takes the road of trials, a series of ordeals they must survive in order to reach the next stage. These include trials that test them both physically and emotionally and serve as a means to help the character grow. 
  2. Meets the “goddess,” in which the hero meets the allies who help them on their journey. 
  3. Faces temptation to abandon their journey and must avoid it. Campbell also refers to this stage as “Woman as Temptress” but it signifies any kind of temptation leading the hero away from their fate. 
  4. Atones with the father, or faces a major turning point in the story and discovers the ultimate reason for their journey. This may manifest in a face-off with a villain or a moment of internal doubt, or even a conflict with the herald who issued their quest. 
  5. Reaches the highest point of development or apotheosis—the climax of the story wherein the hero learns how they will face the rest of the journey and gains knowledge that will help them continue. 
  6. Confronts the ultimate boon, fulfilling the reason for their journey. 

Return

Finally, at the end of the hero’s journey, the hero must return home and reintegrate into society. During this time, the hero: 

  1. Refuses the return, as they are reluctant to end the journey and return to the banality of real life.
  2. Goes on the magic flight, or is chased by those who would prevent them from returning home. 
  3. Is rescued from without by an outside force or mentor who guides them home and rescues them from whoever is chasing them.
  4. Crosses the return threshold and returns to the world they lived in previously.
  5. Becomes the master of two worlds, learning how to balance the mundane world with the one discovered on the journey.
  6. Finds freedom to live. The hero acclimates back to their mundane life and lives peacefully. 

In short, the Hero’s Journey is a common narrative archetype, or story template, in which a heroic character—the protagonist—goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory, or victories, with that newfound knowledge, and returns home transformed.

Character Arcs and Turning Points

Perhaps the most important aspect of Campbell’s monomyth is how it serves as a classic structure to develop characters. Here at Brink and F(r)iction, we place a lot of value on character development and see the monomyth as one of the ideal ways to bring a character through a fully thought-out and satisfying character arc. 

The Hero’s Journey as outlined above doesn’t have to be a physical journey. It doesn’t have to take the form of fantasy, as it does in The Hobbit or classic fairytales and myths. It can start with a character getting the call to adventure by accepting a new job or starting at a new school. It can be mundane and every day, but the point is that it changes the protagonist as a person, amplifying both their good traits and their flaws, and bringing them full circle emotionally, mentally, and sometimes spiritually as well. 

A great example of the Hero’s Journey outside of genre fiction is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Our hero, Elizabeth Bennet, lives her ordinary life until she is “called to adventure” by the arrival of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. In this case, the adventure is love, and most of Elizabeth’s trials are internal. But ultimately, her story follows the structure of the monomyth and brings her to the full circle of “returning home,” only this time, it is her home with Mr. Darcy. 

Most importantly to Elizabeth’s Hero’s Journey, however, is her overall character arc. The title Pride and Prejudice gives us a clue: is Elizabeth the prideful one or the prejudiced one? In the end, she is both, and the journey she takes leads her to growing as a person, shedding her pride and her prejudice, and finding love—the very thing she refused at the beginning of the novel. 

The point of the character arc in the monomyth is that the hero changes. The stages of the Hero’s Journey amplify this change, unearthing the character’s greatest strengths and weaknesses and how they may use and overcome them, respectively. The transformative power of the Hero’s Journey for character is what makes it so compelling to readers. For example, think of how Aang in Avatar the Last Airbender changes over the course of the show. He goes from being a scared twelve-year-old boy who ran away from his problems (so effectively that he vanished for one hundred years) to accepting his purpose, overcoming his fears, and becoming the hero he was always meant to be. 

Or, take “Amorpho & The Leering Freak,” a short story by Jason Baltazar, for example. The protagonist, Amorpho, begins the story feeling uncomfortable at being observed “like an ant under a magnifying glass” as he performs his set at a freak show. He hates being watched and lacks personal connection to most people. By the end of the story, Amorpho has come to accept his new roommate “The Leering Freak” as a friend and has even stood up for him, relishing in The Leering Freak’s watchful gaze. 

The Monomyth in Action

Many famous stories adhere to the Hero’s Journey framework. You may begin to notice them all around you. The most popular examples include The Odyssey, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, Star Wars: A New Hope, and many more. If you recognize and enjoy any of these stories, consider revisiting them and examining how they adhere to the monomyth. Or, pick one of your favorite stories and track it to see if it follows the monomyth’s structure. If it does, how? When does the hero get called to their journey? When do they enter the belly of the whale? How do they return home? If it doesn’t, what makes it different from the Hero’s Journey? What does the story do, or not do, that makes it a different narrative? 

As outlined with Pride and Prejudice above, the Hero’s Journey is not only used in fantastical stories, but can also apply across genres. Filmmakers, writers, and storytellers all around the world constantly use the framework of the monomyth to create compelling stories that capture an audience and make us care about their characters and plots. Utilizing the monomyth is a sure way to create an engaging narrative, as it truly lends itself to rich character development, drama, and a strong ending that feels complete. 

Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey

However, just because the Hero’s Journey is a popular framework for storytelling doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there. Alternative narrative structures, from the three-act structure to a classic tragedy to the anti-hero’s journey and more do exist. 

The three-act structure divides a story into three parts, often called the setup, confrontation, and resolution. Films and screenplays often use this structure and it can feel very similar to the Hero’s Journey as it is also made up of three parts that mirror the separation, initiation, and return. However, in the case of the three-act structure, not all of the elements from the Hero’s Journey may be present. Examine classic movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Titanic as prime examples of the three-act structure in action. 

Classic tragedies tend to fall into five stages: anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, and destruction or death wish. In these stories, the tragic hero has a goal but ultimately fails to get what they want, and the result is complete undoing. In this way, a tragedy may reflect a Hero’s Journey but end in its opposite: the monsters win, the hero dies. Classic examples would be Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, but modern examples such as horror movies and organized crime films also often follow this structure. 

Deviating From the Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey provides a solid structure for telling a story that is recognizable across cultures and time. It has been amply analyzed and used to tell all kinds of stories for all kinds of characters. In this sense, the Hero’s Journey has pros and cons to using it as a writer. The pros are that you know it will result in a compelling story. The cons are that it may not feel original. Because of this, we don’t recommend viewing the monomyth as a paint-by-the-numbers template, but rather as a roadmap for sketching out a particular kind of story—one focused on a “hero” character who goes through an impactful change. In the end, storytellers can use what they like and change what they need to to tell their best version of their story. 

Crafting Your Own Journey

It’s good practice to study and even create your own Hero’s Journey narrative if you plan to be a writer. Like with all skillsets, storytellers must first master the basics and fundamentals in order to refine and upgrade their craft. Try using the outline below to determine the course of your next story, no matter what world you set it in. Come up with a character who you envision embarking on the monomyth and see how your story develops from there. You may find it’s the easiest story you’ve ever written. You may struggle to differentiate it from others you have read. In the end, doing it for yourself is the best way to see how it serves as such a great formulation for a story—and how it can be adapted to suit many genres and themes. 

Hero’s Journey Template

Act I

  • Step 1: Ordinary World
    • Establish your hero and what their everyday life is like. 
  • Step 2: Call to Adventure
    • Have your hero encounter an event, problem, or person that forces them outside of their comfort zone/everyday life. 
  • Step 3: Refusal of the Call
    • Make your hero reluctant to leave behind their everyday life to embark on the adventure.
  • Step 4: Meeting the Mentor
    • Have your hero meet with a mentor who will help them face the challenges ahead. 

Act II

  • Step 1: Crossing the First Threshold
    • Have your hero officially depart on their journey and fully commit to entering the new world.
  • Step 2: Test, Allies, Enemies
    • As your hero enters this new world, have them encounter obstacles, enemies, and allies to help them on their journey. 
  • Step 3: Approach to the Inmost Cave
    • Have your hero approach the place where they will encounter their greatest fear or biggest threat/foe. 
  • Step 4: Ordeal
    • Have your hero confront whatever it is they were approaching above and overcome it. 
  • Step 5: Reward (Seizing the Sword)
    • Provide your hero with a light at the end of the tunnel: some kind of tool, belief, or resource that they need to finish their journey.

Act III

  • Step 1: The Road Back
    • Take your hero on the journey home—but have them encounter more dangers along the way.
  • Step 2: Resurrection
    • Make your hero face a final test before getting a happy ending. 
  • Step 3: Return with the Elixir
    • Finally, have your hero return home, changed in some way and with some kind of prize—either an insight or physical object.

Once you have mastered—or at least played with—the Hero’s Journey, try other narrative structures. Experiment for yourself to see what suits your style of writing and your characters. If you find yourself getting stuck, or not liking where a structure is taking you, change it up. There are many diverse narratives to explore. 

Exercise

Think about your favorite short story, novel, movie, or series. What style of narrative does this work employ? Break it down into the “steps” of the Hero’s Journey as outlined above to get a better understanding of why and how it works as a story. An example you could use is Star Wars: A New Hope, which famously follows the Hero’s Journey very closely. 

Beyond the Monomyth: Exploring Diverse Narratives

Non-traditional narratives include the circular narrative, parallel plotlines, or a story told from an unconventional perspective, or that plays with time. 

In a circular narrative, for example, the story ends where it began. The characters still transform, but they return to the same place they began the story. While this may feel similar to the Hero’s Journey and, in some cases, a Hero’s Journey is cyclical, in a circular narrative the characters don’t necessarily go through all the trials and tribulations of the hero. A great example of circular narrative is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

In parallel structure, the story follows multiple storylines that are tied together through an event, character, or theme. Parallel narratives can be found everywhere throughout popular media, but a strong famous example would be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare. In this play, multiple plotlines take place at once: the love entanglement of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius; Titania and Oberon’s quarrel; the play being put on by Bottom and the other players; and the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. By the end of the play, these plotlines have connected and been resolved. 

Another type of story is interactive in which the reader chooses their own adventure, and the choices they make determine how the story proceeds and what narrative it takes. Video games often use this to make a compelling game that may end poorly for the player if they don’t make the right choices. The next blog in this series takes you on a choose your own adventure that will determine a hero’s fate—and hopefully help exemplify the Hero’s Journey as well as these other narrative structures!

Non-Western Narratives

We must acknowledge that the Hero’s Journey and many of the other narratives discussed today largely come from a western understanding of storytelling and literature. Although Campbell brings up non-Western examples of folklore and stories in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, there is debate over whether his analysis truly applies. Narrative structures outside of Western influence do exist. 

The East Asian four-act structure, for example, also called kishōtenketsu (Japanese), qǐchéngzhuǎnhé (Chinese), and gi seung jeon gyeol (Korean), is sometimes described as a “story without conflict.” This isn’t necessarily accurate, but it does pinpoint how this structure does not employ conflict to drive the story forward as it does in Western narrative structures. Instead, self-actualization, self-realization, and self-development drive the story. The four acts include the introduction, development, twist/turning point, and conclusion/result, although these can vary depending on the specific culture and story. Many popular manga, anime, K-dramas, and C-dramas utilize this story structure. Popular examples include the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, the Korean Movie Minari, and Nintendo’s Super Mario. Some argue that Pulp Fiction uses this structure and Michel He argues that BTS’s “Love Yourself” album trilogy also employs this.

Aside from East Asian four-act structure, Kim Yoonmi outlines multiple worldwide story structures that fall outside of the Hero’s Journey, including Bildungsroman (the coming of age story), Crick Crack or Kwik Kwak from the Caribbean Black community (a performance-based storytelling tradition that utilizes audience interaction), and Harawi from South America (storytelling through lyrical and other forms of poetry). We won’t go into every possible story structure here, but recognize their existence and that a story is a story whether or not it follows a structure we expect.

On Choosing A Story Structure  

I encourage you to experiment with multiple story structures but to always keep in mind one thing: be purposeful. Whether you’re choosing to form a narrative around conflict, actively avoiding it, or doing something else entirely, make sure that whatever you choose lends itself to telling the story you are trying to tell. This will result in your best-told and most compelling story. 

Conclusion

The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s famous monomyth, can be broken down into its nuclear unit of separation, initiation, and return. The hero is called to adventure, must overcome trials and challenges, and returns home changed for the better. The most important aspect of this journey is the way the character develops over it. In storytelling, the characters will always be the most important part of the story as they are what keeps readers reading. 

However, while the Hero’s Journey is a common and popular structure, it is not the only one out there. It can be used and adapted as the storyteller wishes for the sake of the story. As you write your own stories, explore multiple narrative structures and see what lends itself to telling your story the best way possible. 

In the end, Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has changed forever how we view and analyze literature. It has framed the way we see heroes and the journeys they face. This work has left an indelible mark on storytelling and continues to be an important part of learning how to tell great, compelling stories. After doing the exercise above, consider submitting your own take on the monomyth to F(r)iction and continue revisiting this series to learn more about the fundamentals of storytelling! 

Author’s Note: It’s worth pointing out that The Hero With A Thousand Faces does not just detail the Hero’s Journey that we have discussed in depth today. Although Campbell’s major argument and the majority of the work is dedicated to the monomyth and its role in storytelling, he also connects this to psychology in ways that we don’t often acknowledge or discuss today. This is in part because these connections don’t help us tell better stories. It is also because Campbell intertwines them with the Freudian take on human psychology in a way that is often rejected today for lacking evidence and considered a pseudoscience. To learn more about this, I encourage you to read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and check out this article. That said, the monomyth is still important to study when learning how to create stories and, importantly, how to write compelling character arcs. 

Writers Weigh In: The Writing Process

Writers discuss how they tell stories from start to finish

Now that you know what a story is, it’s time to start writing your own! But how? For many, getting started actually writing a story can be the hardest part. That’s why we’ve asked some writers here at Brink to weigh in with insight into their own writing processes. From coming up with ideas to how they tackle editing and so much more, here’s what they had to say. 

Q: How do you come up with ideas for the stories you write? 

In Short:

Our writers recommend using inspiration from life all around you: 

  • Read a book.
  • Listen to a song.
  • Collect metaphorical language and turns of phrase.
  • Eavesdrop on conversations in public.
  • Talk with other creatives.
  • Take inspiration from things that resonate with you online.
  • Excavate and challenge accepted “truths.”
  • Seek to preserve feelings or vibes. 

Check out the full interview with members of the Brink/F(r)iction staff below for a deep dive into their tips on coming up with story ideas.

Valerie, Brink Education Program Manager and published author: My stories usually develop in two ways. There’s the lazy, fun way: I chase things in stories that capture my imagination and make me ask “What if?” I’ll read a book, or listen to a song that stays with me. If I’m thinking about alternative possibilities a few days or weeks later, it’s worth pursuing. I guess the teen fanfiction writer in me never died.

The second way is more methodical, and usually only works for short fiction and poetry: I collect metaphorical language and turns of phrase, and then make them as literal as possible. For example, my mom used to say she was “raised by wolves” to explain her chaotic upbringing. So, I wrote a story about how my grandmother was a literal wolf living in our house. It works great for fabulism and surrealism, but it rarely has enough of an engine to support a story over 3,000 words. 

Maribel’s Note: That makes it perfect for flash fiction! Check out Brink’s flash fiction submission guidelines here

Nate, Communications & Marketing Director and author of One Person Can’t Make a Difference: One of my favorite things to do is just hang out in a public space and overhear other people’s conversations. Lots of times, I’ll note something that I never would have thought, felt, or experienced, and start digging into a story. Otherwise, many ideas come from talking with other creatives, mixing up concepts, and seeing what happens.

Evan, Editorial Director and author of Shed the Midnight: They come from a lot of different sources. I tend to write strange things so I’m often playing the “What if…” game. Like what if a random pebble fell from the sky into my mouth? What if a boy went into a field and discovered he had claws? What if someone stole a suit coat from a thrift store and found human teeth in the pocket? That sort of thing. I’m on the lookout for that strange bit that excites me. I collect those types of things and write them all down, even if I can’t get to it right then.

Inanna, Fall 2023 Intern: I wish I had a proper process for coming up with ideas, but they just come to me! Sometimes when I’m on a bus, sometimes when I’m in the shower. I’m currently working on my first novel, and I actually saw the title I’m using for it online—it’s a song title—and came up with the entire plot based off of that. It felt very otherworldly.

Sara, Fall 2023 Intern: Most of my ideas for my poems and stories come from my refusal that the world will always be the way it is, and we have to accept it as such. To me, writing is a process of interrogation or manifesting magic where it might not otherwise be observed. One of my never-ending works-in-progress is a short story that satirizes the way the political, healthcare, and justice systems work in tandem to consume marginalized bodies. Another short story of mine flips the alien-invasion trope on its head to explore themes of colonization. I don’t think we should be forced to accept these things as necessary yet flawed parts of our humanity, and writing is my way of excavating and challenging these “truths.”

Aubrey, Fall 2023 Intern: For me, stories start as a desire to preserve a certain feeling or vibe. If it sticks in my mind for longer than a week, I’ll begin turning the sensation around in my mind. Sometimes it’s associated with a specific memory or idea and sometimes it’s not. The historical fiction novel I’m working on right now explores Japanese American identity in Hawaii, cultural memory across generations, and colonization. It started as a spark of grief and awe when I learned that my grandfather’s childhood nickname was “Cherry.”  

Q: Do you have a set routine for where and when you write? 

In Short:

  • Try out a few different times of day and see what works best for you.
  • Or maybe you’re the type to write whenever inspiration hits. If that’s the case, take Gina’s advice below and use the Notes app on your phone to jot down new ideas whenever and wherever they strike! 
  • Every writer’s routine is different. 

Valerie: Unfortunately, I write best between the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Midnight is the golden hour. I go to my office, light some incense, and write until I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m perpetually exhausted, and I do not recommend this approach.

Nate: My routine used to be to write for one to two hours after school or work each day, especially if I was working on something long form. I would put classic Twilight Zone episodes on Netflix for background noise, and just burrow into the world of the book. My favorite part of that routine was when, in wintertime, I would look up after two hours of work and see that the world had gone dark. These days, I don’t have a specific routine, but when I start a new project, I always fall into one.

Evan: I used to before I had kids. Now things are a bit more wild. But my preference is to write in the morning after I’ve read for about a half hour. That reading time is crucial. If I’m not reading I’m not writing. Now I steal time when I can.

Inanna: I wish! I’ve tried sticking to a routine before and that just does not work for my brain. I write whenever I’m in the mood. I’d like to try again to establish some sort of discipline though.

Gina, Junior Editor: I wish I could say I was organized enough to have a writing routine. I tend to be loose and follow inspiration when it hits. When it comes, it comes. Even in the middle of the night—thank goodness for the Notes app! I’m most consistent in writing where I’m comfortable: on my bed and writing late at night and way past my bedtime—from midnight to 2 a.m., for example.

There’s something to be said about the saying “write drunk, edit sober”—but in my mind, it’s a metaphor for, essentially, loose writing. (Drink responsibly, please!) Late at night, after a long day, when everyone else is asleep, my writing is more uninhibited than usual. I don’t overthink what I write because I’m exhausted. It’s easier for me to tap into the story and get into the “flow.” I remove myself from the equation and let the world and characters speak for themselves—I’m just writing down what I see. So, that’s what works best for me! Also, routine-wise, I have memory problems, so I use trackers to see my progress and pace. It’s fun to look back and see how far I’ve come. Or what problems I continue to make. 

Sara: Setting up a consistent writing routine is one of my eternally unresolved New Year’s Resolution items! I do set aside at least half an hour to read everyday, which has been so helpful in my growth as a writer. I took an amazing poetry workshop with Jenny Qi, and learned that you don’t have to write poetry everyday to be a great poet—it certainly helps, but a lot of the work is subconscious, and discovering new poems to read and engaging with the world around you is just as important.

Aubrey: These days I try to write in the early mornings before work. Doing this during summer was very doable for me but since Daylight Savings ended, I’ve been struggling more and more (it’s too cold to leave my bed).  

Q: What happens for you first: determining characters, plot, setting, theme, or other?

In Short:

  • It happens in different ways for different writers. 
  • The important thing is, once you have a story, grab onto it and write it out as soon as you can so you don’t lose that thread of motivation.

Valerie: Usually a concept seed comes first. But then, because my longform fiction is voice-driven, I’ll free-write diary entries that channel a specific voice. That voice creates the character, the conflict, and the world.

Nate: I usually start with the theme. One of my books is about the disillusionment of late-20s/early-30s adulthood, another is about a gig worker who has to work just to literally recharge his synthetic body each week or he’ll die, another is about a future utopia and one person who selfishly brings back individualistic capitalism. When I know what a book is about thematically, then I start to imagine the world, the people in that world, their pasts, their legacies, and their individual motives.

Evan: For me it’s all about the characters and setting, which I guess equals situation? I don’t tend to know what characters are going to do before I start writing, but if I have an idea of who they are and where they are, the rest comes together. I know “situation” isn’t one of the options but that’s what I’ll go with.

Inanna: For me, my characters always have been and always will be the most important part of my stories. While I do sometimes come up with vague plots first, more often than not, I get ideas for characters, relationships, and/or character arcs and build my worlds around them. They are what’s important, so they are in control.

Sara: Typically, the theme or idea comes first; it’s usually something that’s been swimming in my head for weeks, and as soon as it comes to me more developed, I can’t focus on anything else until I get a first draft down! Otherwise, the characters come first. When I discovered the theme for the most recent cycle of Dually Noted was “When Memories Become Currency,” I immediately had this idea of an artist who hoards her memories like one would hoard money or property. I had been primarily writing poetry at that time, but as soon as that character came to me, I knew I had to write a prose piece about her before her story escaped me.

Aubrey: For me, characters and theme develop first and simultaneously. I also usually have a general sense of setting, but I don’t refine it until after I develop characters and theme. Plot typically comes last; I struggle with it the most. 

Maribel’s Tip: The best way to get started writing is to just do it. Check out the “Exercise” at the bottom of this blog to put what you’ve learned to the paper!

Q: What does the outlining process look like for you? 

In Short:

Whether you spend a lot of time outlining or very little, having some kind of structure for your story—whatever form that story takes—can help you write it. A few ways to help yourself do this:

  • Stay tuned for upcoming additions to this blog series that specifically go over story structures, such as the Hero’s Journey, and outlining. 
  • Concentrate on one or more of these story essentials: character, setting, theme, and/or plot. 
  • Decide if you want a long, detailed outline or just a basic one. 
  • Remember that outlines are malleable and ever-changing—don’t be afraid to adjust it as you write!

Valerie: I was a diehard pantser for most of my life, but now I outline religiously. I write story beats on index cards. Each card answers two questions: what does the character want here, and why don’t they get it?

Nate: Once I have my theme, characters, and setting, I start plotting. My outlines are often a loose flow at first, just to get all the ideas and events out of my brain and onto the page. Then I refine the outline, identify the themes of each chapter or section, and cut or alter scenes and moments. Then I test the whole thing for flow and consistency, and revise. Even when I’m writing the draft, I will reference my outline while also changing it whenever characters say things or take actions I didn’t anticipate that require altering the course.

Evan: For longer projects I tend to work toward images. I know I want a random static-y TV set in the forest. Or I know I want a sunbather to be approached by a man made out of hooks. But how we get there is always interesting. I wouldn’t recommend this process because it leads to a lot of rewriting and removal of scenes, but part of the joy for me is the discovery along the way.

Inanna: For me, the outlining process is very messy and very long. I don’t like starting anything unless I think I know every single thing that’s going to happen from beginning to end. I have google docs that I call “messy outlines” and go wild in there, dropping screenshots from conversations and bits and pieces of ideas until I can make something coherent. Outlining is the best part for me!

Sara: For poetry, it is incredibly messy—picture scattered bits of paper scribbled with incomprehensible notes or transcribed phrases from my phone’s Notes app. I prefer writing first drafts by hand, so I’ll stitch all those messy thoughts together in a notebook, or if I’m really struggling, cut phrases out with scissors and glue them on the page until I’m satisfied. Between the first draft and revision, I like to take a long break; I find that grounding myself back in the real world and letting my ideas settle over time helps me refine what I really want readers to take away from a poem.

Aubrey: My outlining process is Virgo chaos. I have a really hard time writing when I don’t know where I’m going, so I need to have a solid outline before I can write anything. Characters, scenes, and bits of world float around in a nebulous haze as I figure out my theme. Then, when I’ve marinated a story for long enough I’ll try to fit everything into a preexisting plot structure (Three Act or Kishotenketsu) just to get a semblance of pacing. From there, I develop the first act then draft, then rinse and repeat with the next act and the next act until I have an outline and a finished draft.  

Maribel’s Note: What’s a “pantser,” you may ask? The Write Practice outlines the three different kinds of writers here, but essentially, a panster writes without a plan, a plotter works from an outline, and a plantser does a little bit of both. All three ways are valid, especially when you’re first starting out, but at some point it does become useful to have an outline of your work—particularly if it’s longer, like a novel. 

Q: To you, what makes a good story? 

In Short: 

Great stories tend to have these three things in common: 

  • They stay with you after reading. 
  • They have strong characters. 
  • They feel both inevitable and surprising. 

Below, our writers expand on what this means and why these things lend themselves to great stories. 

Valerie: A good story stays with you. From a craft perspective, that means that the reader needs to be invited into the story experience enough that they are personally invested in the outcome.

Nate: I think if a story sticks with you after you finish reading it, it has succeeded. There are a lot of books written with differing levels of difficulty, vocabulary, and allusions, but when you step away from it feeling something, that’s the success. I’ve mourned the end of my time with characters. I’ve wanted to reread a story hoping it would end differently. I’ve spent days and weeks feeling personally changed by a story. That’s the success right there. That’s all I ever hope to do for a reader when I write.

Evan: I like to be engaged emotionally and intellectually, which can take many forms. I like experimental work if there’s a reason behind the experimentation, or better, the story is best told that way. I also love pretty writing and if there’s strong images and beautiful language I’ll be hooked. There are so many ways to tell a story and I generally am drawn to situations and characters I haven’t read before. I love to read work in translation, and I read a lot of new poetry. If I feel like I understand the world the author has put me in and that the author is in control of where we’re going that’s normally enough to keep me reading. If the ending is perfect after looking back at the whole story then I’ll be in love.

Inanna: Characters are what make the story. There is no such thing as a good story without strong, well-developed characters. It doesn’t matter how good the plot or the idea is. If there aren’t good characters to follow, I won’t care about it. 

Gina: Character, no question. As humans, I think we connect with others’ stories and find that social connection is key—regardless of what species the characters are, or if they’re sentient at all. I need a good character to latch onto, whether it’s apparent through the story’s voice, the character’s actions, dialogue, or more. Thankfully there are so many ways to establish character. Characters are the most important story element to me because other story elements usually follow them—plot happens to or because of a character or is connected to a character in some way, for example—so character(s) take the lead. Establishing compelling characters early on and giving readers a reason to care about them, generally by showing a bit of vulnerability and/or showing their motivations, is, to me, the best way to keep readers coming back for more.

Sara: I took a class on the Latin American Short Story, and my professor suggested that a successful short story ending should feel shocking, yet inevitable. I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head ever since! In my favorite short stories, every word counts, or hints at its inevitable ending. For longer pieces, like novels, I still really admire elements of surprise or horror, but I also enjoy feeling connected to a character. My favorite novels have all left me feeling sad that I have to leave its world and characters behind, longing for the opportunity to read it for the first time again. For novels, short stories, and poetry alike, I adore works that haunt like a ghost and linger in my head for days, or even weeks, on end.

Aubrey: In writing, I think it’s the sincere desire to explore. In reading, I think it’s anything that stretches the way you think or feel, whether that’s changing your world view or making you feel a delight that you didn’t know you had in you.  

Q: What approach do you take to editing your work? 

In Short: 

No matter how you approach editing, it is an essential part of the writing process. After you have a first draft, the majority of the rest of your time will likely be spent editing. You can: 

  • Utilize other readers to help you make edits.
  • Tackle it yourself slowly over time.
  • Employ other tools to help you edit your work. 

Valerie: I’m a huge fan of shitty first drafts. Write a flaming pile of garbage, and then edit it toward your intentions. Editing is more important than drafting, but you can’t edit unless you draft. I’d say I spend 85% of my writing time editing.

Nate: The main things I utilize for editing are time and trusted readers. To avoid being precious about my work, I have friends who will read for me and tell me straight to cut a paragraph, a page, a chapter. It’s never fun to hear, but I always listen because my readers get what I’m trying to accomplish and have the distance to look at the work objectively. Time is the other key. I will usually set a book aside for one month after I finish a first draft. Then I can go back and read it almost anew, see the holes, find the places where the bones need more meat, and see where there’s excess.

Evan: I write and rewrite and rewrite. My normal process looks like this: Write the bones of a scene. Go back now that I know what I’m writing about and flesh out that scene. Go through again and add more. Put in too much and cut some out. Realize the story doesn’t need that scene and put it into a different folder.

Inanna: This is something else I’m working on right now. I used to micromanage every little sentence as I wrote, editing things before and after writing sessions over and over again. It was a hellish loop. Now I’m trying to just write and ignore what’s been previously written, and add new ideas or portions to separate docs. That way if I have an idea, that’s fine, but I won’t go back to what I’ve already written and get stuck in another loop.

Sara: For poetry, it’s incredibly helpful for me to switch mediums between each revision. For example, if the first draft was hand-written, the next revision needs to happen on my laptop or typewriter. That way, it’s easy for my brain to catch any phrases that sound awkward or unpolished. I took a life-changing screenwriting workshop with Josefina López, and she said this is especially important for freewriting, because handwriting your first draft allows you to access your subconscious in a way that typing can’t. Reading your work aloud is also helpful, especially for poetry, where a piece’s musicality and sound can inform the poem’s content. Most importantly, I try to give myself a lot of space and compassion in between revisions. I can easily get consumed by my own ideas or (sometimes harsh) expectations, so forcing myself to take my time is essential.

Aubrey: I like to edit while drafting. I wrote a shitty draft for NaNoWriMo once, and then when I went back to edit the thing, I got so overwhelmed by its mess that I quit and felt horrible. Nowadays, I start a writing session by lightly editing the chapter once before going back to drafting. If I feel like my words are workable on a line level, it makes the developmental edit much more digestible for me.  

Q: How do you know when a story is finished? 

In Short: 

  • There’s no formula for this one. 
  • Usually it’s just a feeling, and that feeling isn’t always correct—that’s what editing is for!

Valerie: I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Nate: It’s weird. It’s a feeling. And it doesn’t always happen. I have had stories and books in which the final page feels so perfectly final. I’ll type that last sentence and feel complete. Other times, I’ll simply run out of momentum—not giving up on the story, but more that the story winds down in a way that feels less under my direct control. What’s funny is that neither case means the work is inherently good or that the feeling is correct, but I always chase that “perfectly final feeling.”

Evan: With shorter projects I’m looking for a moment when the narrator or main character makes a choice they can’t come back from, even if it’s small. Once I’m there it’s almost the end. Then I want that choice demonstrated through action. Once I know the end then I can go back to the beginning and plant all the little bits that make the ending resonant. At least that’s the hope. I’m a tinkerer by nature. I’ll keep messing with a story long after it’s reasonable, which is part of why I submit so much. Once I’m done, I give it another read and send it off and then start on the next one.

Inanna: To me, a story is finished when I can put my book down, smile, and say, “wow,” whether it’s one of the short stories I wrote or a novel I read. You get this feeling of emptiness because it’s over, but you still feel full because, well, it’s over.

Sara: My gut instinct is to say that I rely on my gut instinct, especially for poetry, but that’s not a very helpful answer! I think getting an outside perspective has been incredibly helpful for me, whether that’s sharing drafts with my partner or in my writing groups. I love to ask what people think my story or poem is about, or what main idea they’re left with after reading. Everyone will take away something new and different, but if no one picks up on the main themes or ideas that motivated a piece, I know I have more work to do.

Aubrey: I usually know a story is finished when I read it through and the vibes feel good (no nitpicks about pacing, description, or voice). 

Q: If you had to choose just one thing that is the most essential to your writing process, what would it be? 

In Short: 

Our writers find that their best tips for navigating the writing process is to ensure you:

  • Feel excited by the story. 
  • Have life experience. 
  • Read, read, read. 
  • Use a timer. 
  • Remind yourself why you write.
  • Listen to music.

Valerie: So, my partner does this thing where he laughs at his own jokes before he tells them. I know it’s going to be a good joke when he laughs so hard he can’t even tell it. It’s adorable. I try to approach my writing that way. If I’m not excited, on the edge of my seat, cringing with the character, or laughing at my own jokes, it’s not working.

Nate: Life experience. I mentioned eavesdropping for story ideas. The other good thing for stories and books is seeing the world, living outside your bubble, and doing things that make you a little uncomfortable. I’m not talking about thrill-seeking or abject hedonism, just that, as one of the best ways to know how to write a break up is to love and lose, the best way to write a feeling of exploration and curiosity is to go out and do it. Living life inspires living fiction and I believe that the best books and stories are the ones that feel honestly and truly alive.

Evan: Reading. I know when my writing is feeling stagnant or if I’m stuck somewhere it’s nearly always because I’m not reading as much (or as well) as I should. I have writing buddies who will ask me specifically if I’m reading something good when I’m stuck and the answer is always no. Then it’s time to head to the library.

Inanna: A timer, through and through. Oftentimes, knowing that there is a stopping point is the only thing that helps me get started.

Sara: I struggle with severe imposter syndrome, so what’s been most essential is to remind myself of why I write. I write because I enjoy it, I write to understand myself and the world around me, and I write to make others feel less alone. Literature provided me with so much solace when I was a teenager, and I want to extend that to others who may have similarly struggled. I often remind myself that if just one person reads my work and feels seen, understood, or less alone, then that is all that matters.

Aubrey: Music. Like a lot of writers, I like to make playlists that fit the vibes of the piece I’m writing! It helps me to relax and makes it easier for me to get into a flow state.  

Ready to tell your story?

When it comes to writing, there’s no one set process or starting point that will always work, 100 percent of the time. Every writer is different and so every process is different. But you can use the insights and tips above from our writers for ideas on how you might try to get started writing your stories—whether that means timing writing sessions, staying up late to make the most of your creative juices, or joining a writing group to get edits and inspiration. Ultimately, we recommend starting here—learning about what stories are and tackling monthly exercises with us as you commence your writer’s journey. 

Exercise

For the next week, spend 20 to 30 minutes each day keeping a journal. You can write about your previous day, envision the day ahead, jot down ideas stuck in your mind, share opinions, recall a conversation you overheard on the bus, or anything you feel like writing about. On the final day, look back at what you’ve written and see if there’s a story somewhere in there.