12 Archetypes for Compelling Character Creation

How to develop characters that readers will recognize and love Characters serve as a central part of any story and are often what compels a reader to continue reading more than anything else in a novel. Some readers can forgive poor plotting, pacing, and thematic weight when the characters resonate with them enough (of course,…

Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.

Choose Your Own Adventure, Hero!

Take your life and choices into your own hands, reader, as you embark on a Hero’s Journey with us

In our previous installment of this blog series, we explained what the Hero’s Journey is, and why it’s such a great storytelling template to build from—particularly when it comes to character arcs. In this blog, let’s take a closer look at the Hero’s Journey as you, the reader, become Hero, the protagonist of your own story. 

Who are you? You’re a protagonist named Hero, and you’re just a regular person with a Job living in a City, who does regular things. That is, of course, until one day when everything changes—and you get to decide how and why. Take your fate into your own hands as you complete a Hero’s Journey from beginning to end!

As you read through this blog, select whichever choice you like the best (A, B, or C). You don’t have to stick with one letter throughout the blog; you can choose any option you like at any time. At the end of the blog, review your choices to determine what kind of Hero’s Journey you took.

The Call to Adventure

One ordinary day, you’re brushing your teeth when you get a sudden chill down your spine. You can’t explain it, but you know that everything is about to change. How and why, you don’t know. As you watch toothpaste swirl down the drain, like it does every day, you wonder why you feel that way. Nothing in particular comes to mind, so you shrug and move on about your day. 

You proceed throughout the day as normal: putting on a suitable outfit for the chilly but clear weather, going for a walk through the City streets, drinking cold brew with oat milk for breakfast, and working on your computer for a while. But then, around noon, something happens. Something happens that never happens, at least not to you. What is it? 

A) You fall asleep at your desk and have a strange prophetic dream in which an ethereal voice tells you to find and take a secret passageway in the City. In your dream, the voice guides you on the path to finding it and tells you that evil lurks at the end of the passageway and you must defeat it. 

B) Your email dings with a new message. When you check it, there’s no sender—and the message gives you directions to find a secret passageway in the City. The email warns you that if you don’t take the passageway, you will die. 

C) There’s a knock on the door. When you open it, a friend you haven’t seen in years is waiting on the other side with a grim expression. They tell you that they need your help saving the world from disaster and urge you to come with them to a secret passageway in the City. 

No matter which Call you choose to answer, ultimately you… 

Refusal of the Call

Refuse to find the secret passageway. You’re very content with your current life and have work meetings to attend later in the afternoon anyways. Evil, death, disaster? Sounds fake to you. Besides, you already went on a walk today. Why would you go on another one? You shrug off the Call and go about your regular life. If you were to dig deeper, you know that the reason you want to stick to regular life is…

A) You’re worried about getting fired from your job if you step away from your desk. You need this job because you have a lot of debt to pay off. 

B) You’re suspicious of scams and this definitely feels like one. You got scammed out of a lot of money earlier this year and you aren’t going to entertain anything like that again. 

C) You seriously doubt the existence of a secret passageway in the City. And even if one existed, where would it go? Probably somewhere dangerous, which you definitely don’t want. 

Nonetheless, you can’t forget the message you’ve gotten. What if there is a secret passageway? What if you die or the world ends because you don’t do this? Curiosity may have killed the cat, but didn’t satisfaction bring it back? You sit back in your desk chair and wonder if you’ve given up on a big opportunity to bring some excitement into your otherwise very boring and stagnant life. 

Meeting the Mentor

With doubt lingering in the back of your mind, you decide to get some advice. How do you go about doing this? 

A) You turn to tarot cards. You’ve often used these to help guide your choices in regular life, so why not now? When you give yourself the reading, turning each card over, there’s a clear message that sends a thrill down your spine. 

B) You call your older sister. She’s always been there to give you advice and talk you out of making stupid decisions. This time, though, her advice is unexpected. 

C) You decide to get some fresh air and walk to the nearby park. There, you sit on a bench. Soon, a man joins you there, sitting down next to you. He looks old and wise. You strike up a conversation which ultimately leads him to advising you… 

In the end, the message is clear: you should definitely go find this secret passageway. If you don’t, you’ll be curious about it forever and you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Also, according to the message, dire circumstances will take place if you don’t. So there’s also that.

Crossing the Threshold 

Filled with a new sense of determination, you decide to find this secret passageway. Just in case, you pack up a backpack with some snacks, a water bottle, and an extra sweatshirt. You put on your best walking shoes and head out the door, making sure to lock it behind you. Then, you head out into the City, trying to remember the directions you received. As you reach the place where the secret passageway should be, you see: 

A) A strange ripple in the stone wall between two dumpsters. As you get closer to it, ignoring the stench of garbage, you put your hand out and it goes right through the wall. Suddenly, another hand grasps onto yours and yanks you right through!

B) A small door camouflaged into the wall by a mural. When you press your hand against it, it creaks open and you see a dark, winding hallway beyond. A head pops from around the corner, startling you. The person grins. 

C) An open sewer entrance in the ground. You wrinkle your nose; there’s no way you’re going down there. But then it begins to glow and you realize it doesn’t actually stink—perhaps it’s not a sewer after all? Then someone pushes you into it and you fall down, screaming. 

On the other side of the threshold, you meet someone else from this strange new world. Will this person be a friend or foe?

Tests, Allies, and Enemies 

Your first challenge reveals itself: whether or not to trust this new figure in your life. After all, they are the reason you find yourself in this situation. You face each other. An unknown emotion flickers over their face as they introduce themselves. As it turns out: 

A) This person is your Ally. They are here to aid you on your journey. Their first step in doing so is taking your hand and guiding you through the darkness. 

B) This person is your Mentor. The magical voice from your dream has come to life, your older sister has joined you on the journey, or the old man from before has now appeared in front of you to aid you through your first obstacle. 

C) This person is a Trickster. First, they bargain with you, causing you to give up your snacks to them. Then, they help you through the first obstacle. 

Whoever they are, you have help on the first part of your journey—which is going to be important for overcoming your first obstacle. As you and your new companion make your way through the passage, you encounter: 

A) A troll blocking the way forward. The troll demands a toll for continuing forward. But you didn’t bring any money with you! Thinking quickly, you and your companion trick the troll into believing that your extra sweatshirt is a magical object that grants the wearer invisibility. The troll takes the sweatshirt as the toll but then threatens to kill both of you anyway! However, you ask the troll how he can do that when he hasn’t even tested his hard-earned prize. How does he know that you’ve been truthful? The troll becomes agitated and squeezes into the sweatshirt, slightly ripping its seams. You wince. That sweatshirt actually belongs to your sister. The troll looks at you and your companion triumphantly as you both pretend to be unable to see him. He swings his large club at you; you stumble aside, making it look like an accident. The troll trips over his own feet, smashing his head on the ground. As quickly as possible, you grab his club and whack him over the head with it. You and your companion move on safely. 

B) A huge metal gate that has been shut for one thousand years. Your companion tells you no one has been able to open it, but if you don’t both of you won’t be able to leave this place and you’ll die here like the others. Skeletons piled against the walls make you gulp in fear. But you’re Hero so you decide you absolutely won’t die here. You then realize that a riddle is written on the lock holding the gates shut. It just so happens you know the answer to this riddle because of your varied interests: A human, time, courtship, and I haven’t the slightest idea! To the shock of your companion, the gates swing open. 

C) A large, rushing river separates you from the next part of your journey. Your companion worries that you’ll both be swept away if you try to swim across it. Then you spy a boat sitting on the opposite shore. You find a fishing line and use it to reel the boat in. Then, you and your companion get into the boat and perilously travel through the water to the other side. 

After overcoming this first challenge, you meet a new companion. Whether you rescue them from the troll, the gate, or the river, they immediately pledge their loyalty to you and the three of you depart on the next part of your journey. But first, there’s something that’s been bothering you… 

Approach to the Inmost Cave

You ask your companions what this is really all about. Why have you been sent on this journey when you’re just an ordinary person, albeit one named Hero? They look at each other with apprehension, wondering if what they tell you will send you running back the way you came. Then, your first companion reveals that:

A) An Evil Wizard is using his powers to suck the City of its power. This passageway leads to his secret lair. Long ago, a Good Witch prophesied that only a Hero could defeat him and so you received the Call.

B) It turns out that your Boss from your everyday Job is actually a God who has decided that this City and everyone in it must be destroyed. This passageway is a bridge between the mortal and immortal realms. Only a Hero can enter it and survive, so you have been tasked with defeating her. 

C) An Ancient Magical Creature has discovered that the City’s lifesource can bring it back to its original power and form, so it is slowly draining energy from everyone and everything. This passageway leads to where the lifesource is, and only a Hero can find it. 

Whatever the main conflict is, you as the Hero must try to defeat it. With new resolve, you approach the place where you will face the ultimate ordeal and decide to: 

A) Defeat it using stealth. You know you have a way of sneaking about and you can’t see yourself facing this task head-on. You’ll sneak in and defeat the evil before anyone even knows you’ve been there. 

B) Defeat it using diplomacy. You know that you’re amazing at speaking. You feel you can convince anyone of anything, and you can use this to amend any situation, even the crazy one you’re currently in. 

C) Defeat it by facing it directly. In life, you’ve always found that it’s best to face problems head on. You’ll cut the head right off this evil!

Depending on the path you have chosen, your newest companion equips you with the means to complete it: 

  • If you chose path A from the options above, you receive a cloak of camouflage
  • If you chose path B from the options above, you receive a shield of stone
  • If you chose path C from the options above, you receive a sword of slaughter

The Ordeal

You brace your shoulders and clench your sweaty palms as you turn to face the main ordeal. There’s no turning back now, even if you sort of wish you could. But no, you shake your head, you couldn’t do that after already going through what you’ve gone through! You’re ready to confront your enemy. You take up your new magical item and jump into action. After a (sneaky, compelling, brutal) battle, the result is: 

A) You defeat them successfully with the help of your companions and supplies. 

B) You fail to defeat them, losing one of your companions after the other betrays both of you. Your method of confrontation turns out to be the wrong one and you are left to despair. 

C) You and the great evil fall deeply in love and you decide to join them in their evil doing. Your companions are left flabbergasted and betrayed. 


You’ve made your choice. Whether you succeeded, failed, or switched sides, now that you have faced the ordeal it’s time to reap the rewards. In this case, the reward is: 

A) Newfound friends and allies and the knowledge that you have saved the City—plus a sense of confidence and greater maturity in yourself. If you can do this, you can do anything! Including deep-cleaning your apartment. 

B) MONEY. Enough to pay off your debts and invest in your future. You feel a sense of excitement for life again and your anxiety decreases. You could even go out for a nice dinner if you want! 

C) Power and skill. You are in control of yourself like you never have been before, plus you have a power you didn’t know about. You can abandon your old life and embark on a new one—this time as the master of it.

The Road Back 

Now that you’ve overcome the main ordeal, no matter the outcome, it’s time to head home—even if it’s because you’re planning to destroy it. What obstacles do you face on the way? 

A) The passageway has closed itself off and you’re trapped in this new world with no way to get out.

B) You take the same way back that you came, but now the passageway seems winding and endless. You can’t find your way back to the same entrance you came through.

C) The new world you’ve entered begins to shake and smoke. It’s destroying itself and taking you with it! 

Before you can get back to the other world—whether to return to your old life, try to forget what happened in this place, or to destroy it with your new love—you first have to face this new obstacle. This time, how do you overcome the challenge? 

A) Using the power of friendship (along with the magical item you gained), you are able to open a new passageway back to your world. 

B) Using the knowledge you’ve gained in this new world, you realize the situation you’re facing is just an illusion and all you need to do is realize that it’s not actually happening. 

C) You don’t… this time, you die!


Whether you live or die, you still need to face a final test. What is this test? 

A) In order to leave, you must give up everything you’ve gained along the way—including your memories of your entire journey. With a heavy heart, you do this. 

B) In order to leave, you must master a whole new power, which takes over two weeks! But you do it and are able to escape into your previous world. 

C) In order to leave, you have to come back from the dead. Heavy ask on that one! Nonetheless, it works, somehow, and you find yourself back in your living, breathing body.

Note: You can choose this option even if you didn’t choose option C before. It just means you died after choosing option A or B previously.  

Once you face the final test, you find yourself spat back out into your previous world, a changed person. Even if you don’t remember anything that’s happened. 

Return with the Elixir

You take the long walk through the City, breathing in the fresh (and somewhat stinky) air. You unlock your apartment door and are greeted with your familiar hallway. Pictures of friends and family hang on the walls. Once there, you find that: 

A) You feel a poignant sense of triumph. You overcame so much to be here and have truly grown as a person. You’re ready to tackle real life again with a newfound sense of confidence and power!

B) You feel a deep sense of loss. Loss of memories, loss of companions, loss of innocence—whatever it is, you’re a changed person and your grief is palpable. 

C) I don’t know, reader, what do you feel after everything you’ve been through and all the choices you’ve made?


However you chose to end your story, you can see how the Hero’s Journey is a great template for creating compelling stories and characters. Go back and reread the one you just created. Is there anything you would change? I encourage you to take the journey over and over again, exploring different paths and outcomes as you do. Add your own twists, turns, challenges, and characters along the way just to see all the different places you can take your story. 

Keep an eye out for the next installments in this blog series as you write, using the information to craft your perfect story. Once you’re done, consider submitting your work to F(r)iction!

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. 


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.  


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. 


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.


  • 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. 


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. 


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. 


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.

What Is Storytelling?

A Comprehensive Guide to Telling Stories, Part One

Here at the Brink Literacy Project, we view storytelling as a key part of our mission. We are devoted to utilizing its power to affect the lives of people on the brink—anyone who is marginalized in society or otherwise lacks access to traditional means of learning about and employing the art of storytelling. But what exactly is storytelling? And how does it have the power to change lives? 

The National Storytelling Network defines storytelling as “an ancient art form and valuable form of human expression.” Telling stories is inherent to human nature. It has been around since the earliest humans roamed the earth. It is found in every culture and era of history. Storytelling has been a part of human communication for as long as humans have communicated. 

But that doesn’t mean stories have always taken the same form. Thousands of years ago, cave drawings emerged as some of the earliest forms of telling stories. From then, storytelling has evolved over time, taking shape through oral traditions, the written word, and, in today’s world, digital media. Stories are told in many different ways for many different reasons. In this new blog series from Brink, F(r)iction’s Facts of Fiction, we’ll be providing lessons each month on how to write stories from start to finish. No matter your medium—poetry, flash fiction, short story, novel, screenplay, or other—you can use this blog series to better understand storytelling and start writing. 

Embark on this epic journey with us now and discover what, exactly, storytelling is.  

Storytelling and Communication

Storytelling and human communication are inherently intertwined. A study in Nature Communications found that storytelling serves as a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms. Storytellers themselves also reap the benefits, seeing improved chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support, and having healthy offspring.

In short, storytelling is perhaps our most powerful and essential tool for forming communities. It has played a key role in human evolution, helping shape many of the behaviors, beliefs, and structures that make up the world we live in today. 

Storytelling and Psychology

Storytelling is also deeply entwined with the human psyche. Scholars have noted how human psychology and storytelling are connected, particularly from a teaching standpoint. An article in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology discusses the power of storytelling as pedagogy. 

Brink has seen this in practice first hand through our educational programs that center around storytelling, such as the Frames Prison Program, F(r)iction in the Classroom, and Publishing Internship Program. Through storytelling, we as humans learn how to think critically, express ourselves, empathize and connect with others, and aspire for new dreams.

The Impact of Storytelling

There’s no doubt that stories influence our emotions. Ever cried during a movie? Laughed? Got goosebumps? If so, the story has done its job of influencing your emotions. There’s also evidence that stories expand our ability to empathize with others. Given what we’ve learned about stories so far, this makes sense. Stories broaden our imaginations by putting us in someone else’s shoes through the narrative.

Stories also have incredible educational value. Storytelling has been used to teach people things for almost as long as stories themselves have existed. Think about Aesop’s Fables for example. The classic fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” has many interpretations, but today it’s often used in the classroom to demonstrate the pitfalls of arrogance and to teach the idea that “slow and steady wins the race”—don’t rush things or you may fail due to your own arrogance. 

Beyond this, stories are memorable. Because they’re memorable, lessons taught in the form of stories have a stronger chance of sticking with the reader. 

Storytelling for Change

Brink believes storytelling is a powerful transformative process—that is, the story the writer tells and the way they tell it transforms them. It is one of the most powerful tools we have for self-empowerment. By telling a story, especially one’s own story, our experiences can feel more concrete and valid. Beyond that, we can use storytelling to examine, connect with, and influence our experiences to better understand our trauma, choices, and who we strive to become. In that sense, storytelling can work as therapy created by ourselves.

Storytelling is also a powerful tool for empathy and social change. Narratives are a worldview. They start wars and save lives. At Brink, we do our best to elevate voices that might otherwise be neglected or silenced. In our educational programming, our students have explicit discussions about what stories should be told and the misconceptions they seek to correct. We hand them a megaphone and ask, “What do people need to hear?” 

Distant political decisions, the opinions of the public, and the judgment of strangers profoundly impact our students’ lives. Effective and empathetic storytelling has the power to change laws, unify a community, or help someone self-advocate for the care they need. In storytelling for change, both the writer and the audience are transformed in profound ways.  

Storytelling’s Impact Through Time

Storytelling transcends cultures and generations, leaving a marked impact through time. Let’s take Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory for example. This work is one of the first to take the many tales about the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and combine them together into a written work that forms a “complete” story. The Arthurian legend has had a clear impact on public and, particularly, literary consciousness, especially in the West. The lore has inspired multiple iterations and adaptations, from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King to the spoof movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail

There are countless examples of stories making an indelible impact on culture like this, from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights to The Odyssey to Journey to the West. Ultimately, while the details of these stories may transform over time, affected by the social and political environment in the moment, they are retold over and over throughout history and culture. 

Some argue, in fact, that there are only seven possible stories to write in this world. Others argue there are only three, or thirty-six, or six, and so on. However many there may be, storytelling has clearly been the crux of culture and communication for humans throughout history.

Storytelling Across Mediums

Stories can take many forms. We mentioned before that the earliest evidence of stories are drawings on cave walls. These pieces of past civilizations left behind prove that storytelling has always been a part of being human. But how has the form stories take transformed over time?

Oral Storytelling

Defined as “the telling of a story through voice and gestures,” the oral tradition of passing down stories has likely been around for as long as humans could speak. Even after the written word was created, stories have been passed down through generations by word of mouth. Think of the family lore learned from your grandparent over the dinner table, or the spooky tale shared over a burning campfire between friends.

Cultures from across the globe have a long and pronounced history of oral storytelling. Aboriginal Australians have storytelling rituals believed to date back almost 18,000 years. The Choctaw people, a tribe native to North America, have an oral storytelling tradition that goes back generations. West Africans, Jewish people, the seanchaí from Ireland, and native Hawaiians all have their own oral traditions as well.

The myths, legends, fables, religion, and more passed down via oral traditions have impacted the way people think, act, and tell stories—whether the stories themselves are true or not. Spoken from generation to generation, these stories are used to pass down cultural traditions and have helped shape society into what it is today. 

The Written Word

Evidence shows that written language dates back about 9,000 years. The earliest known examples of writing come from the Sumerians in 3400 B.C. Around the same time, the Egyptians began using hieroglyphics as well. 

The evolution from oral traditions to the written word provided stories with permanence. Spoken aloud, storytellers have a lot of opportunity for change and embellishment. The slip of a word, the leaving out of a detail can mean a story changes a lot when it passes from one person to the next. The written word is less easy to change and more easily referenced. The creation of the printing press in 1436 further impacted the power of the written word. From there, newspapers, mass market paperback novels, science journals, and so much more have been key to spreading stories in the form of the written word far and wide. 

Digital Storytelling

Since the mid-twentieth century and the birth of the Information Age, we’ve introduced digital forms of storytelling. Social media has advanced and truncated stories in ways that are still being studied. The internet has allowed more stories to reach more people than ever before. New forms of storytelling, such as day-in-the-life videos, have allowed more people than ever to become storytellers themselves and on a broader platform. Brands themselves have become storytellers, as the world of business utilizes the power of storytelling to sell products and services. We live in an age not just of unlimited information, but also of unlimited storytelling. 

Types of Stories

In the best stories, a single line tells a story itself. A single paragraph contains a beginning, middle, and end. A single scene introduces and resolves a problem. Stories can be told in many ways, from visual paintings, sculptures, photography, and video to songs—whether they have lyrics or not—to poems and epic sagas. We can’t cover them all there, so let’s briefly dive into the different kinds of stories that F(r)iction publishes.

Storytelling Mediums in Short

Think of the different forms of written word storytelling as a Matryoshka doll. On the outside, you have the longest, fullest-breadth story you could possibly imagine—an epic saga like The Tales of Genji or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Within that, you have novels, such as Journey to the West or Don Quixote. Then, you have novellas—generally speaking, about 10,000 to 40,000 words in length. Many famous works, including Siddhartha, Animal Farm, and Bartleby the Scrivener technically fall into this category. Finally, you have the short story, flash fiction, and poetry as shown below. Ultimately, all of these are just smaller versions of each other. Or, you can look at it the other way—The Epic of Gilgamesh is really just a bunch of short stories put together into an overarching narrative to create an epic. Creative nonfiction and comics are just different forms of the other mediums that can be as long or short as needed. 


Think of a poem as a very, very short, lyrical story. Take Joe Dunthorpe’s “Boating” as an example. This poem tells the story of Charon, the ferryman that takes dead souls across the river Styx in Greek mythology, on one of his many journeys across the Styx. 

Here, we have an established character, Charon, in an established setting, on a boat in the river Styx, following the plot of dropping a fishing rod into the river, taking the souls across it, and then returning to find that he’s caught a fish. Each line that Dunthorpe writes in the poem lends itself to the telling of the story. No words are wasted, and the punctuation and spacing of the words on the page are a part of the story being told. This is poetry at its best, where form, format, and words come together to form a perfect story. 

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a very short story, defined by Brink as 1,000 words or fewer. Take a look at “The Forgiveness Machine” by Joy Baglio, a piece that follows the character Pam as she hesitates to use the forgiveness machine for a lifetime. Even though flash fiction tells a story in just a few paragraphs, it must still feel complete and contain both conflict and resolution. 

Short Stories

The short story has an interesting and often debated history. Prospect Magazine purports that the earliest modern short story is Walter Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” published in 1827. Whether that is true or not, the generally accepted length for short stories is about 1,000 to 10,000 words. F(r)iction accepts submissions between 1,000 and 7,500 words. Like flash fiction, short stories aim to tell a complete story in a shorter space than, say, a novel. Every line and scene must lend itself to telling the story because there’s no room to waste. Check out “Interstellar Space” by Scott O’Conner to better understand what a short story can look like. 

Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction (also referred to as CNF) tells a story just like any of our other genres. However, this story must be based in truth and reflect an accurate retelling of the author’s real-life experiences. Crucially, it uses craft techniques of fiction to tell nonfiction—unlike other forms of nonfiction such as biography. 

F(r)iction accepts work up to 6,500 words and, while it is nonfiction, we ask that it still contains a “weird” or “strange” element matching with F(r)iction’s other work. Read “To Get To Sleep” by Benjamin Kinney to get an idea of what we look for in CNF. 

Another note for this kind of story is that it can come in many forms of its own: flash fiction, memoir excerpt, personal essay, or braided narrative to name a few. The main differentiator from other genres is that it reflects true rather than fictional events. 


Comics are stories told using words and, importantly, pictures. When thinking about comics, perhaps the funny and sometimes silly comic strips published in newspapers come to mind, or else a favorite graphic novel. Either is correct, but comics as a medium take many forms. The MoMA in New York City notes that, “Any work of art that divides into two or more side-by-side parts is formally a comic.” 

F(r)iction publishes at least one every issue because we see comics as an essential form of storytelling. For this reason, our Frames Prison Program centers around our students crafting their own short graphic memoir. To get an idea of the kind of comics F(r)iction publishes, take a look at “Personal Mythology” by Tracey Maye, with art by Arthur Asa, Nakoo, and Florian Shahab. 

Crafting a Compelling Story

Today’s definition of a “story” feels quite set in stone. But this hasn’t always been the case. In general, stories seem to share three major elements: character, plot, and setting. These three pieces make up pretty much every story—and that’s why getting them right is so key to telling a good one. 

Let’s take a story that serves as the prototype for the modern novel as an example: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Written in 1605, Cervantes wrote this work to satirize the idea of chivalry and chivalric romance. Don Quixote tells the story of its titular character on his epic “quest” to follow the chivalric ideals of the books he’s read. 


Cervantes succeeded at creating a character in Don Quixote so impactful that it led to a new word: quixotic, meaning “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, and impractical.” This alone tells you all you need to know about Don Quixote as a character. In his impact, we see the effect that a good character has on an audience. People care about characters in a story more than anything else in a story. Characters serve as the heart of the story, and their relationships, personality, and struggles will keep us reading even if we, for example, aren’t an errant knight from the seventeenth century. 


Plot is the main events of a story devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence. Rather than a specific structure, plot is simply which characters need to be present in a scene in order to share information and have events take place so that the story follows its intended order. Most of the time, the plot comes together as it’s written and is not necessarily planned out before the start of a story. Of course, there are exceptions, but every good story needs major plot revisions after that first rough draft. 

Continuing with Don Quixote as our example, we know Cervantes wrote purposefully to illustrate the demise of chivalry. To do so, he created a character who lives in fantasy while fully believing and following the code of chivalry. Over time, the events of the story and the other characters present in it are used to burst his bubble. Every moment that happens in the story serves this purpose and leads to the conclusion. 


All stories must exist in a time and place. And the reader of the story must be privy to this information as near to the beginning of the story as possible. Whether that time and place is familiar to the reader or alien, the context that setting provides in a story is essential to the reader understanding it.

Don Quixote takes place in the early 1600s in La Mancha, Spain. The concept of chivalry would have been well-known to readers of the time. A modern adaptation of this novel may seek to translate the concept of chivalry into something more familiar to today’s audience, such as a set of religious ideals. Or else the storyteller would simply take the time to explicate the code of chivalry so that the audience understands it. Either way, key information such as the time and location will go a long way in ensuring a well-told story.

Pursuit of a Problem

There is one more essential aspect to storytelling that all of the above help make up. As Haruki Murakami puts it in IQ84, “the role of the story [is], in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form.”

For Cervantes, this problem is the illusion of chivalry and those who follow it. Don Quixote’s obsession with chivalry leads to the events of the story taking place and forms the central conflict of the novel. Every story must have a conflict, and that conflict must result in a resolution. Whether the resolution actually resolves the conflict is up to the storyteller. But the importance of conflict and resolution cannot be understated. Characters in a story are doomed to be constantly in conflict because this is what makes stories so impactful. 

F(r)iction’s Facts of Fiction: Your Guide to Storytelling

As you can see, storytelling connects all of us. It has the power to change language, unite communities, and move causes forward. It comes in many forms, from the novel to the poem to the comic strip and much more. It has been around since before the written word. It is an educational tool and a way to bring people together. 

Our goal is to empower you, reader, to be the teller of your own stories. This is part one of a series of blogs the F(r)iction Log is releasing over the course of 2024 that can serve as your Storytelling 101. Whether you’re a beginner writer who’s unsure where to start, a seasoned writer looking for a refresher on the things you learned in school, or just curious about what it takes to tell great stories, we’re here for you. 

Over the course of this limited blog series we’ll delve into topics such as story structures, exposition, character and conflict, description, editing, and so much more. Come on this journey with us! Write your own stories and consider joining the National Novel Writing Month challenge in November. Even better—once you’re done with all these blogs and have written your story, submit your work to F(r)iction