Have you heard of the hero’s journey? It’s at the core of the mythic structure. Here it is for mysteries!

The hero’s journey is an incredibly intuitive story structure. It is the Go To for Hollywood screenwriters.

I have adapted the Hero’s Journey for mysteries below. 

Hero lives in the ORDINARY WORLD

  4. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD (to some magical or new world, which is entering the (6) ROAD of TRIALS). At this point, there is no return. The hero faces
  6. The APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE s a huge test for the hero. There are setbacks, but the hero grows stronger as a result.
  7. The CENTRAL ORDEAL is the second major turning point. It is a win for the hero.
  8. REWARD Whatever the hero has been after has been ostensibly won.
  9. THE ROAD BACK The hero has succeeded in the journey (or so he/she thinks) and heads back toward the ordinary world.
  10. RESURRECTION is the CLIMAX. The Central Ordeal was a false win. THIS is the true test of the hero’s mettle. This is the moment when the ordinary person is resurrected as a hero.
  11. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR The hero returns to the ordinary world a changed person. 

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The hero’s journey is a fairly typical story structure. With a mystery, however, the structure is slightly different.

  1. The Victim’s ORDINARY WORLD is disrupted when he/she dies! Depending upon the POV and type of mystery you are writing, the sleuth’s ORDINARY WORLD is also disrupted. Using the amateur sleuth or detective as our hero, he / she lives in their ORDINARY WORLD before the murder happens.
  2. CALL TO ADVENTURE occurs when the murder is discovered.
  3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL occurs when the amateur sleuth feels pulled to investigate, but doesn’t feel qualified or want to dive into the investigation. If the hero is a detective, the REFUSAL OF THE CALL occurs when he/she doesn’t want the case, or, in the case of my first book, Living the Vida Lola, Lola fears she won’t be given the case. Often, the refusal of the call is not the decision of the hero.
  4. MEETING THE MENTOR The mentor is whatever character (for good or for nefarious reasons) convinces the sleuth to get involved. This person can be the person the sleuth is determined to save or prove innocent.
  5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD in a mystery means the hero (sleuth) takes the case and/or becomes an active investigator. There’s no turning back because he/she (or loved ones) may well be in danger.
  6. THE ROAD OF TRIALS and TESTS, ALLIES, and ENEMIES = LIES, DECEPTION, CLUES, RED HERRINGS, all laid out by the villain (the murderer) and the false leads the sleuth follows. This is the bulk of the Second Act in the Three-Act Structure.
  7. APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE Something happens to threaten the sleuth’s forward progress. This could be a second murder, the sleuth in danger, or some other test/trial that threatens the sleuth’s ability to continue the investigation. 
  8. CENTRAL ORDEAL The hero (sleuth) think the whodunnit is solved.
  9. REWARD Justice will be served.
  10. THE ROAD BACK The sleuth is ready to return to his/her ordinary world having solved the case. The problem is, either a red herring has led the sleuth astray, or the sleuth/hero is in danger at this point so may not be able to return with the knowledge. The sleuth manages to get to the right answer (or defeat the killer) during the 
  11. RESURRECTION This is the CLIMAX, which is the confrontation with the killer. The sleuth ultimately discovers the truth.
  12. RETURNING WITH THE ELIXIR, in a mystery, is justice. Finally, the sleuth can return to his/her Ordinary World, but now he/she is the MASTER OF TWO WORLDS. He/she has solved a murder and will never be quite the same.

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2 Responses

  1. This is a good article. it really tried to hone in on some of the questions I had. I tried to find an example of a mystery done with the Hero’s Journey, but couldn’t find one anywhere. Everything seemed to reference Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Cartoon type stuff.
    I would like to maybe see a similar one for the different “people”. Like in a cozy, the Threshold Guardian would probably be the law enforcement person.
    Maybe I can work on one and offer it to you to tweak?

    • Do you mean an actual mystery book broken down? I will work on doing one, and yes, you definitely can. I’d love to be able to add that to the database.

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